Nature, Loathing, Love, Chaos and Election 2020
I just realized what October 2020 will look like. A pelting squall of hate-driven, flag-waving, meme-tossing chaos, creating a national haze of ugliness that yellows the air like smoke after a fireworks show. All that is grotesque in humanity, all of which makes us undeserving of existing on this vibrant planet, will be on full display.
Worst yet, the human action so desperately needed to stem the crash of our planetary air, water, and life systems will be stalled, suffocated by a year of campaign rhetoric. It is safe to say, we will not start our required carbon turnaround by 2020. We are not going to act in time to avoid the worst of the warming.
I am unsure which species will have passed the brink of extinction by next fall. How many more ppm of carbon will laden the atmosphere. How much permafrost burnt. However much, will only be a spec of what is to come. I am most unsure if I will be able to personally rise to the occasion of continued sanity. I want to hide. To go feral into the wilderness.
The wilderness. Just a few weeks ago we were camping in the wilds of Scotland with sheep, whose blotchy black-and-white faces and curly horns matched the lichen-strewn boulders and limestone crags. Massive tides rose and fell, exposing a rocky collage of outcroppings and tidal pools filled with tiny, shelled creatures. Beyond the coast and its bouncy, green hills, rose cloud-shrouded bald mountains that changed color and temperament by the hour, from brown, to yellow, to black.
And there were the puffins. Puffins who would watch their mates fly off a high cliff, out over deep-blue, churning seas, and stare at the whitecaps until, many minutes or hours later, one would return with a beakfull of writhing eels for the young. Here, every day, I was aware of what is important. I was aware of life, and its fragile brevity. Engaged in love. With my love. Happiness lived here, born from freedom.
The freedom of the wind. Of sparse technology. And no news.
Upon our return home, it was no surprise that the computer screens were still clogged with the images of the controllers, self-assured heads who know of industry and policy, but who know little of the stalwart spiraling trunks of bristlecone pines, each witness to three thousand snow-encrusted winters, a million sunsets, and so many generations of chirping marmots. I surmise that they do not know of such things, because if they did, saving them would be far more pressing than collecting numbers in a bank balance or percentage points of public approvals.
Reading story after story unleashed a flood of bewilderment. Of raw nerves at the willful, if not giddy desecration of nature.
The looming, building clutter of election day 2020. It’s not so much the low rumble of Russian puppeteering in democracy. Their presence blows eerily across a long-contaminated desert playa like so much radioactive dust, seeping into the cracks in the floor and settling behind the cabinet corners. No, it’s the jolly couple from Minnesota, with whom we used to share a yearly barbecue. Friends now fallen on opposing sides of the Great Divide. To challenge a climate-change denier is to charge at a windmill with a lance. And yet I can’t not try.
I am back home, and starkly disoriented from the peace of the wilds. The simple, honest joys of a wind-beaten face and trail-weary legs so quickly muted by the realities of the crumbling future. There are suddenly a thousand seabirds standing on my neck, screaming “do something!” along with the weight of every wildlife photographer who once showed the grandeur of creatures, and who now must keep their focus on documenting their slow, agonizing death.
I imagine a glaciologist, standing where ice once flowed thicker than the tallest building, sculpting mountains, feeding valleys with nutrients, sustaining life for bears, salmon, owls, and little fuzzy foxes. Standing where she once conversed with the same, icy, gritty, flowing, sinuous beast for a lifetime, only to watch it retreat and die, leaving nothing but some leftover clay and rubble.
Perhaps sensing my affliction, my mom emails a video link. It’s biologist Jane Goodall and photographer Tom Mangelsen, sitting on the banks of the Platte River with an old, yellow dog, watching the cranes fly at sunset. Strangely enough, these wildlifers do not look as if they are wallowing in misery and loss. Instead, they seem rather content and amused, sharing a whisky and pondering the thoughts of birds. Each have lived fully appreciating the wilds, and helping them as much as any human could. Maybe that is how they can be at ease.
And now I have finally found heroes. Some guidance through the haze.
I remember what it was like when we could watch a sunset over farmlands and simply see beauty, instead of thinking about the destruction of native prairie grasses and pesticide-induced bee massacres. Oh, what a joy it was to see a bag of chips, and think about the pitfalls of empty calories instead of the orangutans who will soon be extinct because of our inability to give up junk food, and corporations’ refusal to save them by switching one ingredient.
I feel desperately saddened at this loss of our innocence. But I am trying to feel invigorated.
Our new knowledge brings a chance, the pipe dream for which every conservationist has longed—the hope that humans become protectors of all that is wild, instead of dominators. A new perspective, where land is not measured by property values, realtors, and mineral resources. A reality in which taking more than one needs is considered a sickness. A disease, yet a malady that the community helps to heal, instead of casting aside the afflicted.
A quixotic fantasy. Probably. But this escalating madness is launching the largest environmental movement of all time. What is unfolding is so much bigger than my ‘80s save the whales sticker. It’s uniting continents in multi-million person protest marches.
