Two black thumbs, one green tree: A story for the future

Elizabeth Renzetti

Published 2 days ago
Updated June 27, 2019
For Subscribers

It is my curse to have been born with two black thumbs. That is, over the years I have managed to keep children and pets alive, but plants? Not so much. My gardening past is littered with carrots that came out of the earth looking like beef jerky and cactuses that would flourish on the moon but preferred death to one more day in my care.
So when I phoned the City of Toronto to request a tree for the front yard and they asked what type I wanted, I considered saying: Anything unkillable. Maybe a pine tree with metal needles, so popular at Christmas on the orange shag rugs of my childhood. Or one of those little plastic palms you get in a strawberry daiquiri. Instead, I asked for a sugar maple.
Up and down my streets, there are fantastic copses of trees and shrubs – ash and maple and birch and pine, barberry and hawthorn – but also sad little bald spots. My neighbour’s giant elm is a survivor of the blight that killed most of its relatives in the 1980s and now it towers over the neighbourhood, remembering what the rest of us cannot.
Someone made a short film about the history of our street and one of the older residents spoke about what had been lost since he was a boy in the 1930s: “One thing I miss most is the butterflies and the bees and the ants. You don’t see a grasshopper! These things have all gone from our city. Someday, people will think more about what we’re losing because these are things that we can’t bring back.” Another neighbour remembered a canopy so famous that the old Toronto Telegram would publish pictures of the summer bounty under the headline, “Avenue of Trees.”
But then, urban life took over, which meant death for trees. Cars needed front-pad parking. Roots got into drainage systems. Leaves were a gutter-clogging nuisance. Deadly beetles and blight did their business. Now, like many cities, Toronto is attempting to reverse the damage. Its forest strategy aims to have 40 per cent canopy cover in the city by 2050; currently it’s about 24 per cent.
If you ask, the city will come and plant a tree on the bit of front yard that it technically owns. For free! A tree for free. That alone seems like a miracle. The message came back from the city: The best tree for our lawn was a Freeman Maple. This would have seemed like fate, if I believed in fate. My favourite great-uncle was named Freeman and I spent the best parts of childhood summers playing on his tree farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. He and my great-aunt grew practically everything they ate. When I went out to pick the lettuce and came back with the whole plant, including dirt-dripping roots, he never scolded me. That lettuce might have been screaming, but Uncle Freeman, a farmer and a gentleman, said nothing.
The city workers came and put Freeman in the ground, calling a hasty reminder over their shoulders: “Remember to water it!” This was more advice than I got when I left the hospital with actual human babies, so I was grateful. It seemed so small, this little tree. It was hard to believe that it would be 20 metres high when I am mulch, but I read it on the Internet so it must be true.
I also wondered what good one little tree could do, in the face of so much harm we’ve already committed. Like 80 per cent of Canadians in a recent poll, I’m worried about climate change. “Worried” might be too mild a word. I’ve wondered what I can do: stop eating meat? Stop flying? Vote for people who aren’t idiots? Plant a tree? Unlike Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, I don’t have the power to create forests all over the city or “islands of freshness” in the delightful Parisian phrase. What could Freeman do on its own?
A lot, it appears. I turned for comfort and guidance to Janet McKay, executive director of Local Enhancement & Appreciation of Forests (LEAF), a non-profit that plants trees and raises awareness about urban forests. It turns out that private homeowners are precisely the people who need to step up. Increased housing development and paved industrial spaces means that most of the room for new planting in the city sits on private land, Ms. McKay said. “Because the space for increasing the urban canopy is on private land, we have to help people shift their thinking. The one tree or shrub that I plant in my yard is part of a bigger picture. Together, they’re helping all of our health and all of our comfort, especially in the face of climate change.”
I hadn’t realized all the ways that urban forests help mitigate the effect of climate change, until Ms. McKay began to list them. The trees’ leaves act as a buffer during sudden intense storms, so that the city’s storm sewers aren’t overwhelmed. The soft ground under them acts as a sponge to soak up storm water. Leaves also absorb pollution. Trees offer shade for people and houses, which can reduce reliance on air conditioners. Ms. McKay’s group, which runs a subsidized backyard tree-planting program, also has a campaign called Bees Love Trees to remind people that trees are excellent pollinators. “And on top of that we also get all these co-benefits of beauty and mental health and wildlife habitat and privacy,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

That made me look at Freeman differently. No longer a sad sapling, it’s now a part of an army fighting for the future. Which means that I can no longer hold up my two toxic thumbs as an excuse. I’ve got to try to keep this thing alive, so I’ll be over here with a hose if you need me. Until then, have a green and happy Canada Day.


