Coral reefs damaged by Deepwater Horizon oil spill

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

It’s been almost two years since the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico began gushing oil after the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. These days, folks remark about the exaggerated reports of damaged and dead habitat and wildlife. After all, we’re eating the fish again from the Gulf and no more pictures of oiled birds and sea turtles dominate the nightly news broadcasts.

But a report released last week, to little fanfare, shows we’re not done with the effects of Deepwater Horizon. Scientists recently determined that a dead coral reef in the Gulf contains remnants of the oil from the months-long spew of petroleum into the ocean.

It’s horrifying to learn about the death of a coral reef. Coral reefs are called the “rain forests of the sea” because of the number of species they harbor. They cover only 0.07 percent of the ocean’s floor, but they are home to one-quarter of the world’s fish and marine species.

The creation of a coral reef is a complicated process and takes thousands of years. Yet with increasing sea temperatures a reality, coral reefs are already in trouble. They didn’t need any assistance with deterioration. The increased temperatures cause coral bleaching which could wipe out all coral reefs by the end of this century. Now Deepwater Horizon and other potential oil disasters may speed up the process.

The vibrant colors of the corals are actually caused by algae that feed the coral. High temperatures create stress, and the coral expels the algae. When this “bleaching” occurs the coral loses its color.

In 2009, I interviewed Patty Glick from the National Wildlife Federation  for a column I was writing on coral reefs and climate change. She spoke about the sensitivity of coral to temperatures at higher thresholds, even the one degree rise that has occurred over the past three decades.

“When bleaching occurs, it means the coral is starving to death,” Glick said.

And so now the scientists know for certain the oil from the Macondo well killed 86 percent of the 54 coral colonies in the reef in the Gulf. One of the scientists described site as a “graveyard.”

So far no other coral reefs have been found with this extensive damage, but it’s enough for all of us to be aware that the verdict on the damage caused by the oil spill is still not final. Joel Achenbach reports in his book on the oil A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea  that 26 percent of the millions of barrels of oil that gushed into the Gulf did not evaporate and was not burned, skimmed or recovered.

Glick told me that coral reefs are “the sentinel for climate change. And in the Caribbean and Florida, we’re already seeing the signs.”

So much of it seems out of our own personal control, and perhaps it is. But we can continue to elect officials who won’t bury their heads in the armpits of big corporations, but who will pass laws and regulations ensuring oil companies practice safety above profit and who will stand up for climate change legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Alzheimer’s Journey: From mathematician to artist

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

Note: Today, April 1, 2012, would have been my oldest brother Marvin’s 74th birthday. I wrote this essay soon after his death in 2009 and thought it important to remember that Alzheimer’s takes many different paths.

Alzheimer’s breathed a new life into my brother, Marvin. I made this jarring observation when I flew to Phoenix to spend some time with my sister-in-law after his death in early 2009.

In the life where I knew him best, Marvin controlled his surroundings by using a sharp analytical mind and an even sharper tongue. His intellectual capacity scared me as the sister 17 years younger. He could talk philosophy – albeit with cynicism – and he could rip into mathematical theorems as easily as he walked. But he was also my older brother, playing Santa Claus when he came home from college to give me a bit of childhood in a household filled with adults.

He lorded over my other brothers and me as the reigning first-born son. I feared him, loathed him and revered him all in one big bundle of mixed baby sister emotions. He was sometimes difficult to love during those years, but as I grew older, we developed a mutual respect for one another.

A decade before his death, he began to lose his capacity for speech and overall memory of simple tasks such as balancing the checkbook. That’s when the personality transformation began.

My brother became as endearing as a lost little boy in the woods, unsure how he got there but curious about the leaves on the ground. He returned to the state of grace found only in the very young — that place before the world intruded and caused us to put up our defenses.

His wife, Joyce, assumed the role of leader. He trusted she would take care of him as his mind lost its former sharp edges.

Long before becoming a math professor, Marvin harbored creative talents for music and painting. Joyce decided to enroll him in an art class at the local senior center in Scottsdale.

In that small room filled with tables and easels for 15 students, the new Marvin emerged from the cocoon as a butterfly, fragile and elusive, but beautiful in his individuality. With inhibitions gone and judgments no longer impeding his path, he let loose on canvas the reds, oranges, yellows, blues and greens of exploding creative expression.

In that art studio, Marvin regained the dignity stripped away by Alzheimer’s. He told Joyce after his few first classes, “I was a mathematician, and now I am an artist.”

He lived for his art classes and greeted each painting with pleasure. I visited him after he had created a dozen paintings. He proudly showed me each one that hung in his home.

