When we look at the new Congress we see little possibility of meaningful legislation, given the very thin margin between the parties in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. I have felt cheered up, lately, by accounts of solutions to our most serious problems – like hunger and nutrition – that people are getting together to solve at the local level.
Here is my take on some really great programs addressing child hunger in Michigan, along with some good news about innovative indigenous farming practice:
What did I do this summer? Although I was determined to lollygag as much as possible, Washington went into high gear on climate change legislation, which I have been working on with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby for years. Now, it all came to a head! As folks in Europe seem to want to know what is going on in American politics, here was my blow by blow description of this exciting summer rush to save our beloved planet that I wrote for Impakter.com.
Have you heard about courts endowing nature entities like rivers, wetlands, and even rice as “persons” with inherent rights? I am fascinated by this concept from an ecological point of view. Isn’t it anthropomorphism to accord humanity to beings who are utterly different from humans? Doesn’t this natural beings-as-persons approach value human beings over nature, which is how we got out of balance with nature in the first place?
The tight little Snowdrop buds poking on stalwart green stems through the hard-packed snow tell me that spring is arriving, the whole earth regenerating itself after the long, long months of snow and sleet and freezing temperatures of an especially hard winter. It is a yearly miracle, but a miracle nonetheless, reminding us of nature’s fiercely self-redemptive powers despite degenerations wrought by our tragic propensity for making bad decisions.
With new warnings about how close we have come to the destruction of a climate that can sustain human life, there are those who feel that only large-scale inter-national, national and corporate actions can save us, while others insist that if we cooperate with nature in personal and local acts of restoration, we still have a chance.
After the gatherings and feasting and general jollity of Christmastime, it is traditional to prepare for the stark winter months by making resolutions. We usually do this on an individual basis, with a list of things we want to change in our lives. Everyone knows how dispiriting this can turn out to be three or four months later, when we have “broken” them all.
A “resolution” is something you resolve to do, with a flavor of fixity of purpose, a tight-lipped determination. When we make a New Year’s resolution we are resolute about something. There are negative items on our lists – to interrupt people less for example ; and positive wishes as well -such as to listen more closely to what other people are saying.
Would you believe that the idea goes back 4000 years to a New Year celebration in ancient Babylonia called Akitu, when promises were made to various gods and debts were paid off?
The Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays leading up to Yom Kippur may derive from that ancient Middle Eastern celebration; in Judaism, people list the wrongs they have done, and not only repent for them in their hearts but make atonement with anyone they have harmed.
We can learn from these traditional practices because a problem with the kind of New Year’s resolutions we list is that we make them as individuals rather than in groups. Though this has the advantage of making us solely responsible for carrying them out, it is much easier to break them with impunity.
Would making resolutions with other people work out better? I am not thinking so much about getting together with a friend to carry out a diet or exercise regime as finding a group that is resolute about the same thing that I am and strengthening our resolve (and effectiveness) by joining in their actions.
Yes, evil stalks the world, fire and flood are upon us, the media tells us that we are failing to solve our problems, plague and pestilence assail us in relentless urges – it is no wonder many of my friends feel hopeless about the future and helpless about being able to change it.
A couple of years ago I had a wonderful long winter’s read in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. No mere shallow bromide about positive thinking, the book is full of data and charts proving that things are going exponentially better for the human race than they ever have before. Nevertheless, the media – including liberal print news and progressive tv news analysis – keeps right on bombarding us with the misguided idea that nothing we can do will change things and that we are all going to hell in a handbasket. SoI am delighted that Steven Pinker has come out with a new book, Englightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, and Human Progress.
Pinker notes that we are “more galvanized by negative thoughts than those of optimism and hopefulness,” (which is why the media favors bad news) and that the crucial thing about making resolutions lies in “our assessment of how our actions can affect the world. That is, if you are optimistic in the sense that good things will happen no matter what you do, then there’s no need to do anything. But if you have an attitude of what Hans Rosling called ‘possibilism’ and what Paul Romer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, called ‘constructive optimism,’ that attitude can lead to action. Again, with that variety of optimism, it’s not that good things will happen; it’s an if-then statement—namely, if we perform the following actions, then positive results could ensue.” (See Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism | by Darryn King | OneZero (medium.com).
My proposal for our New Year’s resolutions this year is that, with a problem-solving adjustment in our attitudes and a spirit of constructive optimism in our hearts, we find groups that share our goals and then join them in their actions. Your resolution doesn’t have to swallow up any more of your time than you want: one call, one email a week in concert with the tactically brilliant folks in the groups suggested below can be very effectively lead to concrete results:
I resolve to do something about the attacks on our democracy. Robert Hubbell suggests you join Sister District, “which is actively recruiting volunteers to help with all phases of the 2022 election.” A reader (of Hubbell’s daily newsletter sent the following note:
Our flagship electoral program works to get Democrats elected to strategic state legislative seats by supporting campaigns with grassroots action. We “sister” volunteers from deep blue districts with carefully targeted races in swing districts, where flipping control of the state legislature will advance progressive policy. Our volunteers canvass, phonebank, write postcards, text bank, and fundraise for candidates. We welcome volunteers and candidates of all genders! Defend Democracy is another effective group that lists specific actions.
I resolve to help get out the 2022 vote. Jessica Craven has a practical, action-focused newsletter called Chop Wood, Carry Water, keeping you up to date on all sorts of ways to keep democracy going – see, especially, her link to Voters Not Politicians.
I resolve to do something to mitigate global warming. There are all sorts of groups bringing useful information and effective action to the aid of our Beloved Planet. My two favorites are www.citizensclimatelobby.org and www.sierraclub.org. Or, to combine your interest in Democracy and the Environment, you can work with the Environmental Voter Project www.environmentalvoter.org or the League of Conservation Voters www.lcv.org.
Making New Year’s Resolutions like these isn’t naively optimistic. Nobody I know has any doubts about the vast reach and power of the evil (which I understand as the product of bad human choices) rampaging through our times; rather, we are determined (as Emily Dickinson puts it) to “dwell in possibility” while resolutely face up to the reality of evil and refusing to be cowed by it.
“We may not have wings or leaves” like our fellow created beings, writes Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braided Sweetgrass, ” but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility. I’ve come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land.”
This is a great motto for me when I wonder about my purpose in life since I morphed from a writer of Eco Fiction to a political/environmental columnist for a world-wide publication and a contributor to a newspaper out of Frankfort. Michigan.
So, here we go! For those of you interested in a collection of my columns on the Trump Horrors, the Rise of Republican Fascism, the Nitty-Gritty of Political Organizing, How to Handle Climate Grief, and some of the alternative ways to redeem our good green world that we yearn for in these troubled times, check out my updates to The Worlds We Long For . Then, to cheer yourself up, you can see what my zany family and I have been up to at our Betsie River cabin now that, after long pandemic absence, we are together again!
Back in February 2019 (in what seems now another century!) I posted a blog on Making Political Sausage – how to get real political work done. Now, in these difficult times not only of pandemic but economic and racial turmoil, individuals feel more helpless than ever.
They are right: individuals can’t do anything; they need to join things. Starting at this point that I made in my previous blog, I go more deeply into how we can strengthen ourselves during these difficult pandemic times by joining like-minded groups.
But we are in a pandemic! This is no time to join things!
Think again, and tip toe into the world of tech. Your smartphone and your screen can exponentially strengthen your political outreach, and any organization you choose to join has a well set up program to help you.
Here’s my update, and I hope it makes you feel less helpless!
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.
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.
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.