When I sat down to read the cartoon issue of the New Yorker with my nice, hot cup of strong coffee one Saturday late in December, I found an article by my favorite prose writer about my favorite cartoonist. Adam Gopnik is wonderful at what used to be called a “turn of phrase,” like describing a reference book he likes as “an atypically larksome encyclopedia.” He is also good at juggling ideas in a way that gets right in amongst us:
“People who don’t want high speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains . . . these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals.”
Here he is on the difficulties cartoonist Roz Chast experienced when she cared for her aging parents until their deaths, which she chronicled in her best-selling Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. She found herself “caught in a permanent meta-cycle of well-meant gestures, torn between compassion and exasperation, having to be kind when you just want to be gone.”
And on the Brooklyn of Chast’s childhood: “the world of the receding New York middle class: scuffed-up apartments, grimy walls, round-shouldered men perched n ratty armchairs and frizzy-haired women in old-fashioned skirts…marked by a shared stigmata of anxiety about the eyes.”
Gopnik’s take on Chast’s “Sad Buildings in Brooklyn” took me straight into a bittersweet but gentle nostalgia for the tiny Manhattan apartment where I grew up in the 1940s. It was filled with cigarette smoke, presided over by neurotic parents, with soot-encrusted sills at every window, in a dimly lit wartime neighborhood that was in every way distinctly pre-Big Apple.
Chast’s characters have escaped her sad Brooklyn for what Gopnik describes as “a kind of timeless Upper West Side of the mind,” her preferred New York neighborhood which became mine as well. I have found a place to stay in a brownstone apartment on West 81st Street and when I gaze into the windows of tiny apartments chockablock with books and dust and people having intense conversations amid take out boxes from Zabar’s, I feel poignant regret at my midwestern exile from a life I might have lived.
It seems miraculous that Chast’s sad Brooklyn buildings not only failed to overwhelm the little girl with their grimness and miasma of anxiety, but provided her with the settings and characters that gave her a successful career and a wonderful life. The key, I think, is immersing yourself in the sad oddities that life doles out, working through and with them rather than complaining about and pretending they didn’t happen. We are all broken in some way; the trick is to fill our cracks with whatever gold we can glean to create our uniquely idiosyncratic wholeness.
As we get older, silliness becomes an existential necessity. The trick is to stay silly, be silly, and find silly things to do. These days, I am knitting mice and then knitting little sweaters and skirts for them to wear; Roz Chast has learned to play a turquoise ukulele and performs (at the Carlisle, yet!) in band called the Uklear Meltdown.
There is so much downheartedness in reading the news about climate disasters, ecosystem collapse, and species destruction that we sometimes fall into so much Climate Grief that we lose all will to act.
I am sure that we have all been there, so I wrote this article for Impakter.com, a European online magazine where I am a columnist, to try to encourage us to look deep for ways to buoy ourselves up.
It took a long time to write it, because just thinking about it made me want to run away and hide under the bed.
On the night after the first Trump Impeachment Hearing, I picked up Jonathan Coe’s 2018 Middle England. It is a really good read – well written, with engaging characters, and a fascinating account of England right now. I was startled by the realization that England and America are going through strikingly similar crisis.
In Coe’s England neither Conservatives nor Labour have figured out how to deal with Brexit, which they voted in by referendum in June, 2016. Parliament is so consumed by the issue that nothing else is getting done. People are locked into Leave or Remain positions that have broken friendships and family ties. The country is full of anger, not only about Brexit but against immigrants and non-whites, giving rise to violent attacks. The nation’s mood of surly, punitive xenophobia seems to have been fueled before the Brexit vote by bitterly divisive social media traceable, in part, to the Russians.
In the United States, neither Democrats nor Republicans have figured out how to get bills through Congress in the face of violent differences about President Donald Trump, elected in November, 2016. Families are estranged by Pro- and Anti-Trump convictions, locked into positions over his campaign against immigrants and non-whites. Hate crimes against African Americans, Muslims, Jews, and immigrants have occurred every few months since his election; the xenophobic rage that fueled them was promulgated during the election campaign, much of it coming from Russian misinformation fed into social media.
Even I, who consider myself as rational as anyone, found my head spinning during Republican attacks on the distinguished diplomats at the Impeachment Hearing as they testified about Trump’s pressure on the President of Ukraine to give him dirt on the Biden family (along with proof that the Ukrainians, rather than the Russians, were responsible for the 2016 electoral interference). The Republicans worded their accusations with such forceful illogic that they aborted my thinking process and went straight to my (appalled) gut:
“Well what’s the deal,” one sneered, “they got their arms without doing the investigation, didn’t they?”
Legally, an attempted crime is still a crime: if you assault someone you go to jail, even if you don’t actually kill or wound him. And that’s the actual truth.
The impressively dignified and professional Ambassador to Ukraine, the target of screeds of invective, gave the best possible response; she just sat there and smiled, as we would like anyone to do, in the face of total nonsense.
But no, not anyone. In Russia, fake information has long been employed to reinforce a dictator’s appeal. The New York Times cites Peter Pomerantsev’s “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” about the “transgressive thrill in strong leaders thumbing their nose at the facts.” While Pomerantsev is writing about how the Russians feel about Putin, there are plenty of Americans who just adore the way Trump stands up in front of thousands of people and tells one lie after another.
In the interest of a balanced view I have made several attempts to get myself inside the Republican bubble. I tried to watch Fox News, but its spins left me nauseous. Then, at my gym, I found a treadmill with a Fox screen just to my left and MSNBC blaring away on my right, enabling me to juggle both bubbles simultaneously. They were discussing the July 25 telephone conversation between Presidents Zelensky and Trump, with Fox twisting Trump’s ask to investigate corruption in general, while MSNBC insisted it was about Vice President Biden and his son.
