Or maybe it isn’t politics or work at all that have caused this state of melancholy. Perhaps it is because so many of my former students are getting married this year, and I am starting to feel like grandmother! Or maybe it is because so many friends my age are beginning to bury their parents, or are facing death themselves.
I am usually an optimist, sometimes painfully so. Having this trait sets you up to be disappointed, to be brought down hard, often. Did I really believe that during the recent debt-ceiling debate/fiasco the politicians would focus on the good of the people and the country, instead of themselves and their chances of re-election? Had I hoped that the
would finally make a serious commitment to confronting an international climate change policy that would be better than the Kyoto Protocol that expires all too soon? (Oh yeah, we didn’t sign that agreement, did we?) Could the President at least acknowledge the atrocious situation in east U.S. Africa and the need for humanitarian aid? And how unrealistic was my list of summer projects, anyhow?
I am typically equally optimistic—and heartbroken—about the state of the environment. I often believe that all of the hard work of conservationists and environmental educators, along with some human ingenuity, will coalesce to begin to change attitudes and priorities and some solutions. If we could only show some stories of progress and success, even more of us might start thinking about saving the planet, or at least preserving or restoring a little bit of nature around our homes. And I continue to hope that all my efforts and those of my colleagues will finally get a few more people outside, a few more children to once again experience the wonders of the natural world rather than the virtual ones they live in. If they could get over their deficit, Richard Louv could start writing about other societal ills.
As I ponder my gloomy state of mind, I wonder how much it has to do with the fact that I spend so much of my time these days dealing with environmental issues and conservation – be it through teaching or my scholarship. My research students asked me a few weeks ago why, knowing what I do about the science of climate change, I don’t get depressed. (At least they haven’t noticed that I have been less cheery than normal.) Over the summer, they were progressing through their phenology project and the series of research articles I had given them to read. And now they were coming to the conclusion that their future was indeed grim. Great. So much for my mentoring and being a source of inspiration! I do not remember exactly what I said to them, but it was probably something to the effect of …at least we know that we are trying. We have to start somewhere.
My students (and Bill McKibben) are right. The number of environmental concerns and unsustainable practices we are confronted with is staggering. The college-age youth/young adults are just about to enter the “real world” and it is weighing heavily on them. My generation tries to prepare our children and students for success, but, in reality we have left quite a mess for them to resolve. And there are not guarantees for success.
In searching for readings for a fall seminar course on “Environmental Writing for the 21st Century”, I started skimming an anthology last night: “American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau.” In the introduction, Bill McKibben, in writing about the link between environmentalism and environmental writing says:
The [American environmentalism] movement—so often driven by a piece of writing—has won many great battles. There are hundreds of millions of acres of land conserved and laws passed to protect the most insignificant of flora and fauna; regulations have cleaned the air and water.
What, a ray of hope? But he continues:
And yet the war goes badly. So far the images and metaphors that these and other writers have produced—the rich heritage of American environmental writing, on which the movement continues to draw—have proved insufficient against the forces of expanding commerce and daily habit that drive global warming.
Sigh. I am not sure why I am drawn to Mr. McKibben’s writing since it has a way of bringing us optimist types down—quickly and hard. Who else titles a book “The End of Nature”? He continues:
But there is no closure in this struggle. To look down that list [over environmental battles that have been won] is to realize that most of these battles were fought around the margins. The places we’ve managed to preserve, with few exceptions, were high, rocky, cold, or otherwise remote, and hence of limited economic value. The fights we’ve won have so far been mostly about smoothing the rough edges of progress—catalytic converters for cars and highway beautification, but not mass transit, much less bicycle cities. …But as we set about the work that faces us now—the work of reorienting our lives to ward off the apocalypse that science now predicts—we must continue to find further images, further metaphors.
Bill, you are right of course, but really? Can’t you find some hope or examples that are more uplifting? And yet you keep trying, through your own writing and activism. But is this the message I want to give to an incoming group of freshman? Will they be the ones to find the right metaphors that will finally make a difference in a place other than a margin?
This morning – the skies were murky, a perfect match for my mood. I tried not to think of work during the walk with my dog and instead wondered what happened to the Field Sparrow I had heard all week. In its place, I heard the lonely calls of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and some Mourning Doves, the hollering of a Pileated Woodpecker, and squawking Blue Jays. Were they all annoyed with the state of the world too? As I came back down the hill to where the forest and old farm field meets, I heard a lot more bird commotion. A Cooper’s Hawk was perched on a snag, close to a crow’s nest and within striking range of the Barn Swallows swooping over their insect-hunting grounds.
I was reminded of the recent incident on campus where a Red-tailed Hawk had somehow caught a young crow and was precariously balanced on a lamp-post trying to annihilate its prey while being bombarded by other members of the crow family. My students had spotted this while returning from lunch and ran it to get me. We watched the struggling bird in the talons suddenly go limp as the hawk squeezed hard, probably snapping the crow’s neck. The hawk then proceeded to start ripping apart the flesh. The scene was fascinating, in sort of a morbid way. I was most pleased that the girls had thought to come and get me to share in the moment.
Now there is little chance that an accipiter would take out a crow this morning or any day, but it could very well make breakfast out of a barn swallow. Given that I had just watched the newest brood of young swallows sticking their hungry beaks out of the nests in our barn, the loss of a parent at this point would not be good. Yes, I know that there is violence and both winners and losers in nature, but have you ever seen baby Barn Swallows? I think that this is the second batch of babies in our barn this year, but it is possibly the third. As I said, I have been rather busy with work and not noticing the things I usually do.
Before heading back inside, I walked up to our newest peach trees which are producing a real crop for the first time this year. I see that the bees and wasps and maybe some birds have taken small bites out of the fruit on the highest limbs, so I harvest the ripe and almost ripe drupes. I can cut around the flesh wounds created by the insects when I slice some fruit for a cobbler later. The not-quite ready specimens will quickly ripen on the sunny kitchen counter along with some tomatoes that I have set out. The fruit flies (Drosophila to my science colleagues) which seem to spontaneously generate in our house will be pleased with what I have gathered this morning.
I realize that I am hungry and bite into the soft golden-orange flesh of one of the peaches. It is sheer perfection, the juice runny down my chin, the sweet flavor and aroma being too wonderful for mere adjectives. I look around at fog-drenched mountain. The Cooper’s Hawk has flown off and the swallows have resumed collecting breakfast for their young. I bite into a second peach. Such indulgence I think, realizing that life is actually pretty good. And I wonder, despite all the abuses that we throw at Mother Nature, why does she continue to bless us with things as wonderful as I have experienced this morning? Do we really deserve gifts as remarkable as these fresh peaches?
I head back inside with my T-shirt full of treasures, ready for baking and ready to have a great day preparing for that new group of students who will arrive on campus soon.