Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When the World is Cemented Over

But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see (Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968, p. 208).

In the afternoon before I left for Seattle, I went for a walk in the woods with my friend Catarina.
I took her to the remains of an abandoned summer folly on the banks of the Black River.  We clambered down the slopes of the ravine that descend steeply to the rushing water, where the surrounding gorge is still described in the park brochure as a "breathtaking Eastern Hemlock forest" even though the hemlock are virtually all dead.
The stone cottage was constructed long ago as a whimsical, romantic retreat in the far recesses of Hidden River Farm.  After the 223-acre property was bequeathed to Morris County by Mrs. Kay, the park service removed the roof to discourage unsavory activities within the confines of the shelter.  Only the foundation, walls and chimney remain - but the mossy crevices, the weathered rocks and winding steps are as lovingly constructed and enchanting as any of the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Well, that's probably not true...but I've never been to Machu Picchu, so it pleases me to think so, and to imagine all the blissful hours that might have been whiled away in this secluded place, in carefree pursuit of pure delight.
A dam creates a surging waterfall below and a swimming hole above...there is a foundation on the far side of a long-lost bridge, where a dressing room for bathers once stood.
A narrow stairway that leads to the pond is overgrown but still sturdy.
What good fortune to possess the wherewithal to employ skilled masons solely to build such a fetching and impractical haven, where no doubt many delicious picnics were served, and in the cooler evenings, a snapping cheery fire would have blazed within the hearth, the tang of smoke anything but fey.
There is evidence that a spring above the premises provided clean fresh water.
It may have been piped down the hill but now it gurgles freely from the basin.
Perhaps when Mrs. Kay's family was there, the broad pond created by the dam was deep and clear, and they had a little rowboat or two, for floating aimlessly in the cool shadows of overhanging branches.  Likely it was stocked with fish.  Now it is sullied with brown silt, and fallen trunks trap surface foam.
The tall hemlocks that once made this a dense, dark glade have at best only a few needles left at the very top of their crowns.
You can read a brief biography about the exemplary Mrs. Kay here - it appears she was erudite, kind, and accomplished, the way a certain percentage of rich people used to be before the present venal crop of savage entrepreneurs foisted themselves upon us.
Catarina launched me off on my travels with the book pictured above, called "The Living Year - An Almanac for My Survivors" by Mary Q. Steele (1922-1992).  Since as an Ozonista, I feel quite certain air pollution is driving trees to extinction, I found the etching on the cover compelling before I even started reading.  It was published in 1972, the year I graduated from high school and was still decades away from comprehending what is expressed between the covers.  It doesn't even allude to climate change and yet, like the far more famous Aldo Leopold, this author already foresaw the imminent destruction of Nature, and desired to chronicle the magic of lifeforms that she predicted would soon be irretrievably lost.
She was not an especially exceptional writer in the league of the great luminaries, but she was honest about the conflicts she felt in her own role as a tribal member of the most despotic of top predators.  I could not contain a shock of recognition when she lamented a mockingbird that slammed into her window and broke its neck, just as unprepared as when I discovered the fluffy ovenbird, lying stiffly on the porch floor at Wit's End.  As a gardener, she records her ambivalence about pests, first flinging the snails feasting on her lilies in the general direction of the compost - and then stopping, to observe one in its singular slimy magnificence.
She reveals a distrust in the Pyrrhic victories of scientific advancement - or rather, the arrogance in the way science is practiced.  She was explicitly aware of Rachel Carson's qualms towards pesticides and other pollution.  Her bitterness towards the strip mining, habitat destruction, and sprawling development she watches helplessly advance in her mountainous terrain is unapologetically rancid.
The book is not long, and consists of monthly observations over a period of one year, primarily the songs of birds, their squabbling and nesting and the constancy of their habitual migrations - but she records her encounters with bees and butterflies, turtles, snakes and spiders as well.  She feels compelled to document, with simple but vivid prose, the gyrations and antics of these wild creatures because she understands that we will soon destroy most if not all of them, and they will then exist only as long as our ability to read about them survives.  She was cynical about religion, and in despair of human rapaciousness.  Following are some passages taken from the book:

I am no ecologist, leaving such things to the David Browers of this world, for I lack both the knowledge and the energy for the task.  I am besides convinced that it is a vain effort.  Even if we have the means and the ways to reverse the tide, we lack the will.  Something in mankind, some worm present when the first anthropoid creature stood up and seized a rock between his fingers and his opposable thumb, doomed him. 
I know what it was like here once, I have seen the remnants of that magnificence in the Smokies, I know it is useless to hope for its return  But the little ghosts and echoes are still with us.  I can still look and listen. 

...In truth I rather like being rained on, the less than subtle reminder that in the scheme of things I am no more privileged than a frog.  Next to life itself, water is the most astonishing phenomenon the universe has to offer and rain is its loveliest manifestation. 
There may come a day when rain will fall upon the earth only where technology decides it is needed, and only when it will prove least inconvenience...I am almost sure I will be dead before it happens.  I am glad to have come up to say good-by to the geese on a day when the wind still blew where it listed, from the four quarters of God's will.
This is the twelfth of April, the miracle of miracles.  Had I been granted to power to work wonders, this is the wonder I would choose to work.  How foolish and tawdry and banal their miracles would seem, water into wine, weeping statues, even waking some poor soul from his long seep.  For the world that has grown old and wrinkled and feeble is suddenly made young and vibrant and beautiful enough to break the heart.
What gives these hours their faerie quality, makes their beauty transcend any other, is the poignant knowledge that in addition to being supernatural, they are so brief-lived, are going to be gone long before I can really comprehend they are here.
It is the trees.  For a few hours, over the hills they are defined in a kind of embroidery, a kind of pointillism, gold, amber, roe, topaz, emerald, rust, crimson, dusty green, honey, scarlet.  It will not last a week.
If I lived in a treeless land, no doubt I would make do with something less cosmic, would be content to turn water into wine.
The catbird flew into a window and broke her neck and left one deep blue-green egg in her nest in a sassafras sapling.

I went for a walk in the spring woods on one of those days, all greenery and glisten, which are almost too beautiful, bordering on sentimentality, redeemed by the certain knowledge of change and destruction...I am reminded that a friend has recently written me that she will send her child to "survival camp."  She thinks I will be pleased because of my "interest in nature."  She is wrong...I am one of these least fit, who shall not survive, according to the rules.  And yet I believe I have a necessary place, a rightful purpose, in this world.  When I watch the flycatchers at work, I am, I believe, performing my natural function.
...the road I have meant to take this morning, down to the river, is blocked by a fallen beech.  Like all trees it has left the ground stubbornly; rocks are still clutched in its roots and will be for a long time.  Under my hand its bark, smooth and grey as dinosaur hide, is warm, mobile, still alive.  I am filled with one of those sudden, irrational, totally human impulses to stay the inevitable, reverse the irreversible.  Luckily, while there is time, let us gather our resources, save this life, straighten this toppled giant! 
The moment passes.  Reality returns, logic asserts itself.  Sand sifts down from the roots, the delicate ferny leaves are wilting.  For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground...
...once or twice I have found a bee trapped in the more-rich-than-Cleopatra's tomb of a tulip or a day lily, unable to back out of the narrow orifice or to turn around, dead of exhaustion. 
Yet bees, one should suppose, ought to be immortal, ought to be exempt from death.  For are they not the world's only truly innocent creatures?  No living thing dies to give them or their offspring sustenance; when they feed they are giving rather than taking life; and when they resort to their only gesture of self-defense it is an act of suicide. 
Coming down off the hill carrying my telescope, it occurred to me, as it had a hundred times before, that I am one of the lucky ones.   This is all I have so far in my life wanted or needed.  But I cannot help wondering what will become of people like me when the world is cemented over. 
I felt fragile and depressed, a last surviving member of a species threatened with extinction.
Among my earliest recollections is of myself standing transfixed by the song of a Bewick's wren.  What it was, I did not at age four know or care.  I recognized it simply as the essence of an April morning.
From the wren I went on to more momentous occasions.  I marked my days by Events, by the sight of wild turkeys rising above a little dark copse of pines; by the seldom-heard calls of chuck-will's widows; by my first clear close look at ibises; by the spine-chilling sensation of a snake moving unexpectedly under my unwary hand. 
As I grow older I find myself returning to the less sophisticated attitudes of four years old.  More and homelier things, the stems of grasses and the songs of crickets, seem to me miraculous. 
Life, in order to continue, must be at least endurable to its participants.  But that it is possible, in spite of implicit horrors, to find it beautiful fills me with astonishment, with gratitude.  What I have hopes to convey in these pages is my own sense of how valuable and how fragile it is, this tiny spark in an eternity of darkness, and how greatly to be treasured in whatever manifestation.
I devoured the entire book on the first leg of my journey (thank you, Catarina!).  It resonates on so many levels with my own lifelong journey, learning first to love and then to mourn the natural world. that I expect it to stay with me, reverberating quietly, for the rest of my life.  After transferring in Denver, I took out the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, where Joyce Carol Oates discusses Anne Tyler's newest novel, "The Beginner's Goodbye".  I have always adored Anne Tyler's wry sad characters, and so I eagerly folded the magazine open and found this quote from "The Ovenbird" by Robert Frost at the top of the page:

The bird would cease and be as
   other birds
But that he knows in singing not
   to sing.
The question that he frames in all
   but words
Is what to make of a diminished

I don't believe in any sort of supernatural connections or mysticism and doubt I ever will.  Still, between Mary Q's lamented catbird, then reading this poem after which I admit, I thought, damn! - I can't ever escape cosmic chiding for the ovenbird I inadvertently killed with my glass front door - it was a bit peculiar that what followed several columns comparing Tyler first to Updike, next to Roth, and then to the early Tyler, was a quote that induced in me a gasp so audible it caused the strangers in my seat row to look askance:

"In the Beginner's Goodbye, a thirty-six-year-old man named Aaron had lost his wife Dorothy in a sudden, freak accident, when a dead tree fell on their house; Dorothy is crushed, though her body is bloodless - 'The mound of her bosom was more of a...cave.  But that was understandable!  She was lying on her back!"

Have we become so accustomed to dying trees that they are now protagonists in fiction??

Although I've been interested in ecology and the separateness of it from climate change activism (and written various posts on the topic such as "The Impeded Stream is the One that Sings") the humble pageant described in The Living Year led me to realize I've been only nibbling around the edges when there is a whole meal to consume.  COLOR ME STUPID, but I am trying to make up for lost time.

One facet of this dichotomy is that I've grown impatient with the endless bickering between climate change adherents and deniers.  Why does anyone even engage with such a foolish sham, where illiterates are no better than idiots who would claim that the world is flat, the sun revolves around the Earth, and the universe began 6,000 years ago?  A perfect example of this interminable, wasteful squabbling over the scraps can be seen at a recent post on a blog called Collide-a-Scape - only go there when your sense of humor is especially sparkly and tolerant of bankrupt silliness.

Thanks to Never-Ending Audit for that diversion, where I also found this graph:

As soon as I arrived in Seattle I began poring through the stacks of books in RPauli's extensive library, immersed in resources about the physics, policy, psychology, history, and ethics of climate change.  Having become addicted to skimming websites on the mac, it's quite refreshing to return to print...and to the rediscovered felicities of rummaging through used book stores, which proliferate around the university campus.  The extent of documentation that goes back decades never ceases to astonish me - and the more I investigate the more evidence emerges of the split between those who are demanding an ecological revolution and those who seek salvation through technology.
I discovered for instance that Mark Lynas, who published "Six Degrees" in 2008, gives tribute in the Acknowledgements section to Paul Kingsnorth his "old friend and squash partner" - which is rather remarkable since in his recent article in Orion Magazine,  Kingsnorth, a co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, controversially "walked away" from environmentalism as it has mostly become configured - sustainability through corporate sponsorship - whilst Lynas has embraced nuclear power, geoengineering, and GMO crops.  I suspect this constitutes a prime example of, if not a deepening tension, at least a more well-defined schism between those who are "blinded by carbon" and those who see the greatest threats in terms of deep ecology.

