Moving on from “After the Lecture at Yale”

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After the Lecture at Yale

Whether or not there are bobcats
in Southbury is up for debate.
But I will concede as we turn onto Old Farm Road
that here there are MAGA partisans
and that demagogues can woo quiet neighbors
even in the State of Steady Habits.

Because lawn signs don’t lie.
Neither do lengths of charming stone walls
laid in the time of charters and King George.
According to the Nobel laureate, first there was rock,
then protoplasm, then an ingenious race of hominids
milling wheat and clicking away on abaci
in a time-lapse compendium
paused just past ENIAC and ballpoint pens.
He said that slime-slicked granite deep in the Precambrian
was the first cooperative community.

But that was last night in Sterling Library,
and now I’m sketching plans at the table
between rulers and a stack of The New Yorker
as you brew chai tea, prime the nail gun,
unfurl stenciled blueprints of our barn-cum-studio
in the making. With renovations, we can sell our land
for a premium our Brooklyn friends tell us.

But it’s charming here, and the afternoon
is a pleasant exasperation of tape measures
and twine as October wind works its way
through chinks and cools our sweat.
We can paint our canvasses here 
and impress our Chicago friends
with our view of the Taconic Mountains.
Yet still my eyes linger on the “Make America Great Again” signs
down the road.

“It’s class solipsism,” our sociologist friend
tells me, and reminds me
that not everyone reads The New Yorker
or has a chance to go to graduate school.
And true, I haven’t gotten around to reading
J.D. Vance, so I still wonder.

We call it a day as the sun lowers over the valley,
and we’re strolling along the stone wall.
I’m thinking about the slime-covered rocks,
of the wriggling amoebas, the blooming lichen,
the goatherds speaking Sumerian on the banks
of the Tigris. And soon enough there are charters 
directing our ancestors to form towns and harvest
sassafras for shipment back to England.
There’s the brief blip of ENIAC, but not before Nagasaki,
and followed by Darfur and Srebrenica
along with Timothy McVeigh and the 16th Street Baptist Church.   	
And it all started with the protoplasm.

We don’t think of crossing those granite rocks,
approaching our neighbors, and getting a sense
of why exactly they’re casting their lot with
“the greatest existential threat to liberal democracy”
(according to our professor friend in Seattle).
You’re making quinoa paella for dinner,
and besides, I want to finish sketching.

I wrote this poem on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election. I think it’s still relevant to today’s news landscape. It also still captures how I feel about collective responsibility and the consequences of community atomization.

The catalog of explosive historical events in the sixth stanza might be clichéd and a bit overwrought, but that’s why I’m publishing this poem; I’m trying to exorcise my former interest in collapse. In my late teens and early twenties I was a bit of a “kollapsnik” and was fascinated by societal calamity, as epitomized in Thomas Cole’s painting Destruction in his Course of Empire series.

Thomas Cole, Destruction (1836)

What we focus on grows, so it’s no surprise that my fixation on cataclysm led to a period of suicidal depression. I’ve matured a lot since then. But the presence of poems like “After the Lecture at Yale” in my electronic archive kept that fascination smoldering; when drafts of poems like this came to mind, I’d start thinking of whether I should make revisions and spend money to submit them to literary magazines. By posting this poem and others like it, though, the tantalization of publication is eliminated since most literary magazines won’t print works that were previously published on a personal website. Then I can more fully move on to my new commitment to renewal and the Great Turning.

This is the first of several old self-authored poems I will unload here in order to create more mental space for myself (this website is as much for me as it is for you). And since pieces of writing are transmuted when they are read by an audience, perhaps these pieces will stop being mere artifacts of a gloomy stage in my life and become progressive stepping stones towards my later realization that humanity is poised on the precipice of a new era of abundance and unity.

