‘Prairie’: How the West Was Won (with Trees)

This week, on Imperial Geography… Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage. And I finally get to the bottom of my question about trees! Let’s dive in!

Finally, the prairie!

prairie - a natural historyThis is the fifth book in my project, so I’m thrilled to finally get to actually read about the prairie, since that’s where I live! This book was primarily a book about nature and wildlife — like a naturalist’s guidebook to the prairies — so I learned a lot of “Discovery Channel” facts about the prairie. Here are some of my favorites:

  • I knew that much of the Midwest region is/used to be prairie, but it was fascinating to see that quantified a bit: “Globally, grasslands are the largest of the four terrestrial biomes… more than tundra, desert, or woodlands. (At least, …if natural conditions were allowed to prevail.)” (p.117-8). (More on that in a minute.)
  • Here, in southern Minnesota, we live in the “prairie-and-oak transition area” — basically the place where there hasn’t been enough water for a full forest to grow, but there are a few oak trees growing scattered throughout the prairie grasses.
  • The largest organism in the world is a tree: “The largest known aspen clone — and the largest organism currently alive — is a stand of 47,000 male stems in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah” (p.194).
  • Dirt is wayyyy cool and full of little critters: “Recent estimates suggest that the total weight, or biomass, of the invisible organisms that live in prairie soils is greater than the  mass of all the visible, above ground animals put together. … Together with the plant roots around which they live, these little creatures are the powerhouse of the prairie, responsible for anywhere between 60 and 90% of all the biological activity in the Great Plains grasslands. … A single teaspoon of dirt typically holds around 5 billion [critters]” (p.22-23).
  • Prairies have incredible biodiversity: “In the entire world, only about 70 species of plans are commonly grown as crops; by comparison, there are 5,000 wild plants in the Great Plains alone” (p.232).

Basically, even though prairies and grasslands aren’t as flashy as, say, rainforests or the arctic, they’re pretty awesome! There’s a lot going on inside those waving fields of tall grass. Unfortunately, about those waving fields…

The Decimation of the Prairie

Actually, decimation is factually inaccurate. Decimation would mean the death of one-tenth of the prairie when in fact, the reverse is true:

Taken as a whole, the Great Plains grasslands now rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth. … In the mixed grasslands, …the percentage of land under cultivation rises from 15% (in districts with scant precipitation) to over 99% (where conditions are most conducive to crop production). And in the tall grasslands, with their relatively generous climate and deep, black earth, as much as 99.9% of the native grasses have been plowed under to make way for agriculture. (p.28, emphasis added)

Yes, you read that right: 99.9% destruction in some places. So, to refer back to our study of the impact of colonization on Native peoples, where a 90-95% death rate is the baseline assumption, this is pretty similar.

There are really two sides to this story of prairie decimation — trees and farms.

So what about the trees?

You may recall from my initial post in this series that what initially started me on this line of questioning was a weird passage about government-supported forestation in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years:

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he  explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (THGY, p.170-1)

I theorized that this was an intentional part of the colonization process and not just a useful toolkit (of wood) for farmers. And turns out, I was right.

To arriving European settlers who grew up in generally wooded Europe, a “lack of trees on the prairies was widely seen as a mark of deficiency: no lumber, no fuel, no rain. No nothing” (p.218). This is a direct ecological parallel to the terra nullius, plant-your-flag ideology espoused by European invaders following the Doctrine of Discovery, as explained here by Mark Charles (Navajo):

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty. (emphasis added)

No “civilization”, no European recognition of the rights or humanity of the inhabitants: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to paint on. No trees, no European recognition of the existing ecosystems: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to plant trees on.

Charles Bessey, a Nebraska naturalist, theorized in the late 1800s that the “Great Plains grasslands represented the ruins of a prehistoric forest that had been brought low by bison and grass fires. If only the trees could be restored, he thought, the climate would improve — precipitation would increase — and life on the plains would be easy” (p.218, emphasis added). Toward this goal, Bessey made it his mission to personally plant trees all over the prairies. There is even a section of the Nebraska State Forest named after him. (Ironically, it cannot survive on the prairie and needs human replanting in order to sustain its numbers.)

Listening to Bessey’s beliefs about the supremacy of trees and the need to restore the “fallen” prairies to their glorious wooded state, it is not difficult to see the parallels with the cultural imperialism espoused by European settlers through their focus on Manifest Destiny and militant Christianization of “heathens”. Rather than the “pagan heathens” needing to be converted and “elevated” to a “higher level of civilization” (aka European whiteness) here we see the “empty” grasslands needing to be seeded and “elevated” (literally!) to the “higher levels of vegetation” (aka European woodlands).  In fact, the Prairie book even notes this disturbing comment:

Ever since the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska [note: Bessey's home state] in 1872, the people [sic*] of the Great Plains have eagerly bent to the task of cultivating what one prairie arbori-enthusiast referred to as “missionaries of culture and refinement.” By which he meant woody plants. (p.218-9, emphasis added)

Holy crap — THE TREES ARE THE BAD GUYS. European settlers (and their descendants, in this case!) and even the US Government used trees as physical, living, growing emblems — even agents — of land theft and domination. I always thought of trees as friendly, but if you look at this from another direction (e.g. facing east) trees could also be seen as harbingers and then grave markers of cultural genocide. Especially for Plains peoples, whose carefully-managed hunting grounds were literally infested and perforated with trees.

This seriously just blows my mind.

Farms, farms everywhere…

As I continued to read about the sheer destruction of prairies, I hit this page and just felt sad:

prairie destruction stats from Prairie: A Natural History

That’s a lot of former prairie land, mainly plowed under to create more farmland — 99.6% in my state of Minnesota, 82.6% in my former state of Kansas, and 99.9% in Iowa, where my mom’s family is from. Why does that matter? Well, the book puts it pretty succinctly: “The more the agricultural landscape is simplified, the fewer species of birds [and other creatures] it can support. It’s not exactly rocket science” (p.256, emphasis added).

