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The Polar Bear Conundrum

 It is spring again, and I am slinging my binoculars around my neck to look for warbler “fall outs,” when dozens of colorful little bundles of pluck and determination pause to feed along our Michigan rivers in their migration from as far away as Mexico and South America. Sadly, these days it is more of a trickle  than the cascade of birds I used to see, a fact that undercuts my springtime élan with a strain of dread.

We nature lovers know that environmental despair can paralyze our wills, keeping us from working on behalf of our beloved planet. That is why I have been writing about Snow Shoe Hares and Leaping Lizards, House Finches and microscopic Tardigrades, cheering myself up with evidence of new adaptions and instances of abundance that might lessen both the extirpation and extinction of species.

Polar Bears

There is a depressing video of an emaciated Polar Bear going the rounds of social media to illustrate species depletion by thinning sea ice, so you can imagine how encouraged I was by an article in the British Guardian explaining that the decline of polar bears in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea is overridden by significant numbers elsewhere in the Arctic. Polar Bears are divided into “stocks,” or populations living in different areas; the stock in one place may decrease due to local conditions while others are stable or actually increasing,  Fact checking around, I found the total count at 26,000, up from 12,000 in 1970. Since this does not include stocks inf the vast area under Russian control (for which no data has been made available) it looks like cause for hope.

Polar Bear Counts as a Political Weapon

The problem with getting all hopeful about these statistics is that climate deniers use the rise in polar bear population to pooh-pooh “being hit over the head” by environmentalists. Here is Susan Crockford, for example, in Canada’s Financial Post: “Polar bears are flourishing, making them phony icons, and false idols, for global warming alarmists.” The article  insists that it is thickening sea ice in the Beaufort Sea that is leading to Polar Bear depletion: “There are also strong indications that thick spring-ice conditions happened again in 2014–16, with the impacts on polar bears being similarly portrayed as effects of global warming.”

Unfortunately, the Financial Post is looking at present Polar Bear populations, not future ones, which are predicted to decline as global warming advances.  Their numbers have recently increased, but the endangered designation is derived from calculations like those of Polar Bears International. which predict that the species will be extinct by 2050 because of global warming.

Where Does This Leave Us?

It seems clear that some (though not all) members of the business community will continue to deny the seriousness of climate change, using whatever rhetorical weapons they can muster.

 

They are preaching, however, to their own choir, folks whose greed for profit makes them deny proven scientific findings.

For the rest of us, facts about the loss of abundance and diversity must be faced if we are to keep on fighting for the natural world we love so much. But how can keep our spirits up amid so much evidence of species decline and natural disaster?

For me, the answer is hope, which I understand as the opposite of conviction or certainty; I am neither convinced nor certain that global warming can be mitigated,  but I hope like mad that  nature can rebound someday to its onetime glorious diversity and enormous abundance. Hope helps me take heart from good news about what is being done both at home and around the world,  but I must find ways to strengthen my heart so that I can absorb the bad news as well.

Taking heart, “dwelling in possibility” as Emily Dickinson put it, involves a summoning of strength from each other, taking courage from companionship in action, but also from an inner strengthening,  finding ways to build up my personal courage.

John Seed, director of the Rainforest Information Center in Australia, deals with the despair of his daily dealings with the lumber industry by remembering

“… that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rain forest protecting itself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into human thinking.”

Joanna Macy, proponent of eco-philosophy and a self-strengthening ecological depth psychology, suggests each of us build up an “ecological self”:

“This greening of the self.. . involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation. It is . . .‘a spiritual change,’ generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. . . .Thus the greening of the self helps us to reinhabit time and our own story as life on Earth. … the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined. When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us to survive.”

I live in hope

 

 

 

 

The Hare, the House Finch and the Tardigrade

 

In my recent blog about furry little Pitas  and their trouble coping with rising temperatures,  I wondered whether they might develop thinner coats in time to avoid extirpation.