Each side was rendering its viewpoint in an entirely believable manner. It was easy to see how, as the New York Times puts it, “a loss of shared facts can be corrosive for rational discourse.”
As for me, I find what is happening to words and to reason, and to truth itself, profoundly disheartening.
Jonathan Coe’s newspaperman character, Doug, meets every few months with his source, Nigel, who is a spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron.
“We’re going to win an overall majority,” declares Nigel. “We’re confident of that. That’s what the opinion polls are telling us.”
“But you just said you don’t trust opinion polls.”
“We don’t trust most people’s opinion polls. But we do commission our own. Which we trust.”
In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, we who write about our love for nature are accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against the grim reality. What is the point of taking joy in forests and meadows that we have already doomed by our greed and folly? How can we go on fiddling about the wonders and beauty of our beloved planet when it is burning all around us?
Is nature writing a retreat from activism or a weapon against climate change?
British nature lovers and writers are particularly anguished about the utility of their pursuits in these darkest of times; In Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too late? Mark Cocker worries about nature writing in the context of species loss and land degradation: “The danger is that it is a compensatory, nostalgic and internalized re-creation of what was once our birthright and is no more… without the underlying biodiversity, these responses will be like the light from a dead star: they will persist for a while, maybe even decades, but they will travel onwards into the darkness that will eventually consume them.”
When I read such catastrophic forecasts I sink into a kind of will-paralyzing dread. Actually doing something on behalf of nature, however, always gives me a spark of hope. So, in recent years, I have written and lobbied on behalf of our beloved planet by dividing my work time down the middle, allocating half my week to nature writing and the other half to environmental activism.
Last winter, lighting my little candle against the encroaching darkness eventually burned me right out: too many committee meetings, too many town halls to sit through and legislators to lobby; on the writing side, there were letters to editors, administration of three activist Facebook pages (@CCLDetroitMetroNorth, @BUCGreensanctuary, @annisvpratt), and exhaustive research for articles in the European magazine where I am a columnist. That is why, when May came around, I decided to restore my soul at my Betsie River cabin in Northern Michigan
I lolled on the banks observing fishes swim by, observed the intricacies of damselfly courtship, listened to what the eddies had to say to each other, puzzled over warbler repetoires and the mysterious projects of bank beavers. As always, my soul was restored by nature’s intricate beauty: there were patterns in mushroom gills, chickadees’ wings stuttering overhead, and the startling green when black moss resurrects itself after rain.
I always like to read a book at my my favorite spot, down on the dock with the river chortling by.
Robert Marfarlane, who is considered one of the best nature writers in England today, focusses on the sounds of locally used words for landscape attributes. In Landmarks he talks of creating “a work of words” that embed the particulars of nature, de-desecrating” them from mere objects, its rather than thous.
Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.” Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.”
In his collection of essays about British nature writers Macfarlane gives examples from Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain about the Scottish Cairngorms:
• The “coil over coil’ of a golden eagle’s ascent on a thermal,” “the minute scarlet cups of lichen,”
• The sound of moving water: “The slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate.”
Shepherd considers the mountains “’not of myself, but in myself,’” (italics mine). As Macfarlane puts it, she finds in landscape an “inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.” “Shepherd is a fierce see-er,” he concludes, “and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”
“Mysticism! I told you so,” we can hear our nature writing skeptics exclaim: “Mysticism has nothing to do with science, it’s pure escapism!” I feel quite the opposite: it seems to me that the mind/matter interaction fostered by close nature observation makes a reader environmentally “woke.” Clearly, a few definitions are in order:
• Empiricism assumes that our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world, then proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment. For nature writers it involves attention to the minute particulars of nature and an intellectual understanding of their interaction in material processes.
• Mysticism understands nature as suffused with divine spirit. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 Gospels purged by the early Christian church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While institutional Christianity declared the human soul existentially flawed and the natural world the enemy of the spirit, this kind of nature mysticism nonetheless persisted in the human heart.
• Immanentism: The belief that the natural world is pervaded with divinity. Like Transcendentalism, immanentism understands divinity as simultaneously present in and extending beyond materiality. It should not be confused with super-naturalism, which locates divinity entirely outside of nature, or with pantheism, which takes nature as all that there is.
Full disclosure: I am a flaming nature mystic.
The nature writers Macfarlane describes bring their readers into tune with their joyous syntheses of empiricism, mysticism, and immanentism by embedding the touch, feel, sound, and sight of natural phenomena into words.
To Pippa Marland, for example, contemporary nature writing is a call to rather than a retreat from environmental activism: “I’d like to believe that the current interest in nature writing is more than just a reflection of commodified nature finding a niche in consumer culture, or a nostalgic fad that mourns the loss of landscapes and wildlife while turning its back on the nature that still remains. The UK has been part of a global movement towards environmentalism in recent months, participating in a great upsurge in support for the natural world. Even if not all the readers of nature writing are activists, I do feel that there is a certain ‘environmentally-woke’ zeitgeist emerging, in the sense that people are beginning to notice and cherish nature in a significant way, and this ‘noticing’ may ultimately translate into political and environmental action.”
For a stunning example of how nature writing leads to environmental activism, a single book for children had a significant impact on last summer’s climate march.
Two years ago, Robert Macfarlane’s Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris, was published as a deliberate act of linguistic anti-desecration.