After making it through most of the rest of the book, I hit this chart above and just felt really sad — so I shared it on Facebook. I got pretty quick push back from one of my good friends from when we lived in Kansas, who is a farmer: “May I ask why it is so sad? There is an ever increasing number of people to feed in this world and having cropland is how that is accomplished.”

He makes a good point** — there is nothing inherently bad about farming. In fact, there are lots of amazing things about farms and farming and farmers! Here’s how I clarified: “It’s sad because prairies and their critters are beautiful and unique, and in most places have been nearly wiped out. I like food, but I like the parts of God’s creation that I can’t eat, too. Said another way, farming is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing.

Farmer Friend and I went on to have a very interesting discussion about his farm, where he uses a no-till method to maximize moisture retention and minimize soil erosion — in other words, he is trying to find the best combination of high yield and good-for-the-soil farming methods. And there are many farmers that do this! The problem isn’t farming, or land development, or people affecting the ecosystems they live in — it’s the excess of this. It’s the hubris of taking land from other people and other creatures carelessly. And that carelessness — reflected in both private actions and public policy — has led to a lot of destruction.

Conclusion: “Not dead yet…”

The book tried really hard to strike a hopeful note at the end — and there are some things to be happy about. People are more aware of ecosystem destruction, plants and animals are finding ways to adapt and survive even in the little borders of prairie between fields and freeways, and farmers are learning ways to be kinder to the land. But I couldn’t help but read the book’s conclusion and hear “It’s not dead yet… It’s getting better…”

I’ll say this — I disagree a little bit with traditional conservationism, which seems to think that preserving every subspecies is paramount, even to the point of preventing two divergent bird species (east and west coast) from meeting and mating and recombining into the one species they once were before they diverged (p.I-can’t-find-it). We as humans are going to affect things — and that’s okay. We’re a part of all the natural systems in the world. We take up space just like any other creature, and we will leave our footprints on this earth.


We can choose how we relate to the rest of nature. We can choose what kind of an effect we have. We can choose to prioritize domination or we can choose to prioritize sustainability and ecosystemic balance.

Tune in next time for thoughts on Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning.


*In this case, the general noun “people” seems to actually be referring to the non-Native inhabitants of Nebraska. I doubt most Native people would “eagerly” support the cultivation of “missionaries of culture and refinement” in their lands.

**I do, however, disagree with any implication that we need more farms because we don’t have enough food — studies show that we currently produce sufficient food to feed the people on the planet. In other words, poverty — inequality in the distribution of said food — is what leaves millions hungry.

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Posted in Imperial Geography

my field

I had sort of forgotten my “field”.
“Unselfishness” is my field.
I see people in the fields of renewable energy, political transparency, racial justice, etc., and I’m like, man… that’s pretty sweet. I should be an engineer, or politician, or activist.
But somehow this morning, I remembered my “field”.
Unselfishness: making decisions without making the assumption that my well being is more valuable than that of others.
Not the same as altruism, which is more narrow and surface-level: taking actions with the betterment of others as the immediate goal.
Altruism, if practiced completely, will cause you to die of thirst in a week’s time.
Unselfishness, if practiced completely, will generally cause you to be fairly helpful in the world.
— Altruism: to the other. Positively implies a directing outward. I am not being altrustic when I take a drink of water. The water is directed inward.
— Unselfishness: I can certainly take a drink of water without assuming my well being matters more than others’!
That’s my field. Exploring how to invite and facilitate people (including me!) in exploring and practicing philosophies of unselfishness.
It’s a field that can have bearing on all the others. Folks practicing unselfishness are better equipped to support renewable energy, etc. I don’t have to feel like I’m “missing out” or “leaving behind” those other fields by focusing on this one.
And it’s a field which makes it make sense why I’m in web-comm as a trade-skill… because unselfishness is a philosophy, a concept… one that requires communicating about, and facilitating with communication tools.
So… I should probably keep being in web-comm (at least for now)… AND,  I should remember to write and converse and maybe even speak about such topics every now and then!
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Posted in Deep Life Thoughts

‘Names on the Land’: The Book I Should Have Finished Months Ago…

If you’ve been counting, dear readers, you will have noticed that it’s been FOUR MONTHS since I posted my last Imperial Geography post. And for someone who is still quite excited about the rest of the reading list for that project, that’s a long time!

names on the land stewartThe culprit: my current book, Names on the Land by George R. Stewart.

You know how sometimes a book sounds really interesting, and then it turns out that the interesting-sounding part is only like 5% of the actual book? This is one of those books for me.

I was really excited to learn more about the social dynamics behind name-choosing — but it turns out much of this book is very detailed, very place-specific historical (or legendary) anecdotes about why such-and-so town and this-and-that river were given the names we use today. While bits of this were slightly interesting — learning why there are so many “brooks” and “vales”, for example — I just couldn’t make myself slog through another 300 pages. (Yes, this book is FOUR HUNDRED PAGES LONG.)

So I gave up.

I used to be a purist about finishing books I started, but when one’s reading list is as long as mine is, you learn not to waste time on books you don’t enjoy.

To be fair, though, there were a couple interesting things I learned from this book. So I’ll share those, and then we’ll be on our way!

Interesting Things I Learned from Names on the Land

1. Americanism vs. Americana

Stewart defines this binary as the conflict between “two primal forces in the American mind” (p.x): Americanism, which represents the large-scale, manifest destiny-like grandiosity of American character; and Americana, which is small-scale, local, and handmade. I think this contrast helps me to have a little more understanding for the “flyover zone” of the country — many of the people I know who live in rural areas seem to have a distant (but still fervent) relationship with Americanism, but are intimately intertwined with their immediate world of Americana.