( Extirpation is the loss of a species population in a particular habitat or, local extinction.  Extinction refers to the loss of the entire species on a world-wide basis)

Since I can be cheered up by even tiny bits of hope from nature  these days, I was pleased to hear that Snowshoe Hares are not only developing cooler winter coats but, in some warming areas, discarding them altogether.

Scientists, examining hares living in Pennsylvania, the Eastern United States, and the Yukon  report  that  “In addition to finding greater numbers of the animals with thinner winter coats in the more southerly population, (they) found a small number of individuals which did not develop a full winter pelt…. Clearly adapting to present climate conditions.”   But,  they ask,  “can the hares change quickly enough to keep up with global warming?”

If so, can a similar flexibility impact the fate of other species?  One way to approach this puzzle is to take  previous periods of climate fluctuation into account. as does Lucas Isakowitz, citing Jonathan Rolland’s research on such periods.

“’You have to imagine that 40 million years ago, global temperatures were much higher, and there were tropical areas in the poles, even in Antarctica,’” said Rolland. “’As the Earth began to cool, some species evolved, while others just moved to warmer climates.’” Birds and mammals proved themselves to be better at evolving than their cold blooded counterparts, which explains why they were able to move into habitats in more northern and southern regions.”

The problem, concludes Isakowitz, is that the present global warming caused by human impact isn’t spread over millions of years,  but has  increased more and more rapidly during the last few centuries.

I  take heart, nonetheless, from  the adaptability of the Snowshoe Hare, and from  those indefatigable House Finches that have not only spread far and wide over American in recent decades but have developed mutations for  new habitats.  When they decided to nest in cities, for example, their beaks changed shape to be more useful for cracking  bird feeder seeds, while urban finch males developed  new city songs that they realized were  appealing to newly urbanized females.

Then, too, there is the lowly and  Tardigrade:

“MICROSCOPIC BUG THAT’LL SURVIVE UNTIL THE SUN DIES DISCOVERED IN PARKING LOT IN JAPAN,” reads a header in my local newspaper, touting the Tardigrade as “The world’s most indestructible species, … an eight-legged micro-animal (that) will survive until the sun dies.”

 

 

 

Nature Rising?

My old friend Helen Klebesadel created this vision of “Nature Rising” in watercolor. “In this painting,” she explains, “the flying crow contains the forest trees, representing the interconnection of all parts of nature, including the human element.”

We humans tend to forget that we do not stand above and outside of nature, but are intricately interwoven within it. This winter the northern jet stream weakened to leave us shivering in temperatures that should have remained in the Arctic, and the rest of the country has experienced horrific storms, floods, and wildfires all year long. These disturbing events have left me worried over whether enough species will be able to adapt to climate change for nature itself to survive.

There is a newly popular term, “The Anthropocene,” indicating this epoch (following the Pleistocene) when humans have overwhelmingly influenced the planet. It carries an “aren’t we awful” connotation, casting a  gloomy light upon our culpability and the possible demise of our own species along with all of the others.

Several years ago, I made the (internet) acquaintance of Claude Forthomme, an Eco-Fiction writer, economist, and a retired Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia of Food and Agriculture at the United Nations. She is Senior Editor at Impakter, a European online magazine where she has published several of my articles.

I spend a frozen January writing an Impakter review of three books about nature’s awe-inspiring intricate particulars and a fourth about human culpability and anthropocentric doom .

Here is my review, with my take on whether human beings or nature will be the greatest planetary influence in the years to come:

http://bit.ly/2EWxycs

 

Overheated Pikas and Leaping Lizards

There is no question that global warming and habitat degradation have led to the decline of natural abundance, and that we human beings are responsible. Under the delusion that we are other than nature, we have given ourselves permission to destroy it.

In a review of Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, Verlyn Klinkenborg finds McCarthy’s hope that encouraging “joy in nature” can meliorate nature’s demise undermined by  anthropocentrism: it ”values nature mostly for what it offers us… as a species, we repeatedly fail to acknowledge the equal and inherent right of all other species to exist, a right implicit in existence itself and in no way subordinate to our own.”

