Special to The Sopris Sun
For years, people have gathered at the base of our mountain. Many thousands of years.
Over centuries, a succession of aspen, juniper, pinyon, ponderosa, scrub oak and spruce exchanged places, descending into valleys filled with sage brush and, at the river’s edge, cottonwood thrived. There were trails but no fences, no roads, nor divisions of the land. This region was one living, pulsating, largely undisturbed organism without any sizable human irrigation systems.
We are not as old as the mountain, so we gather for the opportunity to learn and to remember — to be aware.
All stories — like all life, like all water — are deeply interconnected. For the most part, the story here has been a living world story. There are exceptions. Times of tragedy — times of a dying world story.
In recent years, we have enjoyed a relative balance between our watershed and the beings dwelling here. Even at this altitude, with harsh winters, one can feel the balance, vitality, a sane pace of life and respect in our community poised just south of the fast lane and across the Roaring Fork River.
From the living water within us and around Carbondale, we send greetings to the living water within all the children of Carbondale.
In the 1990s, when life was slower, a critical moment occurred; the town budget ran low and they stopped spraying herbicides in the parks. A small, low, yellow flower, a prime target of herbicides, began to reappear. As Doc Philip watched, he was undergoing an inner-change; he was transformed by the beauty and taste of the dandelion. Doc realized every part of dandelion was edible and he particularly enjoyed making dandelion beer.
After an appropriate interval of time, Doc explained what he was observing to the Carbondale Environmental Board. They then went to the Town Trustees and said, “While there was not enough money to spray our parks, our land became organic and we are going to have a celebration.” The people told the Town, we want to keep our parks organic, and their celebration was the birth of Dandelion Day. The Town listened and in 1999 pronounced the dandelion to be the Carbondale Town Flower.
As a result, thousands of people, creatures, plants, acre-feet of water, pollinators and turtles have benefited from Carbondale’s identity and integrity as a “no spray town.” While creatures large and small, seen and unseen, thrive in healthy soil and feast on healthy plants, people sit on the grass, dance barefoot in our local living world story and children play. The quiet western painted turtle family at the pond in the Nature Park has been one of many little noticed beneficiaries.
As life sped up in the Valley, people took on more than one job to make ends meet. Still, more people came. As the number of cars on the highway increased, we sped up more and drove faster to keep up. We began to forget. We forgot how much is enough. We began to outrun the carrying capacity of our watershed. We forgot to respect ourselves and each other. And waiting at a distance is a sprayer with a list of what he has been told are “noxious weeds.” As we forget our story, he takes a step forward.
This year, a sense of urgency manifested around Canada thistle, a particularly prickly character, a pioneer species which comes in early to heal disturbed soil. Fortunately, we have local farmers skilled at healing soil. Jerome Osentowski and Brook LeVan are acknowledged for their abilities to heal soil in the Town of Carbondale Integrated Weed Management Plan, 9/22/2019, Section V, Resource Directory.
And this current chapter of our story also has a heroine, a woman from Durango named Katrina Blair, who has spent her life with plants. She was inspired by Carbondale’s Dandelion Day and has even written a book, “The Wild Wisdom of Weeds,” which includes a chapter on thistle. She acknowledges and understands plants, she respects them and even knows how to eat thistle.
Over the years, as the beauty and feeling in Carbondale attracted more people, the balance of our community developed a wobble. People began believing a story of disrespect; believing they can do whatever they want without consequences.
A western painted turtle enjoys the sun at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Courtney Celley/USFWS
On Valentine’s Day, we were informed that Canada thistle “is winning the battle” in our Nature Park and a decision had been made. As a “last resort” the Town Trustees and Environmental Board approved using chemical herbicides beginning this springtime and autumn for three years to “eradicate” thistle.
Although the Town expresses a desire for an alternative to chemical herbicides, they report a lack of success with the strategies utilized. Some solutions which seemed promising are no longer available. As a last resort, Milestone and Opensight are the chemicals selected.
Fortunately, Katrina has been having results working organically in parks for Durango, Mancos, Ophir, Sawpit and Telluride. After the Carbondale Parks Department learned of Katrina’s work and reviewed her proposal, they hired her Bee Happy Lands team to do a training for park staff at the Delaney Nature Park on May 12, the day before Dandelion Day.
This could be a pivotal moment in our story. Because there are two different stories about thistle. Two different ways of measuring reality. Two different perspectives of what is healthy.
One story understands thistle comes to heal disturbed soil. Humans are great disturbers of soil — we build homes, buildings, stores, roads, ditches, fence lines, golf courses, shopping malls and more. In this story, thistle is an important plant in a watershed.
This time of year, at the transition from the darkness of winter and to increasing light in the spring, Brook and Rose LeVan at Sustainable Settings spray biodynamic preparations to stimulate the intelligent life forces of the season. Brook quietly explains, “The intent to heal is about building quality relationships.” He continues, thistle is a living being with a purpose; its job is to come into a disturbed area and hold the soil. As soil heals, the aliveness in the earth increases — thistle retreats and is replaced in a succession of plant species. Timing is important and measuring soil aliveness each year tells us how much the soil is healing. Herbicides deaden the micro-life in soil. Our intention is to heal. We trust that intention. Rose added, “We are committed to a living world, we turned our lives around and came here with an intent to heal the land. This is our story.”
Katrina, alive in her lifelong journey with plants, asks the rhetorical question, “How do we go about maintaining a sense of balance in a given field where thistle has proliferated?” First, we need to accept it; however, thistle will change. Thistles are early succession plants. Their presence acts as a guarding, the prickles keep more disturbance away. After they have had their heyday of glory being at the helm of the field, they will be naturally balanced by nature.