Gratitude and Canada Day: a recipe for good health!

So happy we have connected and I am able to pass on your writings, especially this one. The power of gratitude is often overlooked but it is indeed quite powerful.

Robby Robin's Journey

Monday is July 1, better known to those of us in the North as Canada Day. The Canada Day weekend is a time when the whole country takes time to enjoy family, community, and summer, and to celebrate Canada’s birthday, this year its 152nd. For me, part of that celebration is a quiet, personal sense of gratitude that by a fairly arbitrary decision taken by a 17-year old (me) 56 years ago – to attend McGill University, seemingly for 4 years – I had not only chosen a wonderful university experience in a fantastic city (Montreal), but had also serendipitously chosen a wonderful new country in which to spend the rest of my life. My gratitude for having become Canadian knows no bounds.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but if you google “gratitude” and “health” you will quickly come to many links…

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Time of Crisis

A few more thoughts about crisis and opportunity.

I can't believe it!

Crisis is the mechanism used by evolution to evolve an organism to a higher level. If there is no crisis, nothing changes.

So maybe we should not be too pessimistic about the many crises that currently beset us, already listed in many other posts. They represent the opportunity for growth and change.

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.”

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy was apparently wrong linguistically, but his theme has been accepted by many as representing a fundamental insight about life.

So what are the opportunities presented, through which the crises can be successfully surpassed? As a species we must rise above the causes that lie behind our many crises. To my mind it is not difficult to see what some…

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Sorry, banning plastic bags won’t save our planet


Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to reduce plastic pollution, which will include a ban on single-use plastics as early as 2021. This is laudable: plastics clog drains and cause floods, litter nature and kill animals and birds.

Of course, plastic also makes our lives better in a myriad of ways. In just four decades, plastic packaging has become ubiquitous because it keeps everything from cereals to juice fresher and reduces transportation losses, while one-use plastics in the medical sector have made syringes, pill bottles and diagnostic equipment more safe.

Going without disposable plastic entirely would leave us worse off, so we need to tackle the problems without losing all of the benefits.

The simplest action for consumers is to ensure that plastic is collected and used, so a grocery bag, for example, has a second life as a trash bag, and is then used for energy.

Explainer: Canada’s single-use plastics ban: What we know so far and what you can do to recycle better

But we need to be honest about how much consumers can achieve. As with other environmental issues, instead of tackling the big-picture problems to actually reduce the plastic load going into oceans, we focus on relatively minor changes involving consumers, meaning we only ever tinker at the margins.

More than 20 countries have taken the showy action of banning plastic bags, including even an al-Qaeda-backed terrorist group which said plastic bags pose “a serious threat to the well-being of humans and animals alike.”

But even if every country banned plastic bags it would not make much of a difference, since plastic bags make up less than 0.8 per cent of the mass of plastic currently afloat on the world’s oceans.

Rather than trying to save the oceans with such bans in rich countries, we need to focus on tackling the inferior waste management and poor environmental policies in developing regions.

Research from 2015 shows that less than 5 per cent of land-based plastic waste going into the ocean comes from OECD countries, with half coming from just four countries: China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. While China already in 2008 banned thin plastic bags and put a tax on thicker ones, it is estimated to contribute more than 27 per cent of all marine plastic pollution originating from land.

Moreover, banning plastic bags can have unexpected, inconvenient results. A new study shows California’s ban eliminates 40 million pounds of plastic annually. However, many banned bags would have been reused for trash, so consumption of trash bags went up by 12 million pounds, reducing the benefit. It also increased consumption of paper bags by twice the saved amount of plastic – 83 million pounds. This will lead to much larger emissions of CO₂.