The industrial revolution is a very recent blip in human history; our hunter-gatherer and farming ancestors felt themselves in nature, a part of nature.  They used their considerable brains to adapt elements of nature for their use, but stood in awe and reverence before forces with their own agency that were far beyond human control.

Joy in nature is central to my life, so much so that the loss of natural abundance lowers my spirits considerably. Take, for example, the Pika, a small furry mammal that Joseph Stewart   mourns has gone entirely extinct north of Lake Tahoe due to global warming. “Pikas are adapted for the cold, with high metabolisms and thick fur covering them from the bottoms of their feet to the insides of their ears…..These same adaptations that allow them to survive during the wintertime also make them very vulnerable to overheating in the summertime.”  Spending too much time underground, trying to cool over during hot weather, they don’t to get enough to eat and so they fail to reproduce.

Such accounts leave me fearful that, as the climate shifts beyond the capacity of species to tolerate warmer habitats,  everything will go extinct, including ourselves. But what about adaption? What if  a Pika or two were born less furry than the others? These might give birth to offspring that could survive hotter temperature than their neighbors. Or, do Pika have the capacity for migration to cooler areas?

Isn’t evolutionary adaption much too slow? We know that plants and animals can evolve to tolerate new conditions, but is global warming hastening along too swiftly to allow for significant mutation?

Well, consider the case of the Italian Wall Lizard, once native to balmy Tuscany, which have escaped pet stores and adapted to New York City for the past 50 years. These “sprinters in evolutionary change,” writes Jim Dwyer, seem to have found warm enough lairs to survive;  they are spreading north along the Hudson River and Northeast into Connecticut.  Not to mention House Finches, which also escaped from pet stores in the twentieth century and are widely abundant; what is more, they have evolved new kinds of beaks to deal with seeds typically found in bird feeders.

On a visit to an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, I learned that tropical climates exhibit the greatest species diversity of all other ecosystems. As the earth heats up, won’t species proliferate in the warmer climate?

I live in hope.

 

A Wren in Winter

After  Christmas’s Baroque extravagance of  gold and red and tinsel and splendid carols and Messiahs are over,  the simplicity of Michigan’s deep winter snows calms my spirits. Suddenly, my birdfeeder  becomes the busiest place in my quiet yard.

Those of us who love nature to our very bones are  discouraged to hear that climate change has already destroyed many bird species, and we are profoundly disheartened by apocalyptic prophesies of “mass extinctions,” not to mention “the death of nature” altogether.

And then a Carolina Wren appears in the snow, a bird which does not belong in a Michigan winter. I check with my local Audubon Society – they have seen them for a couple of winters now; I look them up on the internet and discover that though Carolina Wrens feel the cold, our changes in temperature may account for what I am observing  in Michigan, where the numbers of observations are up to 26% from just 8% 10 years ago.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has  become similarly widespread beyond its original southern range, where it had been on the decline, and I remember when we first saw Cardinals move north in the same way.

It seems, too, that we will not always see ubiquitous White-Breasted Nuthatches at our feeders, the National Audubon Society having predicted a northern shift in their range. They have established a climate watch for Citizen Scientists this winter and spring to document nuthatch and bluebird locations.

It seems to me that these new birds of winter,  demonstrate an encouraging adaption to  climate change. When we think of Darwinian mutation, the process of gene modification over a lengthy series of adaptions, it wouldn’t seem that any species would have time to save itself from global warming.

My sightings at my backyard feeder having raised my hopes, I am thinking a lot about species adaption this winter  and plan a series of blogs on the subject, looking for further signs of hope that we human beings can mitigate or even survive what we have done to our beloved planet.

 

 

Our Darkest Hour

Now the dark is upon us. The late afternoons are suddenly devoid of light, plunging our spirits into an ancient human fear that the sun will never return.

