Lessons From The Garden

Gardens are life. The lessons they convey about joy and sadness, care and diligence, love and insight are magical. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

BENZONIA — The tiger lilies are fading. But the pink blossoms of the rose of Sharon began to bloom this week. So did the blue blossoms of the butterfly bush.

It’s mid-August. Just as in every month since early May when I raked the leaves out of the gardens, taking care not to injure the yellow daffodils, flowers are coming into view while others slip away.

Odes to gardens and gardening almost always are exuberant in their enthusiasm for the sun’s generous light, the dark soil that lodges in fingernails, the stress-relieving pact with the ground and the seasons that calm the heart and strengthen the muscles.

This ode is a departure. It’s an elegy for gardens and their lessons for living a life of committed, caring relationships.

Boxwoods frame the flowers of the front garden. (Photo/Keith Schneider)
Front garden. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Gardens, for instance, are useful in understanding marriage. You send a garden a pulse of love, they’ll send it right back. The more diligence, loyalty, love, and work you devote to caring for a garden the more beautiful are its flowers, the more colorful its shrubs and trees, the healthier its soil. A garden, like your spouse, appreciates constant affirmation. Disregard a garden for too long, say two weeks, and the trouble just mounts. Weeds grow. Wilt takes hold. Insects tote diseases that damage entire sections. The garden, like marriage, begins to dim. The damage can take months to repair.

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Steve Sawyer, A Titan of Environmental Activism

Steve Sawyer, one of the great environmental activists and strategists of our era, died July 31 from cancer. It came as a shock. Steve was a classmate at Haverford College, a friend for 45 years, and a heroic figure to me in our shared allegiance to safeguard Mother Earth.

Though his years were too short, what he accomplished in 63 has few peers. He was an important figure in stirring attention to the Earth’s deteriorating condition and rallying public support for solutions, first as a senior leader of Greenpeace and later as a top executive in the international wind energy sector. During the four decades of his work to limit industrial pollution, protect natural resources, and defend communities in peril, Steve played an outsized role in elevating environmental protection from a backbench civic issue to a top tier global priority.

All this occurred because Steve had grit and heart. He set big goals and was driven to reach them. He could grump and laugh in the same breath. He was engaging, trust inspiring, committed and dedicated — to his wife, his children, his work, his friends, and to his wire frame glasses and the beard he sported all of his adult life. To his guitar, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. He never lost his New Hampshire accent. It was easy to see how determined he could be. Steve’s distinctive stride, big steps and shoulders hunched forward, was that of a man set on staying grounded and balanced, like a ship captain dominating a deluge.

Steve Sawyer in Auckland where French agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. (Greenpeace photo)

His life’s work began as a Greenpeace canvasser in 1978, after graduation from Haverford. He quickly climbed into the top tier of executive leadership — serving as director of the U.S. office in Washington in the 1980s, and later as Greenpeace’s international director.

His tenure is unmatched at Greenpeace. In 1981, he led an engine conversion — drills and other power tools in hand — to replace the old engines on the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace’s activist ship, with new diesel engines used on buses. As one of the few salaried Greenpeace staffers he shared his paycheck with volunteers.

He also helped to convert the Warrior to a sailing ship in 1984, just in time for a Pacific voyage in 1985. Among the many campaigns that Steve led was evacuating nuclear testing refugees from their contaminated Pacific atoll, challenging France’s underwater nuclear testing, and safeguarding whales and other marine creatures from nuclear dumping and energy development. Most importantly, he masterfully elevated a scrappy activist environmental group into a titan of global influence and action on climate change and almost every other signal threat to the planet’s people, animals, and plants.

Starting in 2007, following 30 years at Greenpeace, Steve was named the first general secretary of the Global Wind Energy Council, the Brussels-based trade group that he founded. In that role he shaped the mammoth adoption of wind as a credible source of electricity, a solution to climate change, and an industrial sector capable of employing millions around the world. He brought that message to international capitals, including Beijing, where party officials paid close attention. In the decade that Steve led the organization, wind energy generating capacity around the world increased nearly eightfold, from 74 gigawatts to 539 gigawatts, or about 8 percent of total worldwide electrical generating capacity. Almost 200 gigawatts were generated by China, by far the world’s largest wind energy producer.
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Marian Gyr, Benzonia’s Grand Lady, Lived 97 Storied Years

Marian Gyr lived a long and purposeful life. Here with Aaron Olson and babies. (Photo: Keith Schneider)

BENZONIA, MI — For a long while, many years in fact, Marian Gyr disdained the mobility afforded by motorized vehicles. She walked. Everywhere. Even in the blowing snow and drifts of winter.

