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Third Fork Creek, recently adopted by NWEI Partner South Durham Green Neighbors after a Discovering A Sense of Place discussion course

Third Fork Creek, recently adopted by NWEI Partner South Durham Green Neighbors after a Discovering A Sense of Place discussion course

We recently heard from South Durham Green Neighbor Founding Steering Committee Member and NWEI Liaison Mark Bruhn, who told us that a recent Northwest Earth Institute Discovering A Sense of Place discussion course had resulted in SDGN adoping a local stream, Third Fork Creek. South Durham Green Neighbors, a partner organization of Northwest Earth Institute, is an all-volunteer community group organized in July 2010  to inspire individuals in Durham County (North Carolina) to take responsibility for Earth via small group dialogue and discussion groups. Since 2010, SDGN has sponsored more than 20 small group discussion courses using the Northwest Earth Institute model in local libraries, faith centers and work places with more than 150 participants.

“We have adopted a nearby stream, Third Fork Creek, and are organizing creek clean up events 2-4 times a year in coordination with the city of Durham, as well as performing stream monitoring and water quality testing.  This grew out of our experiences in the Discovering a Sense of Place course,” says Mark Bruhn.  SDGN is also using the NWEI inspired watershed course developed by the University of Washington and is adapting the water course for the Durham area, entitled “Knowing Our Local Watersheds,” to be offered in North Carolina this Spring.

Finding empty soda cans and other trash near the creek

Finding empty soda cans and other trash near the creek

Mark Bruhn and his family carry out the trash they picked up

Mark Bruhn and his family carry out the trash they picked up


We recently connected with Bonney Parker of Toms River, New Jersey per her past and present involvement with the Northwest Earth Institute discussion courses (she and her group are currently doing Discovering A Sense of Place).

Bonney told NWEI staffer Rob Nathan of how she and her sister have been presenting cooking workshops at a local organic farm three times a month (she has also written a cookbook based on this venture with her sister). Bonney says, “Some of our NWEI discussion group people are faithful attendees at the workshops, which have grown over the past two years from about 5 people to 30 people coming each time!” We asked Bonney if NWEI courses had influenced the process in any way (she and her group had done NWEI’s Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability course earlier this year). Here is what she said:

“Some of the attendees of the workshops became members of our discussion group, so NWEI has had an influence. Our thoughts and actions regarding the workshops and the subsequent cookbook have been influenced by what we have read.  For instance, we now ask folks who come to the workshops to bring their own eating utensils and cloth napkins with them.  I always have a supply of forks and spoons for those who forget, but that number is very small.  We usually ask the owner/farmer who is present at the workshops to talk about how he farms and what certain plants are and how they grow and are useful, etc, in addition to our nutritional information about the dishes we make.” 

Thanks Bonney for your continued involvement with NWEI, and for sharing this inspiring story with us – and for sharing an example of connecting to place and fostering sustainable food choices. Bonney notes that for the workshops her sister Maureen (pictured above at right) picks the seasonal produce with the farmer for that night’s workshop.

If you’d like to order the cookbook, or learn more about Bonney’s grassroots efforts, you can contact her at






This week we are excited to share a guest blog post from NWEI course participant and community organizer Jim Freese, who has been an instrumental part in a Bothell, WA based initiative to save the North Creek Forest. Read on to hear more about one group’s inspiring efforts at protecting one’s place…

How can we live so close to something and not see it?

In February 2007 our neighborhood gathered to watch Al Gore’s video An Inconvenient Truth. I watched with hedging concern. Yes, we were taking steps to live with less impact. But how in the world could we make a real difference? A friend and neighbor who brought us the film, Dave Frazer, suggested we try a course designed for communities and neighborhoods. It looked like a great excuse for potlucks! We got hooked. Over the next 3-1/2 years we journeyed together through the discoveries found in the NWEI courses.  New faces came and went but 8 or so people stayed through the whole series (of NWEI discussion courses). We changed shampoos and lifestyles. We started with the course, Discovering a Sense of Place, and everything that came after that continued to bring our dialog back to our homes, families, neighborhood and community.

 This is not to say our ideas always aligned. I admit to fantasizing about relocating everyone in our living room to a community of our own. Fortunately those with greater sensibilities reminded me the real changes can, and should, be made right here… right where we were.  And right where we were turned out to be in close proximity to a magnificent 64-acre urban forest.

