Monday, May 30, 2011

The Tradition of Memorial Day

I grew up as the daughter of a mother from the South who followed the tradition of "Decoration Day" (which she learned as a child) over the years even as she moved north to Massachusetts, where I grew up. Every year this would be the day when the graves of family members were cleaned of debris from the winter, trimmed up and flowers planted or baskets placed. Often, as relatives might have lived in several different areas, many towns were visited along a circuitous route. Along the way one might hear tales of Aunt Fanny or Uncle Johnny or other family stories. Several cemeteries had Veterans sections and this was where "Wally -- who received a Purple Heart after he was killed in World War ll, was buried. I heard the tale of how his mother was so devastated when her son was buried in a far off land (Italy), that she joined a group of Gold Star Mothers who successfully petitioned President Truman and the Military to bring the "boys" home to rest. Each service member had the same simple white tombstone provided. Over the years this veterans section of the cemetery sadly grew and grew. Some additions were from the deaths of those who had also served in the so-called "World Wars" and could call this their final resting place near comrades. Other from more wars or conflicts as Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and now Iraq and Afghanistan brought the deaths of more and more of our young and able bodied Americans. I expect that today, in Massachusetts, my sister is following this tradition.

Traditions are too frequently disappearing in this hustle-bustle world. The family is too busy to power down and remember the slower paces of yesteryear. Society is too busy to stop and hear the voices from the past which have shaped our todays and will influence our tomorrows. We now often do not know our neighbor, so there is no village to stop by when one is ill or to bring food after a family member dies. Tragedies do seem to bring communities together and shared tragedies such as hurricanes or tornadoes do tend to create networks of caring others. Americans do continue the traditions of helping out and are quick to donate blood for those whom they will never know. They collect clothes or give money for the less fortunate whose homes have been destroyed by whatever disasters occurred. We are a generous people, willing to help. There are still groups heading to the Gulf of Mexico to work on rebuilding communities destroyed by Katrina, back in 2005. Volunteers rescued animals that lost owners and homes. The Gulf oil gusher brought many to the oily shores to rescue birds and sea turtles, so we, as a country do come together to help others frequently. I do hope we never lose this "can-do" spirit, this sense of pioneer trail blazing that has shown us the way west and into space. I do hope we send this tradition into the next generation, much as my mother celebrated her sense of generations evolving.

In a more than 25 year tradition, thousands of motorcycle riding veterans and others joined together as Rolling Thunder roared into Washington this weekend to commemorate Memorial Day and honor those who served this country, both living and deceased. My late brother, a Vietnam vet, always relished their annual tribute. (Memo to Sarah Palin -- the tradition is about service and sacrifice, not about wearing black and riding a Harley, but probably she'll never figure this out.) The Washington Post had an article about Vets who regularly wash the Wall on the Vietmam Veterans' Memorial as their way of remembering the fallen. Now that is a tradition we should all support.

Do you have a tradition you wish to share? Let us know by writing us here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Should Every Day Be Earth Day?

The first Earth Day was observed more than forty years ago now. I question whether it has become a relic up on a shelf or -- as I believe -- it needs to be reviewed, renewed and revamped to now become more relevant. Millions of words have probably been spoken about its importance and probably millions more have been written over these years. The planet has been subjected to more damage from chemicals, wars, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear disasters over this time period than probably over any comparable time period in its history. Scientists have debated, politicians have proclaimed and learned papers have been published on both sides of the so-called ‘global warming’ debate. This discussion about what is or is not happening, became caught in a semantic debate and is now notably called "climate change." Climate change has brought severities of drought and snowfall to various parts of our beleaguered world with records being broken for snow depth and drought lengths. Although there are those who point to the snow and scoff at global warming, these same areas may well see the pendulum swing to intense heat within the year. The current floods along the Mississippi and its tributaries resulted from record snowfalls in the Midwest. Forest fires in Texas are a result of months without rain. Australia has just emerged from years of severe drought, brought about in a large part by human actions.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond discussed the intersections of nature and man's actions which brought about disastrous changes, in some cases entire civilizations disappeared. Somehow, with tropical jungle deforestation persisting in large parts of the world such as Brazil and Indonesia, we are not learning the lessons of history.

As an example, the Washington, DC, Metro area saw both record snowfalls in 2010, as well as a record number of days above 90 degrees. This area may well be entering an era of unstable weather. Those who watched Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" might remember his graphs showing how close we are to the point of no return -- the point where we cannot turn back the march against an unstable climate. Futurists have postulated that we will fight the next world wars, not about territory but instead about the need for arable water. This local article in the Washington Post discusses rising seas and the resultant current and future damage to coastal business, homes, and the leisure and employment industries.

