Circumstances beyond my control necessitate skipping posting this week. I’m hoping to post next week. We’ll see.
Circumstances beyond my control necessitate skipping posting this week. I’m hoping to post next week. We’ll see.
I have spent the past weekend traveling—a few days in southern New Hampshire, and now in coastal Maine. I have been experiencing weather and, by extension, climate not normally my own.
The Ashuelot River looked like an overfilled bathtub. The swimming beach at the nearby Swanzey Lake (which is more properly a pond) looked as though the tide had come in. Puddles escaped out of ditches and inched across trails. Everywhere throughout that part of New Hampshire was water, water, and more water. I used to live thereabouts, which is how I recognized the water level as unusual, but I have seen the rivers high before. The odd thing is that when the Ashuelot runs high, it usually turns a chocolate-milk color with eroded sediment. Most rivers, in my experience, do.
This time the river ran dark, its standard low-water color.
The paradoxical color told me that the high water wasn’t the result of rapid storm runnoff but of the slow, even seepage of the water-table, the low-water pattern of movement transposed to a much wetter version of the landscape.
Indeed, friends reported that it had started raining back in November and more or less never stopped, although the air was dry during our visit. One said she’d heard that although the rain has been deeply and dramatically unusual, the water-table is actually normal, now. So many years of drought had actually dried out the land so much that it took a six-month-long flood to make up the difference.
But if the water table is normal, is the high river and everything else likewise? Was the Keene area as I knew it always warped by drought?
Here on the coast, now, the story is cold. The neighbor who brought his child to see our dogs told us he couldn’t work this spring—he digs clams, and otherwise harvests the sea—because until recently the harbors were frozen. This was the first week of the season temperatures rose above sixty degrees. Everybody’s talking about the cold, late spring.
My question is—is the spring really cold and late? Or is it a version of normal we haven’t seen in a while?
I don’t know whether the wet and dry of New Hampshire or the cold and warm of Maine are especially symptomatic of climate change, but this uncertainty regarding normality certainly is.
Emotionally speaking, we recognize climate change is a sickening, frightening abnormality. The heat wave in January, the drought that eats whole reservoirs, the hurricane making landfall where no hurricane should be. But to recognize the abnormal, one must have a feel for the normal, and “normal” has been a moving target for decades, now.
It’s not unusual for winters warmer than the historical average to feel cold and long and hard because recent winters have all been warmer yet.
When your landmarks are moving, how can you be sure where you are?
A lot of stuff is going on–there has been lots severe weather to talk about, climate refugees, climate protests, and the potential of the fire at Note Dame as a metaphor. However, I’m rushing to finish a deadline right now, so I’ll get into all of that next week and give you this post on Passover, which starts soon.
I wrote this some years ago when I noticed “climate change and Easter” turned up virtually nothing but “climate change and Passover” turned up some very interesting articles. Not being Jewish myself, I couldn’t really add anything, but I compiled a short review of the material I found.
This year I’ve just edited it slightly.
This article uses the story of Moses as an illustration of how spiritual awakening can fuel action and then frames climate change specifically in terms of the themes of the holiday. Modern poetry and Biblical quotes give the short piece great emotional punch.
Signing on to an energy covenant as a family and as an institution becomes an ethical imperative and a sacred task. Passover shows the way — the reawakening of the Earth to new life, the reawakening of our spirit to new possibilities, the transformative recognition of self-empowerment — for we stand on holy ground…and our name is called.
This article treats the Exodus story as an allegory of our current environmental crisis. It is more literalist, less mystical, than the previous piece, but, interestingly, it refers to our dependence on fossil fuel as a form of slavery.
These past few days, I have been looking through the Passover Haggadah, preparing to lead my Passover Seder. As I sat there reading over some of the miracles of Passover, a slight shiver ran down my back. I have never looked at the ten plagues through the perspective of climate change. Could the Exodus be not just a celebration of our freedom from slavery, but a warning against our consumption of our resources?