One neighborhood group fought off development of the forest for 10 years and successfully agitated for a purchase grant, but didn’t have the required matching funds to use it. Many of us had helped out in small ways but it became a delaying effort and would have been ultimately fruitless had the housing market not crashed. But it did, and we saw an opportunity.

We founded a new organization called Friends of North Creek Forest. FNCF agreed that any conservation solution must be a victory for our whole community including landowners, the city and our obvious but overlooked allies: educators and tribal interests. By taking the time to reach out to each potential partner we began to see their concerns and address them.

 The city, like most, is on a very tight budget. Our success would mean increasing the city’s park and open space lands by 60% when there was not enough money to “care and feed” the current inventory. We saw a solution must include an organization capable of ongoing forest stewardship. Landowners were feeling “beat up” after their initial hopes were dashed, first by the original delays, then by the market crash. Landowners needed to be understood, respected and compensated. Some elected officials openly stated early efforts looked a lot like NIMBY actions (Not in my Back Yard) and were reluctant to embrace conservation that would only affect a neighborhood. Mindful now of a sense of place we focused on ways conservation might benefit the whole community. We already knew salmon depended in part upon this mile long water filter. We already knew how much carbon was being sequestered. Those arguments could fit almost any piece of land in the watershed varying only by degree of impact. They alone had not been very persuasive in the past. We needed a fresh look… and then it hit us.

There are 9000 students, from Kindergarten through PhD, within walking distance of North Creek Forest. We saw an opportunity, now become mantra, that the forest might become a 64-acre outdoor laboratory to encourage science, art and literature. How myopic we had been without a sense of place and the needs of our community. What happened over the next 14 months strikes wonder among a lot of people, especially us.

Our Mission became: To protect and improve the ecological function of North Creek Forest through stewardship, education and conservation in perpetuity. We put together a web site, case statement, fact sheet and printed cards. We built a portable display for public gatherings and bought a banner. We got endorsements from the Tulalip Indian Tribes, the University of Washington Bothell, the local school district, scientists, educators, artists, authors, elected leaders, students, neighbors… hundreds of them… anyone with an imagination for a perfect addition to our community and our value for the local ecology. We recruited a to-die-for Board of Directors. We built each relationship face-to-face whenever possible.

FNCF sought permission to apply for grants in the city’s name. This is a far cry from demanding they do it for us. And it landed two grants only six days apart which enabled the first 35-acre purchase. We won a third grant that will enable an additional 6-acre acquisition this summer. We now have willing sellers for the remainder of the forest and are working with the city to get the final grants for this purchase.

We contracted with the UW Restoration Ecology Network Capstone Project. College seniors have designed and implemented a forest recovery plan, removing invasive species and planting layers of native vegetation. Community volunteers assist them. We are also directing 3 interns from the local Community College to do a botanical survey, a UW graduate student intern in Landscape Architecture and a Work-Study student. Our model for stewardship and education is taking shape.

FNCF holds house meetings (guess where we got that idea) to engage the community, listen to their ideas, present a one hour show and line up the deeper level of community commitment we need to make long term stewardship successful. We have made front page coverage across Puget Sound newspapers and even across a couple of mountain ranges, been written about in conservation publications and even had our 3 minutes of television coverage. A gigantic law firm put together our non-profit application for free. Now a big foundation called us and we have a 2-hour meeting scheduled this month.

So that’s where we are at the end of 14 months. All of our work was built upon a foundation established when we spent 3-1/2 years together with NWEI courses. For me, it took that long to let go of the things beyond my reach and focus on my own community. We all had that experience, many more quickly than I. Those little suggestions at the end of each course chapter paid off. We did talk to our grocer to see where our produce came from. We did interview a local cabinetmaker who grew up in this city, and whose parents never shopped for food except flour, sugar and salt until 1960. We learned about a deep and rich opportunity to offer ourselves in service within walking distance of home. We found our place.

Check to see it. When you do look at the Endorsement Page. Notice the first entry. It is the Northwest Earth Institute. For obvious reasons it will always remain at the top of the list. If you want to endorse our conservation goal you can. This is a little town but it’s in a big world and you are part of it.