2. Names, religion, and empire

Stewart notes at the start of the book that “naming was a part of holding empire” (p.12), which makes sense. But what surprised me a little — and sort of creeped me out, as a Christian — were the religious overtones: “The Spaniards, with their love of pomp and solemnity, sometimes took possession of a new country with high formality…. They set up a cross, and held mass; the soldiers paraded and fired guns. …sometimes water was taken from the ocean or a river, and poured upon the dry land as a kind of baptism” (p.13). This really fleshes out the ideology of the European conquerors that they were agents of a militant Christian campaign to claim and baptize “pagan” lands and peoples for the Christian empire.

3. Fake, romanticized Indian names

At the start of the book, I was annoyed that Stewart didn’t spend much time talking about how Native peoples named the land. So when I skipped ahead to the part about Minnesota (I had to at least skim it before I gave up…) I was glad that he at least addressed the wacky European appropriation and romanticization of these names. (Though I wish he did a better job of contextualizing some of the negative things he says about Indians. You’ll see what I mean.) Here are excerpts from the story of European attitudes towards Indian names, according to Names on the Land:

The earliest English explorers, like the Spanish, had recorded Indian names with respect; they were still hoping to discover another Mexico or Peru. The settlers soon came to look upon an Indian as a treacherous savage, dirty, ignorant, poor, and heathen. Indian names fell into the same disrepute. After the Revolution the Indian menace was wholly removed from the sea-coast areas, and at the same time the new doctrine of the noble savage was growing popular. …

The admiration of Indian names as such began with the new love of the strange, mysterious, and primitive. … The forties [1840s] indeed really saw the revival under way. New Englanders in the middle seventeenth century had been seeking an illusion of peaceful civilization by replacing Agawam with Ipswich; two hundred years later, their desires were reversed, and a new town was established as Agawam.

…Most of the contemporary literary figures either by practice or direct advocacy favored Indian names…. Whitman beat the drum [wow, thanks for that] loudly in his American Primer: “I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold here are the aboriginal names…. What is the fitness — What the strange charm of aboriginal names? … They all fit. Mississippi! — the word winds with chutes — it rolls a stream three thousand miles long.” …

Although the revival of Indian names rested basically upon a genuine enthusiasm, it picked up much shoddiness and dishonesty. As the religious mind has often been too ready to admit a pious tale without questioning its actual truth, so the romantic mind accepted a pleasing story and shaped facts to its own wishes. With an old-established name, therefor, the romantics merely declared it to be beautiful anyway…. With other words they selected the least ugly forms, and shifted consonants as they preferred. Nibthaska became Nebraska. …

The romantics also desired names with a suggestion of poetry. The simple primitive descriptives supplied almost nothing of this, but such people generally know next to nothing of Indian languages, and so suffered little restraint. Mississippi, “big river,” was a simple Indian name, but a Frenchman’s false translation “vieux Pere des Rivieres,” led to millions of American schoolchildren being taught the falsehood that Mississippi meant “Father of Waters.” It was a falsehood not only about a single name, but about Indians in general — for such a figure of speech would hardly have been used for a river.

The closest American equivalent of Minnesota would probably be “muddy river.”  That would never do! But -sota, the scholars admitted, might mean “cloudy.” Given an inch, the romantics took a mile. “Cloudy” suggested “sky,” and “sky” suggested “blue.” In the end  Minnesota was said to mean “sky-blue water”!

The fanciful interpretation of [a] Florida name supplied perhaps the height of the romantic. Itchepuckesassa, “where there are tobacco blossoms,” was probably only the Seminole’s equivalent of “tobacco field,” but it was rendered: “where the moon puts the colors of the rainbow into the earth and the sun draws them out in the flowers.” …

When such translations were circulated, it is no wonder that people believed Indian names to be sometimes remarkably descriptive, sometimes remarkably fanciful, poetic, and “full of meaning.”

The great majority of our present Indian names of towns are thus not really indigenous. Far even from being old, they are likely to be recent. Ipswich is two hundred years older than nearby Agawam. Troy or Lafayette is likely to be an older name in most states than Powhatan or Hiawatha. The romantics of the mid-century and after applied such names, not the explorers and frontiersmen. (p.275-279, excerpts; emphasis added)

Fascinating. From the Romanticists’ obsession with the “savage and luxuriant” exoticism they projected onto Indians, we get Longfellow’s made-up “Song of Hiawatha” and lots of random, relocated, and often outright false “Indian names” across our country. Not to mention some of the most RIDICULOUS falsehoods about what the words actually mean! As a Minnesotan, I’m glad to learn why I’ve always been confused about the name of our state. And that Florida one — my goodness! Go home, Romanticists — you’re drunk!

On a more serious note, interesting to see that the stereotype about Indian names being overly descriptive and poetic actually comes from white people “improving” translations of ordinary, commonplace Indian words. Just chew on that for a little bit.


Well, I can’t say I’m not glad to move on to the next book. BUT I also must say, I enjoyed learning that tidbit about how Indian names were romanticized and appropriated in the 1800s.

Linguists, if you enjoy an anecdote (or 400) and don’t mind a little dry prose, give this book a try! Perhaps you’ll be more successful than I at finishing it. You can tell me how it ends. ;-)

Tune in next time as I FINALLY get to read about the PRAIRIE in Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage.

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Posted in Imperial Geography

The Theology of the Chore Chart

At our last house meeting, my fellow housemates and I had a nice chat about that frequent specter of community housing, chores.

For those who don’t know, Daniel and I currently reside in a house with another wonderful married couple from our church. They’re pretty great. =) We have house dinner and meeting night every few weeks, and this time chores was on the docket.