The people move into the streets. Chanting and singing as they go, carrying a portable large-sized globe of Planet Earth, waving the Palm branches, they walk toward a Pyramid of Power of our own day: perhaps an office of Exxon or BP, or a coal-fired power station, or a bank that invests in a coal company that is destroying the mountains of West Virginia, or a religious or academic or governmental institution which they could call on to end its investments in Big Carbon and invest in renewable energy companies instead.
In modern Jewish social justice ideology, tikkun ‘olam (Repairing the World) has become a critical concept in inspiring people to act. It is the hope that the redemption of humanity and Creation can come through the human choices that we all make in our everyday lives. In the last part of the Passover Seder we look towards that ongoing redemptive process with hope and determination.
Here’s an article I wrote for college umpteen years ago. Today got busy, so I’m providing this for your reading pleasure this week. Oh, and no, the title is not a typo.
Just before Yule this past year, I was chatting on the phone with a friend of mine, Robert, while doing some sewing. I turned to do something in the kitchen only to discover upon my return that my cat, her ulcerated tumors bleeding again, had covered my workspace, including my dress pattern, with irregular, red spots. I hustled around trying to separate my patterns so they could dry and protect my fabric without interrupting the flow of conversation, whose subject seemed bizarrely civilized under the circumstances; we were discussing the genome of the grape and the proper ways to serve different kinds of wine while I stared, transfixed, at the red, Rorschached blotches like footprints, stalking, taking, slowly, my cat.
Here, observe, three views of life on Earth.
Saturday morning in January, warm, hot as May; the breeze moves, gentle, as I stand on the sidewalk waiting for the bus by the Ethan Allen furniture store and St. Phillips Lutheran Church, chickweeds growing in delicate riot by my feet, so far so good, but also dandelions, clover, greening grass, while the trees stand mute above like skeletons. This isn’t right; though the air is pleasant on my simple skin I can’t enjoy it. This weather is as apocalyptic as last summer’s heat waves when I lay, sick and dreaming, too hot to work, all thought, all feeling driven off by the eternal, heavy, heat, save one; this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but this is the way it is going to be, more often now, because of us. A funeral procession drives by, headed by slowly flashing police escort, dozens and dozens of cars of mute, hard-eyed people. Most of the cars have only a single passenger, or at most, two. An oil truck cuts through the line to make a delivery to the strip mall behind me, its presence as lyric to the day as a line of poetry. I wonder, whose funeral is it?
My cat wants to go out, and I can deny her nothing, except for all the things I have denied her and all the things it simply isn’t mine to give; this leash, for example, is a compromise between her exuberance and her body, too sick to take a rabies vaccine. She has never gotten fully comfortable outside and never developed her body to its feline potential; as far as I know, she has never climbed more than a few feet up a tree. Probably, she never will, now. Maybe she might have if I had simply let her out and hoped she didn’t get bitten, or maybe I should have gone out with her more, for longer. Who am I to draw this line here? Who am I to bring a cat in out of the sun just because I have something else I need or want to do? These are judgments I do not feel competent to make and I never have felt competent to make them through these long years of one kind of leash or another hanging between us, yet make them I must. Nothing that I gave her could ever have been enough to absolve her of further desserts. We walk, and she pauses to scent-mark the bottom twig on the lilac bush, rubbing it with her nose, her gums, sniffing it delicately. I sniff it after her and compare the scent to that of one higher up, above the reach of cats and foxes. I fancy I can detect a difference. She stalks a bird in the ivy bed, and I flatten myself out behind her, trying to move forward without frightening her quarry, giving her as much range as possible with the leash, my arm, and the length of my outstretched body. The bird must have flown while neither of us noticed, for now it is no longer there. The day is fine and high and blue, and she doesn’t seem to know she’s sick. Or, at least she doesn’t favor herself, she goes full-bore, always, along her small, plucky way. I mean, what else does she have to do? It’s not like she’s going to get better, it isn’t like she has time to spare in self-pity. She just plays the cards she’s dealt. This animal is a carnivore, whose kind prune and in so pruning, create the reproductive exuberance of small rodents and birds. Fed on organic ground beef through the agency of human loyalty and partisanship, this cat has lived almost nine years. In that time, how many steers have died young for her?