The Conceit of Linearity

In her essay “The Reveal,” Charlotte du Cann characterizes civilizations as “fixed systems within vast non-linear systems.”1 I’d say this description is accurate. At some point the mounds of Cahokia and citadels of Mohenjo-daro crossed the line from being integral, maintained facets of living communities to being mere ruins. What happened? We in fact know that Cahokia was abandoned due to deforestation-induced flooding, political infighting, and finally a massive earthquake,2 while the (probable) salinization of crop fields around Mohenjo-daro was accompanied by shifts in the course of the Indus River plus a series of earthquakes.3 In effect, the vast nonlinear systems of climate and geology confounded the linear assumptions of continued agricultural sustenance that engender cultures to become sedentary. So the ancients of the Mississippi and Indus valleys pulled up stakes and left. 

We’ve all gotten a taste lately of what it’s like when sedentary culture’s expectation of linearity runs up against the biophysical vicissitudes of Earth. COVID-19 has scrambled global supply chains, and what began as a run on hygiene products has rippled out to shortages of computer chips, manufacturing parts, food items, and other consumer goods as factories worldwide contend with rolling waves of covid-related closures.4 The grounding of the Ever Given container ship this spring in the Suez Canal seemed to be a metaphor for the breakdown of commercial normalcy while literally deepening the supply chain morass further.5 But beyond the material realm, COVID-19 has also undermined the ecosystem of human services we in the industrial world depend on. I can’t speak for other countries, but in the US a deficit of healthcare workers6 and childcare workers7 has grown to acute levels since the pandemic began. Even celebratory fixtures of modern life like the Olympic Games have not been spared. The “Tokyo 2020” graphics at this summer’s Olympiad served as an omnipresent reminder to TV viewers that one of our most vaunted gathering of nations was also waylaid by invisible lifeforms likely unleashed by disregard for wild animals and the nonhuman realm.8

Ever Given grounded in the Suez Canal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I went deaf in my left ear at the age of 18. At the time I was already experiencing progressive hearing loss in my right ear, and I was making plans for my life that depended on me not experiencing anything as drastic as sudden hearing loss. I’ve also had to contend with other unexpected health complications. So I’m intimately familiar with the ways in which expectations of linearity become a conceit. This sustained exposure to disruption is why I don’t think the covid-related convulsions afflicting the world are temporary hiccups. Rather, they feel like dress rehearsals for the more significant discontinuities we will have to adjust to as the exponential processes of global warming ramp up. So it could be well advised to get used to disruption rather than long for a golden pre-covid era when the flows of labor, commerce, and our familiar modes of living were seemingly unimpeded.

This cognitive shift towards an expectation of further upheaval does not have to be prep for some sort of atavistic low-tech future. In conversation I’ve been referring to my experience of these years of cultural and personal transition as a ride, as in “I’m riding the tumult.” Only lately have I noticed how this choice of verb aligns my subjective experience with how a surfer regards the ocean. Surfers paddle towards one of the most recognizably nonlinear manifestations of nature—an ocean wave—with relatively little assurance that they will emerge unscathed. Yet if they do catch a swell and ride it in full, they can get exhilaration out of the process and find that, once the water has calmed, they are better for the experience. 

It all comes down to perception, which is an exercise of free will. Choosing to “ride” tumult does not deny instances of devastation or mass casualty (we are in the middle of a pandemic after all). But while the media goes into histrionics about the disintegration of normal and many people further broadcast this narrative of fear by demonizing something as trivial as a face mask, the rest of us can choose to transmute something frightening into a learning experience. When a critical mass of people turns the unknown into an opportunity for growth, then we are laying the groundwork for that longed-for societal metamorphosis process. 

The disintegration of predictability—our conceit of linearity—is not the end of the world. It’s the end of the world as we know it, where our institutions are okay with proceeding with business as usual while atmospheric carbon dioxide rises to its highest level in 3 million years9 and we careen further into the planet’s sixth mass extinction. Unlike the people of Cahokia or Mohenjo-daro, we know where environmental despoliation and political dysfunction is taking us. So treating our paradigm’s loss of predictability as a learning opportunity is a matter of societal survival. If we do in fact turn the current global tremors to our advatage, we may look back on these years as the invitation to the more beautiful world we ended up creating.