As each person shared their thoughts, feelings, and frustrations, I learned something: it’s nice to have a chore rotation, but it turns out that it’s kind of useful to communicate about whether chores are actually being done. In our shared commitment to keeping our shared space clean, we had thought as far ahead as divvying up tasks, making a chart, and trading off chores every so often. But somehow the communication part just wasn’t working out. This resulted in, for example, no one being sure whether I had wiped the counters yesterday or last month.

This may seem like a rather petty, quotidian worry — but it’s kind of an important question. Knowing that everyone’s doing the chores they said they would do allows me to do my own chores feeling like I’m contributing to the group effort rather than slaving away in isolation. (Not to mention rest safe in the knowledge that the rag in the sink is not the same one that was used to mop up last month’s soup incident.)

The absence of that communication can lead to quite a moral and relational quandary: do I wipe the counter myself? Do I ask Rebekah if she did it? If she didn’t, should I be upset? What if she STILL won’t do it? Even if she did, will she get upset and feel like I’m nagging her?

After a great and open conversation about all of these things (I am in constant admiration of all three of my wonderful housemates for their dogged commitment to honest and loving conversations) we decided together on the following solution: Each Sunday, I will write the date on the whiteboard in our kitchen. And each week when each of us completes our weekly chores, we’ll write our names on the board (under a heading that I’ve dubbed the “Chore Rockstar List”). This achieves the goal of communication about chore completion — but we were clear that it’s about each person choosing to be accountable for their own responsibilities, not about us nagging each other. And when each name is added to the list, we can have a little moment of “yay for you!” to celebrate achieving chore rockstar status that week.

Communication, accountability, celebration. Isn’t that what sharing life together is really about?

Sometimes as Christians, trying to figure out what the heck it means to “be a Christian” or “be a good person” or “follow Jesus” or “be Christlike” or “not be a jerk”, it’s really hard to resist the temptation to define those things as “be awesomer than my neighbor” or “do as many things right as possible” or “point out how my neighbor is a little less awesome and right than I am because I know how they should fix their problems”. Sometimes, we — or at least I, I’ll speak for myself — just want to throw up our hands at our loved ones and say, “Haven’t you figured that out yet? Haven’t you been listening to me tell you why that was a bad idea? Why can’t you just do it like I want you to do it?”

But that’s not the way it works.

That’s not what Jesus did and does.

Can you imagine Jesus responding to Zacchaeus or the woman caught in adultery or the rich young ruler by saying those things? “Geez, Zacchaeus, haven’t you figured out this generosity thing yet? For crying out loud, woman, haven’t you been listening to me tell you why that was a bad idea? Why can’t you just let go of your stuff, young man? — just do it already!”

The only reason I can picture that — and it’s a very strange imagination, compared to what Jesus ACTUALLY does in those scenarios — is because that’s what I would want to do. I would want to lecture Zacchaeus about the injustice of stealing from the poor. I would want to guilt the woman for making poor decisions. I would want to throw up my hands in exasperation at the rich young ruler who still isn’t ready to let go and move on, even though the course of action is CLEARLY right in front of his nose.

But that’s not helpful. That’s not relational. That’s not how the Kingdom of God works.

Just like it’s not helpful for us to focus on whether our housemates have gotten their chores done yet, it’s not helpful for us in the body to focus on whether our sisters and brothers have gotten “saved enough” yet or taken care of that one “incorrect” belief yet or kicked all their harmful habits yet. It’s not my job to ride herd on whether my brother has removed that speck out of his eye yet — it’s my job to work on my own eye-plank. It’s my job to wipe all the crumbs off the counter, put the clean dishes away, wipe the caked-on crud from the microwave, and each week to faithfully write my name on that list (or if I can’t, to write THAT). Yes, I tried to clean up my messes again. See you next week.

But it’s also my job to do this in community — not just writing my name on a list by myself, not just wrestling with God and life in isolation, but doing it next to and with and through my community of neighbors. My fellow chore-doers. We each have our tasks for which we are responsible, but we’re all scrubbing and wiping and vacuuming alongside each other.

This, then, is the beautiful mess of the Kingdom of God — the body of Christ coming together, week after week, to listen, to witness, and to celebrate — even when the mess will come right back, and we’ll have to clean it up again and maybe breathe a sigh of relief when it’s time to rotate to another task. Listening, witnessing, celebrating.

See you next week.

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Posted in Deep Life Thoughts

A Story About a Man

There is a story about a man.

At first, he was a boy with wide eyes — he loved to take in everything he could.

As he became a man, his eyes stayed wide, but they also began to be very full with so many things.

He wrestled to reconcile and integrate everything he saw, felt, and came to believe.

He wanted to love his Creator. But his ideas of how to do that could never sit still… and sometimes neither did his resolve.

He wanted to love his fellow humans. But likewise his ideas about how just couldn’t sit still, and at times, his resolve in this too would wane.

From year to year, or month to month, or day to day, he would remember one of these wild hopes that had come through his wide eyes into his eager heart. In fits and starts, he ran here, stumbled there, and sometimes just laid there in the dust and licked his wounds or played in the dirt to distract himself from pain.

He walked a long time, seemingly trying to find “it” — that just-right task or way of life that let him really love himself and his Creator and his near-loved humans and the faraway-lovable humans… as well and big and thoroughly as his heart hoped to.

His hopes were so big, sometimes because he wanted such good things for others, sometimes because he thought that being smart or energetic would be enough to make him succeed. So many times he would try things with big hopes, and then leave them when he realized that he hoped for something more.

Sometimes along the way, the things he learned and tried were helpful to others. Sometimes less so.

In his old age, he spent hours sitting by himself, or talking agitatedly or wistfully with others, scratching his head or with his face in his hands, wondering when or where he should have stopped and sat still and stayed put.