His presence in that art class stripped away many of the assumptions held by others about Alzheimer’s. There is a tendency to treat those with mental challenges as if they are no longer human or capable of understanding the most basic of human expressions. We lose them to the disease because we are told this is what happens as the disease progresses. In Marvin’s case, Joyce did not know those with Alzheimer’s disease weren’t supposed to have the ability to draw or paint because of their lack of visual and spatial acuity. And because Mary Gulino, Marvin’s art teacher, didn’t know that either, she treated him as the person he had become — a man with much to say but without the verbal ability to express it.

After three years, Marvin had painted more than 20 Arizona landscapes, all recognizable and vibrant — a miracle on canvas.

Joyce and I visited Marvin’s Monday morning class the week after his death. When we walked in the classroom, Mary rushed over and grabbed me. “You look just like him,” she exclaimed.

“For three years I studied his face,” she said. “I watched him to see if I could discern what he needed as an artist since he couldn’t tell me. The angles of your faces are exactly the same.”

She told me she mixed the paints for him and then she would hand him a palate knife covered with paint. I asked about a recent photo that showed my left-handed brother painting with his right hand.

“He painted with either hand depending on his mood,” she said. “I would hold out the knife, and he would decide which hand.”

Several students from the class joined the discussion.

“He would start by touching the knife to the canvas over and over again,” a gray-haired woman said. “I’d watch fascinated because I thought he was creating nothing and then this beautiful mountain would appear.”

I thanked Mary, but she pushed aside my inadequate words. She said Marvin had made her a better artist, teacher, person.

“Thank you for sharing him with us,” Mary told Joyce.

A few weeks before Marvin died, Joyce held an art showing of Marvin’s paintings at their home, inviting Mary and all of his fellow art students. A photo from that day shows Marvin standing tall, with dignity and pride, a broad smile on his face. He did not resemble a man nearing the final stages of Alzheimer’s. He resembled at man at peace with his world.

“I just wanted people to recognize that he was still a human being,” Joyce said.

The Alzheimer’s journey is daunting. However, with the support of many loving people escorting him down the path, Marvin lived a full life to the end. His canvases filled with vivid colors leave joyful hope for a brighter journey for others living with Alzheimer’s.

Bats Lose in this Court Case

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported today on a disturbing ruling by a judge in Beaver County, PA. A family is suing a drilling company over a contract signed in 2005. They feel they signed the contract under false pretenses. This week they asked that the company  stop felling trees on their property until it was decided if the contract was legal. The company has never paid the family a dime and until February had done nothing toward drilling on the property. However, during the last week of March, it was discovered that an endangered species, the Indiana bat, hunted in this forest, which caused the company to speed up its activity. Seems the U.S. Fish and Wildlife forbids clearing of land from April 1 to November 1 during the species’ hunting season. That’s the rule, but the agency’s fact sheet on the bat recommends against timbering in their habitat.

“Once as plentiful as the passenger pigeon, these little flying mammals are rapidly falling toward extinction,” the fact sheet states.

Even though there is a pending lawsuit in Common Pleas court against the legality of the original contract signed by this family in 2005, a federal judge went ahead on March 30 and said the felling of the forest could continue. On March 31, Chesapeake Apalachia, a marcellus shale drilling company, worked against the clock to take down every last tree in the bat’s habitat before the midnight hour struck. Reports said they finished in plenty of time.

And the biggest irony of all? The whole operation could get shut down in the Common Pleas court. The habitat will have been horribly destroyed for naught. How could this judge ever think he had the right to allow the deforestation to continue?

Nobody loses more than the Indiana bat in this fight. And it didn’t even get its day in court.

Power – Cheap, Easy, and Hidden

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

We all want power. Today, our lives depend heavily on power. Try going a day without using it. We want it cheap and easy, but we’d rather not know its dirty little secrets.

For many decades, coal ruled as the energy source of choice for powering up the power plants across the nation. Thomas Edison started it all in New Jersey in 1906. Coal was plentiful and virtually free. Who cared that the process of bringing it up out of the earth was deadly? Who knew the emissions from the coal-powered plants were killing our atmosphere with carbon dioxide emissions? We couldn’t see it; but we could see to read more clearly at night. Coal continued as the cheapest way to bring light to our lives up until the past few years, despite the cost in human lives to do so.

Nuclear energy took a hit with the Three Mile Island mess and Chernobyl in Russia. But in the past decade a renaissance of sorts began taking place in the minds of folks who wondered if nuclear really wasn’t safer than we thought. Then with the meltdown in Japan after the tsunami, that renaissance almost screeched to a halt. It took something else to completely hurl it off the tracks: the cost of natural gas.

Natural gas prices are at their lowest in a decade, even cheaper than coal. But how much do we know about the methods used to bring that stuff up out of the ground? Because it’s cheap and profitable, fracking continues. However, a few weeks ago the Sierra Club reversed its position on supporting the drilling of natural gas as a safe alternative for energy. What impact that will have is uncertain because we don’t want to be inconvenienced by not being able to power up our computers or run our electric lawn mower.