“Disappointment” in the Garden

In February I left my AmeriCorps assignment at the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) in Providence, Rhode Island. Healthwise, too much was deflecting my attention from professional pursuits. So I am now officially unemployed and living again with my family in Connecticut. 

Considering how much expectation I exuded about my new work in the essay “In Search of Querencia,” my return to Connecticut could be seen as disappointing. Indeed, I was disappointed whenever I was drawn away from the SCLT office for medical reasons, or when I noticed how my body was protesting in ways it never had against agricultural labor. By the close of 2020, I could see my break with Providence coming, and that was frustrating.

But when the break did come and I had time to reflect, I wasn’t let down, full stop. I began to see the tyranny of my expectations and how they were keeping me from imagining any sort of narrative beyond that of linear ascent. It turns out a likelier scenario to ascent is failure. Though not as glamorous as instant success, falling short of one’s goals can inform and enrich the larger journey.

In her book Active Hope, Joanna Macy addresses the phenomenon of failure:

Why might failure and frustration be necessary parts of the journey? Because if we stick only with what we know how to do, what we’re comfortable with and confident about, we limit ourselves to the old, familiar ways rather than developing new capacities…The good news about frustration and failure is they show that we have dared to step outside our comfort zones and to rise to a challenge that stretches us. What we’re doing here is reframing frustration and failure in a way that encourages us to persist rather than to give up.”[1]

According to conventional wisdom, I shouldn’t have signed up for an AmeriCorps position titled “sustainable agriculture coordinator”—my health history should have induced me to stay on the sidelines. But I did try my hand at novel, challenging work for several months deep within a pandemic. I must thank the staff at SCLT for extending that opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and experiment with new capacities. Furthermore, I achieved the goals I set forth in “In Search of Querencia:” I did meet key figures who pointed me further, just in a roundabout way I was too vain to consider a year ago.

Now I have time to experiment with the meditation methods, shamanic techniques, and somatic modalities I have absorbed over the past several years. But these practices don’t always yield noticeable progress. When they do, the forward momentum often feels too slow. So the path I am on can be interminable when what I really want is a quantum leap to a new state. Yet Joanna Macy goes on to address interminability, which, like failure, may yield delayed but even greater gratification:

Consider what happens to a bottle of water when it is left in the freezer. As it cools down, there is a steady, continuous change in its temperature. The water won’t change much in appearance until it begins to get near the critical threshold of its freezing point. Then, as it passes this, an extraordinary process happens. Tiny crystals form, and when they do, other crystals form around those crystals, until there is a mass movement of crystallization in the water that rapidly changes state from liquid to solid. This is discontinuous change. 

With discontinuous change, a threshold is crossed where rather than just more of the same happening, something different occurs. There’s a jump to a new level, an opening to a new set of possibilities. We might think it impossible that a small amount of water could crack something as hard as glass, but as the ice expands, it breaks the bottle.[2]

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, my attention has been repeatedly drawn to exponential—discontinuous—processes in nature that bring about phase shifts. So I know my guides are urging forbearance as I repeat my qigong and fourfold breath routines each day, indoors. I may have been expelled from the garden for now, but I’m being asked to trust the process. Like the tree that grows heavy with buds for a month before leafing out, or the bottle of cooling water Joanna Macy writes of, I have to trust that I too can undergo a phase shift.

Discontinuous change and phase shifts are the things of cocoons—metamorphosis. Most of us are familiar with the general concept of how a caterpillar will form a chrysalis then emerge weeks later transfigured into a butterfly. Less well known is how the caterpillar resists change. As it dissolves in its own digestive acids, the immune system of the cocooned pupa will attack the imaginal cells that are trying to transform it. In turn, a nascent imago will fall again and again into the soup of its former self. But this seemingly counterproductive immune response serves to strengthen the imaginal cells so that they can finally give rise to a winged, visually stunning creature.[3}

Photo courtesy of Walter del Aguila on Unplash

The way in which repeated failure is necessary for a butterfly pupa to undergo the discontinuous change of metamorphosis is instructive not just for myself, but for society at large. Cell biologist Bruce Lipton and political philosopher Steve Bhaerman, co-authors of a book titled Spontaneous Evolution, propose that the metamorphosis process can be a model for cultural evolution. They write that the immature stages of complex adaptive systems in biology are marked by excessive competition and auto-cannibalism. But existential crisis—such as a pupa running out of food—can engender evolutionary leaps towards maturity and cooperation[4]. In this manner, we can regard the countercultural and protest movements of the past 60 years not as aberrations or duds, but as pulses of a burgeoning energy that had yet to encounter an existential crisis that could catalyze enduring evolutionary change.