When Kenya banned plastic bags, people predictably shifted to thicker bags made of synthetic fabric – which now may be banned. But Kenya had to relent and exempt plastics used to wrap fresh foods such as meat and other products.

We also need to consider the wider environmental impact of our bag choices. A 2018 study by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food looked not just at plastic waste, but also at climate-change damage, ozone depletion, human toxicity and other indicators. It found you must reuse an organic cotton shopping bag 20,000 times before it will have less climate damage than a plastic bag.

If we use the same shopping bag every single time we go to the store, twice every week, it will still take 191 years before the overall environmental effect of using the cotton bag is less than if we had just used plastic.

Even a simple paper bag requires 43 reuses to be better for the environment – far beyond the point at which the bag will be fit for the purpose.

The study clearly shows that a simple plastic bag, reused as a trash bag, has the smallest environmental impact of any of the choices.

If we want to reduce the impact of plastic bags while still allowing for their efficient use, a tax seems like a much better idea. A 2002 levy in Ireland reduced plastic bag use from 328 bags a person per year to just 21 bags.

And if we really want to make a meaningful impact on ocean plastics coming from land, we should focus on the biggest polluters such as China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, and emphasize the most effective ways to cut the plastic load, namely better waste management in the developing world.

We should also recognize that more than 70 per cent of all plastics floating on oceans today – about 190,000 tonnes – come from fisheries, with buoys and lines making up the majority. That tells us clearly that concerted action is needed to clean up the fishing industry.

If our goal is to get a cleaner ocean, we should by all means think about actions we can take as consumers in rich countries to reduce our use of unnecessary plastic bags. But we need to keep a sense of proportion and, if we’re serious, focus on change where it’s really needed.

The Strange Persistence of First Languages

The Strange Persistence of First Languages
After my father died, my journey of rediscovery began with the Czech language.
NOVEMBER 5, 2015

Several years ago, my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone. He simply went to bed one night, yielded his brain to a monstrous blood clot, and was found the next morning lying amidst the sheets like his own stone monument.

It was hard for me not to take my father’s abrupt exit as a rebuke. For years, he’d been begging me to visit him in the Czech Republic, where I’d been born and where he’d gone back to live in 1992. Each year, I delayed. I was in that part of my life when the marriage-grad-school-children-career-divorce current was sweeping me along with breath-sucking force, and a leisurely trip to the fatherland seemed as plausible as pausing the flow of time.

Now my dad was shrugging at me from beyond— “You see, you’ve run out of time.”

His death underscored another loss, albeit a far more subtle one: that of my native tongue. Czech was the only language I knew until the age of 2, when my family began a migration westward, from what was then Czechoslovakia through Austria, then Italy, settling eventually in Montreal, Canada. Along the way, a clutter of languages introduced themselves into my life: German in preschool, Italian-speaking friends, the francophone streets of East Montreal. Linguistic experience congealed, though, once my siblings and I started school in English. As with many immigrants, this marked the time when English became, unofficially and over the grumbling of my parents (especially my father), our family language—the time when Czech began its slow retreat from my daily life.

Many would applaud the efficiency with which we settled into English—it’s what exemplary immigrants do. But between then and now, research has shown the depth of the relationship all of us have with our native tongues—and how traumatic it can be when that relationship is ruptured. Spurred by my father’s death, I returned to the Czech Republic hoping to reconnect to him. In doing so, I also reconnected with my native tongue, and with parts of my identity that I had long ignored.

