By Elizabeth Guss
Earth Day always gets me to thinking. These days, it’s about nature’s amazing systems, how dependent we are on the earth and her abundance, and how we might want to rethink how we act toward nature.
We billions share this tiny orb for everything — food, drink, air, housing, health, livelihood, beauty, recreation, learning, and more. On the earth, we are born, live, die, and then become part of the earth again to nourish future life. The earth’s natural resources satisfy our many tangible needs and inspire expression of intangible ones — the arts, spirituality, and possibilities. We breathe. We laugh. We walk. We sleep. Certain of the earth’s constancy, we devote our time and efforts to other things. And, a lot of the time, we just take nature for granted.
Do you remember Earthrise, that captivating photograph taken by orbiting astronauts in 1968? They saw our beautiful blue jewel of a planet suspended in the dark of space. Watching it rise above the lunar horizon with tendrils of clouds swirling around it, they saw our earth through new eyes. Not solid beneath them, but fragile, vulnerable and dazzling all at once. They knew that on this precious, small, blue sphere, everything is close and connected to everything else.
From Whidbey Island, I get that truth. This one small land mass with its many eclectic dimensions has influence across the region, nation, even around the world — as a result of its agriculture, economics, tourism, and even some legal precedents.
Charmed by Whidbey’s beauty, clean air, and welcoming nature, my husband and I left sprawling Salt Lake City in 2005 to build a home and a new life here. We’ve become part of this creative, vibrant community. We’ve seen amazing accomplishments in business and community action. We know how widely Whidbey’s positive energy ripples. Think about these few examples.
In the waters by Coupeville, an ambitious aquaculture business began in 1975 to raise mussels. Today, Penn Cove Shellfish has become a recognized brand with its mussels, clams, and oysters featured on menus of tony restaurants in major cities of many countries. Less glamorous but vital is the significant annual harvest of cabbage seed grown on several small farms in central Whidbey Island and distributed internationally, much in Asia. Rockwell beans, a heritage cassoulet-style dry bean traditional to the Coupeville area, are grown on local organic farms. Whidbey farmers raise heritage sheep and fowl as well as grass-fed, free-ranging livestock for local and regional sales.
In one microclimate near Coupeville, conditions are ideal for conifer seed orchards to produce abundant seed used to replant logged forest areas in Western Washington. Nearby, delicate Golden Paintbrush flowers, once endangered, are increasing as rare coastal prairies are restored. A few miles south, an organic farm school has operated for five years now at the historic Greenbank Farm, once a major loganberry producer and saved from development by vigorous community action. The school, based on the open source curriculum developed at UC Santa Cruz, is not affiliated with any university. Instead, students from across the country learn to farm, including dealing with the vagaries of farming as a business.
Island County Beachwatchers, part of the Washington State University Extension Service, pioneered a one-day university on Whidbey Island 15 years ago. Annually since then, hundreds attend from across Puget Sound to learn about water, land, wildlife, and how to be better participants in this amazing ecosystem. This successful learning format is now used by other Beachwatcher groups in Puget Sound.
Volunteering on Whidbey is an art form. Since 1994, Hearts and Hammers, a Whidbey Island original, annually has brought together hundreds of volunteers on the first Saturday in May to repair and rehabilitate homes of people physically or financially unable to do the work. Today, Hearts and Hammers programs in at least six other states follow the basic Whidbey model.
Friends of Friends combines playfulness and effective community effort to raise and disburse funds to people unable to pay for uncovered medical expenses. Whidbey Island Nourishes (WIN) began in 2007 as a few women realized that, in the midst of South Whidbey wealth, children were hungry. For many, school provided their only regular meals. Volunteers packed basic, nutritious foods in backpacks for students to take home on the weekend. No stigma. No hunger. The program grows as need grows, a real win-win. No matter the issue, there’s a “can-do” spirit of caring that’s part of Whidbey’s energy.
There’s more, lots more — arts, healing arts, language-learning, future-thinking, even the internationally known Whidbey Institute at Chinook. Over much of the island, I see concern leading to community action that solves complex problems. It’s inspiring. It’s about each of us making a difference.
Where did it begin? I think with a love of the land.
Here, many appreciate that we people are part of nature, not the masters of it, and we work with nature for long-term, common good. Whidbey culture has been shaped by courageous and creative grass-roots efforts to protect the land and its resources to benefit all — today AND in the future.
For decades, people here have saved many important properties. Determined citizens protected wetlands, bird refuges, working farmlands, old-growth trees, historic farms, beautiful beaches, and forests from ill-advised development. Many properties protected forever benefit the public for recreation, clean water, views, wildlife habitat, and more. Some have national significance and draw visitors to the area. Crockett Lake (an Audubon Important Bird Area), Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve (a unit of the National Park Service), Greenbank Farm, Double Bluff Beach, Saratoga Woods Preserve, and Trillium Community Forest are among protected treasures. Court decisions from some of the legal battles over land protection have set precedents, informing cases in many states for 30 years.
Caring for the land to provide public benefit led to forming the Whidbey Camano Land Trust in 1984. Many of Whidbey’s natural treasures and farms are now permanently protected by the continuing, effective work of this community-supported, local land trust.
I know that other places are like Whidbey with wide influence. But this remarkable island fosters a “sense of hope,” described by Lyanda Lynn Haupt in “Crow Planet,” as “that virtue by which we take responsibility for the future.” People on Whidbey Island widely practice the “triple bottom line” — people, profit AND planet.
Here many embrace Wendell Berry’s wisdom, “The earth is what we have in common.” We know we’re all in this life together; we think about those far from our lives and neighborhoods.
Before culture, economics, science and social science, we human beings shared the connection to the land and water that fed, housed, and clothed us. We still ALL depend on the earth’s abundance for life. Today, we know better than ever that what happens to one part of the earth affects it all.
So, this Earth Day let us take seriously the counsel of newly-elected Pope Francis. “Let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” In the Whidbey spirit, let’s do it in a way that builds community with hope.
Elizabeth Guss works with the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, helping build community through the work of protecting and caring for the land.