A new edition of a standard British classroom reference work, The Oxford Junior Dictionary, had dropped forty words about nature – otter, acorn, bramble, and dandelion, heron, newt and willow among them. Their space was needed for words from modern technology like cut-and-paste, blog, and bullet-point. I had been following Morris on Twitter; her paintings of natural beings like wrens and otters against gold wash backgrounds fascinated me.
Then my Twitter feed filled with news of classrooms where the book had been assigned; all over the UK, children were rushing into the countryside and “re-sacralizing” nature in their own drawings, poems, and stories.
By the end of the summer the book had become a best seller, and the tremendous reaction to The Lost Words phenomenon culminated in a program at the Proms (a hugely popular London concert series), a video shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and CDs of songs inspired by Macfarlane’s poems and spells. The book contributed to the thousands of marchers participating in the September 20 Climate Strikes, bringing new energy and hope to the succor of our ailing planet.
And it was children, many of them “environmentally woke” by a single piece of nature writing, who led them.
Every spring, when I arrive at my northwestern Michigan cottage, I have to roust dozens of deer mice from winter complacency. Although I am quite fond of the peppy little creatures with their blazing white tummies, I draw the line at droppings on my kitchen counters and in my refrigerator, at gnawed-over soap, toilet paper shredded for nests, and neat gifts of shiny black seeds under my pillow, not to mention the pathos of little corpses all curled up in coffee cups.
Too, they can be carriers of the deadly Hantavirus, so I owe it to my family and guests to evict them.
Until this year, opening the cottage has always begun with an hours-long task of cleaning up their kitchen depredation, especially in the refrigerator: If I leave it open, there are mouse droppings; if I close it, there is mold. Then a very nice lady in the supermarket line gave me the secret password for cottage over-wintering: Bounce!
“Leave your fridge open, just fill it with sheets of Bounce – you can use them in your cupboards, too!”
The next spring, my refrigerator and cupboards were blessedly clean of both mice and mold.
Then there was the glorious May day when, delighted to be back Up North, I popped a piece of raison bread into my toaster, only to be assailed by the odor of toasted mouse. That’s what I thought I smelled when I used the oven for the first time, but when I searched inside I didn’t come up with a single baked mouse. Nonetheless, every time I turned on the oven, the sour, musty odor filled the kitchen, so I called in the appliance man.
“Mouse all right: not mouse mouse, I mean—mouse pee.”
“Thing is, it’s the insulation along both sides: they like to pee in it. Get in there, pee over and over, all winter long. What you need is a spray bottle, see? You could try bleach, or maybe white vinegar, or Cs-4? White vinegar, I think—one part in four. That should do it.”
That did it very nicely. When I turned up the oven for my meatloaf the odor had vanished, and after cleaning every surface with Lysol and plugging in zappers, I settled down for a mouse-free summer. Deterred by the odor of Bounce, they never crawled into the oven insulation again.
Musical Mice ♬ ♬ ♪
A mouse zapper is an electronic device (therefore of no use in the winter when the electricity is turned off) that emits exquisitely high-pitched sound waves inaudible to the human ear, but excruciating to a mice. Since they refuse to enter a room with one in it, these are humane devices to make sure mice stay outside of my cabin, all summer long.
Then I discovered that the acoustical sensitivities of these very same deer mice extend to musical appreciation. Very late on a moonlit spring night, a Canadian biologist recording bat communications picked up a lovely little trilling melody.* Almost supersonic, it was the mating song of a deer mouse singing his little heart out at the edge of the forest. After an interval (of assessing the musical quality of the love song and comparing it others she has heard?) a female took up her strain in an exquisite duet.
I began to worry about what my zappers might be doing to the sensitive and fine-tuned ears of these lovely little creatures, not to mention their emotional lives?
Alas, my skittish houseguests convinced me to leave the zappers plugged in.
I used to cut down the winter mayhem with a better mouse trap made from a large plastic bucket with three right angled entry tubes set in the lid. I filled it three quarters full of sunflower seeds and put it on my kitchen floor; the poor little things crawled in and ate themselves silly, perishing by dehydration.
“On the night that you were born,” my mother used to tell me on my birthday eve in a tone of lilting wonder, “there was a mouse in the wastepaper basket. Just as I went into labor, I saw his little pink ears sticking out.”
I’ve often wondered about that little creature, his ears translucent with the first dawn of my life on earth. Was he my herald angel?
In some cultures, there’s a belief that when you die your soul escapes in the form of a mouse. One terrible spring when my husband lay dying, I took a brief weekend away from the hospital to open the cottage. There was no hope at all, and before the week was up I would have to remove his life support.
On that bleak Easter morning, emptying my mouse bucket by the woodpile, I was offering words of regret and apology over the pathetic corpses when one tiny soul aroused itself to scurry away into the forest, as the sun dawned translucently through the golden veins of its ears.
*Canadian Biologist Martina Kalcounis-Rueppell, in Rob Dunn, “Singing Mice,” Smithsonian.com (May, 2011).
As I get older, I sometimes treat myself to an upgrade when I travel— a slightly better (though far from luxurious) hotel than the motel I usually go to; or business rather than coach class on the train to Chicago. It was a bit more of a leap than that when, for the Washington-New York leg of a trip east, I bought myself an (expensive) ticket on the Acela. (This is an older blog, but I suspect itstill reflects the difference between taking the coach and the Acela)
I had first seen this marvel of a train one summer when I was boarding the Lakeshore Limited in Boston’s South Station on my way home to Detroit. The first leg of that trip involves a slow haul over the Berkshires at maybe twenty miles an hour, huffing and puffing all the way like the Little Engine that Could. But there, right on the other side of our boarding platform, sat an engine crafted out of gleaming steel, looking down at us lesser travelers with a long, streamlined nose. It was reputed, I remembered, to accomplish what in France they term TGV—“très grande vitesse”—a speed of 120 miles an hour. ” I’m going to take that someday,” I promised myself; and so I did.