A pandemic, economic stagnation, ecological collapse, and shambolic politics, all shadowed by exponential global warming. These entropic seeds of cataclysm most definitely constitute a polycrisis that demands a rapid shift in human conduct. Proclamations from politicians to the contrary, normal as we knew it is not being restored (nor should it—the old normal was killing us). The pandemic hasn’t ended, climate disruption is now a fact of life, the buried rage of centuries is animating ever-more vitriolic public debate. I am still being urged deeper into the cocoon, and most of us are also being impelled to continue going inwards. When we are embraced by darkness, we may feel not just disappointment, but downright grief. The old normal may have been suicidal, but it is natural to grieve a way of life one was comfortable with.

So I must circle back to the conclusion I drew more than a year ago—that we are encased, waiting for the active ingredient that will bring about our own phase shifts. For many of us, that catalyst will be grief, which is an emotion the old normal never let us explore deeply. But when we allow ourselves to feel the wound, we can expand our wings and discover that, in the words of Wendell Berry, “the dark, too, blooms and sings.”[5]


Notes

[1] Macy, Joanna, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012), 189.

[2] Ibid., 189-90.

[3] Pinchbeck, Daniel, How Soon is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation. (London: Watkins Publishing, 2017), 179-80.

[4] Ibid., 180.

[5] Berry, Wendell, “To Know the Dark” in Terrapin: Poems by Wendell Berry. (United States: Counterpoint).

The Language We Use

We are at war. Certainly in a healthcare war. We are not fighting an army, nor are we fighting another nation. But the enemy is here – invisible, elusive, it progresses. It thus requires a call to arms.”[1]


President Emmanuel Macron delivered those words to the French people in March of 2020, when the novel coronavirus was beginning its exponential spread in Europe and North America. Macron’s use of military memes to characterize COVID-19 has become standard for politicians and public health officials to the point that it is hard to think of the COVID-19 pandemic as anything other than a battle. Less than a year after Mr. Macron issued his warrior cry, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party trumpeted that it had “defeated Covid under the able, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.”[2] Not to be outdone, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proclaimed in a May public address about his state’s loosening of virus restrictions that “New York is coming back, and it’s a testament to the strength and grit of New Yorkers who banded together, stayed tough, and fought as one to defeat this COVID beast.”[3]

As a global society, we are only just past the nadir of the millenia-long Age of Separation, so this bellicosity isn’t surprising. Those of us brought up in the industrial mainstream are conditioned by the foundational myths of our culture to relate to the nonhuman world around us by identifying an exterior enemy and declaring all-out war on our target. Usually, this initial antagonism begets more violence. Think of how fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides are sprayed on industrial crop fields. Inevitably, succeeding generations of pests evolve new defenses against the onslaught, and like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, chemists in turn must develop still deadlier biocides to keep up. In the United States at least, all one must do is examine the abysmal failures of the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Poverty,” and the “War on Terror” to find further evidence of our war mentality’s shortcomings.

It just so happens that a linguistic shift away from antagonism over the past 4 years has been pivotal in my own healing process. As with cancer, many neurofibromatosis patients refer to their medical predicament as a fight and their diagnosis as the enemy. By the time I turned 22, however, I was tired of combat and ready for a different approach. So I began entertaining the concept that my diagnosis wasn’t something to be fought at all but perhaps contained wisdom that needed to be integrated. I would find out that such a belief is axiomatic in many indigenous ontologies. These marginalized worldviews hold that illnesses are the result of an imbalance in the group—be it a family, a town, a nation, or the global whole—and thus have their own spirits. This deeper, more considered approach to illness has opened new potential storylines as I try to disentangle myself from the labyrinth of sickness. One such narrative is that my higher self chose to be born with a chronic medical condition in order to understand wetiko—the mind virus of separation—and to assimilate the karma of my progenitors (at least one of my ancestors, for instance, was directly involved in the early genocide of American Indians). However such an explanation might sound to you, the idea that there’s intentionality wrapped up in my medical condition gives me agency and a path forward. One step I can take now towards healing is to break the intergenerational cycle of violence by repudiating the language of violence.

