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Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller Books: Dorset, 2020).*

In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, authors who celebrate their joy in nature are sometimes accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against an ever grimmer environmental reality. What is the point of taking pleasure in rivers and forests when we have doomed them all in our greed and folly? Nature writers just fiddle above the flames while Mother Earth burns all around them.

Irish nature writer Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist brings his readers to the side of joy.  Weaving the minute particulars of feather and lichen, otter and tadpole into a lyrically  precise prose, his joy in nature is emotionally empowering in both a personal and a political sense. 

McAnulty’s observations combine scientific detail with personal engagement.  He is sitting near the sea on some “Silurian hornfels…the result of colliding continents and marine life recovering from extinction,” when some baby wrens hop up to him. As he hears them “drowning each other out with attention-grabbing chirps,” he muses that “this is the sound of our ancestors too, waves in one ear, wren siblings in the other. A two-track stereo. The sound of natural things that influence very other thing, whether we know it or not.”

Is this sense that human beings are woven into a web of natural being, (into “something far more deeply interfused” as Wordsworth put it, or  like Thoreau’s idea of nature as “not of myself, but in myself”)  mere romantic nostalgia for a natural abundance that we have destroyed?

On the contrary, the concept that human beings and nature  interact in mutually beneficial  interdependence is at the heart of contemporary environmental philosophies like Ecosophy and Deep Ecology, which are based on the Gaia Hypothesis that everything on the planet strives for balance in a complex synchronistic network.

McAnulty reaches his conclusions not by philosophical speculation but by direct experience. On a trip to Scotland to collect Goshawk data, for example, he notes that “Dave asked me to hold one of the birds, and as I bring it close to my chest its body heat illuminates me. I start to fill with something visceral. This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them. Perhaps it’s a feeling of love, or a longing. I don’t know for certain. it is a rare feeling, a sensation that most of my life (full of school and homework) doesn’t have the space for. The goshawk wriggles. I settle it down and look into its eyes again – as it grows older the baby-blue eyes will change, become a bright and deep amber….”

Astonishingly, Dara McAnulty  is only 16 years old: he wrote The Diary of a Young Naturalist about the how nature saved him when he was 14 and  suffering from  depression over being viciously bulled for his autism.  Observing the smallest details of the world around him provided a mind-grounding solace, an anchor to still the thrashing waves of “brain chaos,” “pain thrusting” stabs of “quick transitions,” all the “inner torments” and “liquid panic” of  his condition.

“I consolidate myself by thinking, and thinking whilst intensely watching the flight patterns of dragonflies or starlings is explosive or mind-blowing. Who knows where watching sparrows will lead?”

Where it has led this courageous young naturalist, in spite of his paralytic nervousness around people, is to the discovery that when he stands in front of a bullhorn at a School Climate Strike or a microphone on radio or television, he can speak as eloquently as he writes on behalf of the earth and her creatures.

*The Diary of a Young Naturalist will be published in the U.S. by Milkwood Books next spring, but it is readily available to U.S. readers from Blackwell’s (www.Blackwells.co.uk ).  Cover art by Larry Falls.

Canticle

Do you ever find yourself longing
For the beginning of the world-
That unimaginable openness
When the earth awoke - all quick, and fresh, and teeming? 


I finished this poem, oddly enough, the same day that I read an article by Margaret Renkl  in the New York Times about how “The Pandemic Shows All is Not Lost.”  “Covid 19,” she writes, “will not reverse the ravages of climate change, and it will not interrupt our progression toward an even more desperate future. But it is allowing us to see with our own eyes how ready the natural world stands to reclaim the planet we have trashed, how eagerly and swiftly it will rebound if we give it a chance.”

This pandemic, this end of our world,
Stifles us in our houses, while the houseless
Cower in abject fear of invisible menace-
Those silent microbes sundering us from each other.

Never mind - did you see the little birds,
Like tiny grace notes, cross the moon last evening?
At dawn, they land to feed along our rivers.
We find joy in their beauty, and  faith in their returning.



When I was a little girl I attended a school where we stood on our feet every morning chanting “Praise him and magnify him forever” as our headmistress read from a wonderfully apochryphal psalm listing all of the glories of creation, one after the other.  “O ye Fire and Heat, O ye Dews and Frosts, O ye Green Things upon the earth, O ye Whales, and all that move in the waters” – on and on she would go about the glories of creation as the voices of children called out our response in the morning of the day and of our lives.  

The beasts of the field are suddenly among us:
Coyote lope along our empty sidewalks,
Foxes drop by for curious backyard visits,
Impertinent skunks on our lawns ignore us entirely.

