Hope in the Dark

“F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,’ but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other, and since it is not all good it must all suck royally.  Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.'” from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Synchronicity is a great thing.  I just happened to be reading another book by Rebecca Solnit and saw Hope in the Dark mentioned, so I found a copy and discovered it was just the elixir I needed to give me hope and a sense of purpose in these worrisome times.

Last fall I had the chance to escape the pre-election madness and drive a friend down to Jackson Hole.  A visit to the beauty of the Tetons was just the distraction I needed.  But when we arrived we found the Tetons had disappeared under a heavy veil of angry storm clouds.  And to make matters worse, our arrival coincided with a visit by Donald Trump Jr.  It seemed there was no escape from my despair.

Driving through the park, we stopped at a number of viewpoints where disappointed tourists turned their backs on the shrouded mountains, thumbing their cell phones, or taking selfies in front of the signs that named the hidden peaks.  Undeterred, we went for hike in the frigid rain, getting soaked in the process, but rather than damping our mood, the walk through an aspen grove shimmering with saturated gold raised our spirits. 

That night we were scheduled for a fundraising dinner at a local restaurant.  I pictured a stuffy cocktail party atmosphere with the retired rich and well connected crowd I have come to expect at fundraisers.  But to my delight, instead I found myself in a room of engaged and enthusiastic young people dedicated to developing a sustainable food system in Jackson.  These members of Tetons Slow Food movement were farmers, ranchers, chefs and locals who were all committed to reducing the impacts of global industrial food. They were not just railing against the devastation wrought by corporate food, not just donating money so others could do something about it, but were all actively engaged in making the world a better place.  I sat across from a fourth generation rancher who was turning the family business away from a traditional cattle operation and toward raising sustainable, grass fed beef, using the most modern methods of land stewardship in the process.  

These young activists did not expect to put Con-Agra or Monsanto out of business, but they understood what Solnit talks about in Hope In The Dark: “The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself…The counter to Monsanto Corporations’ genetic engineering and agricultural patents isn’t just anti-GMO and anti- patenting activism and legislation, it’s local farmers, farmers’ markets, seed diversity, organic crops, integrated pest management, and other practices that work best on the small scale.  A farmers’ market selling the produce of local farmers isn’t an adequate solution but ten thousand of them begin to be.” 

While the food was superb, the real nourishment of that evening was hope.  As Solnit says, “Hope and action feed each other.”  The next day I headed north towards home, and still the Tetons were shrouded in storm.  I stopped at Jackson Lake Lodge and stood on the deck overlooking the valley.  Standing in the freezing drizzle, which alternated with gropple, I took photos of the amazing palette of reds, russets and yellows that filled the valley floor, the colors made more intense by the rain.  I was alone in the cold wind, except for a herd of cow elk grazing their way along the river bottom.  My SD card was full, but I stood and watched as a rustle of willows behind the cows made their heads pop up and the branches in the willows resolved into the six point rack of giant bull.  On the other side of the cows a smaller bull approached and the big bull let out a threatening bugle.  Head down, the smaller bull tried to cut out a couple cows, but the big elk charged and there ensued a short, antler clattering battle that ended with the smaller elk turning tail and running off downriver.  The brash interloper had tried to steal the herd, but was sent packing in the end.

The drama over, I went into the lodge where everyone sat with their backs to the windows, sipping lattes and checking their e-mails.  I went into the gift shop for a new SD card and the clerk offered me one that already had 20 professional photos of the Tetons on it.  “It’s perfect for a dismal day like today when there’s nothing to take pictures of and nothing happening out there,” she said.  I turned down the prepackaged card and smiled at her. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of where you look,” I said.  As I left the park, the clouds began to lift and the Tetons peeked through.