Others will wage battles against diseases which can spread in a world without the waves of the heat/freeze cycle which now kills many bacteria and limits territories for many crop destroying insects. The crop and flower growth cycles are disrupted with damage from late rains and early heat. A recent article by the Center for American Progress discussed much the same information:

So what does it matter if the azaleas bloom earlier or the Cherry blossoms bloom for a shorter time? Do we really care if certain insect larva releases its young a few weeks sooner than before? Yes, we should care, because of related cycles in nature. A bird hatches its young and counts on a particular insect to be available for easy feeding for the nesting family. If that insect has already moved on to its next phase, the hatchlings may go hungry, and the uneaten insects may devastate a crop just planted by farmers. Habitat is being threatened by our global travel and trade. This area has seen the overgrowth of so called "stink-bugs," an Asian import working its way down the East Coast. This bug was thought to have originally arrived in Philadelphia among shipments from its native lands in Asia. It has no natural predators in America, hibernates, and was not killed by our recent mild winter. Last summer farmers reported crop destruction as these invaders ate their way through fruit orchards and other plants. While this is not a result of climate change, it vividly demonstrates what can happen when an unfamiliar predator enters the crop cycle at a critical time. Fire ants, large bees and invasive hornets are reportedly working their way north as the temperate/tropical barriers are blurring. Resistance to pesticides is growing among some pests. Long-term use of these poisons has been seen to be destructive to the soil and to populations. Are we moving ever closer to that Silent Spring predicted by Rachel Carson?

Farmers in India were encouraged to change ancient farming methods and use pesticides widely to increase their yield. However a different result came about - NPR had a story a while back called "the cancer train" which told about increased use of pesticides -- perhaps inappropriately -- which helped spark the green revolution in the countryside of India's rural villages. Concurrently it told of an increased rural incidence of cancers – especially among the young, which had been unknown outside urban centers. Some scientists have linked these occurrences as not due to chance. Others studied brain and nerve damage as these chemicals entered the water supply and seemed to adversely affect children.

We are told today the use of genetically modified seeds is safe and the wave of the future. Other scientists are saving seeds in seed banks should we ever need to rebuild our ability to grow natural crops. The answers to these questions may yet be found in some time and some day far away.

Yes, when I walk in the morning in my suburban world, I hear the woodpeckers tapping and see the robins, cardinals and sparrows all working to catch the unwary worms, so this part of my world has not changed. But I do believe that we all must be concerned about the more subtle and unseen changes that incrementally are making the world our children will face much more challenging than ours has been. I also know that we owe it to future generations to leave the world a better place than the one we found and I worry that we cannot meet this debt. Please let me know your thoughts in this area.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The End for bin Laden

Sunday evening I was stunned, as were many in the U.S., by the news announced by President Obama, that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed. It was even more surprising to learn that he had been living in a resort city in a million dollar fortified mansion under the shadow of the Pakistani Military Academy, just down the street from the local Police Station. Brave Special Forces Members of the SEALS in a daring night-time assault on bin Laden's compound accomplished this mission in less than 40 minutes without sustaining casualties. For many years we had been told that this mastermind of terror had been living as a primitive in caves in the tribal lands in the far north of the country. The U.S. gave the Pakistani government billions of dollars over the years to support the war on terror and locate the terror networks that bin Laden had established. Now it appears that he was being protected by some portions of the Pakistani military, possibly without the knowledge of the official government.

Many young people rushed into the streets to celebrate in front of the White House, Midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis cheered and patrons at a Major League Baseball game (watching their smart phones more than the game) burst into calls of "USA-USA!," as they stood together in celebration. Most poignantly of all -- families, friends and firefighters came to Ground Zero to commemorate. Closure, at last. A commentator mentioned that these young college students with an average age of 20 had been haunted by the attacks of September 11 for half of their young lives. It is their contemporaries who are fighting today in Afghanistan or were serving in Iraq. This country has been at war in either Iraq or Afghanistan since they were ten years old. The attacks on September 11 changed our collective national psyche. As a country, we lost our innocence, our sense of safety, invincibility and complacence in those terrorist attacks and, as a result, life is forever changed for all who follow.

Where does the U.S. go from here? We have closure on the so-called head of the terror organization, but loose organizations such as his can still be lethal as lone members could set out on individual quests for revenge. Should we as a country rejoice and dance in the streets? Should we instead quietly say thanks and move forward with our lives? Does even the death of a monster cause one to pause, and wish it should not have to be? Some have noted that this death coincided with the anniversary of the suicide of another monster: Adolf Hilter. Significance and coincidence are sometimes strange partners. What routes does one go down in order to achieve peace in this world generally and in the Middle East among Islamic nations specifically? Where does our government go in order to quell the Taliban in Afghanistan. Will we be able to open a dialogue now? This organization grounded in the 14th Century, hostile to the rights of women, against schools for girls, and a bastion against any advances of modernization, does not seem likely to change, nor to be a willing partner in negotiations for a cease-fire.

President Obama was correct in his decision that little good would result from publication of gruesome death photos of Bin Laden. His somber response that "we know he is dead, we have DNA evidence, we have the photos," demonstrates clearly that he is not supporting sensationalism, case closed. Additionally, his quiet requests to use this circumstance as a basis for a shared sense of purpose and American unity sent a message to both sides of the aisle in Congress. Unfortunately this has fallen on many deaf ears as those with divisive agendas move away from unity. The President's meeting with police and firefighters in New York City today reinforced the thanks of our country toward these brave survivors of that day. His meeting with family members of those killed at the Twin Towers demonstrated his "promises kept" mantra. All knew this would not bring back their loved-ones, but it did give many a type of closure.

Ruth Marcus, writing in the Washington Post discussed countering evil with good by planting a garden this week. She describes creating a new reality, setting an example and showing us a way into the future where nations can choose to plant gardens rather than support terrorists. She acknowledged the incongruity of a world which could produce an evil such as bin Laden and at the same time allow the splendor of a beautiful garden. Perhaps the choices are within each of us to choose to grow a garden or not.

Let me know your thoughts this week; are you planting a garden?