Kangaroos lollop down streets in the center of Aukland,
Mountain lions walk fearless along the forest verges,
Black Bears loll in abandoned Yosemite campgrounds,
While toads and frogs migrate across empty highways.

The birds and the beasts and all things that move in the water
Rejoice in creation thown open by our absence.

This morning my friend Ashok sent me photos of the sky over the Himalayas, clear and blue for the first time in decades, and told me that the Covid 19 lockdown has brought thousands of flamingos back to Delhi.  Of course we environmental activists don’t want to indulge in a “There, I told you so” attitude, but it is striking how very quickly nature cleanses itself when we bring ourselves to a halt for another reason entirely.  The virus is an aspect of Mother Nature too, and if the only way to refresh the air we need to breathe is to live on a smaller scale, we have shown to ourselves that we can do it

“And so our first task when we emerge from this isolation,” concludes Renkl, “will be to remember to sear into our memories that pure pageantry of wildness, of life in its most insistent persisting.  And then to try in every possible way to save it.”

They say that there are schools of dolphin at play
In the canals of Venice, now that no gondolas
Chockablock with tourists, roil the dazzling waters.
They trill merrily to each other in high-pitched music.

All the rest is true, but there are no dolphins in Venice:
It's just a story, a legend we have invented
Out of our terror, and out of our deep yearning
For a verdant world where we are in tune with the music
Of the beings of the earth, having found our place among them.

A PHILOSOPHY FOR CLIMATE GRIEF

Dear Friends,

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.

https://bit.ly/2sUuGeq

Planes, Trains, and Carbon Shame

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.”

Europeans are thus putting a lot of thought into catching an airplane at all.

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?

Flight Abstinence

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.”

Offsets

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.” 

Trains  

 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.

Ocean Liners!

“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.

Our Planet As Our Commons

I am fascinated by the way, throughout most of our historical development, we human beings  have found ways to share our resources for the common good.  Throughout British history, for example, villagers set aside  arable and pasture lands and then carefully worked out rules for how they should be allotted. 

It turns out that the East Anglian Fen dwellers, who were the basis for my Infinite Games adventure series about their resistance to encroachments of early modern capitalism, followed all kinds of regulations about fishing, fowling, island pasturage, and gathering material for baskets, mats, and thatching.

So that is how I spent the scholarly interstices of my winter (when I wasn’t running around  advocating for our environment):  researching the history of commons and  land-use methods  in American, American Indian, and British history. I was curious  whether our long history of sharing land  means that we can develop the will to avert the tragedy of our planetary commons.

Thanks again to Claude Forthomme,  Senior Editor of the European on-line magazine Impakter.com, economist, poet, and eco-fiction author, who has done me the great honor of publishing my articles on politics and ecology

Here we go:      https://impakter.com/tragedy-of-the-commons-now-planetary-level-what-to-do

 

Wild Speculations and Ruptured Paradigms

Last summer I wrote an essay about whether climate warming will cause the extinction of the human species, so when I came across an article by Lucy Jakub on “Wild Speculation: Evolution After Humans,” I was interested in her startlingly idiosyncratic take.

I  spend many happy hours facilitating Socrates Cafes, where people ask philosophical questions and examine philosophical premises in an open-minded and open-hearted manner. As I read Jakub’s survey of speculative writing about the end of the species, I found myself querying the writers’ premises about how we got to this pass.

Geologist Dougal Dixon  (who assumes in those innocent years that it is a new Ice Age that will do us in) devotes his 1981 After Man to a scientific study, based on evolutionary genetics, of life forms that might evolve when we are gone.

“Humans go extinct because we lose our evolutionary advantage by adapting our environment to our needs, rather than the other way around.  When the resources needed to maintain our civilizations run out, we are unable to adapt quickly enough to survive. Crucially, nothing takes our place, and the planet reverts to an Edenic state, uncorrupted by knowledge.”

Let’s look at this philosophically: Dixon considers our capacity for adaption the fruit of our advanced cognition, which  isn’t advanced enough to prevent us from depleting our own ecosystem. But if this is so, is it our knowledge that corrupts us or poor choices about how to use it?

We did not all make those choices. Only a small (if powerful) elite of westernized humans – mostly male and mostly industrialists (think of Wordsworth! Think of Dickinson!) propose such a preposterous idea. Their presumption that human beings are separate from and in control of nature serves their bottom line and profit motive, while the rest of us have come to realize that we are more like ruinous genes running amok within it.