My experience with the Teton Slow Food group has given me more than hope.  They have spurred me to take my own actions locally.  I have rededicated myself to growing and preserving as much of our food as possible, supporting the farmer’s market and sourcing as much as I can from local growers and ranchers.  But that is not enough.  I also feel like I need to do everything I can to resist the political agenda of the new administration, not by being angry, or wringing my hands over every outrageous tweet, but by supporting groups like Garden City HarvestThe Missoula Freedom Garden, and Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula.  And I’m going to become more active politically, as hard as that is for someone as introverted as me.  On inauguration night I will be attending  “An Evening Inspiring Hope and Action” with other local people hoping to turn our anger into action.  

“‘Resistance is the secret of joy,’ …quoting Alice Walker.  Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.  You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them…struggle generates hope as it goes along.  Waiting until everything looks feasible is too long to wait.” from Hope in the Dark.

 

 

Reflections on the Election

reflections-1The morning after the election was a heartbreaking, confusing time for me.  It was not just that my candidate had lost–that had happened before–or that the president elect would not agree with me on the issues that I consider most important.  It was not even the possibility that this man might lead the country into another catastrophic war.  That too had happened before.  No–what devastated me was the fact that I could not understand how the electorate could vote for someone who so clearly had no moral or ethical center.  Did that mean that half the country also lacks a moral and ethical center?

Needing some way to wrap my mind around this post-truth, post-values world, I turned to one of my favorite poems–one that has given me solace in the past during troubled times. 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

© Wendell Berry. This poem is excerpted from “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry”

I headed out to the pond in the backwoods.  Seating myself under the great cottonwood, I stared up into its now bare branches.  The red-tail hawk, who had raised a chick in the massive nest over my head was circling high in the sky , scanning the world below.  His shrieking kee-ree sounded like the cry my heart was making.  Because this time, I didn’t feel the peace of wild things.  I felt fear.  Fear for the wild things of which I am an integral part.

It was an unseasonably warm November day, after an unseasonably warm October, after the warmest year on record–again.  The mountains were still bare of snow.  The aspen trees, just weeks after loosing their autumn leaves were beginning to bud out, the furry white tips of the catkins emerging from their brown winter casings.  What would happen when the frost finally did come?  The pond was shrunk down, leaving a bathtub ring of decaying leaves on its shore.  Through the silvery trunks of the cottonwoods I could see the reddened pine needles of another beetle-killed ponderosa,  Our warmer winters are a boon for the pine bark beetles who are decimating our western forests and have created a fifth season–fire season, when massive forest fires eat millions of acres every year.

I thought about our next president for whom reality is a TV show, thought about him sitting in his gilded Trump tower and wondered if he was so cut off from the natural world that he couldn’t see what was happening–that he could really believe that Climate Change was a Chinese hoax, not the gravest threat to our future and the most pressing and dangerous issue.  This was not a problem you could wall out.

I thought about the people who voted for him.  I knew several people who were “unfriending” anyone who had supported Trump.  But I realized that reacting from fear, anger and hate was exactly what his supporters had done.  They saw the problems in the world–terrorism and an economy that was all about the bottom line and not about the workers, where everyone was nothing more than a consumer and their way of life was threatened by so many global issues too complex to understand–they saw those problems as overwhelming and unsolvable.  And it made the them afraid. Trump told them that he could solve those problems.  And they wanted so badly for someone to step up and do just that that they gave him their votes–and their futures.

What I realized was that they weren’t that much different from me.  I too saw the problems in the world–most particularly Climate Change as overwhelming and unsolvable and I felt defenseless in the face of global powers who were refusing to confront the reality of the situation.  I have let myself get distracted by other things, I have stopped paying the deep attention that is necessary for any relationship, and that includes my relationship with the natural world. And so I have sat back and waited for someone else to fix it.  I need to react, not out of fear, but out of my own moral center.

From Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril: page 469

“The times call for integrity, which is the consistency of belief and action.  The times call for the courage to refute our own bad arguments and call ourselves on our own bad faith.  We are called to live lives we believe in–even if a life of integrity is very different, let us suppose radically different from how we live now.  Knowledge imposes responsibility.  Knowledge of a coming threat requires action to avert it.  There is no way around it, if our lives are to be worthy of our view of ourselves as moral beings.  How to begin?  Maybe with four lists.  List 1: These are the things I value most in my life…List 2: These are the things I do that are supportive of those values.  List 3: These are the things I do that are destructive of those values.  List 4: These are the things I am going to do differently.  From now on. No matter what.”

List 1: A healthy, life affirming relationship with the natural world.  

List 2: I can begin by paying attention.  By speaking out in defense of what I love. Recommitting to this blog is part of that.  Supporting those who are working to change the way we relate to the natural world is another.

List 3: Waiting for someone else to solve the problems while I remain quiet and afraid is destructive to my values and ultimately to my spirit.

List 4: This is a start.  I will recommit to the things I already do, like trying my best to eat locally, to be conscious of how my decisions affect the rest of my community and the world, to an ethical relationship to money and how my spending and my investments support or hurt the natural world.  But this is only a start.  One person may not make a difference in the bigger picture, but “each of us, right now, at this exact moment in time, has the power to choose to live the moral life, to live a life that is indeed worth living.” Michael P. Nelson

 

Mosquito Hawks

dragonflyThe Montana Natural History Center offers an array of Master Naturalist classes.  Once you have completed the intial Master Naturalist series, you can continue your education through a yearly offering  of specialized topics.  Last week I went on a day long field trip to study dragonflies and damselflies.  Of course, every time I’m around water in the summer I can’t help but notice these large insects whizzing by and flitting from plant to plant, but I never realized the diversity of what I was seeing.  Two or three different colors, the difference in size between a dragonfly and a damsel fly, maybe.  But I was astonished to learn that in Montana alone there are 91 different species, 57 dragonflies and 34 damselflies.

Our guides for the trip,  Bob Martinka and Nate Kohler are men obsessed with the order, Odonata, which means ones with teeth.   This is because these insects are carnivorous, consuming the insects they catch in mid-light by chewing them to mush in their   It is one thing to learn the facts about dragonflies, that their eyes have plus or minus 7,000 lenses, or that they have been around for more than 250 million years, predating the dinosaurs,  or that their wings, because they are attached to their bodies by separate muscles, can move independently, which means that they can fly backwards as well as forward, upside down, dive, hover, pivot in a circle and fly up to 30 miles per hour.

But information like that is available to anyone with the click of a mouse.  What I took away from the field experience was the infectious enthusiasm for Odonatas that our guides demonstrated.  They shared how the desire to find and identify different species can send the naturalist out into far-flung wildernesses and hidden potholes and tarns.  No book or web page can give you the experience of being in the field with someone who opens up a world of wonder.  Reading cannot give you the sense of slogging through a bog, the feel of walking on sponges suspended in water with the possibility of breaking through at any moment.  A list of facts cannot substitute for what it’s like to search the insect filled air for a dragonfly or damselfly and the skill to get just the right swipe, with a twist of the wrist to secure them in you net.

I would never have thought it possible to hold a dragonfly in my hand until Bob showed me how to gently grasp their wings between my thumb and forefinger and peer into their multi-faceted eyes.  They taught me how to look for all the identifying markings that will tell you what species you are holding.

And then, having caught their infectious curiosity and enthusiasm, I am off on my own, discovering the place in the tall grasses where the tiny sedge sprites are perching,  or seeing,  as I track  them with my net, how the Dancers bounce around, a little spastically, in flight and flick their wings when they perch, giving me that aha moment as I connect their name to their flight pattern.  As I spent the day immersed in the Odonata world, I I began to catch a glimpse into the world Leslie Marmon Silko conveys  in Ceremony:

“Dragonflies came and hovered over the pool.  They were all colors of blue–powdery sky blue, dark night blue, shimmering with almost black iridescent light, and mountain blue.  There were stories babout the dragonflies too.  He turned.  Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, the long ago, time immemorial stories, as old Grandma called them.  It was world alive, always changing and moving, and if you knew where to look, you could see it, sometimes almost imperceptible, like the motion of the stars across the sky.”