MEMORIES: The author in the arms of her father, Ladislav Sedivy, together with her mother Vera and her older siblings, Marie and Silvester. This photo was taken several months before the family’s departure from their Czech home.Courtesy of the author

While my father was still alive, I was, like most young people, more intent on hurtling myself into my future than on tending my ancestral roots—and that included speaking the language of my new country rather than my old one. The incentives for adopting the culturally dominant language are undeniable. Proficiency offers clear financial rewards, resulting in wage increases of 15 percent for immigrants who achieve it relative to those who don’t, according to economist Barry Chiswick. A child, who rarely calculates the return on investment for her linguistic efforts, feels the currency of the dominant language in other ways: the approval of teachers and the acceptance of peers. I was mortally offended when my first-grade teacher asked me on the first day of school if I knew “a little English”—“I don’t know a little English,” was my indignant and heavily accented retort. “I know a lot of English.” In the schoolyard, I quickly learned that my Czech was seen as having little value by my friends, aside from the possibility of swearing in another language—a value I was unable to deliver, given that my parents were cursing teetotalers.

But embracing the dominant language comes at a price. Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there. Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention. When a bilingual person tries to articulate a thought in one language, words and grammatical structures from the other language often clamor in the background, jostling for attention. The subconscious effort of suppressing this competition can slow the retrieval of words—and if the background language elbows its way to the forefront, the speaker may resort to code-switching, plunking down a word from one language into the sentence frame of another.

Meanwhile, the weaker language is more likely to become swamped; when resources are scarce, as they are during mental exhaustion, the disadvantaged language may become nearly impossible to summon. Over time, neglecting an earlier language makes it harder and harder for it to compete for access.

His death underscored another loss, albeit a far more subtle one: that of my native tongue.

According to a 2004 survey conducted in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, fewer than half of people belonging to Generation 1.5—immigrants who arrive before their teenage years—claimed to speak the language they were born into “very well.” A 2006 study of immigrant languages in Southern California forecast that even among Mexican Americans, the slowest group to assimilate within Southern California, new arrivals would live to hear only 5 out of every 100 of their great-grandchildren speak fluent Spanish.

When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it.

Psychotherapist Jennifer Schwanberg has seen this firsthand. In a 2010 paper, she describes treating a client who’d lived through a brutal childhood in Mexico before immigrating to the United States. The woman showed little emotion when talking about events from her early life, and Schwanberg at first assumed that her client had made her peace with them. But one day, the woman began the session in Spanish. The therapist followed her lead and discovered that “moving to her first language had opened a floodgate. Memories from childhood, both traumatic and nontraumatic, were recounted with depth and vividness … It became clear that a door to the past was available to her in her first language.”

A first language remains uniquely intertwined with early memories, even for people who fully master another language. In her book The Bilingual Mind, linguist Aneta Pavlenko describes how the author Vladimir Nabokov fled the Russian revolution in 1919, arriving in the United Kingdom when he was 20. By the time he wrote his memoir Conclusive Evidence in 1951, he’d been writing in English for years, yet he struggled writing this particular text in his adopted language, complaining that his memory was tuned to the “musical key” of Russian. Soon after its publication, he translated the memoir into his native tongue. Working in his first language seems to have prodded his senses awake, leading him to insert new details into the Russian version: A simple anecdote about a stingy old housekeeper becomes perfumed with the scents of coffee and decay, the description of a laundry hamper acquires a creaking sound, the visual details of a celluloid swan and toy boat sprout as he writes about the tub in which he bathed as a child. Some of these details eventually made it into his revised English memoir, which he aptly titled Speak, Memory. Evidently, when memory speaks, it sometimes does so in a particular tongue.

Losing your native tongue unmoors you not only from your own early life but from the entire culture that shaped you. You lose access to the books, films, stories, and songs that articulate the values and norms that you’ve absorbed. You lose the embrace of an entire community or nation for whom your family’s odd quirks are not quirks all. You lose your context. This disconnection can be devastating. A 2007 study led by Darcy Hallett found that in British Columbian native communities in which fewer than half of the members could converse in their indigenous language, young people killed themselves six times more often than in communities where the majority spoke the native language. In the Midwestern U.S., psychologist Teresa LaFromboise and her colleagues found that American-Indian adolescents who were heavily involved in activities focused on their traditional language and traditions did better at school and had fewer behavior problems than kids who were less connected to their traditional cultures—in fact, cultural connectedness buffered them against adolescent problems more than having a warm and nurturing mother. Such benefits appear to span continents: In 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that aboriginal youth who spoke their traditional language were less likely to binge drink or use illegal drugs.