Everybody I know here in our little village, on a rise close to Lake Michigan, has a Marian Gyr walking story. She was well into her 80s, with two reconstructed hips, and still walking far from where she slept. How many times — more than a few — did I see her by the side of the road, her gait strong and purposeful. Often she was holding a shopping bag. If I pulled over and asked if she wanted a ride, she’d wave her arms like swatting at bugs. “I’ll walk. I’m almost there,” she’d say.

Marian drew her inspiration for walking not from the need to achieve a destination, but from the power of personal purpose. She walked just like she lived, without guile or artifice. She was a woman born in the early decades of the 20th century who transcended social strictures and personal sorrow and disappointment to become a beloved guardian of independent values well into the 21st. She was timeless in a way.

Marian Gyr died on Saturday night. She was 97 years old.

In the nearly 30 years that she was my dear friend I always thought of her as Benzonia’s Grand Lady. Walking was just the clearest manifestation of Marian’s determination to do whatever she regarded as appropriate, righteous, just, and personally satisfying.

May 2018, Marian Gyr with her great grandson, Addison Gyr, and with Lindsey Stow and father Leland Gyr. (Photo: Keith Schneider)

Walking also displayed Marian’s physical sturdiness, and especially the outstanding cardio-pulmonary internal infrastructure that so adeptly transferred oxygen to her blood and muscles. She was the genesis of the Gyr gear, which is the uncommon capacity she and her sons and grandsons possess to cover a lot of ground fast, without tiring.

She was unyielding in that way. When you met her it was apparent immediately. She greeted you with a smile and bright eyes, a warm hug, and a welcome hello. It was uttered in a resonant woman’s voice that sounded like what would happen if a ram’s horn was crossed with a mandolin. It was deeper than most feminine voices, clarion and musical.

Marian’s voice, insistent and unmistakable, commanded attention. It was the voice that led chants at public protests around here to oppose injustice — the Iraq War in the early century; prosecutions of underprivileged women facing trial at the county courthouse.

It was just the sort of voice a woman needed to reach her six boys, all of them as determined and emboldened, a flipping airborne tumult of male enterprise born and raised with Marian’s same genetic repository.

The Gyr gear in action. Superior cardio-pulmonary capacity. From left, Jack Gyr, Leland Gyr, Kim Gyr, and Keith Schneider. (Photo:Keith Schneider)

Here are a few of Marian’s life transitions that I’m familiar with. She and husband John raised their rambunctious sons in Brighton, Michigan, in a house where learning, love, and loyalty were taught and encouraged. She was an elementary school teacher. She read widely, and much later helped home school two of her grandsons. Here in Benzie County she sang in the Benzie Community Chorus and she helped organize and promote the development of the Betsie Valley Trail, a 22-mile hiking and bicycle path from Thompsonville to Lake Michigan that is one of Benzie County’s primary recreational resources.

She endured unspeakable tragedy as a young mother when one of her boys was killed in a bicycle accident. Years later a grown second son also died. Grief did not buckle Marian, though, nor did the end of her long marriage. She was so capable of love, in fact, that when John got sick as an elderly man she honored his request to be with him where he lived in Switzerland. She departed Benzonia for more than two years to care for him.

After all these years I’ve come to know well four of her sons, two grandsons, daughters-in-law, and a whole bunch of her family. They all express the same devotion to each other that she did. They all are as lively, as intent on making a difference, as interested in their days as she was.

The last few years, Marian lived in Traverse City. In May last year she came down to Benzonia for a party, during which her two-month-old great grandson, Addison Gyr, was introduced to the community. It was a splendid affair. So many of the millennial young adults that my generation raised in Benzonia attended with their toddlers. Four generations were on hand. A tableau of strong family and community. Marian was joyous.

And why not. Marian Gyr lived and thrived with a surety of purpose, like gravity, or the energy of the noontime sun, or the satisfaction of a long walk. Now the steps have ended. Like everybody lucky enough to accompany Marian, I grieve. I miss her.