So, what of COVID-19’s spirit? If COVID-19 is the product of an imbalance, then anthropogenic global warming and its constellation of related crises is the pandemic’s likeliest root cause. The respiratory failure and fever associated with COVID-19 do bear a sinister correspondence to the pollution and ever-more-intense wildfires and heatwaves being inflicted on the planet. It then follows that humanity’s response to COVID-19 could determine our response to the systemic ecological crises that threaten to erase all our achievements. 

A friend of mine told me last summer that she had a dream in which COVID-19 appeared to her first as a feral cat, then as a reptilian monster, and finally as an impoverished peasant woman. The peasant woman my friend described reminds me of the archetype of the crone, who often appears in mythic stories as a teacher come to redress her children’s ways. Now that COVID-19 is nearly endemic, we as a global society can at least accept the unavoidable challenges of a novel coronavirus and commit ourselves to learn whatever lessons COVID-19 might teach. Ultimately, though, my friend’s dream gets to the core of the material world’s plasticity. Since collective storytelling determines the behavior of the subatomic particles that comprise our reality, a collective COVID-19 story framed around warfare means we may have to contend with an enraged animal or a Godzilla figure instead of a well-meaning teacher. Furthermore, COVID-19 could mirror back our bellicose language by behaving like a true wartime enemy. It could “gather intel” about our defenses then ambush us again and again. Currently the Delta variant is sustaining COVID-19’s rapaciousness, and health officials are issuing warnings about the Lambda variant as well. Eighteen months since COVID-19 entered the collective consciousness and world leaders began declaring war, it’s questionable whether we’ve defeated anything. Again, war begets more war.

As of this writing, COVID-19 has officially killed a little over 4.1 million people, but the real toll is likely much higher.[4] By all accounts, emergency rooms in regions hit hard by the pandemic have at various points resembled war zones, and medical workers there have been forced to make decisions usually relegated to battlefields. In the face of such devastation, it can be tempting to reason that it is irresponsible to regard COVID-19 as anything less than an enemy that must be exterminated. But COVID-19’s wide reach is a direct result of governmental ineptitude plus an institutional unwillingness to put a brake on economic growth (there was hardly a murmur of calling off Milan Fashion Week 2020, even when it was known that the virus was established in northern Italy).

Perhaps you are unconvinced by my spiritual appeals. But there are more prosaic reasons why the language of war should be avoided when referring to COVID-19. A letter to the editor from a doctor published in the New York Times in the early days of the pandemic has his to say:

“Military rhetoric in this and other articles is clouding the public’s understanding of what it is like to work in a hospital right now. Medical staff are not soldiers ‘fighting a war,’ and we are not ‘in the trenches’ or ‘on the front lines.’ We did not sign up for this; unlike the military, medicine is not a career for which we ever expected to die.

“Medical staff are being forced to work in extremely unsafe conditions. Furthermore, the burden of care often falls on the lowest-ranked workers. Resident physicians, for example, work 80 hours a week with one day off. Opportunities for residents are scarce outside of hospitals, so we cling to our jobs to avoid ruin.

“Medical workers have already died in the United States, and more deaths are coming. We will be called ‘heroes’ to hide the truth: we were killed on dangerous job sites.”[5]

Notes

In Search of Querencia

In August I moved from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Providence, Rhode Island, where I am working for a year as an AmeriCorps service member with a community agriculture organization. The move feels propitious. I’ve been longing for awhile to be involved long-term in agriculture, and living in a place called Providence seems like an unsubtle message from the universe about where I’m heading. At a time when so many people are home- and job-insecure, I can hardly complain about this new turn in my life.