But some other times he smiled, knowing that he had gotten to experience a lot, and that others had loved him, and he had loved others, and that the way he was is okay, and it was okay that his journey didn’t end up sitting still long enough to do anything worth writing articles or history notes about.

He died with some people who he loved — especially his Creator — still loving him back.

And this was a beautiful story.

Posted in Uncategorized

I’m loving it: Retrace Health: “family-doc”-styled online primary care by nurse practitioners

Time for a big fat shout out and plug for a really sweet (and cost effective) way to get basic healthcare needs taken care of.

My housemate works for an online healthcare startup called Retrace Health. I feel lucky, cuz I wouldn’t know about it otherwise, and am on-board in a phase of the startup’s growth that’s quite advantageous to me.

TL;DR: $100 yearly fee, then video visits are $50/visit. (12 months of visits are free if you sign up using the promo code I posted on Facebook!)

I’ve been very happy with the video visit / remote-primary-care structure; my video visits tend to be 45 minutes with my primary care provider, whereas my doctor visits generally afford me no more than 15 minutes with a doc, at ~$150 / visit.

So yes, it’s a tradeoff – you’re getting an advance practice registered nurse (APRN) instead of a full-on MD… but you get ~3x as long of a visit, for 1/3 the price… (or 0% of the price through 2015). APRNs can write prescriptions, order MRI’s and specialist care, etc. Affordability has made it a lot easier for me to be proactive about little things as they’re arising, rather than following my usual strategy of “waiting it out” to save money.

I also really dig the convenience of the video visits vs. driving somewhere.

It’s obviously limited, which everybody – including them – recognizes, so they’re good about referring to specialists to visit in person as the needs arise… but it’s a good home-base. I never had dreamed of being able to meet with a primary care (e.g. family medicine) provider as often as every month or two without concern for cost, but during this phase of health issues recently (knee, hemorrhoid, screwed-up-toe, tight right-upper-back) I’ve felt like I can basically get all the primary care I need without that worry.

I also feel really cared about and invested in personally/individually. I feel that I have a really thorough and connected relationship with my primary care provider. The accessibility for frequency of visit, and the ability to directly e-message and call my primary provider rather than just one of their staff – is really helpful to my ability to feel personally and closely cared for — in a way that more than outweighs the distance caused by connecting remotely. Retrace has worked hard to make it easy to get appointments with my main provider, rather than just being assigned random to a provider from an available pool who happened to have time available, which, according to my housemate, is often the unfortunate norm for online care.

(I also think my care provider, Jessica Fashant-Peterson, is pretty legit at this as well, so it’s not just a “systems” thing.)

Once, I actually even received a prompt from them to schedule a followup visit with me, even though it was a free visit. :-) They also post a custom-typed-out care plan into your online portal account after every visit, something I’ve not received elsewhere.

Frankly, as a bit of an entrepreneur myself, I’m not sure how they manage to provide all this at the rates they’re charging (even without the 2015 free deal). It’s a young startup, and time will tell whether they can actually make money delivering so much effort and value at so low a fee… but — at least for the moment — that’s their topic to be concerned about, and not mine…

(Another note: Membership is per-family… so though I’m the gimp right now, Rebekah can get free visits this year as well.)

Retrace is not the be-all-end-all, and like anything it has its tradeoffs. In-person care from MD’s has its advantages over online care from APRNs, there’s no question — but there are plenty of advantages of the Retrace setup as well, most of which I’d boil down to accessibility. It’s very affordable (basically free in 2015) and convenient… from which flows high frequency of care, and subsequently, both high quality of relationship and the ability to be more proactive rather than reactive with my care. The only scenario in which I wouldn’t find something like retrace to be of value as a part of my “care portfolio” is if accessibility was not a major problem for me with conventional healthcare, e.g. if I worked somewhere with amazing, low-deductible, low-copay health insurance… which I definitely do not!

(UPDATE: I now understand you can get free home visits too as a part of the coupon code offer.)

So yeah, I decided to share this because I’m quite happy to have stumbled across Retrace by the luck of a housing arrangement… and figured it was silly to not take half an hour or so to write this up and share it with others.

P.S. Here’s the official blurb I got from their ops director: (emphasis is mine)

RetraceHealth is welcoming people to become Premium RetraceHealth members for $99/year/household. If they sign up using Daniel’s coupon-code, they will get 12 months of free video and home visits. If you are interested, become a member at this link and enter Daniel’s coupon code.


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A Note about Fixing Holes and Not Being Okay

It’s been really cool to see the responses to my testimony and tattoo. There are lots of us recovering elder-brother-types out there, I guess. =)

There was one series of comments that particularly struck me:

Facebook shame books comments

I thought this was particularly ironic — as did my co-conversationalist — because in talking about shame and shininess and how I (we) struggle with striving to measure up to legalistic standards of perfection we can’t attain, our go-to solution — and one I endorsed, too, I don’t at all mean to dump this on the other person — was to read two books that One Should Read To Better Oneself. Because what “worked” for me is totally a “rule” that will “work” for everyone else. And because this whole thing is totally “fixable” — right?

The problem with us elder-brother-ish rule-followers is that we think we can just find a 3-step process and make everything better. (Or at least make everything LOOK better.) But figuring out all of this shame and older brother stuff is not about fixing yourself. The fact is, we are broken and we can’t fix ourselves. It just isn’t possible. We cannot attain perfection. Our shiny whitewash can only hide the holes, not repair them.

What this process of dealing with legalism is really about is the continuing, ongoing, neverending struggle to realize and admit and embrace our brokenness. It’s not our job to fill in the hole. It’s our job to stop covering the hole that we can never fill. 

This is a hard thing to do when your life has been about presenting the appearance of a completely intact wall. We can even begin to be legalistic about not doing a good enough job of uncovering the whole. We just switch our legalism and shininess to the new goal of shinily uncovering our faults. And then we beat ourselves up for not being vulnerable enough or not being fixed enough or not healing fast enough.