Kingsnorth wrote:

"I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking."

"I am leaving on a pilgrimage to find what I left behind in the jungles and by the cold campfires and in the parts of my head and my heart that I have been skirting around because I have been busy fragmenting the world in order to save it; busy believing it is mine to save. I am going to listen to the wind and see what it tells me, or whether it tells me anything at all. You see, it turns out that I have more time than I thought. I will follow the songlines and see what they sing to me and maybe, one day, I might even come back. And if I am very lucky I might bring with me a harvest of fresh tales, which I can scatter like apple seeds across this tired and angry land."

As the imperative significance of ecology is crystallizing in my PoohBear of a LittleBrain - having found but barely assimilated Suzanne Duarte's Dharmagains, and Alder Stone - I have become aware of Rex Wyler, who writes a monthly column for Greenpeace.  Earlier, in 2010, he penned an essay called "Who Negotiates for Nature?" that delineates the incompatibility between the failed strategy emphasizing global warming, and the rebellion implicit in ecology:
Two years ago, in 2008, the environmental movement was rocked by journalist Christine MacDonald’s book, Green, Inc.  After working for Conservation International (CI), MacDonald felt that corporate money had too great an influence on CI strategy. She concluded, “Not only do the largest conservation groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes; they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that support them.” 
This month, in The Nation, UK journalist Johann Hari documents the evolution of this trend in “Wrong Kind of Green,” an expose of how some environmental groups have gone soft on polluters after receiving corporate money. 
“By pretending the broken system can work,” writes Hari, “and will work, in just a moment, after just one more Democratic win, or another, or another – the big green groups are preventing the appropriate response from concerned citizens, which is fury at the system itself. They are offering placebos to calm us down when they should be conducting and amplifying our anger at this betrayal of our safety by our politicians. … when green groups cheer them on, they are giving their approval to a path to destruction–and calling it progress.” 
Other serious ecologists and environmentalists are sounding an alarm. “We’re close to a civil war in the environmental movement,” says Charles Komanoff, after 30 years with the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council. “For too long, all the oxygen in the room has been sucked out by this beast of these insider groups, who achieve almost nothing. … We need to create new organizations that represent the fundamentals of environmentalism and have real goals." 
Given the threats we now face – global heating and large scale habitat overshoot – Hari asks, “How do we retrieve a real environmental movement, in the very short time we have left?” 
Resisting the cash
Some groups, thank Gaia, have refused to take money from large corporate donors or their granting agency fronts. Amazon Watch, which works closely with indigenous people, is one such group. Kevin Koenig at Amazon Watch attended the Copenhagen conference and expressed shock at what he witnessed. “At Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Koenig states in the Hari article. “These groups are positioning themselves to be the middlemen in a carbon market. They are helping to set up, in effect, a global system of carbon laundering…that will give the impression of action, but no substance. You have to ask, are these conservation groups at all? They look much more like industry front groups to me.” 
Greenpeace has maintained a nearly 40-year policy of raising its funding only from its individual members and not accepting government or corporate grants. There is a big difference between forcing a company to the bargaining table and winning concessions – as Greenpeace has done with Shell Oil, Apple Computers, and Coca Cola – and simply partnering with a corporate donor and acting as greenwashing seal of approval. 
Christine MacDonald points out that World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International cozied up to agribusiness giants Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and other companies to fashion a “sustainable soy” policy, a process that dragged on for years and accomplished nothing. Meanwhile Greenpeace campaigned against the international agribusiness giants and forced a moratorium on buying soybeans from recently deforested Amazon lands. 