Our national world  plunges into a deeper and deeper darkness; the lights of democracy flicker. The movie we go to see on a lowering winter afternoon, Darkest Hour, echoes our dread exactly. We tend to forget how dim English hopes were in1940, when, the politicians wanting a “peace agreement” with Hitler having very nearly forced Winston Churchill to abandon all resistance, invasion by the Nazis seemed inevitable.

Most Republicans have struck an agreement with an American President who, in tones unnervingly similar to Hitler’s,  thunders  his misogyny, racial supremacy, homophobic and anti-immigrant tirades down upon us while ecstatically applauded by thousands of followers.

Many of us, following Robert Reich’s Churchillian refusal to normalize the tyrannical features of this presidency for a single moment, have thrown ourselves into political resistance.  Nevertheless, several of my women, LGBT, progressive and Jewish friends have found the dread darkness of our time so unnerving that they have actually sunk into depression.

Like many of our ancestors, when the darkest nights of the year fall upon us, we feel a profound need for light.   We set candles on our windowsills, challenge the night with outdoor illumination, and string our Christmas trees all about  with brightness, hoping in our feeble way to turn the darkness into light.

The Celtic peoples believed that the world was created out of a vast outer darkness, which, when the light of creation shone forth, was never absolute again.

Toward the end of Fly Out of the Darkness, the second novel in my Infinite Games series,  the world of my Marshlanders  was as dark as ours is now, everyone feeling puny and weak before the forces of an engulfing evil.  From somewhere in my imagination a character named Father Robin had emerged, a priest of the banished old (Catholic) religion (I don’t know how he got into my novels; one day he was just there). At the midwinter solstice, the darkest night of the year, as my heroes prepare for a final engagement with their enemies, this wispy old priest mounts a wooden box to preach his last sermon.

“Fear not evil,” the ordinarily soft spoken little man shouted forth suddenly. “The universe is luminous with good. There was only one utter darkness, and only that one time, into which the light poured that is all around us, even to this day.

I am not denying that evil can touch us, and mark us, and wound us, and even kill us.

What I am saying is that evil is a shadow, and a shadow is always cast by a light. If you crouch in a shadow, you are holding yourself back from the light that casts it.

That brightness does not shine from afar, it shines from within. The light of the world is in you and in me and in the heart of our beloved community!”

Have courage, friends.  Light your candles in every window, so that we can find each other to go forth together in courage and fortitude to combat the darkness. 

With wishes for a blessed solstice to all.   Annis Pratt

Has Anyone Ever Died For Lack of Gossip?

I often asked myself this question when my soul shuddered down the mute corridors of my academic department, where a heavy silence always prevailed.  There were no huddles of chatting professors, no voices to be heard except those of cowed students from behind closed office doors, nor did my colleagues ever pause to chat on the sofas of our comfortably furnished faculty lounge.

My University of Wisconsin culture was totally different from  Wayne State, where my husband Henry taught. Everywhere in his building you could be distracted  by  gaggles of fascinating gossip, both personal – “and do you know she said…and then, the gall of it, he said.. and political – an ever-fraught entanglement of academic cliques and territoriality.

Here’s a poem I wrote then:

We are born for a web of words, an embracing patter about baseball plays, whose mother called,

what she said, what you said, who is born and who is dying. 

Sometimes in the store when I pass by women talking all together, I feel a terrible hunger – has anyone ever died for lack of gossip?    

Well, what do you know? My feeling that gossip is a mortal necessity turns out to correct. According to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, his striking new book on human history, around 70,000 years ago (about halfway into our 150,000 year residence on this planet)  human beings experienced a “Cognitive Revolution.”  As hunter-gatherers, we had communicated with our own bands and a few others nearby, but now we were able to exchange

larger quantities of information about the world surrounding” us, to have “the ability to transmit large quantities of information about Sapiens social relationships,” and also to “transmit information about things that really do not exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights” (p.17).