 

 

Silent No More

bird skeletonbird skeleton“We stand now where two roads diverge.  But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair.  The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.  The other fork of the road—the one ‘less traveled by’—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.
The choice, after all, is ours to make.  If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accpt the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.”  Rachel Carson, Silent Spring           

I have just finished re-reading Silent Spring, a book I have not picked up since I read it in college nearly 40 years ago.  At that time it was very controversial and I remember the way she was vilified for even suggesting that the brave new world—“better living through chemistry”—was not turning out to be the Eden the chemical and oil companies touted.  Re-reading it now I am horrified by how little has changed.  True, the book and Carson’s subsequent testimony before congress did have some positive impacts.  DDT was eventually banned in this country, though we still sell it overseas.  And she was one of the instigators of the broader environmental movement that was spawned at that time.  I have always looked to Carson as an inspiration, a shining example of what powerful writing can accomplish.  And yet…

And yet, fifty years later “only 200 of the more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals used in the US have been tested under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.  And exactly none of them are regulated on the basis of their potential to affect infant or child development.” Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah.  Coincidentally, just as I was finishing Silent Spring, Bill Moyers had Sandra Steingraber on and her book is the natural sequel to Carson’s.  Steingraber says, “(In Silent Spring Carson) posited that ‘future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.’  Since then, the scientific evidence for its disintegration has become irrefutable, and members of the future generations to which Carson was referring are now occupying our homes.  They are our kids.”

Steingraber speaks of the moral crisis of our day being two-fold—the pollution of our bodies by toxic chemicals and the alteration of our climate through the accumulation of heat-trapping gasses.  Both of these crises are attributable to our economic dependence on fossil fuels.

After outlining the scientific evidence for her arguments, Steingraber presents a compelling case that it is the moral responsibility of all of us to not give in to “well-informed-futility-syndrome”, whereby knowledge about the enormity of a problem becomes incapacitating.  Instead we must scale up our actions to match the size of the problem.

I would love to sit back and focus all my time and attention to being a naturalist, to bearing witness to the incredible complexities of nature that abound in my backwoods and beyond.  I still believe, as I wrote last year in “New Language, New Way of Thinking” that observing and writing about nature in an effort to restore its sacredness as Jack Turner in The Abstract Wild,  “If we find we live in a moral vacuum, and if we believe this is due in part to economic language, then we are obligated to create alternatives to economic language…Emerson started the tradition by dumping his Unitarian vocabulary and writing “Nature” in language that restored nature’s sacredness.  Thoreau altered that vocabulary further and captured our imagination.  The process continues with the labor of poets, deep ecologists, and naturalists,” is a worthy enterprise, I am beginning to feel that it really isn’t enough.  Neither is changing out my light bulbs, driving less, or even growing and canning my own food.

I can’t just throw up my hands in despair, even if any action I take will be insignificant in the face of the power of the economic interests of the corporations.  I have to be able to look my children in the eye and not feel shame for my cynicism and cowardice.  And so, when I was asked to sign a petition stating that I was willing to be arrested to protest the Keystone Pipeline, I did.  You have to make a stand somewhere.  And stopping the pipeline and fighting the expansion of fracking in my own state is a place to start.  Faced with peak oil, the answer is not to find new and dirtier oil.  It is to begin to build an alternative to our fossil fuel economy.

I will still be exploring the backwoods and beyond.  But I will also be looking for ways I can keep myself from despair over the state of the world.  Reading both Silent Spring and Raising Elijah is good place to start.  I don’t want to leave my children a world with a silent spring, and so I can’t be silent any longer.