The campaign to reverse concentrations of atmospheric carbon back to 350 parts-per-million (ppm), which climate science believes is the limit to control run-away global heating, has fallen on similar problems. The Center for Biological Diversity, in Arizona refuses corporate funding, but finds itself being challenged by organizations that accept such funding. “There is a gigantic political schizophrenia here,” executive director Kieran Suckling told Hari. 
“The Sierra Club will send out e-mails to its membership saying we have to get to 350 parts per million and the science requires it. But in reality they fight against any sort of emission cuts that would get us anywhere near that goal.” When Suckling and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, and follow what climate science says is necessary, restoring a maximum 350 ppm, the Sierra Club appeared to side with industry against him. “I was amazed to discover the Sierra Club opposed us bitterly,” says Suckling. “They said it should not be done. In fact, they said that if we filed a lawsuit to make EPA do it, they would probably intervene on EPA’s side. They threw climate science out the window.” 
Traction going nowhere
What we often hear from groups and individuals, who set themselves up as Nature’s negotiators and who pitch weak compromise rather than serious change, is that real change will not “get traction.” What they mean by this is that the status quo institutions – political parties, corporations, and well-funded organizations – don’t want deep or radical social transformation. What they want is to keep doing what they’ve always done, keep making money, and simultaneously appear “green.” We must ask, however: What good is traction if we’re racing down the wrong highway toward a cliff? 
Hari points out that the compromised environmental groups believe they are adhering to “political reality” when they accept, for example, CO2 emission cuts that fall short of what climate science knows is necessary. “They don’t seem to realize,” writes Hari, “that in a conflict between political reality and physical reality, physical reality will prevail. You can’t stand at the edge of a rising sea and say, ‘Sorry, the swing states don’t want you to happen today.’ The laws of physics are more real and permanent than any passing political system. ” 
“We need a few leaders who aren’t careerists,” says Bill Turnage, the former president of the Wilderness Society. People who aren’t worried about where they are going to get their next job.” 
...When Greenpeace was founded nearly 40 years ago, we understood that humanity lived within a living, diverse, generous, but limited ecological habitat. We also understood that humanity had violated and abused that habitat. Today, with thousands of environmental groups at work, humanity finds itself farther down the road of habitat overshoot. 
Negotiating on behalf of Nature, for Gaia, is a sacred duty. Environmentalism is not just a career move. As Paul Sears warned 40 years ago, “Ecology is a subversive subject,” because ecology will demand that we completely re-evaluate our assumptions. We do not get to rewrite the laws of biology, physics, thermodynamics, and exponential growth for our own convenience. 
We need ecological leaders who understand ecology and biophysical laws, and who feel a deep, sacred respect for Nature itself.
I don't want to call these bargains from the used book store obscure because that will probably serve to reveal to an even greater extent my own ignorance.  But I think it's safe to say that the point of view espoused by ecologists - the crucial importance of considering the whole of Gaia as a world view that affects every aspect of how our human culture functions - has been lost for some time and particularly, buried under the ascension and domination of climate change science.
Ecologists understand that climate change from CO2 is only one aspect of the vortex of calamities that is fast evolving, which derives from the full bludgeoning of anthropomorphic tyranny - habitat destruction, resource extraction, and pollution.  The single-minded emphasis on CO2 enables activists and scientists the fantasy that we can solve the problem by switching to green energy.  Even assuming that transition is physically possible - and I seriously doubt it is - that wouldn't be enough to spare our species and all others from extermination.  As a mindset it is not merely insufficient - it's a distraction, which ultimately makes it an integral part of the problem, although good luck convincing anyone of that.