But as I’ve settled into a new city, I’ve reflected on the progress I’ve made in the past few years, and something is still missing. In September of last year, when I moved to Massachusetts for my first AmeriCorps assignment, I was living on my own for the first time in my life (college doesn’t count). The first month of being solitary was tough; I was badly yearning for the familiarity of Darien, where I had grown up in the same house and where my parents still live. This time around, I’m not yearning for that home, though. I spent enough time in Darien this spring during the COVID lockdowns to know that it’s not in my spiritual or energetic interests to stay in the nest. Now, I’m yearning for a new home, a place where my personal life, professional work, and the physical landscape will feed into each other and where I will be anchored by enduring social relationships and, eventually, new familial bonds.

What I really desire is querencia. In Spain, where the term originates, a querencia is a spot in a bullring where a wounded bull retreats to renew his strength. Querencia is now used in the Spanish speaking world to connote a home-place where one feels safe and protected. In The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez draws attention to this latter meaning of the word to discuss the modern problem of cultural placelessness:

“It is unfortunate that the word is compromised in this way [by the violence of bullfighting], for the idea itself is quite beautiful – a place in which we know exactly who we are. The place from which we speak our deepest beliefs. Querencia conveys more than “hearth.” And it carries this sense of being challenged – in the case of a bullfight, by something lethal, which one may want no part of.

“I would like to take this word querencia beyond its ordinary meaning and suggest that it applies to our challenge in the modern world, that our search for a querencia is both a response to threat and a desire to find out who we are. And the discovery of a querencia, I believe, hinges on the perfection of a sense of place.

“Bullfight, Suerte de Varas” by Francisco de Goya (1824)

Lopez goes on to venture that discovering a querencia involves being cognizant of the inviolate relationship between a culture and the physical land it occupies. But for the majority of us in North America, this sort of acknowledgement leads back to the undeniable truth of European conquest and imposition. I for one grew up on traditional Lenape and Wappinger territory. Now I am a settler on Narragansett land. And because of the practices of the industrial culture I was born into, much of the land I’m familiar with will be submerged by the Atlantic possibly within my lifetime, while Southern New England’s sugar maples and hemlocks will recede to the Laurentian Shield or die out completely.

What then? If anthropogenic climate change will wipe away much of the familiar characteristics we associate with home, what hope have we of rediscovering any sense of querencia? The way I see it, querencia is always waiting for rediscovery, regardless of exterior changes. The plant and animal species around us may shift along with climate regimes. But what won’t shift is our human capacity to open our hearts to the nonhuman even in the midst of heartbreak and find a new sense of belonging, one that’s based on proposition instead of imposition. Generations of settlers have started over in the same way as they’ve relocated due to war, economics, religion, or climate stress, and they’ve always carried the vital stories with them. We’ll all have to make this leap of faith too if we want to create a future world worth living in, one where we’re not consumed with regret and self-recrimination.

I don’t feel like Rhode Island will be my new querencia. I may meet key people who will point the direction in my ongoing journey. But ultimately, I feel like my final destination – my longed-for home-place where I can firmly face the challenges of my life – is elsewhere. I intend to document in this online space my search for querencia and where the journey takes me. For now, though, I am making myself as comfortable as possible in the Ocean State.

We Are Not a Virus

I am walking with a companion through the woods. Up ahead, a golden, glowing orb is blowing through the trees like paper caught in the wind. I understand the orb to be what I most desire in life right now: complete physical, mental, and emotional healing. My companion, an older male, gestures to the orb and says, “If you want it, you must ask the trees, the birds, and the wind for help.”

At this point in our walk, we approach a diminutive ash tree that looks like it’s infested with the emerald ash borer. Despite its sickly appearance, I approach it and do as my companion told me. “Ash tree,” I say. “Please help me heal.”