Go forth (not far) and make a difference!

Thanks to the NWEI group that got this initiative started, and to the Friends of North Creek Forest for sharing this inspiring example of community transformation and protection of one’s place. May we all learn from your example!



Today’s guest blogger is Sharon Shier (Huxford), who currently lives with her husband Alexander on a 1986 Bestway Trawler anchored at a secluded marina in Goodland, Florida, nestled among beautiful mangrove islands. She has 4 children, and 4 grandchildren with a 5th on the way.  Sharon has published one book, titled Initiation, about her life experiences living in a monastery under the tutelage of a Buddhist teacher. She is currently working on two books, one titled Mangrove Mysteries, the other titled Transitions, Life after the Monastery. Thanks Sharon for your reflections here.


When we’re not living aboard our boat, my husband and I live in a small town on a small lake in northern Michigan that those of us who live there call our secret paradise. Were it not for the cold winters, our population would rise dramatically; but we do have cold winters. The people who do choose to live in our area are a hearty, independent, often off-the-grid folk, and I love being a part of that community. To my surprise and delight as a newer arrival to the area, they are also warmly embracing of newcomers…

Early last spring, my husband Alex and I were invited to a friends’ maple tree farm to ‘tap’ the maple trees for the sap that would soon be flowing. He is a small producer of maple syrup, a ‘hobbyist’ he told us, and since we love maple syrup as well and this would be a totally new experience for us, we eagerly accepted the invitation. The way it worked was that a group of us gathered at the farm, got our instructions and then were led by our friend as he drove his tractor around marking the trees that would be tapped. All the equipment for tapping was on the sled behind the tractor.

Our jobs were to work in teams drilling holes into the trees, then putting metal wedges into the holes so the sap can drain into the buckets that we attached to the wedges.

Everyone was in high spirits; the day was bright and sunny and the land we were on was gorgeous.

As we set about to tap the trees, I did have some concern that it might be painful for the trees to have their trunks drilled into, and their juices drained, so I asked our friend Bob about it. He said as long as we didn’t drill in too far the trees would heal over by next year, but if we drilled in past a certain point it could damage the tree seriously. He was convinced there was no pain involved. As we moved through the day I kept seeing the image of a human with IV lines running out their arms and legs, giving their blood. Overall it was a wonderful day and we learned about the entire process of producing maple syrup. His equipment was state of the art.

Later in the evening though, after we left the farm and were driving home, I began to have strange feelings coming at me, into me, from me…I wasn’t sure which, but at some point it finally penetrated my consciousness and I began to pay attention. There was this loud wailing…not exactly a sound but more of a vibration…again, I didn’t know what was happening but it kept on and on and on. So I stopped DOing and went to sit in my meditation room and quiet my mind. As my body became still and the thought fragments from the day faded into the background, an image flashed so clearly in my mind’s eye; I saw all 300 trees we had tapped. They were crying, and crying and crying. It was awful feeling their sadness, and I was stunned. I cried and they cried and finally I began apologizing and telling them how sorry I was for having hurt them. After awhile the crying stopped and I had the sense that they accepted my apology and my promise to never hurt them again.

For days afterward I felt the imprint of this experience as a weight, but also as an incompletion…something wasn’t quite understood by me. Once again I stopped and sat quietly for a bit, posing the question, ‘what am I missing’…and what came to me was ‘you didn’t ask; you just took from us’. “Oh my,” I thought. “That’s what I wasn’t seeing clearly.” And I realized then what I had been missing: The trees are living beings. I wouldn’t take blood from a human without asking nor should I take from the trees, just because they don’t have an obvious voice to speak with. So I asked then. “Would you have given me permission?” And what I heard was, ‘you have to ask each tree as you approach it’. Even though in some sense they have a collective consciousness, there is also an individuality that must be respected.

I wanted to share this experience because it penetrated me so deeply and was such a profound wake-up call. All life is sacred and here I had spent an entire day taking from these beautiful trees, without giving anything in return.

I do understand that this is an unusual twist to a simple article about tapping maple trees. Even though I consider myself a spiritual being, frankly ‘talking’ trees were not anything I’ve experienced before, which is probably why it took me so long to ‘hear’ them. I am truly grateful that the trees cared enough to reach out to me so persistently until I was finally able to hear them…they gave me a second chance.