The EPA has brought forth a proposal to limit emissions from electrical generations up to no more than 1,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide for every megawatt produced. Current coal plants, which will not be effected by this proposal should it become law, produce 1,800 lbs. per megawatt. Natural gas-fired power plants can meet this limit.

Let’s just all take a moment and breath while we can. Power from oil, natural gas, and coal provide us with the energy to fuel 90 percent of our horsepower. It does it for us behind the scenes quietly and relatively cheaply. And until human lives are lost, we don’t even think about it. Then we’re outraged as we watch CNN on our big screen TVs as the air conditioner keeps us cool.

According to Robert Bryce in Power Hungry – The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, renewable energy is just not up to the challenge of giving us the power we demand.

And the more I read, the less I believe renewable energy will ever be able to do the job at the level we live today. The power plants and the fuels lighting up our lives can do the job, but at what cost to us?

All I can do here in my little world, sitting within miles of a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired power plant, is to live a conscious life and do my part to lessen my dependence on power. But first let me post this to my blog after I’ve heated up my coffee in the microwave. And then I’ll turn out the lights.

Coal-power in the backyardCooling towers at the Shippingport Nuclear Power Plant

Be Kind to Wildlife – Let Them Be Wild

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

Sometimes the kindest intentions can end in the cruelest results.

As a public relations director with a state wildlife agency, I often fielded calls at all times of the day and night from residents.

“There’s a bear in my back yard,” one distraught woman told me late on a Saturday afternoon. “What should I do?”

I asked what the bear was doing.

“It’s eating from the deer feeder.”

I advised her that if she wanted to keep bears out of the yard, she would need to remove all sources of food. “Bears will take the easiest route to fill up,” I said.

“But I’m feeding the deer, not the bears,” she said.

“The bears don’t know it’s not for them. It’s food, and it’s not good to feed any wild animal.”

And then I launched into all the reasons why wildlife should be left alone to forage for their own food in the woods. Bringing wildlife into residential situations with humans is dangerous for both animals and the people. When wildlife loses its natural fear of humans, its chances increase dramatically for negative encounters with vehicles and other means humans use to control animals. She didn’t seem quite convinced, but told me she would try taking down the deer feeder, even though she didn’t see the harm in having Bambi and his folks over for a meal.

Another time I was working at the agency’s state fair exhibit where a captured panther was on display. The wild animal had been hit by a vehicle and rehabilitated but not fully enough for it to be released back into the wild. The agency brought it out for public events as an educational tool on endangered species.

A middle-aged couple approached the enclosure, and we began talking about the efforts to save the panther from extinction.

“We just love wildlife,” the woman said. “We go camping in Big Cypress National Preserve every year, and we’ve had panthers approach our campsite. We always leave food out for them, and when we come back the food is gone.”

Even though it was highly unlikely they saw a panther because their numbers are so few, and they are rarely seen in the wild, I still went into my pitch about the dangers of feeding them.

“But the one we saw looked so skinny,” the woman said. “We are helping them.”

“No, you’re not. Feeding them our food makes them more accustomed to us and that hurts them. There are only about 100 of them left in the wild in Florida and too many of them are hit each year by vehicles. Just like this one here.”

“But they’re so cute,” the woman said. “I’m still going to feed them.”

Even the mention of it being against federal law under the Endangered Species Act did little to dissuade her from her determination to help the skinny panther survive in Florida.

Recently, we took a trip to the Florida Keys. We visited No Name Key where the Key Deer live. They also are a highly endangered species because of human encroachment, vehicular accidents and limited habitat – they only live in one small area of the Keys. Signs are posted all over about speed limit laws and warnings about not feeding the deer. But when you drive down the road of the Key, you see the deer come close to the road oblivious to the vehicles driving there. We passed a couple on a stopped motorcycle who we’d met a few minutes earlier at the No Name Pub. A Key deer approached them, and the woman sat on the back of the bike with her hand held out with potato chips in her palm. The deer approached and ate from her hand, while the man snapped photos.

I should have told my husband to stop the car so I could talk to them, but I didn’t. We drove on, and I’ve thought about that moment every day since. Would I have been able to convince them that their momentary pleasure in having that beautiful animal eat out of her hand might result one day in the death of that very same deer? I’ll never know.

I do know the politeness I tried to show those tourists may not be so kind in the end, at least to the “cute” little endangered deer.

Confessions from the Food Court

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

“The eyes believe themselves; the ears believe other people.” (Fortune cookie)

It’s time I came clean with one of my secret activities that even my husband doesn’t know about until now. I go to the mall once a week, not to shop but to watch.