Harari thinks that It all began with gossip, the passing along of personal, social, and spiritual information garnered from far and wide, an exchange of information that become the covenantal glue binding cities, nations, and civilizations.

We live by legal and social agreements; we are all in covenant, one with the other.

 

When our social agreements begin to crumble, argues New York Times columnist, David Brooks 

“We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal.”

The cognitive mind-set of the far right perceives liberal progressives like me as so existentially “other” that they dismiss everything we say as “lying propaganda.”  To our shame, from within our similarly obdurate cognitive bubbles we  demonize them as deplorably stupid, inexorably evil and  unworthy of our conversation.

Our national covenant, the constitution,  prescribes a balance of powers within which we can thrash out our differences; it presumes that if citizens  exchange ideas it will be possible for us all to reach a compromise.  If, in both our personal and civic behavior, we cast aside our national covenant about how to handle disagreement, our democracy is in peril.

So this Thanksgiving, lets try good old gossip for starters, perhaps some  give-and-take about baseball scores, whose mother called, what he said, what she said, who was born, and who is dying. Having established our commonality, we might find openings to discuss what else – our economic needs, our fear of fire and flood, our hope for our families – that we have in common and can work together to ameliorate.

 

(The three bronze women are a sculpture by Rose-Aimee Belanger called “Les Chuchoteuses,” the whsperers)

 

 

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Hope in a Time of Climate Armageddon

Dear Blog subscribers:

This is my Press Release for The Battle For the Black Fen with a slightly different emphasis  from my previous blog.

The Battle for the Black Fen. Moon Willow Press (Coquitlam, British Columbia) 2017.  ISBN: 978-1-927685-24-2  [Birmingham, Michigan]

We are out of our minds with worry that climate warming will eliminate not only whole shorelines and species of plants, insects, birds, animals, and reptiles but human life itself. We human beings, deluded that we can bend the natural world to gratify our every whim, have become global predators and planetary nemeses. This realization is so hard to bear that many deny scientific reality, while others, paralyzed with dread of impending climate doom, take no action whatsoever.

Enter Eco-Fiction. There are new genres of Cli-Fi and Solar Punk in the science fiction mode, with characters who adapt to climate warming and build new cultures; Arcadian descriptions of communities in harmony with nature; and traditional novels with plots based on environmental conflict.

Small boats to the rescue: longboats, like ones the Iraqi Madan use to ply their marshlands, and coracles, made of willow and canvas, are the crafts of choice in Annis Pratt’s Arcadian series Infinite Games, where marsh dwellers fight for their wetlands against developers trying to drain them for agriculture. Based on the historical conflict between Fen Tigers and Merchant Adventurers in England (1630-1930), Pratt’s writing examines the economic roots of environmental degradation, dramatizing why we act the way we do and how we can do better. These are compellingly plotted adventure novels with appeal for young and old alike.

Can fiction really do us any good in a time of climate Armageddon? Stories like Annis Pratt’s newly published The Battle for the Black Fen,” writes Citizen Scientist Sharman A. Russell, “help us imagine new ways, even as we are entertained by the human drama of characters and plot, war and love. Eco-fiction is a new and important genre in literature.”

Nature writing has always been a way to foster the defense of nature. The world of Pratt’s embattled Marshlanders takes readers into verdant wetlands that sustain the soul. Notes publisher Mary Woodbury.  “The Infinite Games series shares the author’s joy in nature’s splendor,”

The Marshlanders, Fly Out of the Darkness, The Road to Beaver Mill, and now The Battle for the Black Fen can be purchased at www.amazon.com

 

INFINITE GAMES, INFINITE HOPES

I have always loved Geoffrey Chaucer’s send off to Troilus and Criseyde:  “Go, lytl book, go, litel myn tragedye” (go little book, go my little tragedy).  I intone his hail and farewell every time  put a manuscript in the mail or, more recently, hit the  send button which delivers it to my publisher in an internet instant.  It is my affectionate send off for a book I have spent years writing, my fervent prayer that out there upon the deeps of the reading world someone will enjoy this bread I am casting upon the waters.