Why is a heritage language so conducive to well-being? Michael Chandler, one of the authors of the suicide study, emphasizes that a sense of cultural continuity makes people resilient by providing them with a cohesive self-concept. Without that continuity, he warns, aboriginal youth, who have typically experienced plenty of turbulence, are in grave existential danger. They risk losing “the thread that tethers together their past, present, and future.”

As my siblings and I distanced ourselves from the Czech language in our youth, a space widened between us and our parents—especially my father, who never wore English with any comfort. Memories of our early family life, along with its small rituals and lessons imparted, receded into a past that drifted ever further out of reach. It was as if my parents’ life in their home country, and the values that defined that life, didn’t translate credibly into another language; it was much easier to rebel against them in English. Even the English names for our parents encouraged dissent: The Czech words we’d used—Maminka, Tatinek—so laden with esteem and affection, impossible to pronounce with contempt, had no corresponding forms. In English, the sweet but childish Mommy and Daddy are soon abandoned for Mom and Dad—words that, we discovered, lend themselves perfectly well to adolescent snark.

I watched as my father grew more and more frustrated at his powerlessness to pass on to his children the legacy he most longed to leave: a burning religious piety, the nurturing of family ties, pleasure in the music and traditions of his region, and an abiding respect for ancestors. All of these became diluted by the steady flow of new memories narrated in English, laced with Anglophone aspiration and individualism. As we entered adulthood and dispersed all over North America into our self-reliant lives, my father gave up. He moved back home.

For the next two decades, I lived my adult life, fully absorbed into the English-speaking universe, even adding American citizenship to my Canadian one. My dad was the only person with whom I regularly spoke Czech—if phone calls every few months can be described as “regularly,” and if my clumsy sentences patched together with abundant English can be called “speaking Czech.” My Czech heritage began to feel more and more like a vestigial organ.

You lose the embrace of an entire community. You lose your context.

Then my father died. Loss inevitably reveals that which is gone. It was as if the string section of the orchestra had fallen silent—not carrying the melody, it had gone unnoticed, but its absence announced how much depth and texture it had supplied, how its rhythms had lent coherence to the music. In grieving my father, I became aware of how much I also mourned the silencing of Czech in my life. There was a part of me, I realized, that only Czech could speak to, a way of being that was hard to settle into, even with my own siblings and mother when we spoke in English.

After my father’s death, my siblings and I inherited a sweet little apartment in a large compound that has been occupied by the Sedivy family since the 1600s, and where my uncle still lives with his sprawling family. This past spring, I finally cleared two months of my schedule and went for a long visit, sleeping on the very same bed where my father and his brothers had been born.

I discovered that, while I may have run out of time to visit my father in his homeland, there was still time for me to reunite with my native tongue. On my first day there, the long drive with my uncle between the airport and our place in the countryside was accompanied by a conversation that lurched along awkwardly, filled with dead ends and misunderstandings. Over the next few days, I had trouble excavating everyday words like stamp and fork, and I made grammar mistakes that would (and did) cause a 4-year-old to snicker. But within weeks, fluency began to unspool. Words that I’m sure I hadn’t used in decades leapt out of my mouth, astounding me. (Often they were correct. Sometimes not: I startled a man who asked about my occupation by claiming to be a savior—spasitelka. Sadly, I am a mere writer—spisovatelka.) The complicated inflections of Czech, described as “character-building” by an acquaintance who’d learned the language in college, began to assemble into somewhat orderly rows in my mind, and I quickly ventured onto more and more adventurous grammatical terrain. Just a few weeks into my visit, I briefly passed as a real Czech speaker in a conversation with a stranger. Relearning Czech so quickly felt like having linguistic superpowers.

Surprised by the speed of my progress, I began to look for studies of heritage speakers relearning childhood languages that had fallen into disuse. A number of scientific papers reported evidence of cognitive remnants of “forgotten” languages, remnants that were visible mostly in the process of relearning. In some cases, even when initial testing hinted at language decay, people who’d been exposed to the language earlier in life showed accelerated relearning of grammar, vocabulary, and most of all, of control over the sounds of the language.