I enter the doors by the food court and wend my way through tables to the last counter in a row of fast food heaven. No steak burger, chicken sandwich, sub, or pizza for me. I head straight for Asian Wok with its red and yellow sign proclaiming *Special* RICE or noodle with any 2 meats and eggroll $4.99. A young Asian woman with a red shirt stands waiting at the counter that never has a line. I order teriyaki chicken with rice, and she always asks, “To go?” I always respond, “For here.”

I squirt soy sauce on my rice and squeeze hot mustard out of a little plastic tube onto my eggroll. I grab my fortune cookie from a pile in a basket next to the condiments and head to a table on the edge of the food court so I can sit facing all the other tables.

I pull a book from my purse, but I don’t read much because I’ve really come to listen and watch. Grandparents tend toddlers at a few tables. Mostly it’s grandmothers, but today both a grandma and grandpa sat with two small children with sub sandwiches and chips in front of them. Before tearing into the wrapping around the food, all four bowed their heads and prayed.

Three teenagers sat next to me eating pizza. They talked occasionally, but their eyes did not connect across the table because all three were busy texting other people.

An elderly man sat alone at a table facing me. He ate his burger slowly as he stared out of the table without focus. I tried to keep my eyes on my book and away from his expression of morose. All of a sudden that expression changed and a sparkle nearly jumped out from his eye onto his French fries. I followed his gaze to an elderly heavy set woman wearing a red shirt and black apron. She’s holding a broom and sweeping debris from the floor into a dust bin. He said something to her that I couldn’t hear. It doesn’t matter. She smiled, and he picked up his burger, now smiling. They could be strangers flirting or a married couple together for decades. But what transpired between them was pure love.

The grandparents and their charges put their garbage in the trash. The teenagers pushed back their chairs to leave with pizza box intact upon the table. And the gentleman in front of me continued to sit at the table long after he finished his burger watching the woman sweeping the floor. I turned to my fortune cookie and decided it was time to read it.

“The eyes believe themselves; the ears believe other people,” I read.

In those around us, we see love, hate, happiness, unhappiness, peace, turmoil, courage, fear. No matter the words we spout, and the words landing on us, what we see with the blinders removed reveals more about the human condition than words exchanged over cell phones at the mall.

I could stay home when the urge hits me to go out into the world to see and save $4.99. I could turn on the television and watch the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Now that’s something to see, although the words not to be believed.

Night falls in Raccoon Township

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

My  husband bends over the soil, gently poking his onion seedlings into the ground. His concentration on the task rivals the greatest of Zen masters. He’s in a race to beat the rain hanging heavy in the dusk of day. Birds swoop low to the recently filled feeders. I imagine they are stocking up before the storm.

Soon, when the tenderest of plants go in the ground, the bird feeders will disappear to the garage until October. The birds will still come to the trees in our yard, and later in the summer,  they will feast on the seeds of our 12-foot tall sunflower plants.

We have a new addition to our garden here in the hilltops of western Pennsylvania high above the Ohio River. A mallard duck couple escaped from the menagerie at the farm across the street and waddled over to our place. The two lovebirds sit in the grass just beyond the patio or stroll the grounds poking for bugs and dropped bird seeds. They walk together, with the larger and more colorful male always standing guard over the brown, black and white speckled female. The shiny dark green head of the male dips quickly for a seed before coming back to stand erect over his mate’s lowered pecking head.

Peace settles over the garden as a storm moves its way from the west.

“I planted them all,” my husband says as he unbends from the ground, his hands black from the soil he nurtured the day before with sand and mushroom manure.

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Planting onions
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Mallards on parade
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Sunflowers as tall as the trees

Later, the rain gently fell on the onions, while the storm never quite materialized. The ducks retreat to a spot beneath the deck in our yard, and I go inside to prepare dinner for my gardener.

We all have stories to tell

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

Whenever I announce to a stranger I’m a writer, I often receive similar responses.

“I’ve always wanted to write” or “I’ve got a story to tell” or “You wouldn’t believe the life I’ve had. I need to write a book.”

I read something recently that sticks with me. When a person dies it’s as if a library burned down.

Yes, we all have stories to tell and the advent of the Internet has made sure that anyone who wants to tell those stories can. But not everyone is a writer. Writing requires the ability to tell a story even when writing a blog. Others disagree with me. My first editor once told me columns didn’t have to tell a story. I still disagree with him.  Seinfeld liked to say his show was about nothing – cute and clever marketing. But each episode told some type of story. Those stories were usually filled with  simple one-liners about superficial subjects, but they all followed the plot pattern. We stayed tuned because we wanted to know if Elaine got her soup; if Jerry survived the balloon shirt; if Kramer had a first name; if George ever got a job. Seinfeld and crew knew how to tell a story.

It’s knowing how to tell the story that counts no matter the subject matter. We writers are the troubadours of our time.  It’s up to us to save those libraries line by line, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, book by book.

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