The moment those words are out of my mouth, a rapid sequence of events ensues. The ash widens and shoots upwards to the sky to the point where it is one of the tallest trees in the forest. Its trunk and foliage is framed by a blazing fire, but not the fire of destruction; in front of me is the fire of creation and vitality. Next, the golden orb is caught in the updraft of the fire until it is held aloft above the ash tree, motionless. Two small birds appear out of thin air, and I understand them to be the spirit of the wind. They catch the golden orb in their talons and start circling towards the ground, right to where I was standing. 

I had that dream in early May of this year, when the Northeastern US was descending the first, destructive surge of COVID-19 in this country. So sickness was on many peoples’ minds. Discussions were also cropping up online and in the news media about how the relative helplessness of human immune systems in the face of the novel coronavirus mirrors the violence being visited upon nature in the form of habitat destruction, overexploitation, and pollution. You’ve probably heard the meme by now: humans are a virus on the planet, and COVID is an antibody. Proponents of such an idea point to the  images of clearer skies and frolicking wildlife in locked down regions as proof: “See? Earth is so much healthier without humans!”

I disagree. The proposition that humans are uniquely suited for annihilation is born of the same anthropocentrism that, in a different spirit, would suggest we are god-anointed masters of the planet. Not only is human erasure from nature philosophically questionable, though. It’s also historically myopic. In many parts of the world, natural ecosystems have coevolved with human land use. Large swaths of North America, for instance, were periodically burned by indigenous Americans prior to European settlement. For America’s first people, these fires improved hunting, foraging, and horticultural conditions. For the nonhuman environment, periodic burns created mosaics of varied natural community types that incubated a diverse range of specialist plant and animal species. In southeastern Massachusetts, the entire coastal pine barrens ecoregion evolved to be fire dependent; according to early Pilgrim settlers, the indigenous Wampanoag people set fire to alternating portions of the landscape twice per year. In the absence of this human intervention, generalist, overgrown oak forests are replacing the pine barrens at the expense of rare species like the barrens buckmoth and the grasshopper sparrow

My dream seemed to suggest that this hands-off approach to the landscape won’t work. Humans and nonhuman nature need each other to thrive, and intentional burning is just one way that we have achieved the end of mutual health. Large-scale burning no longer takes place in southeastern Massachusetts. There are, however, a number of ecological restoration projects in the area, and I visited several to see for myself how a cultural presence in the landscape is beneficial.

My first visit was to the Coonamessett River. The Connamessett is fed by coldwater springs and runs less than five miles through the heart of Falmouth on Cape Cod. The river used to be a rich spawning ground for eels, herring, and brook trout. Since the 18th century, dam construction to power mills has blocked many of these native fish from their spawning sites. Impoundments for cranberry farming have also created obstacles for migrating fish, while the obstruction of the river’s flow by both mills and impoundments raised water temperatures beyond what many native fish could tolerate. Since 2015, the Town of Falmouth has been working with conservation organizations to restore the Coonamessett River to its original state. So far, a cranberry bog has been converted to a naturalized wetland, wet meadows have been planted along the Coonamessett’s banks, several of the dams that used to impede the river’s flow have been removed, and improved fish ladders have been installed on dams that cannot be dismantled.

When I walked a portion of the Coonamessett Greenway Heritage Trail in July, I had never seen the Coonamessett River before, so I did not know what it looked like when it was clogged with cranberry bogs and mills. But the Coonamessett I did see resembled an actual river, and that is important. There was the swift-flowing main channel meandering through wet meadows where spotted knapweed was in bloom. I walked above the fish ladders where water descended from so-named Pond 14. I didn’t doubt that, if I were at the same ladder in a different season, I’d see migrating fish. 

Upgraded fish ladder

I’ve pondered before about how the proliferation of ecological restoration projects may indicate an emerging cultural desire to see the landscapes we inhabit be restored to wilder, more organic states – in Falmouth alone there is also the Quashnet River Restoration and the Child’s River Restoration. Whatever their latent cultural origins, these restoration endeavors point to the often-overlooked fact that restoration of natural habitats usually involves human intervention to some degree. Many people think that when we passively let things “go back to nature,” all will be well. Passive ecological restoration sometimes does work. Too often, though, when we abandon disturbed landscapes, they become colonized by invasive plants and noxious weeds at the expense of regionally particular species. Or they may only support generalist wildlife (deer, rabbits) instead of endemic specialists. When human-altered environments include earth modifications like dams or dikes, letting things “go back to nature” can be an excuse for not cleaning up after ourselves.  