I was traveling to New York City after a heart-warming visit to an old friend in Richmond, so I had to take the regional train that runs between Newport News and DC to catch the Acela. The coach seemed pleasant enough; I found an empty seat and settled down next to the window, gazing at reeds blowing in the wind in a broad, misty marshland. As the conductor approached I got out my ticket and noticed that this train continued on to New York. Ever nervous about my travel arrangements, I said
“I see that we go all the way to New York City. Can I stay on if I miss my connection to the Acela?”
“No problem, if we have a seat for you. Worst case scenario, we put you off in DC and you catch the Acela when it comes through.”
I sat there doing mental arithmetic, which I was never good at. 1.They put me off in DC. 2. The Acela, much faster than this regional, comes whistling ‘through.’ 3. If both get to New York City at 5:45, won’t the Acela accelerate itself past where I am put off before we get there? 4. This depends on how late the regional is. Recalling puzzlers like “Train A goes at 60 miles per hour and train B goes at 120 miles per hour. If a little old lady is put off of one to catch the other, how many minutes can train A be late to allow her to catch train .” Answer comes there none.
At Fredericksburg, I acquire a seat mate. At Quantico, there is an announcement that the train is now full. I resume my calculations on time/motion train A vs train B problem, but still to no avail. At Woodbridge, I climb over the knees of my seatmate, only to discover that the toilet is out of paper.
My favorite meal on Amtrak is a Hebrew National Hot Dog so full of sodium that I wonder what would happen to me if it raised my blood pressure and triggered a stroke? Nevertheless, I would really enjoy one just about now.
Announcement resounds though the car that the café is out of 1. Sprite and 2. hot dogs.
I would like to take out my knitting, but the seats are so close together that I might find myself elbowing the nice but rather capacious lady sitting next to me. There is a lot more talking now, some of it quite loud, and children are skittering up and down the aisle. The car is beginning to feel close packed and stuffy; and what is that smell?
“We are sorry Ladies and Gentlemen,” comes the announcement, “We are out of toilet paper.”
At Alexandria, I look at my watch and discover that it is an hour before my confirmed ticket on the Acela, so I decide it will be well worth the effort to make the switch and enjoy my treat after all. I haul my suitcase into Union Station with plenty of time to lug it to the bookstore where I buy a Wilson Quarterly, a journal so full of wonky articles and well reasoned book reviews that it is always good for a train journey.
I am sitting in the waiting area absently scanning the announcement board when time/motion problem is solved:board lists hourly Acela departures. It must have been the next one I was supposed to “hop on” to, though how to achieve that without a reservation is not entirely clear. Perhaps these luxury trains never fill up entirely?
I love walking down the platform alongside a train, refreshed by air so much cooler than inside. This time, there is the gratification of glancing up at the gleaming, streamlined engine I had so envied in Boston. As we get underway through the rail yards and begin to pick up speed in Maryland, we move along the tracks like a knife through butter, so different from the regional’s bumps and grinds, Soon everything is going by so fast that I don’t have a chance to identify the duck on a particular pond or what crops are at what stage—the landscape seen from an Acela is more prototypical than particular, affording the general idea of meadow or forest, like a kind of Platonic ideal. The seats are capacious and comfortable, with a surfeit of leg room and plenty of space between, though I am without a seat mate at the moment.
Perfect, I realize, for knitting! I am working on a little yellow baby sweater for a friend’s first grandchild and need to get on with it as I am hosting her granny shower right after I get home, so I take to knitting and purling in blissful comfort. That is, until I notice rows of finely tailored trousers relaxed between seats and elegant shoes on foot rests all around me. Good heavens! My car is occupied by men in elegant, well fitting (bespoke?) suits, who must be Very Important People. I recall that the Acela is much frequented by Senators and Congressmen—Joe Biden and all that—and isn’t that Brent Scowcroft sitting across the aisle, glancing at me with mild surprise before politely averting his eyes? It must be unusual among this dapper crowd to spy a lady in red blazer, pink blouse, and pearls carrying on with her knitting.
I don’t feel unimportant to myself—Full Professor, Feminist Founder, Academic Author and all that—but I must look unimportant to them. I wonder if there is a car full of well-dressed, powerful women somewhere on this train, or can they afford it? Never mind—there are those lovely pastures streaming by and the intimate windows of cities to glance (fleetingly) into, so I turn my sweater to a purl row, though I am beginning to get awfully hungry.
Walking through the cars to find something to eat, I pass an enclosure with armchairs and little tables and a sign affixed to the glass that identifies it as a “Quiet Room—no Cellphones or Children.” There are elegantly suited women working busily at their laptops, and a dapper executive’s legs stretching out from his Wall Street Journal. I am surprised to find that the dining arrangements are the same as on the regional, just a café with no Hebrew National Hot Dogs on offer but adequate if plain sandwiches and good strong coffee. Returning to my seat, I notice right at the beginning of my car that a tiny lady, probably in her sixties, is perched on a stool busily tapping away at her laptop while urgently telling someone at the other end of her cell phone how to prepare the room for a speech she is going to make at the Hilton.
When I settle down with my Wilson Quarterly I notice that, as always on a moving train, I am suddenly capable of grasping concepts that otherwise elude me. Soon, however, I need to visit the bathroom (Toilet Paper! Clean Sink! Scented Hand Soap!) and on the way back walk slowly enough to read over the urgently busy lady’s shoulder. The masthead of her stationary reads
REPAIRING THE WORLD!