Let me be clear: We will never “achieve” vulnerability. We will never “achieve” freedom from shame. We will never “achieve” honesty, or healing, or peace. (Short of some sort of Jesus-miracle, anyway.) These are not check-boxes; they are STRUGGLES. They are BATTLES, some days. And some days, they are mountains to be climbed, but off in the distance — later — not today.

It’s good to stop covering up the holes — that’s an important shift to make — but it’s also good to just rest sometimes. It’s good to stop striving for a new standard of “perfect brokenness”.

Or, as a really great blog post put it, “IT’S OKAY TO NOT BE OKAY.”

Or, as Daniel and I tell each other when we’re struggling to be “productive” self-employed workers, “I love you even when you derp.” (aka don’t get anything productive done all day) “I would love you even if all you ever did was derp.”

The shift I keep trying to practice in my brain is that nothing I do can change my value. Just like nothing I can do can change how long it takes sunlight to reach the earth. God made it that way and it’s stuck. If I went out and murdered a bunch of people (NOT GOING TO HAPPEN, by the way), God would still love and value me the same. If I went out and cured all the world’s suffering (also not going to happen, but less terrifying), God would still love and value me the same.

So when I feel like I should be better at this vulnerability thing, or when I feel like I should have figured out how to balance marriage time and work time by now, or even when I slip back into old habits that I feel are so “elementary” I shouldn’t have to deal with them anymore, here’s what I do: (And feel free to say it with me, if you think this one blog post means I have my poop in a group!)

  1. Stop that. All lies.
  2. Have grace for yourself — don’t feel bad.
  3. Now that you feel bad for feeling bad, give yourself grace for that too.
  4. Say it with me: “It’s okay to not be okay. God loves me even when I derp.”
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Why I’m Getting a Tattoo (My Testimony)

I’m getting a tattoo.

You might find that kind of surprising. So here’s the story of why.

I’m kind of a goody-two-shoes. I’ve been that way for a long time. I’ve always liked pleasing people, as far as I can remember. I always got good grades. I always toed the line (outwardly, anyway). I always avoided conflict. I always achieved. I always followed the rules. I liked following the rules. They told me what I had to do to look shiny, and my shininess was my trophy and my shield.

But on the inside, I didn’t follow the spirit of the rules. Often I pleased people or avoided conflict out of fear. I got good grades because I liked getting everything right and feared the shame of making mistakes. I had perfect church attendance, but it wasn’t motivated by devotion, and it became fuel for me to look down on those whose attendance was less spotless. I played with my younger sister the exact number of minutes I was required to, and then I tricked and bullied her until she went away (or got left behind). I didn’t often directly lie to authorities — too confrontational, too risky, too black-and-white — but I deceived. I twisted and finagled my words and my thoughts and my world to protect my secret selfishness. I sneakily read books with flashlights after bedtime, late into the night sometimes. I learned my memory work then, too, having watched TV before my homework was done (despite a house policy to the contrary), because — I told myself — the real deadline was making sure I had it done in time for school in the morning. I hated when my little sister copied me, and especially when we wore matching outfits, so I would come out wearing one outfit, make sure I was seen, and then go quick-change into something else, only to emerge when it was time to go and there wasn’t time for my sister to change. I did what I wanted, which was a combination of what I wanted to do and just enough of what I didn’t want to do to keep everyone else happy and off my back.

I didn’t technically disobey often, but I wasn’t really obedient either. I was an expert at non-disobedience.

I didn’t really start to come to terms with all of this until I heard a sermon preached about the book The Prodigal God, which reframes the parable of the prodigal son (the author renames it the “Parable of Two Lost Sons”) as a tale about two types of lost-ness: the obvious, rebellious lost-ness of the prodigal son, and the subtle, sneaky, self-righteous lost-ness of the elder brother. I recognized myself immediately. I knew I had to read that book.

…But I didn’t. Life happened, my list of books to read was long, and it slipped through the cracks.

Then, as part of a reading group, I read the book Tired of Trying to Measure Up. I didn’t really identify with the title much — after all, I always could measure up to people’s expectations, for the most part — but I heard it was a powerful read, so I dug in.

I was totally blown away. I FINALLY UNDERSTOOD why I felt so anxious about making a misstep, and why I was so deadline-driven, and why I never really felt like I needed God, and why finding myself self-employed (with no one to please or perform for) was so darn difficult. I was stuck in a cycle of trying to justify myself, and it was motivated by trying to avoid shame — trying to prove my worth with my own two hands.

Looking back, I think the truth of this idea softened my shell just a hair. The armor cracked just enough.

I don’t even remember all what I read that struck me — looking through the book again, I can’t really find anything terribly quotable. But I do remember the part where I read the list of God’s names:

During biblical times, a person’s name was really important. People gave their babies names that described the characteristics they wanted them to have when they grew up. A name wasn’t just a label; it was a description of the nature or character of the one to whom it belonged. Look at some of God’s names:

Elohim, the Strong One;
El-roi, the Strong One who sees;
Jehovah-jireh, He is our Provider;
Jehovah-raffa, He is our Healer;
Jehovah-nissi, He is our Banner;
Jehovah-ra’ah, He is our Shepherd;
Jehovah-shalom, He is our Peace;
Jehovah-tsidkenu, He is our Righteousness;
Jehovah-shammah, He is Present.

All of a sudden I got it. I GOT IT. All those years of knowing about the Bible, of being smart, of giving the right answers to avoid pain, of hiding and sneaking and pleasing and deceiving — and only now, at the age of 26, did I get it. All the work I do to be shiny doesn’t matter. My own name doesn’t matter. The name on me is God’s. It doesn’t matter if I’m shiny. In fact, working to be shiny is counter-productive, because the facade of shine distracts me from reality. My “righteous” deeds were really filthy rags. Rather than fixing the hole in the wall, I had spent my whole life trying to cover it up. I was a whitewashed tomb.