Since that day I’ve done a lot of research on the internet to see if anyone else has had similar experiences with trees, plants and such, and come to find out, this is not an uncommon experience. There is a large group in Northern Italy at a place called Damanhur who work with and record singing plants and trees. I’m headed out there in September of this year for a tour of their place and to satisfy that part of my brain that says ‘talking plants’? I don’t think so. If you’re interested, why not do some experimenting for yourself?


This week we are excited to share a guest blog post by Richard Kyte, Director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Thanks to Richard for his musings here on the importance of conservation and preservation of our wild places.

The answer generally given by those most involved in the conservationist movement is that we owe it to future generations.  This answer is repeated in defense of setting aside fragile ecosystems, designating roadless areas, granting conservation easements, protecting the river bluffs, and establishing stricter zoning codes in counties.     

But defending conservation practices in this way is problematic.  It presupposes that developing policies for wise land use is a contest between the preferences of future generations and the needs of the present.  It raises the question of why the interests of certain groups of people, such as hunters, anglers, trappers, hikers, and birdwatchers, should have precedence over the interests of home owners, automobile drivers, golfers, and bottled water consumers.

In fact, the debate in this country over land use has become emblematic of American democracy: a struggle between competing special interest groups to influence common laws and policies through elections. 

But this is not the only way to frame the debate.             

In Reflections from the North Country, Sigurd Olson, the conservationist and author principally responsible for the preservation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, takes up the question of why we should care about wild places.  He cites people like Paul Sears: “Conservation is a point of view involved with the whole concept of freedom, dignity, and the American spirit.”

And this from Harvey Broome, one the founders of the Wilderness Society: “Without wilderness, we will eventually lose the capacity to understand America. . . . If we lose wilderness, we lose forever the knowledge of what the world was and what it might, with understanding and loving husbandry, yet become.”

For Olson, like many of his contemporaries, the outdoors wasn’t just a place for recreation; it was essential to the development of moral character.  And therefore the defense of conservation was not a defense of the special interests of a certain group of Americans; it was a defense of America itself. 

That is why Sterling North could say, “Every time you see a dust cloud, a muddy stream, a field scarred by erosions, or a channel choked with silt, you are witnessing the passing of American democracy.”

 Preserving open spaces, ensuring clean air and water, protecting wildlife and maintaining the diversity of species for the benefit of future generations was, to be sure, important to the early conservationists. 

But they also regarded shortsighted development and exploitation of resources to be self-destructive and foolish, a sign not only of disregard for our children and grand-children, but a symptom of disorder in our present lives.  They worried that if such disorder became pervasive in society, it could destroy American culture, leading to a nation characterized by pettiness, greed, and incivility.

Even a brief time spent in a natural setting allows one to experience the vital importance of things that can be appreciated but not possessed.  It provides for the realization of an order of value that is not created or manipulated by society, but is eternally present.  Without such experiences, life becomes a contest limited by the economy of the marketplace, of buying, selling, and trading—none of which are bad things, unless they are mistaken for the goal rather than the means. 

Without natural places, we have no way of getting outside of the humanly constructed environment to gain perspective on our lives. 

Olson himself put it best: “The conservation of waters, forests, mountains, and wildlife are far more than saving terrain.  It is the conservation of the human spirit which is the goal.”

That’s a goal worthy of America’s best effort.

*This article was first published in the La Crosse Tribune, 2011.

We in the Northern Hemisphere marked the Summer Solstice and ushered in the beginning of Summer this past Tuesday at 10:16am PST,  giving us our longest day of the year.  And today marks what many call “Midsummer” – a time for celebration associated with the Solstice as well as with the onset of summer.  With ancient origins, Midsummer is a time for lighting bonfires, feasting, dancing, community festivals and generally welcoming in the long, warm days of summer with celebration.

For those of us steeped in the Earth Institute’s work, we know that acknowledging the passing of the seasons is also a way to deepen in our relationship to place.  Today we invite you to mark the new season in your own way.  Light a candle.  Step outside for a few minutes of sunshine.  Walk barefoot.  Marvel at the flowers in full bloom!

As Rachel Carson says, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.  There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”  – And so, we welcome the new season with renewed zest and inspiration to take responsibility for Earth.

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