Good for her, I say to myself, she is restoring the world like in Tikum Olam, that marvelous creation story where God sent his light into the world with such power and glory that it broke all the jars he had set out to contain it, their shards scattering all over the universe, leaving us to repair the world by gathering the thousand thousand things and returning them to their containers.
Good for the tiny lady repairing the world with her laptop, I reflect, and good for the women working on theirs in the quiet room and for all of these busy, dapper men as well, if they are of honest intent.
And good for me too, traveling far and wide to renew the warmth of friendship. And so we streak through the wetlands of New Jersey at more miles per hour than I have ever experienced on a train, until the towers of the city where I was born rise in all their splendor out of the New Jersey marshes.
“You went to Washington how? By train? I didn’t know people still did that,” my friends often ask, to which I answer, “Yes, but I always take the sleeper.”
What you do, if you live near Detroit, is get yourself to the Amtrak station in Dearborn, where a bus picks you up and zips down route 75 to Toledo and the Capitol Limited. The hardest part of the trip is the pitch dark drive down the Southfield Expressway, which turns itself into a concrete tunnel for much of the way. My night vision is not very good, and I am perpetually nervous that a flat tire will force me onto the practically non-existent shoulder, up against that high granite wall. So I zip along in my little blue car, coiled tight as a spring, chanting the mantra my husband would always used when I would bleat “Couldn’t you slow down, just a little bit?” And he would reply, “In a situation like this, you have to keep up with the traffic.”
From a situation like that I am always glad to arrive in one piece at the Amtrak station, its waiting room bright in the darkness and likely to be full of large, cheerful people in matched pastel pants and sweatshirts with cute sayings all over them, lugging fluffy pillows, carry-ons, shopping bags, toddlers, and babies. These Happy Campers all chat away excitedly, in stark contrast to the mood of the attendant, a curmudgeonly fellow who crouches balefully behind his glass partition and answers all our questions sarcastically.
I settle down on the tippy plastic chair and begin to feel, right down to my pores, the beginning of a metamorphosis from a terrified night driver to wide-eyed, eager traveler. If laughter is jogging for the soul, then my soul begins to stretch on the bus to Toledo, where the drivers are invariably loopy. When we have picked up our Detroit passengers and tooled off down the dark highway, this one turns on his speaker to declare:
“Okay, all you guys now, listen up—this is important. I know it goes against how you think of yourselves as manly men, but do not stand over the toilet. Take a hint from the ladies here and sit down for number one like you would for number two. This is a bus. The toilet is in the back where it bumps all over the place. You can get tossed around. I want you to know, here and now, that I refuse to stop the bus and come back there to retrieve your cell phone or your credit card case or your wallet that has fallen in because you think you’re too much of a man to sit down to pee!”
My day (that is, my night) is made. It may be half past eleven on a dark and rainy evening, but the Amtrak station in Toledo is always bustling with people catching the Lakeshore Limited for New York or the Capitol Limited for Washington. The Happy Campers sprawl over every seat not already occupied by their total opposites, the traveling Amish, who are not half as startled by the Happy Campers as the Happy Campers are by their large families of bearded, suspendered men folk, girls and women in homemade cotton dresses, and children so much better behaved than their toddlers, who are careening all over the station, that they seem to belong to an entirely different species.
The seating consists of extremely uncomfortable curved settees with rigid, upright backs. Over the years, I’ve mastered the art of stretching out along the slippery vinyl with my head on my overnight bag and my novel to pass the time when the train is late. Recently, however, it’s been right on time, and that’s when the real excitement begins.
At two minutes to midnight a rumbling wells up under our feet and shakes the whole building, accompanied by the heady announcement “Attention! Attention! Amtrak announces the arrival of The Capitol Limited for Washington, DC, with intermediate stops at Cleveland, Elyria, Sandusky, Pittsburgh….all passengers must step through the door and across the tracks. Please have your tickets ready. Coach passengers to your right, sleeping car passengers to your left.”
However tired I am, I become instantly elated (here we go!) and also sharply alert, remembering the time I headed left but the sleeping car was locked, its attendant fast asleep within. I ran back down the tracks to the mail car to find help, realizing that if the train started moving I was going to have to jump for it and perhaps have a heart attack in the process. These days, I never leave the side of a conductor until he points out my sleeping car attendant waiting down the track. Then I’m off with my rolling suitcase, amid hissing brakes and rumbling engines.
“Berth for Pratt! Berth for Pratt,” a shout from the anonymous dark that never fails to lift my tired heart. The attendant heaves my bags up the stairs saying “number five, to the right,” or “E, upstairs and to the left.” I find my room, draw the curtain, and sit my suitcase on the (in room) toilet, contorting myself into my pajamas and wrestling the sink down to brush my teeth before jamming my suitcase in the narrow space between bunk and door, to a muted chorus of groans and laughs through the wall as the Happy Campers attempt these maneuvers for the first time in their lives.
These are snug little rooms which, in daytime, contain two easy chairs and a fold out table, with a bottle of water provided, and free coffee and orange juice out in the corridor.
At midnight, I usually find the lower bunk opened out with one thin blanket (I always travel with a second), two pillows, and, if it’s my lucky day, a square of chocolate-covered mint. There are last shouts of “all aboard,” then the tumble and lurch of departure, and we chundle chuck, chundle chuck out of Toledo, our whistle bleating with an odd mixture of confident assertion and diffident wailing as the engine cleaves the darkness.