Walking through campus I can see that the remaining old elms are dying; they have brownish yellow stripes running up the grey and furrowed trunks. My Dad told me about Dutch elm disease when I was little; I have never known a time when its inundations were not part of my history, but as I’ve been watching, over the better part of thirty years, the pandemic has progressed and more of the great cambium fountains have come down. When I was little, I remember, the elms met over the walkways, across the greens. I remember walking, on Community Day, a visceral memory; the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake, a grown-up hand—whose? I only remember the hand—in mine, and above an arching green roof full of multicolored balloons escaped from the careless hands of other children. The greens are open, now, the places of most of the giants taken by smaller trees, another kind of elm, I think, their stems slowly thickening into adulthood. My friend, Robert, is an ecologist who is busy mapping the community types of my state. When I brought him here, on the way to a coffee shop, he remarked that the campus probably counted as Modified Meadow or Modified Hardwood Forest. He’s grasping at straws; this isn’t altered, this is new: American Collegiate, typified by dying elms, manicured grass and a fauna of Frisbee players, grey squirrels, and playful dogs. No matter how aberrant this slow death of trees seems to me, the elms would never have died in such numbers if they hadn’t been planted unnaturally thick to begin with.
Humans are capable of a certain impartial perspective, but at heart we’re partisan animals living in a non-partisan world. Global warming and human-associated habitat destruction are surely no more radical than the asteroid that marked the KT boundary. Life recovered, growing even more diverse in time, and will again; nothing stays the same for long. Similarly, the birthrate of any given species is adjusted to its mortality rate; if it takes three dozen mice born per one that makes it to adulthood to keep even with the hunger of cats, then that is the number that mother mice produce, yet every pup is an individual. One could say each mouse deserves a full and happy life, just as every cat does, but it is the nature of both cats and mice, in their fullness, to produce more than can so live; to lower the mortality rate would require lowering the birthrate which would change the nature of the animals’ lives. Anyway, which individuals don’t get born in that case? Isn’t it better to live for at least a little while? Like climate change and disaster, death and even personal tragedy are just part of how things work; if these things did not exist, life as a whole would be different and probably the poorer for it.
Yet we are partisan, and we must behave in partisan ways; we act, we do one thing rather than another, and so we must make choices based on some judgment, some assessment of value, even if the value is a purely private priority. Mass extinctions happen, and in the grand scheme of things may not actually be a problem, but I must throw my small weight either for this one or against it, and I do not want a mass extinction on my watch, on my conscience. Plants, animals, and diseases do invade each other’s territory; humans may be causing an unprecedented invasion, but we are not causing the only one. Communities adapt and change. Diversity will recover. Nonetheless, I want my trees not to die of some imported disease, even if their gothic branches were themselves an artificial presence. And I want my Gertie to have not had cancer to begin with, I don’t care if she’s no better or worse than a mouse or a beef steer–or me, for that matter, I wanted this one, this particular one, to get the proverbial sun, moon and stars. That I, a mortal human, couldn’t reach them for her does not reduce the injustice any less.
We live in a world of change and transformation; one thing eats another, one thing subsumes another, one thing takes another’s place. Even if it were possible to pick sides, once and for all, on moral grounds, it would not be possible on physical grounds, for not only does the success of a predator mean the failure of a prey animal–and vice versa–but it is the very opposition, the very dynamism of the system, that makes the system in the first place. Under whatever happy façade of civilization or rationalization, we are incontrovertibly members of a system where things break and change and die as an inevitable matter of course, without violating the integrity of the whole. Under whatever veneer of educated perspective, however, we remain organisms who fight and try to win.
I just wanted to let you know I’m OK and I haven’t forgotten about you or climate change. Last week just ended up being unexpectedly hectic.
Now, there are even more timely climate-related topics I could write about, but I still see no way to pick one. So my plan is to use my traditional New Years year-in-review post to catch up, and in the meantime I’ll discuss the holidays a bit–Solstice this week, Christmas next week.
The winter solstice is a holiday for various groups of people, but it may be unfamiliar to others. The short explanation is that the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. The summer solstice is the longest. Note that the winter solstice only falls in December in the northern hemisphere–in the southern hemisphere, December is late spring/early summer, and the month of their summer solstice. The days when day and night are equal are the equinoxes. When I use the word “solstice” as the name of a holiday, I capitalize it, but not otherwise.