One of the most remarkable examples involved a group of Indian adoptees who’d been raised from a young age (starting between 6 and 60 months) in English-speaking families, having no significant contact with their language of origin. The psychologist Leher Singh tested the children when they were between the ages of 8 and 16. Initially, neither group could hear the difference between dental and retroflex consonants, a distinction that’s exploited by many Indian languages. After listening to the contrasting sounds over a period of mere minutes, the adoptees, but not the American-born children, were able to discriminate between the two classes of consonants.

This is revealing because a language’s phonology, or sound structure, is one of the greatest challenges for people who start learning a language in adulthood. Long after they’ve mastered its syntax and vocabulary, a lifelong accent may mark them as latecomers to the language. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the star of many American movies and the governor of the country’s biggest state, but his Austrian accent is a constant reminder that he could never run for president. The crucial timing of exposure for native-like speech is evident in my own family: I can pronounce the notoriously difficult “ř” sound in Czech—as in the name of the composer Dvořák—but my brother, born three years after me, in Vienna, cannot.

Phonology’s resistance to both attrition and later learning may be due to the fact that the sound structure of a language is fixed in a child’s mind very early. Before 6 months of age, infants can distinguish most subtle differences in speech sounds, whether their language makes use of those distinctions or not. But over the second half of their first year, they gradually tune their perception to just the sounds of the language they hear around them. Children who hear only English lose the ability to distinguish between dental and retroflex sounds. Children learning Japanese begin to hear “r” and “l” as variants of the same sound. Linguist Pat Kuhl, who has studied this phenomenon for decades, describes the process as one of perceptual narrowing and increasing neural commitment, eventually excluding native-like perception of other languages.

One of the most striking examples of the brain’s attunement to native sounds is apparent in languages such as Mandarin, where varying the tone of an utterance can produce entirely different words. (For instance, the syllable ma can mean “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “scold,” depending on the pitch contour you lay over it.) When Mandarin speakers hear nonsense syllables that are identical except for their tones, they show heightened activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, where people normally process sounds that signal differences in meaning—like the difference between the syllables “pa” and “ba.” But speakers of non-tonal languages like English have more activity in the right hemisphere, showing that the brain doesn’t treat tone as relevant for distinguishing words. A recent study found that Chinese-born babies adopted into French homes showed brain activity that matched Chinese speakers and was clearly distinct from monolingual French speakers—even after being separated from their birth language for more than 12 years.

The brain’s devotion to a childhood language reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—

Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing—
At her low Gate—
Unmoved—an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat—

I’ve known her—from an ample nation—
Choose One—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—

Those of us who received more than one language before the valves of our attention closed may find, to our surprise, that our earliest language lingers on in our soul’s select society, long after we thought it had faded.

I’ve become aware of the deep sense in which I belong to the Czech language, as well as the extent to which my formative memories are tinged by its “musical key.” For me, the English phrase “pork with cabbage and dumplings” refers to a concept, the national dish of the Czechs. But hearing the Czech phrase vepřo-knedlo-zelo evokes the fragrance of roasting meat, pillowy dumpling loaves being pulled steaming out of a tall pot and sliced with sewing thread, and the clink of the nice china as the table is dressed for Sunday dinner, the fulcrum of every week.

Since coming back from the Czech Republic, I’ve insisted on speaking Czech with my mother. Even though it’s more effortful for both of us than speaking in English, our conversation feels softer, more tender this way. English was the language in which I forged my independence, the language of my individuation—but it was in Czech that I was nurtured, comforted, and sung to.

It has also gotten easier to hear the timbre of my father’s voice in my mind’s ear, especially when working in my garden. It’s no accident that many of my conversations with him, and more recently with my uncle, have been on the subject of horticulture. My father’s family has lived for centuries in the fertile wine and orchard region of Moravia, and on my recent visit, I saw my relatives gaze out at their land with an expression usually reserved for a beloved spouse or child. Throughout my own life, I’ve given in to the compulsion to fasten myself to whatever patch of land I happened to be living on by growing things on it, an impulse that has often conflicted with the upwardly and physically mobile trajectory of my life. It’s an impulse I submit to once again, living now in the lee of the Rocky Mountains; neither grapes nor apricots will thrive in the brittle mountain air, but I raise sour cherries and saskatoons, small fruits native to western Canada. As I mulch and weed and prune, I sometimes find myself murmuring to my plants in Czech as my father did, and the Moravian homestead doesn’t seem very far away.