I finally just read The Prodigal God last week. It’s a short book, so it didn’t take long. But the whole way through, I just kept thinking, “Yep, that’s me. This is me. This is what I’m fighting.” The transition from that place to my tattoo action step is well-illustrated by this passage:

Why doesn’t the elder brother go in [to the Father’s feast]? He himself gives the reason: ‘Because I’ve never disobeyed you.’ The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.

So I’m getting this tattoo to remind me that I’m not shiny. I can’t be perfect. I can’t earn my way into the big feast in the sky by following all the rules. And not only that — but I need to stop whitewashing my tomb.

This tattoo is risky. It’s (somewhat) counter-cultural. It’s visible. To make sure I can please everyone and keep my “future life options” open, I should remain clean and unblemished. Or at least put it somewhere more discreet, where no one will see it. I shouldn’t get this tattoo.

So I am.

My tattoo will read “YHWH shammah” (in my handwriting), which is Hebrew for “The Lord is There” or “The Lord is Present”. (Found in Ezekiel 45. You’ll also notice it’s at the end of the list quoted above.) And when I look at it, it will remind me that it is physically impossible for me to be without blemish. But the Lord is there. Or, to summarize with a secular quote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)

This is my reminder that I’m cracked. It reminds me to stop plastering over the hole and just let the Light in.


UPDATE: It is finished. Here’s a picture of my tattoo!

tattoo YHWH shammah

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‘Changes in the Land’: The Making of a Literal New England

This week I’m sharing my thoughts on Changes in the Land by William Cronon. It was actually referenced briefly in the last book I read (1491) so I was a little worried that reading it would be redundant. But it totally wasn’t! What I love about Changes in the Land is how specific it is — it goes into great detail based on thorough research including a plethora of first-hand accounts, which provided a nice contrast to 1491, which speaks in more big sweeps and generalities.

Here are my four biggest takeaways from Changes in the Land.

1. Indians and English didn’t get each other. A lot.

One of the big takeaways for me from this book was the extent to which English colonists and Indians didn’t get each other culturally, as illustrated here:

Indian men, seeing Englishmen working in the fields, could not understand why English women were not doing such work. At the same time, they failed to see the contributions colonial women were actually making: gardening, cooking, spinning and weaving textiles, sewing clothing, tending milch cows, making butter and cheese, caring for children, and so on. The English, for their part, had trouble seeing hunting and fishing — which most regarded as leisure activities — as involving real labor, and so tended to brand Indian men as lazy. (p.52)

When you have no idea why another culture does something differently than how you do it, it’s pretty hard to understand each other and pretty easy to make up inaccurate stereotypes based on your incorrect interpretation of the differences. And when one side has most of the power (as the English did once they outnumbered and started to dominate local Indian tribes), that can lead to some pretty bad and oppressive policies:

[T]he English used this Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest. (p.53)

Because the English believed that hunting wasn’t a legitimate use of land, they used that cultural difference to justify their land theft and make it “legal”, because they were simply taking custody of land that was “empty” and not “in use”. This is where we start to really take a look under the hood of some of the “legal” gymnastics underpinning the process of European colonization of Native land. Speaking of which…

2. English property law was obsessed with productivity and “improvement”.

One idea that cropped up early in Cronon’s book was that of “improving” the land as the ultimate goal and value in land ownership and use. This belief was held by many Pilgrim/Puritan/English leaders, and basically stated that those that cultivated, subdued, or “improved” the land had a “superior right” (p. 56) to possess the land, as opposed to the Indians’ mere “natural” right of occupancy without being as “productive”. The English practiced this same policy among their own as they divided the land they took into individual parcels:

Land was allocated to inhabitants [of early New England villages] using the same biblical [sic] philosophy that had justified taking it from the Indians in the first place: individuals should only possess as much land as they were able to subdue and make productive. … A person with many servants and cattle could ‘improve’ more land than one who had few, and so was granted more land. (p. 73)

I read this idea the first time and kinda went “huh,” but then it began to crop up EVERYWHERE in the history of English settlement:

  • How do you “improve” a piece of land? Farm the heck out of it!
  • How do you “improve” a forest? Cut down all the trees for timber!
  • How do you “improve” a forest if you can’t afford to cut down and transport all the trees? Burn the trees to ash, which you can sell to soapmakers to make soap!

This leads to a new part of the problem, which is that the cheapest way to “improve” land was to clear new land… which means the doctrine of “improvement” supported continued territorial expansion on the part of the settlers. Cronon sums it up this way: “Ultimately, English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land — not to mention the land itself — as commodities, and so led them to orient a significant margin of their production toward commercial sale in the marketplace. The rural economy of New England thus acquired a new tendency toward expansion” (p.161). And this right here is what leads to later issues with the U.S. Government not being able to control its white settler creep across Indian borders (as we saw over and over in Little House / Wounded Knee) — because the ideology of moving further west to make money by “improving” on Indians’ “empty” land was established right from the get-go.