I climb happily into my bunk, tension draining from my every muscle as, rocking along, I experience that wonderful state of mind induced by going somewhere purposefully without exerting the least personal effort. “There are some people,” writes my all-time favorite novelist Margaret Drabble, “who cannot get onto a train without imagining that they are about to voyage into the significant unknown; as though the notion of movement were inseparably connected with the notion of discovery, as though each displacement of the body were a displacement of the soul”*
That is exactly how I feel every time. I have been coiled up like a spring and feel my soul unclinching, eager for new experiences and discoveries. I have woken at night to watch thousands of stars over Sandusky; homebound, I have greeted the dawn over that same bay gleaming pewter in the dawn, where great blue herons glide close to the water on their enormous wings.
It isn’t just the scenery that stretches my soul. The meals (free with your sleeper ticket) take place in a dining car where the waiter always seats you with perfect strangers. “One of the signs of passing youth,” writes Virginia Woolf, “is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them,” a tendency that seems to pitch older train travelers (younger ones, I have noticed, are more likely to stare sullenly down at their napkins) into interesting conversations. Over those (real) linen tablecloths, (fake, plastic) flowers, and copious breakfasts, I have participated in some stunning colloquies.
We are negotiating the Cumberland Gap and I am deep into my French toast, orange juice, and coffee when the man sitting beside me says “Look over there! We’re in Hastings—that’s where I grew up!” He turns out to be a Presbyterian minister, and, at my query about whether Calvin is still an influence, we eagerly plunge into theological discussion. He doesn’t buy the traditional concepts of original sin and any more than I do, but we agree that there is plenty of evil about and you have to be alert to it. Our dining mates across the table chime in at this point. They are Christian Scientists who believe that goodness is all around us, that we are surrounded by Spirit to the extent that we don’t have to worry about getting to heaven because we are there already. They are interested to learn about my Universalist conviction that we are born good and goodness will ultimately triumph.
I return to my berth, which the attendant has made back into a sitting room, to brood over a New Yorker article I couldn’t make head or tail of when I started it at home but which seems perfectly clear on the train, which not only calms my body and soothes my soul, but even perks up my brain. As we rattle along, I often arrive at sudden understanding of difficult concepts, and knotty family problems untangle themselves with astonishing ease.
The morning sun strikes a little white church on a country road and, an instant later, illuminates a farm, making black and white cows stand out like porcelain figures. I am enjoying my second cup of coffee when I realize we have reached the old riverside towns strung along the upper Potomac and will be in Washington on time, where there will be no a tedious wait for my baggage followed by a long, dreary drive from the airport. With a last triumphant wailing whistle, the Capitol Limited pulls into Union Station, within walking distance of the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building and, I am pleased to note, my own hotel.
*Margaret Drabble, “A Voyage to Cythera,” A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. Houghton Mifflin (New York, 2011), pp. 23-24
I consider myself the last person to eco-boss my friends around. I don’t like it when greener-than thou people chide me for eating meat, purchasing vegetables in non-recyclable plastic, or using paper towels. Also, my personal reason for not flying does not have an ecological motive: I have always loathed it and switched to trains before global warming made it a moral issue.
For people like my daughters, who are at the height of their careers, business travel is a necessity; giving up airplanes is probably too much to ask at that stage of life. We retirees, however, have both time and (as I hope to convince you) options.
In Europe, the huge carbon footprints that airplanes produce have created a whole new vocabulary of shame. “In the Netherlands they say vliegschaamte,” explains John Vogel in his article on “Why I Only Take One Holiday Flight a Year” . “ The Swedes say flygskam; and the Germans Flugscham. The words all mean ‘fly shame,’ or the guilt that travelers experience when they fly off somewhere knowing they are contributing to climate change.”
“We were going away three or four times a year just because we always did,” says Sarah Jones, a marketing executive from Reading in the UK. “It was stupid. The climate thing was the last straw. We just thought, ‘this is crazy’, so now we go abroad a maximum of once a year and really look forward to it.”
In America, frequent leisure flying is beginning to produce similar feelings. “Is Travel Ethical in a Time of Climate Change,” worries Andy Newman; “If seeing the world helps ruin it,” does indulging in air travel make you “a bad person? … going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change. One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere. And yet we fly more and more.”
Here are some Letters to the Editor of the New York Times in response to Newman’s article:
Eliana M. Blum of New Orleans sees giving up air travel as a straight forward moral issue: “Unfortunately, right now there is no room for blurry areas when it comes to climate change. Those who are not actively helping the cause are in the wrong. Travel may be a difficult sacrifice, but it is a habit that must be broken. One family’s vacation is costing another coastal family their home. There is no world where that can be justified.”
Mark Bessoudo in London sees the point just as clearly, but is not ready to give up his flights: “In his ‘Confessions,’ St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. ‘Grant me chastity and continence,’ he pleads with God, ‘but not yet.’ To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, ‘I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet’.”
Lynn Englum, in Samoa to study climate-effected countries, admits to moral waffling: “Newman’s article touched a nerve as I grapple with my own carbon footprint, traveling around the globe to visit the places that are vanishing and/or heavily affected by climate change. I’m currently in the Pacific visiting island countries, and my only real option is via planes because boat travel would take months to hit the places on my list. Mr. Newman mentions that some might be thinking, ‘go see them before they disappear!,’ but that can be viewed as ‘evil’; In some ways that’s exactly what I’m doing for the primary purpose of bringing awareness about these vanishing places, but also to take this journey for everyone who can’t and, as Mr. Newman points out, shouldn’t.”
So, what are our options?