— Keith Schneider

Rome Has 2,750-Year History; It Had Lousy Leaders Too

Roman Forum ruins. Photo/Keith Schneider

ROME — Spending time in Rome, Italy during these last days of 2018 provides a useful reminder of human resiliency, and a note of reasoned assessment after this terrible week of political and financial churning at home.

Remember from your history books that during the nearly 1,200 years of their empire, from the 8th century B.C. to mid-fifth century A.D., Romans suffered their share of incompetent, evil, wicked, inane, and miscreant emperors. Nero (54-68 A.D.) killed his mother and executed two wives. Caligula (37-41 A.D.) was a murderer who legalized looting. Commodus (180-192 A.D.) was dumb as dirt. Still, Roman architects and engineers, operating without 24/7 digital attention, invented the durable materials and designed great buildings and public spaces that honored a 1,000-year-old civilization, a number of which stand and are still used today. Rome developed a legal system that is the basis of Europe’s contemporary judiciary practices.

St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo/Keith Schneider

The great nation state that arose after Rome collapsed built stupendous places of worship and developed artists and sculptors who produced magnificent works that still thrill the world.

This week, like too many over the last two years, was terrible in the United States. The secretary of defense resigned over the president’s decision, made on his own instinct, to withdraw American troops from Syria. The Russians celebrated that move. Republican lawmakers gulped. The stock market is down nearly 10 percent for the year, the worst showing in a decade. President Trump shut down the government to make a silly case for building a wall along the border with Mexico. The U.S. government has no White House chief of staff, no attorney general, no secretary of defense, no Interior secretary, and too many right wing allies cheering on the disruption. Amazing.

Trevi Fountain. Photo/Keith Schneider

Now Italy has its own issues, including high taxes, serious national debt, lingering corruption, and birth rates so low that the country’s population could slip to 50 million by 2050, or 10 million people less than today.

Still, as a mindful American concerned about the stability of our country and the condition of our social compact I suggest that ancient and contemporary Rome offer solace, if not a measure of hope. When compared to the 2,750-year story of Rome, one miserable American ringleader of chaos and deterioration in 242 years is, I suppose, tolerable. We just can’t let it happen again for another 242 years.

— Keith Schneider

Sunset over the Tiber River. Photo/Keith Schneider
Sistine Chapel ceiling. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Coliseum. Photo/Keith Schneider

Rome at Christmas is Citadel of Security

Security agents near entrance to Piazza Navona stay alert for potential attackers. Photo/Keith Schneider

ROME — Public places all over the world are targets this century for mayhem and bloodshed. In the United States attackers armed with handguns and automatic weapons have put schools, churches, malls, music festivals, offices, and theaters in their gunsights. The country endures a mass killing every week. Hundreds have died.

In Europe the risk of domestic mass killings is not nearly as keen as the threat of terrorism, much of it linked to Islamic extremism. The century has been especially unkind to residents of the continent’s financial, cultural, and political capitals. In March 2004, terrorists attacked Madrid’s commuter rail network, detonating 10 bombs that killed 193 people and injured more than 2,000. In July 2005 terrorist bombings in London killed 52 people.

Many of the worst attacks occurred in a bloody spate of killings in Paris in 2015, among them a coordinated attack in November on six locations that killed 130 people, most of them in a nightclub. In July 2016, a truck in Nice ran over and killed 86 people. Last year 22 people died when attackers bombed a concert in Manchester, England.

A bright sun lit the streets of Rome in mid-December. Photo/Keith Schneider

One consequence of the carnage is the visible security presence here in Rome at Christmas time. Perhaps because Italian police gained such bloody experience battling Mafia families with superior intelligence capacity and investigative skill, security forces here have been exceptionally adept at intercepting and halting terrorist plots. All of Italy has largely avoided the bloodletting that has afflicted so many other nations in Europe.

Still, the armored vehicles and armed soldiers patrolling the squares and piazzas and crowded public spaces in this dense city are unmistakable emblems of the ever present threat. It’s the cost of cultural division, the dismal expense of this era of unrelenting mortal danger.

—- Keith Schneider

Beautiful piazza. Photo/Keith Schneider
Garden in the city. Phot/Keith Schneider
Tiber River. Photo/Keith Schneider