Over time, as the soil heals, we witness a diversity of plants come in. Sometimes berry bushes come or different perennials will start to take hold, and there are ways we can assist that process going a little faster. We start to see the resonance of all species and how important they are. We can amplify the goodness and quality of life for all — even the turtle family.
The second story is about spraying. Staff are trained to identify a “noxious” weed and chemically kill it. Results are immediate: thistle turns brown and dies. If I perceive this to be a battle and the identified enemy, thistle, goes down — I feel like I am winning. What is not immediately visible is the collateral damage.
The spray is toxic and a huge disruption to the life in the soil. After spraying, less aliveness in the soil is measurable. This is the reason people who spray report having difficulty getting native grasses to take root and grow. If the soil is less alive, it is less able to support a native grass seed sprouting this spring. The adverse impact on pollinators and other creatures is only visible to a sensitive eye and more difficult to measure. Spraying prolongs disturbance; healing is delayed or may never return to the soil. In our arrogance, we introduce harm and destruction through our lack of understanding plants and functional watersheds. To my knowledge, we do not know whether these chemicals are endocrine disruptors.
Humans are powerful and clever. We can dam and divert water, we can kill and forget the harm and destruction which follows. Water dries up, animals, plants and pollinators disappear.
Early in the 1960s, endocrine disrupting chemicals were identified spiraling down the drain, entering Colorado rivers, and all across America. There are now almost 100 chemicals regulated in Colorado drinking water. As of 2020, I was told we have not added one chemical to the regulatory list in 25 years. Reassurances of low toxicity by manufacturers have been of no benefit to those adversely affected by glyphosate.
We become our stories.
Children use a blender-bike to make a thistle smoothie. Photo by Katrina Blair
Katrina explains, “When we go out into nature and get immersed, our vitality benefits, whether it is calming our nervous system, or realigning and balancing our hormones, or just providing a source of energy. Being connected to wild lands contributes to health.”
I asked, “Are you telling me the health of nature benefits my personal health?”
“Absolutely, and I think that is something that we probably have all experienced,” Katrina responded.
We share the same source water from the mountain flowing into the Nettle Creek drainage under the same sky, the same sun and moon. We are all in this together with the ptarmigan, ouzel, bighorn, deer and elk.
I had occasion to see a friend this week when there was enough spaciousness to ask him a question I had wanted to ask for a long time.
“What can you tell me about your last name?”
After a pause, he began, “My father was from Northern Ireland, near Belfast, and there are a lot of people there named Turtle. When he was 17 years old my father came to America. When I was young, I hated my last name.”
I sensed he no longer held this resentment and inquired, “You made peace with it?”
“Making peace with Turtle is big medicine,” I said.
With a certainty which comes with maturity, he quietly nodded.
Are we aware?
When visiting Turtle Lake Refuge in Durango I was aware of a lovely melody resonating from the farm and people there.
Katrina explained, “Yes, it is a beautiful community of people aligned with the mission on this land. When people come to live here, they actually make a commitment. Basically, we are stewards of this land, students of the wisdom of nature. We commit to the community vision of health for ourselves, each other and the planet.”
I asked her, “Can you tell me more about the feeling of resonance I experience when I visit Turtle Lake Refuge?”
“The main intention is to create this feeling of belonging, belonging to this land, to this place, all the elements, to each other and to our greater community. Our efforts are going toward increasing the quality of life and health of everyone in the community,” Katrina responded.
I asked her, “What effect do toxic sprays have on that sense of belonging?”
“That is a huge distraction and silencing of the subtle voices of the life in the soil, plants and all the critters. It is a kind of deadening and truly a harmful vibration,” Katrina explained.
I realized, “So this issue of toxic spraying is still a big deal, Rachel Carson wrote about this in her book, “Silent Spring,” about the absence of bird and insect songs in the dawn chorus. That is a story no one wants in their town.”
“No,” Katrina said. “And that is beautiful to remember, that this is not new. We are not backed into this corner for the first time as a human community. This has happened before and we don’t have to take that same pathway and learn the hard way. We are killing the very things we find so precious. Whether it is the songbirds, the butterflies, the bees, the soil or the earthworms. We do not need to find that out after the fact we have already gone down that road and learned, ‘No this is not the way to go.’”
She continued, “It is important to remember and respect those people in the town government who may have good intentions but actually do not know what to do. When they see more thistles, they may feel afraid. The fact they have hired the Bee Happy Lands team expresses a willingness to learn. When we don’t know what to do, it is better to go slow like the turtle rather than rush into a risky and toxic decision made from feeling cornered. It is okay to wait and watch. Nature goes slow. Healing happens slowly and steadily. Thistle is slowly replaced by other plants. We can help this happen. Trusting the process is part of our essential wisdom and core understanding. Sometimes it is best to be a grateful witness to the unfolding. If we want to participate, we can add to nature’s living story by supporting life enhancing practices. In the long run, these efforts will heal and create abundance.”
We have an inherent “right to be.” There exists within each of us a peaceful, calm, aware state of being — present right now. Are we aware enough to remember our story and consciously make peace with Turtle?
If we aspire to heal our soil, we will need a healthy connection to our watershed and strength enough to hold our balance with the paradox of these two perspectives of thistle.
Eric Brendlinger, the Town of Carbondale Parks and Recreation Director, reports “we are holding off on the spot spraying of chemicals” and have contracted with Katrina and her team to train the park staff and members of the community in this perspective and organic weed management skills on May 12 at the Nature Park. To attend, email email@example.com or call 970-510-1271.
On Dandelion Day, May 13, Katrina will also have a table and be teaching at Sopris Park. For our land to become Bee Happy Land, we as a community need to slow down enough to listen, to understand, and to remember we have been gifted a living world story.