3. English settlers turned the land they took into New England… LITERALLY.

Rather than arriving and learning from the Indians or even adapting to the existing ecosystems, English colonists basically came and started imposing their ways and their values, and even their environment! In Changes in the Land, Cronon makes it clear that the way the English colonists changed the land was that they basically destroyed or made impossible the careful balance of systems previously set up by Indians (see the 1491 post for more on those) and began creating LITERALLY “New England” — in name as well as ecology:

  • English viewed forests (and other resources) through English eyes. When the English arrived in North America around 1630, they did so in the midst of a lumber shortage back home in England. Of course, then, this “New World” seemed full of riches, because there were trees everywhere! The settlers immediately started gobbling the lumber, using only the best quality wood for even simple things like fences, exporting boatloads of lumber to England, and building whole houses out of wood where in England they would have used mostly stone. This led to massive regional deforestation and firewood shortages as early as 1638 (p.121). And even as early as the 1790s most contemporary naturalists agreed that deforestation had changed the land significantly enough to notably change the weather in New England.
  • Indians practiced mobility; English imposed fixity. Many Indian groups had multiple seasonal dwellings — usually one for summer and one for winter — that coincided with where food could be found at a given time. This had the added benefit of allowing the various places they inhabited to recover rather than be used up. The English, however, treated habitation, land use, and land ownership as a permanent thing, which led to quicker soil exhaustion, deforestation, and game extinction. (This book provides a detailed case study of how this led to the extinction of the beaver in New England, p. 97-107.) In addition, the English basically propagated two “proper” uses of land: farming and grazing. The problem is that when cattle graze freely, sometimes they eat tasty farm crops. English law held each individual landowner responsible to guard their own property (including crops and cattle), and this led to all English-settled land being parceled and fenced off. Eventually, this fencing off of the land had huge impacts in restricting the mobility of Indians and in causing many foundational food and livelihood species for the Indians (e.g. bison, beaver, salmon) to dwindle significantly due to lack of habitat.
  • English settlers brought some “friends” over from England with them. The English brought over and raised domestic cattle in large herds. These herds ate all the native grasses (e.g. broomstraw, wild rye, and Spartinas), which were not adapted for long-term grazing, and in their place sprung up “English grasses” that had stowed away in cow fodder and cow dung: bluegrass (aka your lawn), white clover, dandelions, chickweeds, bloodworts, mulleins, mallows (yes, marshmallows), nightshades, plantains (aka “Englishman’s foot”), and stinging nettles are all European imports! (p.142) As Cronon puts it, “Many of these European weeds — to say nothing of grains, vegetables, and orchard trees — would eventually be among the commonest plants of the American landscape, their populations sustained in all places by the habitats human beings and domesticated animals created for them” (p.143, emphasis added). A few animal immigrants include the black fly, the cockroach, the honeybee, the gray rat, and the house mouse (not to mention cattle, pigs, and other farm animals).

The extent to which English settlers turned the land they took over into a New England can be seen in this example:

“The most serious threat to English crops, especially wheat and rye, was… a fungus: the ‘blast,’ or black stem rust, an Old World disease which first appeared in New England in the early 1660s. … It resulted in the virtual elimination of wheat raising in a number of settlements…. Colonists soon discovered that the blight was most common in areas where barberry bushes — another imported European weed…– were growing…. Barberries were indeed the host which supported one phase of the rust’s life cycle, and so produced thousands of spores that destroyed any wheat plants which lay down wind of them. A European weed, in other words, had brought with it a European disease that made it exceedingly difficult for European farmers, keeping European animals, to raise a key European crop. The blasting of wheat was thus a kind of metaphor for the extent to which Old World ecological relationships had been reproduced in New England” (p.154-5, emphasis added).

In addition to the genocide of millions of people (which I read about in Little House/Wounded Knee) the advent of European colonization also caused the decimation of native ecosystems to such a massive extent that we now have forgotten many of the actual native species and think of the immigrant species as natives. (Sadly, this sounds awfully familiar.)


It’s one thing to argue about the merits of, say, Europeans adopting potatoes from Peru, or Africans adopting bananas from Brazil… but it’s another thing to talk about an ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM, BASICALLY A WHOLE CONTINENT, STEAMROLLERING ITSELF IN CARBON COPY OVER ANOTHER ALREADY-EXISTING ECOSYSTEM AND CONTINENT. (Not to mention the accompanying decimation of the people.) It just makes me feel lost and sad. Single-minded conviction that one’s own system is superior to all others leads to a world — literally an entire continent — of destruction.

Tune in next time for “Names on the Land” by George R. Stewart, a book about the how and why of place names in this country.

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I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas… There is Just One Thing I Need… Justice.

Hey friends!

So if you happen to be my Facebook friend, you’ve probably noticed a lot of pictures of me in a dress over the last week. That’s because… I’ve been posting a lot of pictures of myself in a dress (or more specifically, dresses) all week. The reason? It’s DRESSEMBER!!

dressember days 1-5 2014

Dressember is a month-long fundraiser to raise awareness and funds to fight slavery and trafficking, especially slavery and trafficking of women and girls. (Hence the dresses.) Funds raised will go to International Justice Mission, which is:

ijm logoBasically, they’re my heroes. They fight for freedom and dignity for women, children, and men, and they do it even in long, boring court proceedings and endless piles of paperwork. (Seriously, if you’ve never dug into IJM, check them out. They have some SERIOUS bad-guy-busting chops.)

Anyway — so here I am at the end of Week 1 of Dressember, and I have currently raised $85. If you have some dollars floating around that need a home, I — and more importantly IJM — and more importantly, the folks IJM works for — would love if you would add those dollars to the fight for justice for women and girls!

You can donate to me specifically at my Dressember page. Or, if you want, donate to the team I’m on, which is a few of us ladies from my church doing Dressember together. My personal goal is $300 (but I’d love to beat it!) and our team goal is $2000 — so please consider chipping in!

OR, if you don’t have any dollars floating around, or if your floaty dollars need to float in another direction but you still want to support Dressember/IJM, consider donating your social media juice! Share this blog post, or share my donate page, and tell your friends why you support the mission of IJM. Then THEY can send THEIR floaty dollars — and it doesn’t cost you a thing!

International Justice Mission is working like crazy to provide much-needed advocacy to end slavery – so thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider financial and/or moral support of this incredibly important cause!


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