My newly vocal native tongue, and along with it, the heightened memory of my father’s voice, does more than connect me to my past: It is proving to be an unexpected guide in my present work. I’ve recently left my job as an academic linguist to devote more time to writing, and I often find myself these days conjuring my father’s voice by reading a passage in Czech. Like many Czechs I’ve met, my father treated his language like a lovely object to be turned over, admired, stroked with a fingertip, deserving of deliberate and leisurely attention. He spoke less often than most people, but was more often eloquent. I may never regain enough of my first language to write anything in it worth reading, but when I struggle to write prose that not only informs but transcends, I find myself steering my inner monologue toward Czech. It reminds me of what it feels like to sink into language, to be startled by the aptness of a word or the twist of a phrase, to be delighted by arrangements of its sounds, and lulled by its rhythms. I’ve discovered that my native language has been sitting quietly in my soul’s vault all this time.

Julie Sedivy has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary. She is the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You and more recently, the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics

Ketamine trips are uncannily like near-death experiences

First-hand accounts of what it is like to come close to death often contain the same recurring themes, such as the sense of leaving the body, a review of one’s life, tunnelled vision and a magical sense of reality. Mystics, optimists and people of religious faith interpret this as evidence of an afterlife. Skeptically minded neuroscientists and psychologists think that there might be a more terrestrial, neurochemical explanation – that the profound and magical near-death experience (NDE) is caused by the natural release of brain chemicals at or near the end of life. 

Supporting this, observers have noted the striking similarities between first-hand accounts of NDEs and the psychedelic experiences described by people who have taken mind-altering drugs.

Perhaps, near death, the brain naturally releases the same psychoactive substances as used by drug-takers, or substances that act on the same brain receptors as the drugs. It’s also notable that psychedelic drugs have been taken by the shamans of traditional far-flung cultures through history as a way to, as they see it, visit the afterworld or speak to the dead.

To date, however, much of the evidence comparing NDEs and psychedelic trips has been anecdotal or based on questionnaire measures that arguably struggle to capture the complexity of these life-changing experiences. Pursuing this line of enquiry with a new approach, an international team of researchers led by Charlotte Martial at the University Hospital of Liège in Belgium has conducted a deep lexical analysis, comparing 625 written narrative accounts of NDEs with more than 15,000 written narrative accounts of experiences taking psychoactive drugs (sourced from the Erowid Experience Vaults, a US-based non-profit that documents psychoactives), including 165 different substances in 10 drug classes.

The analysis, published online in Consciousness and Cognition in February 2019, uncovered remarkable similarities between the psychological effects of certain drugs – most of all ketamine, but also notably the serotonergic psychedelic drugs such as LSD – and NDEs. Indeed, the five most common category terms in the narrative accounts of people who’d taken ketamine were the same as the five most common in the accounts of NDEs, suggesting ‘shared phenomenological features associated with an altered state of perception of the self and the environment, and a departure from the everyday contents of conscious mentation’.

From category to category, the semantic similarity is profound. When referring to perceptions, both groups used the words ‘face’ and ‘vision’. The emotional word most commonly used by both was ‘fear’. In the category of consciousness and cognition, drug-takers and participants who’d been close to death most often referred to words such as ‘reality’, ‘moment’, ‘universe’, and ‘learn’. The setting was often described as ‘door’ and ‘floor’. A negative tone emphasising unpleasant bodily sensations was a shared common theme, as well.