The reason that many different religions have holidays in December is that they either honor the winter solstice or incorporate cultural practices from earlier religions that did. Light and hope are common themes across cultures for this time of year. The usual explanation is that primitive peoples developed these traditions because they worried that the days would just keep getting shorter and then the world would be dark and cold forever. They lit fires and sang songs and so forth in order to magically strengthen the sun or to celebrate it’s “miraculous” return.
That doesn’t make sense.
While humans may once have worried about the sun in that way, they must have figured out otherwise a very long time ago. For one thing, if a people honestly didn’t know the sun was coming back, how would they know what time of year to hold their festival? Or if they believed only magic brought the sun back, why delay magical operations until the time of the solstice? Why not begin as soon as the days started to shrink?
No, they knew. Even thousands of years ago, the predictable transition from shrinking days to growing days was used as a metaphor for things that felt similar but couldn’t be predicted, such as injury, illness, famine, or the evils humans can do to each other–or sometimes triumph over.
That insight was impressed on me one night when I went backpacking alone over the solstice and found the weather much colder than I prepared for. I had planned to celebrate the holiday in solitude in the woods, a rather romantic idea that fell apart when all my water froze and I had to retreat to my sleeping bag shortly after the sun went down so I wouldn’t freeze, too. My bag was plenty warm enough, but since I didn’t know how cold the night would get, I didn’t know that. And if my bag wasn’t warm enough, I knew there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it.
That Solstice, I knew the sun would come up the next morning, but I wasn’t sure I’d see it.
And none of us really knows. My dog, CurlyQ, won’t see the sun come up Solstice morning this year–she died a week ago tonight. Day length varies. Life involves both sickness and health, both beginnings and ends, and for the most part we don’t know when or if one might turn into the other. The return of the sun carries hope for the good news we can’t predict.
What does all this have to do with climate?
I don’t know if this human endeavor is going to work out. Frankly, I think we may simply have dropped the ball as a species, and if hope still exists it is only hope–it’s a long time before we’ll get good news, if we ever do. The night of anthropogenic climate change grows long.
Religion–and the less traditional spiritual traditions–have always been, at bottom, about answering a single question; given what we know about how the world works, what do our lives mean? All the holidays of all the cultures in the world are neither more nor less than reminders of many generations’ answers to those questions.
In the face of climate change, do we need a new holiday? Or simply a new face to our old holidays, like Solstice?
What does it mean that the world we are a part of is being killed and too many people don’t care? What does that mean about our lives? How do we survive the long night?
There have been a lot of scary news stories of late, things I could talk about relative to climate concerns. In fact I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by this wealth of potential topics. Which do I cover first? How do I not fall into despair? That both my dogs are facing major medical issues right now is not helping.
But, in looking through my files, I found the following poem that seems to offer a small bit of comfort. I figure, maybe I’m not the only one who needs it?
And yes, I happen to be the author, so I can confirm that the reference to a large population was meant to imply all the environmental problems that go with a large and resource-hungry human population, including climate change.
September 23, and it’s been a day for dirges.
Nuni, my friend’s small white cat, felled by fleas
lies dead beneath a heart-shaped row of stones
while Kendra’s dog plays host to tumors,
and Kofi Annan invokes the specter of a world 9 billion strong
I don’t know what will become of us.
I don’t know what blood
stains the momentum of our innocence.
there must be half a dozen PhD’s in this room tonight
and just as many guitars.
These are people who should know better
than to seek comfort in laughter, drink, and song
but these are also people who know we do not know
Joni Mitchell, Dave Carter, Bob Dylan,
voices thrown in familiar elegy,
the scientists invoke the sacred
the tapping foot becomes the thumping shaman’s drum.
Though rage and grief and fear
may be implicit,
this yellow room is safe tonight.
If the Earth has a temple, we sing its hymns
and offer the ground our local beer libations
with goofy, rag-tag grace.
In this puddle of life and light and laughter
in the exposed and urban night
this open, objective eye offers
its care-worn, fierce