And so, this week, I am sending The Battle for the Black Fen,  the last of my four-volume eco-fiction series that I have spent twenty years writing, out into the world.  Everything that I have ever longed for – love, friendship, family fellowship,  a life led in harmony with community and nature, human beings working together for the good of our beloved planet – is in my Infinite Games novels.  Here, in the final novel to the series, it all comes down to one decisive conflict between my self-sustaining Marshlanders and greedy developers.

Years ago, apropos of  white writers using tribal images and spiritual practice in our work, my Native American students challenged me: “Don’t you have some nice Euro-pagan ancestors you can write about instead of us?”   That was when the Fen Tigers,  marsh dwellers in the east of England who fought for three hundred years to keep their wetlands from drainage by “Merchant Adventures” and who probably  included some of my  Lincolnshire ancestors, became my inspiration.

It is all about the  question of whether we can build the worlds we long for or whether we will be crushed at last by greed and environmental degradation.

Can we abandon our finite games between winners and losers, between people with power and people they have power over? Is there time, before the demise of the human species or of even our entire planet,  to engage joyfully together in infinite games where everyone wins and we all share power amongst us?

In the Metro Detroit Area, you can buy your copy of The Battle for the Black Fen at the Paper Trail Books, 414 South Washington in Royal Oak.  All four volumes are available at Amazon.com.

 

A Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water

There is a chapter in my (tattered and torn) Winnie the Pooh when it rains and rains and rains until Piglet finds himself stranded in a tree, musing that “It’s a little Anxious to be a Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water.”

Didn’t we all feel that way during the September hurricanes in Texas and Florida,  the Caribbean Islands and Puerto Rico?  Television coverage alternated between graphics of one vast storm after another whirling down upon us and close ups of towns and villages, highways and shoreline communities entirely surrounded by floods.

Everyone down there must have felt just like Piglet:  “Here I am, surrounded by water, and I can’t do anything.”.

I attended a Paul Hawken webinar this week. He pointed out that when we puny humans hear about overwhelming natural disasters, we tend to ward off anxiety by freezing emotionally. The way the news is presented impacts us too.  “Battle” language about “fighting climate change” or “going to war with global warming”  convinces us that we are in a win/lose situation. Faced with such  a vast, existential threat to earth’s and humanity’s future, we feel like very small animals indeed; if somebody is going to “lose,.” and it will probably be us.

But Piglet is not without resources. He concocts a survival plan of putting a  message in a bottle. “IT’S ME PIGLET, HELP HELP!” Pooh finds it, and, though “a bear of very little brain” he is  is clever enough to cork up a big jar and float on (and below) it  to find Christopher Robin to read it. Christopher realizes that he and Pooh can go to Piglet’s rescue in his umbrella. (Considering that Pooh has acted very cleverly indeed, he christens their craft “The Brain of Pooh.”)

Paul Hawken’s Drawdown describes the many clever ways we can bring the time  when greenhouse gasses diminish closer.  It is basically a list of 100 technological and social solutions, a short chapter for each. They are all quite doable, things like refrigerant management (the top of the list as most effective), onshore and offshore wind towers, rooftop solar, managing food waste and production, the education of girls, planned parenting, etc.

Piglet is rescued from an overwhelming threat by his ability to formulate a plan, by Pooh’s little bit of  smarts and by Christopher Robin’s literacy and resourcefulness, none of which would do them any good were each not impelled by a will to action on behalf of the others.

As we watched the 24/7 coverage of hurricane flooding, our anxious hearts were lifted by all those people rushing around to rescue each other; white people wading out carrying black people on their backs and vice-versa, Cajun folks organizing flotillas of rescue boats, all impelled into action by community feeling.

And so we learn that global warming can be mitigated if we

1. Don’t just sit up there in our tree frozen with terror and anxiety

2.  Use our smarts.

3.   Brainstorm practical ideas

4.  And then, altogether, PADDLE!