Jakubs  describes the “Speculative world-building,” of science fiction as a way to explore solutions to our environmental predicament. But Pierre Boulle, in his 1963  Planet of the Apes, is less worried about what is happening to the environment than what is happening in the pecking order, namely “man’s fall from dominance,” while Brian Aldiss, similarly, frets in his 1962 novel Hothouse that human beings have ceded control to (of all things) vegetation.

Do you see the pattern here? Nature (apes, plants) is a terrifying external force usurping human  power/over everything.

As we move into recent decades, however, Jakub notes that the “bourgeoning environmental movement led to a new genre, Eco-fiction, whose authors -Ursula K. Le Guin, Louise Erdrich, and Barbara Kingsolver- are especially beloved – mourned not the fall or humanity but the degradation of nature and our lost connection to it, and whose utopias didn’t necessarily include humans.”

Is it just a coincidence that the three authors she cites are women?  Or is the premise that nature is a degradable  “other” less  universal than it seems?

When women novelists write about nature there is a significant gender difference in our premises. In the 1980s I analyzed more than 300 novels by women to compare women heroes’ quests to those outlined (for “man”) by Joseph Campbell. What I found was that while his male hero took women as both “other” and embedded in an alien and dangerous realm of nature,” women saw themselves as deeply integrated in and interdependent with the green world around them.

In recent years, both men and women have embraced the Gaia hypothesis that our planet is an organism within which we and all other life-forms live and must maintain a mutually beneficial balance.  Meanwhile, Eco-fiction has become a widespread and popular genre to the extent that Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction lists more than 1000 volumes from all over the world.

Mary Woodbury, its most thoroughgoing curator, describes Eco-fiction (as) ecologically oriented fiction, which may be nature-oriented (non-human oriented) or environment-oriented (human impacts on nature). . .Eco-Fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us – our natural habitat.”

Ecology deals with the interactions of organisms within a system and takes human beings as one of those organisms. Eco-Fiction. in Woodbury’s definition,  is connective and understands nature as our commons. How we are to do the work of that connection and how we are to take our rightful place within that commons are questions this excitingly speculative new genre raises in our minds and hearts through the deep truths of storytelling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Endless forms most beautiful….

At the very end of On the Origin of Species, after a lifetime of nature observation and discovery, Charles Darwin concludes that “there is grandeur in this (evolutionary) view of life….whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

                  

 

In early June I wandered along the banks of the Betsie River in northern Michigan, suffused with the sweet smell of honeysuckle blooming everywhere,  marveling at the intricately folded lips of the Jack-in-the-Pulpits and at the astute hydrological engineering the Beaver were perpetrating in the wetland.  Among the plentitude of Marsh Marigolds and Wood Anemones I forgot all my worries, entirely absorbed in the way sunlight was dappling the wings of abundant Swallowtail butterflies.

I had been blogging about Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and Carolina Wrens adapting to warmer winters, lizards taking up residence in New York City, Polar Bear numbers holding good in the Arctic and resilient Tardigrades capable of outliving everything, hoping against hope that these adaptions might mean that climate warming  wouldn’t automatically  cause “the death of nature.”

Like every other nature lover in these sad times, I feel dread down to my toenails that climate Armageddon will destroy not only whole species but the natural world itself, and the planet with it. Meanwhile, the presumptuous term “Anthropocene” cropped up everywhere in my environmental reading, filling me with shame that  we homo sapiens  are responsible for this cataclysmic evil.

But then I had a houseguest who sat on the porch with me one evening, as river eddies dazzled beneath the sunset and ravens wheeled across the sky in their enormous dignity, who reminded me these endless “forms most beautiful” do not require human beings to endure:

“Nature can survive, as abundant and changeable as ever,” he remarked. “it might all be very different, perhaps with lots of new species;  it’s just that our particular species might not be here to witness it.”

My anxiety about naturalistic apocalypse drained from my heart at the thought that our beloved planet, with all of its abundant and complex splendor, might survive us after all.

The morning I returned down state the first newspaper I opened bore the headline

EARTH MAY SURVIVE. WE MAY NOT.

“We speak of ‘saving’ the Earth,” writes Adam Frank, “as if it were a little bunny in need of help. …our planet does not need our saving. The biosphere has endured cataclysms far worse than us. . . in the long term, the biosphere will handle anything we throw at it, including climate change. What Earth’s history does make clear, however, is that if we don’t take the right kind of action soon the biosphere will simply move on without us.”

Meanwhile, the same newspaper cheerfully reported that Canadian birders observed 700,000 warblers passing an observatory in Quebec during their spring migration.