The findings back up the observations of some of the most famous 20th-century explorers of the psychedelic world – the American psychologist Timothy Leary described trips as ‘experiments in voluntary death’, and the British-born writer and philosopher Gerald Heard said of the psychedelic experience: ‘That’s what death is going to be like. And, oh, what fun it will be!’ But claims about the similarities go beyond these famous reports. The new research legitimises the long-standing analogy between the experience of dying and the acute effects of certain psychoactive drugs. Links between dying, death, a potential existence of afterlife and certain hallucinogenic plants and fungi emerged independently across different societies, and are also ubiquitous in contemporary psychedelic culture. However, empirical research has been scarce, until now.

To an extent, the results also support neurochemical accounts of NDEs, and especially the controversial proposal that such experiences are caused by the natural release of an as-yet-to-be-discovered ketamine-like drug in the brain (adding plausibility to this account, ketamine is known to act on neural receptors that, when activated, help to prevent cell death and offer protection from lack of oxygen).

‘This body of empirical evidence supports that near-death is by itself an altered state of consciousness that can be investigated using quantitative psychometric scales,’ the researchers say. That in itself is quite a realisation. As they note wryly, ‘Unlike other human experiences, dying is difficult to study under controlled laboratory conditions by means of repeated measurements,’ making it a challenge to investigate NDEs experimentally. Although the new research lacks laboratory control, on the plus side, the lexical comparison that Martial’s team conducted is ‘massive both in terms of the investigated drugs and the number of associated reports’.

The limitations of the current approach, including a reliance on retrospective reports, often decades-old, means, as the researchers put it, that they cannot validate nor refute the neurochemical models of NDEs. ‘However,’ they add, ‘our results do provide evidence that ketamine, as well as other psychoactive substances, result in a state phenomenologically similar to that of “dying” (understood as the content of NDE narratives). This could have important implications for the pharmacological induction of NDE-like states for scientific purposes, as well as for therapeutic uses in the terminally ill as means to alleviate death anxiety. We believe that the development of evidence-based treatments for such anxiety is a cornerstone of a more compassionate approach towards the universal experience of transitioning between life and death.’

They also warn experimenters to be prepared and beware. ‘The intensity of the experience elicited by [ketamine] relative to cannabis may represent a shock to unsuspecting users, who could retrospectively report the belief of being close to death,’ the researchers say. Pot-smokers, you’ve been warned. As one of the most intense and life-changing altered states known, an NDE is no toke on a pipe after class or work.

This is an adaptation of an article originally published by The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest.Aeon counter – do not remove

Christian Jarrett

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

An Era of Disconnect

Excellent article on the root of our situation today– overpopulation and over consumption in a finite world.


A visit to the grocery store is a weekly routine for most people in the developed world. Everything is neatly displayed for us to go through; fruits, vegetables, meats and an assortment of packaged foods. I sometimes think of how remarkable it is that practically every store I have ever shopped in contains basically the same foods. How many potatoes, oranges, tomatoes or whatever else, needs to be grown or produced in order to supply stores on a worldwide scale? How much land, manpower and machinery are required? And where do all these goods come from? I couldn’t even begin to guess; the question alone is enough to boggle the mind.

Unless one is involved in the farming industry, I question whether much thought goes into it. Life is busy these days, and filling the grocery cart is just one of many routine tasks to complete. I don’t think that…

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Mount Everest just the world’s latest victim of tourist hordes

Definitely highlights the pitfalls of travel and tourist hordes thus making local travel much more appealing.

Robby Robin's Journey

Thought-provoking article by Kelly McParland in the National Post (May 29, 2019) follows in full, for starters.

‘Once, you travelled the world to see the world. Now, you travel to shoot the perfect selfie.

Tourists look at the view across the Grand Canal from the Rialto bridge on Sept. 9, 2011, in Venice, Italy.
Ian Gavan/Getty Images

It might seem odd to equate a torturous climb in life-threatening conditions to the world’s highest peak with mass tourism, but that’s what the trek to the top of Mt. Everest has become.

A blind man climbed it. Disabled people have climbed it. An Australian paraplegic with a wheelchair did it. A 69-year-old double amputee from China reached the summit. An 84-year-old British grandmother vowed to at least make it to the base camp, and succeeded.

Like so many others who have headed off to Nepal, Edna Northrup chose to make the climb…

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