An uprising of young and old, and even the traditional media, who once saw such issues as fringe. Still this movement is probably not enough. It surely is not.
The voices of conservation are always impossibly outnumbered.
Yet, Greenpeace and their cohorts did actually save the whales, the humpbacks, minkes, and at least for now, the blues, the largest creature to ever exist over this planet’s 4.5 billion years. Ernest and Marjory’s lone battle cries did protect the soggy, grassy, mosquito-infested, alligator-rich expanse once considered a wasteland but now called the Everglades, where knock-kneed herons stalk big-eyed fish to a ruckus of tiny green frogs. It was Rachel’s brave voice, penned against the greatest of bullies, and most well-funded and venerated of industries, that saved the ospreys and pelicans from the chemical that thinned their shells, and poisoned the leaves, which decomposed to contaminate the earthworms, whose DDT-soaked bodies fed the robins, and erased the songs of the forests.
Maybe it will be the scolding from young Greta of Sweden who will save us this time.Assuming we deserve to be saved.
The world will never be the same as the one we’re grasping onto now. There are but moments left to come to terms with the reality of what is happening. The wiser of our species have pointed out that this leaves no time for finger pointing, nor clinging on hopes this will somehow be fixed. Rather, we must press forward, becoming fluid with our minds, reimagining a better model of a world that can be, and abandoning our preconceptions of what it is today. For today is nearly over.
On a recent down-day in my hope cycle, an optimistic friend wrote this: “Old saying: when the power of love overcomes the love of power, then we will have peace. I think it is possible. If I think it is not possible, then my negative thinking cannot help the planet. I have to start with myself, and find and foster in myself acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, gratefulness and generosity. That is my responsibility to the planet and my mission in coming here to earth.”
I want my old hippie friend to be right. Hate begets hate, and it is not an attractive emotion on anyone’s face, regardless of the altruism of one’s cause. Compassion and kindness are also contagious, and stronger. They have the power to diffuse the cramping fury of fear and anger.
Sometimes when I hear the egregious statement du jour, and feel my own blundering ego expanding like a cumulonimbus thunderhead on a hot day, I want to start believing in hell. What a comfort it would be to think there is a special place for those who commit the most atrocious acts of terrorism against the natural world, and to our own fellow species. It would surely be a relief to think that there might be something in store at their end other than an exchange of carbon, the most simple art of nature.
But that is a broken thought. I am one human. No different than any other fool. Not even a blip on the universal radar. I know nothing. And even if I did, it would make no matter if others are demons, or angels, aliens, or random mutations of the genetic code of our species. Perhaps we are a virus, or maybe a necessary evolution in a grand and ever-changing fabric of life, and molecules in the universe.
Perhaps god is a dog carrying a preposterously large stick. Or maybe in a parallel universe, some old, unused deities are passing time at a bar, telling jokes.
“Hey, Osiris. Why can’t you trust an atom?”
“I don’t know, Odin, why?”
“Because they make up everything.” Odin laughs. Grog comes out through his nose.
Osiris rolls his eyes.
“Odin, I was going to tell you a joke about sodium, but then I thought, na, you wouldn’t get it.”
Pause. Odin thinks.
“Seriously, you didn’t get it?” says Osiris. “You see, in the periodic table of the elements, Na is the symbol for sodium. Na, you wouldn’t get it… sodium…”
Odin has stuck straws in his nostrils, and is making walrus motions.
“Never mind,” says Osiris. “It loses its punch when you have to explain it.”
As we edge our way past the climate’s point of no return, set to the rising din of the impending elections, I hope to remember the advice of my old hippie friend, to take myself less seriously, laugh more, and charge at windmills in only the most chivalrous of ways. There is no use lingering on, or absorbing every foolish utterance of the day. To do so is only to perpetuate that swirling darkness.
Instead, I will fill my soul with the trill of picas patrolling alpine boulder fields, and with the mischievous smile of my lover. I will rejoice whenever I am so fortunate to have the grit of wildlands under my fingernails, sand in my shoes, scrapes on my skin, and my best friend by my side. Perhaps we will float quietly on the ocean, listening to the sounds of sea turtles breathing, or simply drop whatever was less important than watching a raven heckle us from a tree.
This does not mean I will abandon my post. There is much urgent work to be done, to communicate, protect, reimagine, learn, and salvage. But from here on out, I will strive to use my love of the wilds, rather than my angst about their demise, to protect them. I will aspire to inspire with positive self actions and words, rather than to fall into the gloomy battle of those whom we are fighting against… excuse me… those whom we are peaceing toward.
From our world’s rising chaos may come order. Or doom. Whichever it is, I hope to have earned the right to wind down my shift on the banks of the river, next to someone I love, and an old dog, watching cranes migrate. Perhaps we’ll share a whisky, a mediocre joke about discarded gods, and the comfort that we truly lived, loved, and tried our best.
All photos courtesy author.