In Britain and Europe, which seem more eco-ethically conscious than we are, No-Fly Pioneers are active: “The no-fly movement is a small but growing community of people who are drastically reducing the number of flights they take, or giving up air travel altogether. Many campaigners say they feel flying is about to receive the same attention as shunning plastic or eating less meat because of its 2% contribution to global carbon emissions, predicted to grow to as much as 16% by 2050…. Siân Berry, the co-leader of the Green party, has called on people to take no more than one flight a year and suggested a tax should be imposed on further journeys. Berry hasn’t flown since 2005. Most flying is carried out by a small proportion of the population.”
The Sonoma Climate Challenge argues that “If you need to fly, carbon offsets are a way to balance out your impact. Carbon offsets are small contributions to projects that lower carbon emissions like installing solar panels or planting trees. It’s easy—you contribute to a project and receive credit for a certain amount of carbon emissions reduced. It doesn’t cost much and helps to offset your impact when air travel is an important part of your plans.”
The United Kingdom and Europe have far superior train systems to ours, but you can get around America by rail if you have the time. For me, trains as a substitute for flights took hold the week after 9/11, when my granddaughter was due to be born in Colorado and all planes in the United States were grounded. I took the Wolverine from Michigan to Chicago, where Amtrak had added 14 cars to the California Zephyr for the emergency.
I was able to reserve a sleeping compartment, which came with free dinner and breakfast in the elegant dining car, with delicious food and delightful conversation. I got on in Chicago at 3PM, and reached Denver at 8:30 the next morning.
Yes, the sleeper cost me as much as the plane, and the Amtrak sometimes runs late. On the return trip, for example, we missed my connection so I got put up (free) in a scuzzy hotel; having learned my lesson, on subsequent visits I treated myself to a nice hotel and overnight in Chicago on my return journeys. After this experience I often took to the Cardinal and the Capitol Limited trips to Washington and the Lake Shore Limited to New York City (see Catching the Midnight Sleeper.)
Given that train travel is leisurely and enjoyable, is its carbon footprint really less than an airplane’s? First, it is important to note that airplane emissions have a significant impact on global warming. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that planes not only spew fossil fuel emissions but also produce vaporsvapors in the form of contrails and cirrus clouds that trigger climate warming.
There is no question that passenger and freight transport incur a lower climate impact than airplane travel. The UN report concludes that “the transport specific climate impact is lowest for rail and bus travel and highest for air travel. Both (air and car) travel are about three times higher than the impact from bus and rail travel.” In fact, train emissions are so low that they even have a climate cooling effect.
Although the UN report says that improvements in air travel are on the way, including modifications of aircraft and engine technology, fuel, operational practices, and regulatory and economic measures, environmental scientists do not think that these changes can be in place before global warming passes the tipping point
It is easier and quicker to make rail travel more eco-friendly. Older deisel engines, for example, are already being replaced by more energy efficient and carbon-friendly models. My Detroit-Chicago train, the Wolverine, has switched to new engines which are also being installed for 75 other long-distance routes. Amtrak President Richard Anderson notes that “These new locomotives will offer increased reliability, more hauling power, improved safety features and lower emissions.” In addition, many routes are being electrified, making it clear that the United States is swiftly retrofitting our rail passenger fleet to lower carbon emissions.
Given that Europeans have already achieved the technology to make rail travel far less ecologically costly than flying, there is no reason why it cannot be done here, too.
“Wait a minute,” a twitterer remarked, “how are you going to take a train across the ocean?”
I am coming up on the August anniversary of the all-time most exciting adventure of my life, an ocean voyage on one of the Holland-America student ships ($400 round trip) that used to ply back and forth across the Atlantic all summer long. The Johan van Oldenbarnevelt
carried 1500 American Field Service students, all sixteen years old, and 250 older folks, college age and upwards. A Professor from Bard college asked me to give one of the many small classes offered free to everyone on board, ranging from the history and languages of the countries we would visit to philosophical topics like my little course on Existentialism.
We single adults, like the students, shared (sex segregated) quarters with bunk beds in each room, though there were staterooms for couples and older folk.
With technological fixes to make it eco-friendly, why shouldn’t inexpensive ocean travel be revived? You could add the four or five day crossing to your travel plans and have a great opportunity to practice your languages, engage in interesting discussions, take in the vast majesty of the ocean, and make new friends, some of whom will become travel companions abroad and othersm as in my case – I met my husband Henry on that grand old ship – dearly loved partners for your entire life.
I was walking along a path in Michigan’s Ludington State Park when I came across a couple leaning close to each other, she focusing binoculars on something high up in a tree and he talking close to her ear.
“Seen anything interesting,” I asked. “I thought I heard Kinglets up there,” the man replied. “My wife is scoping them out for us – she is hard of hearing, so she tells me where to look: I don’t see so well anymore.” “There they are,” she exclaimed, “Ruby Crowned,” and all three of us tipped our heads to search the forest canopy.
That was some years ago, when my sight and hearing were in fine fettle; now that I can’t hear the high pitched calls of the Kinglets any more, I have been thinking how dependent I have always been upon birding by ear.
This June in at my Betsie River cottage in Northern Michigan, the air was full of the songs of birds I never did see. These were the bell like, richly melodic Baltimore Oriole, a steady stream of “Vireo!” from some kind of Vireo hidden among the leaves in the tree tops. a House Wren like a musical wooden waterfall somewhere in the undergrowth, and the “Weep! Weep!” of a Great Crested Flycatcher, perhaps the same one who carried on all last summer without my seeing him once.
It is a good thing I still have (most of) my hearing, though my friend Gene has found a handy dandy amplifier with earbuds attached to a collar you wear around your neck. I may come to that soon because I am so dependent upon the “I hear it…What is it… Where is it” procedure.