Doing Nothing Much Forever

     Every once in awhile in my reading I stumble upon a new trailhead with a path to a destination I’ve not been on before.  I may tuck it away in my memory as something to try another time, but there are some words that are so intriguing that I find myself wandering up their paths without a second thought.  This quote from Elizabeth Bishop is one such trail: “I’d like to retire…and do nothing, or nothing much, forever…look through binoculars, read boring books, old, long, long books, and write down useless notes, talk to myself, and, foggy days, watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.”

Just hours after copying those words in my commonplace book, I found myself on the couch in the living room, trying to squeeze in a bit of reading before a jumbled day of meetings and errands.  The constant fluttering around the birdfeeder kept drawing my eye up from the page and I watched as the magpies and flickers bullied the flocks of house finches and chickadees away from the seeds and up into the apple tree where the smaller birds could only perch in frustration while the aggressors feasted on the bounty.

I laid my book aside and went to fetch my binoculars. I read a few more pages and then saw the magpies being chased off the ground by the chickens.  Do the chickens realize the magpie sitting on the feeder is flicking great scatterings of seed on the ground for them?  In between magpies and flickers, the swarms of chickadees, house finches, nuthatches, juncoes and a bird I didn’t recognize crowded the feeder and foraged on the ground.  They made it look like the leaves had come alive in an unseen wind as they hopped about.

I went to fetch my bird book and then picked up my reading again, waiting for the mystery birds to return.  A few more pages and there they were, savanna sparrows, a bird I had seen often enough, but never had a name for. A couple of squirrels made a foray from the trunks of the apple tree and cottonwood, freezing every time they caught a hint of movement that might be the dog.  They were tentative around the chickens who ignored them unless they got too close. Then the chickens turned and chased the squirrels off, looking like sumo wrestlers as they waddled after the offenders.

I glanced at the clock.  It was too late to make it into town for my meeting.  I called to let them know I wasn’t coming and returned to the couch.  Suddenly the whole day lay ahead of me, with nothing that couldn’t be put off until tomorrow.  Could I really spend the day doing nothing but reading and watching the little dramas playing out at the feeder?  I recalled Bishop’s words.  Maybe I could.

A downy woodpecker was dividing his time between the bark of the apple tree and the feeder.  The mourning doves arrived in a flock of seven and foraged on the ground, flashing the white feathers of their tail like white-tailed deer as they soared over the fence.

Deep into my reading, it was awhile before I looked up again and then realized that I had missed a death.  I saw the flicker tossing what looked like feathers out of the base of the feeder.  So I went out to investigate.  Sure enough there were half a dozen small downy gray feathers with white ends tipped with black.  A couple more were still in the feeder tray.  Had a hawk come down and snatched a small bird?  I had watched last year as a hawk had grabbed a red-winged blackbird from the ground and then ripped it’s belly open, pulling out the entrails as if feeding on a plate of spaghetti.  If it was a hawk, then surely my chickens were in danger.  But they were clumped up under the ponderosas, scratching beneath the carpet of pine needles in search of grubs and I decided they were fairly safe under the net of needled branches.

It struck me as an odd coincidence that as this small unnoticed death occurred I was reading in my book, Sacred Paths and Muddy Places about death: “Ignore death and I would have to ignore life…Every moment of every day, something was born, something grew and something died and what died spawned the next seed of the next birth.”

Another new bird scavenged the seeds on the ground.  This one had a red head, a dark eye mask, a red belly and white bars on the wings.  It was smaller than the house finches who looked quite outsized next to it through the binoculars–a common red poll if my identification was correct.  And I wondered because redpolls are not common at all in Montana.  Digging a little deeper I discovered that the redpolls seemed to be migrating farther south than usual this year–an irruption across the northern states, much like the snowy owls last year.

It’s funny, I didn’t sit down with the intention to document what was happening at the feeder.  I just sat down to be next to the fire and read for a moment.  And then my eye got captured by the activity beyond the window.  Captured and then captivated.  I had no idea there was such an interplay between the various species that gathered to feast.  And each new thing, the interaction between the magpies and the chickens, the flicker tossing feathers, the new birds, the red poll and the savanna sparrows, were unexpected discoveries, and a classic example of not trying to find something and so being delighted by the unexpected.