I'm going to get back to reading now - I'm having great fun skipping in and out from one treasure to the other.
I intend to excerpt pearls of wisdom from these books that I am simultaneously wending my way through, but since I'm under strict admonitions to adhere to at least a pretense of brevity (and you know who you are) I will end this post with a brand new study about dwindling biodiversity just published in Nature.  It makes me feel better to know that I'm not alone in my frustration, even though I'm afraid the authors, who analyzed hundreds of scientific papers to reach their conclusions, for all their dire warnings still missed the essential message of Wit's End:  trees are dying from air pollution.
The Canadian Press ran an article about the analysis, which alludes to some key tenets of ecology - the dangerous tendency of modern science and policy to treat species individually rather than as part of a cohesive, interdependent whole; as well as the current immoral practices that conveniently enable developed societies to transfer the costs of environmental decimation to other people, places, species and generations; and the crucial point that complex systems are more robust and resilient so that by degrading diversity, we render them unable to withstand natural variations and stressors [emphasis added]:
Loss of biodiversity an equal threat to climate change: study 
The accelerating loss of plant and animal species around the planet is becoming as great a threat to global health and prosperity as climate change, concludes a newly published review of hundreds of research studies. 
"We should be just as worried about biodiversity loss," said Diane Srivastava, a University of British Columbia zoologist who helped write the paper, which appeared this week in the prestigious journal Nature. 
"One of the intents of this paper is to really demonstrate ... what the consequences will be of biodiversity loss and to point out that these are the same magnitude as climate change.
The paper was commissioned as part of a special issue of the journal published in advance of a United Nations conference on sustainable development, to be held later this month in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 
Srivastava, along with 16 other scientists from five countries, poured over the results of more than 600 experiments done over two decades assessing how the loss of biodiversity will impact human societies. 
"If we can get consensus among this group, this really is the ecological consensus -- not just what 17 friends happened to dream up," she said. 
As human populations grow in both size and expectation, Srivastava said plants and animals are becoming extinct at a rate not seen in eons. 
Studies suggest about one-quarter of the earth's mammal species will be gone in 20 years. Others say the oceans have lost about 90 per cent of their large fish. There are now about 17,000 endangered species in the world. 
"We know that's a massive underestimate because we don't even know how many species there are in the world," Srivastava said. 
The authors found the studies had several conclusions in common. 
Complex, diverse ecosystems do a more complete and efficient job of using resources. They're more productive, more stable and better resist disease, pests and shocks such as extreme weather events. 
The rate of environmental degradation accelerates as species disappear. Losing species at the top of a food web, such as large predators, reduces productivity all the way down. 
They also found much evidence to suggest that the positive effects of biodiversity become more apparent when considered over longer time scales and larger areas. And, they concluded, time is running short. 
"The need to explore more realistic scenarios of diversity change that reflect how human activities are altering biodiversity is now urgent," the report says. 
"The gains from simplifying ecosystems are often local and short term, whereas the costs are transmitted to people in other locations, or to future generations." 
Srivastava said biodiversity losses usually occur through small-scale, local projects -- an industrial project here, a drained wetland there. The solutions can be similar.
But she said Canada is headed in the wrong direction. Legislative changes planned by the Conservative government would shift legislative protections from ecosystems and habitats to specific species. 
"Something like 80 per cent of our endangered freshwater species will not be covered any more," she said. 
Srivastava said estimates have put an annual value of $33 trillion on the ecological services provided through diverse, healthy ecosystems. Those benefits are not being accounted for in current policy debates, she said. 
"We're suggesting a different cost-benefit analysis."
In the stacks of Richard's library is this book, hoho!  I was afraid to order a copy myself and so I hadn't seen it in print yet, and hesitated to recommend it because I was in dread (after warnings from the printer about potential pixelization) that all the pictures might be blurry.  But I was pleasantly surprised - it's really terrific.  So to anyone who prefers reading from a hard copy, I can honestly say you won't be disappointed with the quality.  A copy can be ordered by clicking on the very last link at the bottom of this page.


  1. Gail,

    FYI: "Unexpected Smog in Pristine National Parks"


  2. Enviro-thanatology


    What music should we be playing?


  3. My favorite term is: Apocalyptic Cornucopianism.

    Kind of a 'Carpe Diem" with a deadline for the world.

  4. Gail, thank you so much for all that you do. Thanks this time for more information about the unholy alliance between the big "environmental" organizations and the polluters. I used to give to many of these, and now no longer will.



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