For example, Redstarts nest along my driveway most summers, and when I hear their Tsipping and Tseeping back there, I know it is time to look for them. The Flicker’s Woody Woodpecker hilarity and the nesting call of the Common Yellow Throat alert me to find my binocs and get going. If I am very familiar with a song I enter the bird in my daily list, even if I haven’t seen it singing. The Common Yellowthroat is very elusive, but its Witchety, Wichety from deep in the shrubbery along the river bank is enough for me.
However, both the Redstarts and Yellowthroats nesting along the Betsie have developed puzzling variations.
For one whole summer the Yellowthroat switched to a melodic “Richelieu, Richelieu,” while I discovered that male Redstarts, when courting females, emit queries in their direction in a much more melodic strain than their ordinary lisping.
And then there was the time two Cardinals were going at it right in front of me. Averting my head in embarrassment, I was suddenly bombarded with a fully developed post-coital aria. To my amazement, the pair were now side by side, but it was the female, head atilt in adoration, producing a full-throated celebration of her sensual satisfaction.
How do birds learn to sing? In their first year as adults, Song Sparrows start the summer with only the initial phrase of the species’ melody; somewhere along the way they develop the complete song. Are they imitating an adult? One researcher who raised two male Song Sparrows in her house found their songs poorer in melodic development than in the wild. I once observed a Papa and Baby Common Yellowthroat hopping about on the ground, the Papa singing the species song before offering the baby a grub, a process he repeated over and over with occasional tentative and (perhaps?) imitative squeaks from his offspring.
There are lots of helpful verbalizations for bird watching beginners:
Goldfinch actually say “Tweet, tweet, Towhees say “drink your TEA,” Oven Birds yell “Teacher, Teacher!” I never see who calls hauntingly in the night, but Screech owls whinny on a descending scale and Barred Owls ask Who Cooks for You? Who Cooks for You Too?”
Our bend on the Betsie has an amplifying echo, so that when I am standing on the bank in my pajamas the Mourning Dove solo sounds like a duet. That Coo Coo Roo-Cooing reaches deep into my brain,to a place where I possess neither speech nor cognition, because it is the very first sound I remember hearing, reaching my crib through my open window in a New England summer to herald a natural world I belonged to, somewhere close by, suffused with comfort and splendor.
I have a Twitter account but, far from engaging in embittered political crosstalk, I enjoy it for some weird little hobbies. I am on a “Mudlark” feed, for example, that shows me pictures of interesting historical items dug out of the thick Thames mud at London’s low tides; I hear from a number of British nature sites about the flora and fauna of fens and bogs in East Anglia; and I follow a couple of artists whose work grabs me by the middle.
Among these is a Welsh painter named Jackie Morris, who, when she discovered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped words like newt, acorn, bluebell, dandelion, heron, otter and wren to make room for terms like blog and voicemail, dedicated a painting to each linguistically banished object. The result was The Lost Words, which has taken UK classrooms by storm and launched a movement to “re-wild” childhood.
These stunning paintings illustrate poems and spells by Robert Macfarlane, who, my twitter feed tells me, is perhaps the best nature writer in England today. Which sent me, of course, haring off after his books until I got my hands on Landmarksfor some absorbing summer reading.
Macfarlane’s first chapter is about the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. He describes the twentieth century nature writer Nan Shepherd’s lifelong love for the area and how, in her lifetime of exploration and terrific climbs, she found them “’not of myself, but in myself,’” experiencing a profound sense, as Macfarlane puts it, of “the inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.”
“While half asleep on the plutonic granite of the plateau she feels herself become stone-like, ‘rooted far down in their immobility’, metamorphosed by the igneous rocks into a new mineral self. Shepherd is a fierce see-er, then, and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”66
An empiricist arriving at mysticism through immanence? And why does this series of abstractions, which probably leave you cold, fill me from head to toe with recognition?
Let’s start with some definitions
Empiricism: Most of my friends are secular humanists, and this is where they come from: all of our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world and from applying the scientific method by proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment.
Mysticism: This is where I am coming from. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 alternate Gospels declared heretical by the early church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While official Christianity rejected materiality, declaring human beings existentially flawed while valuing only what was super-natural, mystics through the ages have continued to seek God in nature.
Immanentism: The belief that the world is pervaded with divinity. Or, as Spinoza put it, “God is nature.”
All right, but why does all of this move me through and through? Through and through is the point, here. One morning last week I was leaving Frankfort, Michigan on my way home from errands when I had a whim to take a walk along the Betsie Bay lagoon.
That late in the morning, I doubted there would be any birds to see, but I took my binocs anyway and entered a path where willows shimmered in a light wind off the bay and the air was redolent with honeysuckle. Cedar Waxwings were dipping and swooping in and out of a grove of sumacs heavy with dried berries; a Warbling Vireo (a little grey and brown bird which I rarely catch sight of among the high canopy) was warbling away in plain sight; a Vesper Sparrow was sitting on a low branch, while within the sweetness of the honeysuckle a Yellow Warbler sang “Sweet, sweet – I’m so sweet,” a Common Yellowthroat called imperiously to declare his nesting rights among the reeds, and a House Wren hopped along the fence in full throat, like a bubbling little wooden waterfall.
Did I mention that I have been quite anxious lately, getting my knickers all in a twist over family worries and my own ego dramas? All of that dissolved entirely away as I was seized from head to toe by the sight and sound, wind and fragrance I was experiencing then, on that path, in that particular moment.
Did I “loose myself” in nature? No, I was right there in heart and in body and in mind, profoundly embedded in the material world as I took my place with birds and fragrance, song and wind in our earthly paradise as a mere element of rather than imperious thinker about a natural world shot through and through with divinity.