A sudden sqwauking from the branches of the apple tree and there were two flickers, sword fighting with their beaks, thrusting and parrying with flailings of wings.  At last one flew off to the pines, the other in hot pursuit.  Then the victor flew to the birdfeeder until the vanquished returned and he had to scare him off again.  Peering through the binoculars at the feeding flicker I saw, just under his wing, the black and white tipped feathers.  So it was a flicker fight after all, and not a death that left behind the scattering of feathers. So many little mysteries and such satisfaction in the solving.

In the evening, just as the last light drained out of the day and the glass doors became mirrors instead of windows,  my husband walked into the room, asking what I had done all day.  “Nothing,” I replied.  “Nothing much all day.”

New Language, New Way of Thinking

A friend asked me today, “Why a nature blog?  You are neither a scientist nor a professional environmentalist.  Why write about nature when there are already so many outstanding nature writers out there?”  And I had to pause for a moment and really consider her question.  Because it begs deeper reflection.  Why write at all?  In a world overflowing with at-your-fingertips information on any subject imaginable, why write about your own individual experiences, ideas and ruminations?  The blogosphere is already crowded with thousands of people chronicling everything in their lives from their adventures in travel and in the kitchen to the wonders of the landscapes they live in.  And in the face of climate change, fracking, species extinction, overpopulation, urban sprawl, etc.,etc.,etc. is it enough to simply satisfy my human need  to, as Dinty Moore says, “not just live year to year but to capture a bit of that life, to produce an enduring record of our better thoughts?”   In the face of global crises it does seem self-indulgent and rather ineffectual to write about my own small piece of Montana and what I experience there.

But then I recently happened to pick up The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner and in this wildly provocative book (pun intended) he suggested a possible answer.  He has a chapter on how the economists and economic language have co-opted our thinking about everything–turning the natural world and all living things into commodities and requiring everything and even everyone to be reduced to commensurate units, with money being the value of these units.

Being a linguist, I know how the language we use shapes our worldview, and I was intrigued by his argument that, “If we find we live in a moral vacuum, and if we believe this is due in part to economic language, then we are obligated to create alternatives to economic language…Enmerson started the tradition by dumping his Unitarian vocabulary and writing “Nature” in language that restored nature’s sacredness.  Thoreau altered that vocabulary further and captured our imagination.  The process continues with the labor of poets, deep ecologists, and naturalists.”

Perhaps the more blogs that work to restore the sacredness of nature, that explore our inter-relatedness and interdependence by giving us a new language and a new way of thinking, the more our consciousness will change.

As for what value a singe person’s voice has, I think back to my morning walk.  I had started the morning by reading Rick Bass’s The Wild Marsh and in the chapter on February he talks about the way the “wonderful bare ground” first appears at the base of the largest  trees and how the darkened trunks of those trees absorb the sunlight during the day.  “The absorbed heat in those blackened trunks radiates slowly back out across the snow, warmest on the west side, which is the part of the tree trunk that received the last and most intense heat of the day.”

Trudging through the tired snow, not only was I delighted to notice he was right, the bare earth was showing on the west side of the ponderosas, but then I began to notice as well that the cottonwood leaves sitting on top of the crust had begun to melt down, embossing the snow with leaf prints.  And in the pond the pine needles and leaves had melted their way through the ice, cutting it into a delicate filigree  The same principle had to be at work here.  It was that little thrill of discovery, of extending what I’d learned from reading Bass’s experience and finding my own example.  I have walked these winter woods for decades and never taken particular notice of this phenomena.  But now I see it everywhere.  And so perhaps, something you read in this blog will lead you to your own epiphany.

Books I Love: The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner and The Wild Marsh by Rick Bass