Just west of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary (which itself is a restoration project), the Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration has partnered with the Town of Plymouth to restore the wetlands of Foothill Preserve, which have been degraded by cranberry farming. Foothills Preserve also encompasses springs that form the headwaters of West Beaver Dam Brook. When I drove by the Preserve after my visit to the Coonamessett River, I was met by the sight of construction vehicles and earth-moving machines that were temporarily idled in their task of removing dikes and dams formerly used for cranberry farming. If it takes a dozen-odd backhoes and bulldozers to undo the modifications of agriculture, then it’s questionable whether the headwaters of the West Beaver Dam Brook would ever be able to recover on their own. 

Foothills Preserve

Thus, I am forced to circle back to the message of my dream – by “presencing” ourselves in the landscape, we benefit our own health while nonhuman nature is revitalized too. But we don’t need to focus solely on the mechanics of ecosystem regeneration in order to understand the necessity of human presence in the landscape. You can come to similar conclusions on your own, in your individual wanderings outdoors.

Not long after my trip to Falmouth, I returned to a juniper woodland in Ellisville Habor State Park in Plymouth, which I explored in October of last year and where I first felt at home in Massachusetts. In reality, the area is a savanna of pitch pines, scrub oaks, and red cedars marooned between the salt marshes of Ellisville Harbor and the strand of Cape Cod Bay. My time in Plymouth was coming to a close, and I wanted to wander in the location that first made me feel like I belonged in the Bay State. This time around, the vegetation was more dense; there was more poison ivy and greenbrier between the cedar and pitch pine trees. But I still felt at ease. After a sweaty hike through upland oak forests and a tramp through overheated sand, my heart rate and breathing slowed down when I was back amidst the sandy patch of evergreen trees. And when I sat down beneath a red cedar to catch my breath, I didn’t just relax: I felt welcomed. I sensed that I mattered to this place. By making myself present to a part of the landscape that I loved, I was reciprocating nature’s abundant nourishment, and in that manor I was facilitating a small degree of ecological recovery.

This mode of healing only makes sense if one understands that “the environment” is not an inert substrate, absent of its own desires and intentions. When we do jettison the Cartesian concept of nature as unfeeling and nonliving, the truism reveals itself that every organism has its place in the landscape, including humans. At its root, I believe that most of the environmental degradation we see in our world today is the result of us removing ourselves from the landscape and thinking we can transcend material nature. But when we return to Earth, we come home and make the ecological picture whole again.

I don’t think we can truly heal the planet unless each one of us does the internal work of interrogating our relationships with place. Similarly, I don’t think that a frenzy of ecological restoration projects on their own will have a lasting effect unless the architects and the citizen beneficiaries of these projects thoroughly transform their mechanistic Industrial Age mindset to one of holism and ecology. And somewhere in there, we have to let ourselves feel welcomed by other-than-human nature: the trees, the birds, and the wind. Only then can we give love back and restore the places we call home just as I restored the ash tree to health in my dream.

Ellisville Harbor State Park

One Landscape, Multiple Stories: Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Southeastern Massachusetts

Driving west on Herring Pond Road in the Cedarville section of Plymouth, Massachusetts, it may seem improbable that the landscape of two-story homes and boat ramps out the window constitutes anything other than suburban America. But this stretch of South Plymouth roadway also sits atop the ancient homeland of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, which is one of the core tribes of the Wampanoag Nation. In July, Melissa Ferretti, the tribal chairwoman, gave me a tour of this patch of New England Indian Country.

Melissa showed me the tribe’s historic meeting house, built circa 1850, which is partially rented out to a Baptist church. We then went to Elmer Raymond Park, which sits at the heart of the tribe’s historic lands and beyond which is the Dina Path, a burial ground which was only recently returned to the tribe by the Town of Plymouth. 

Meetinghouse on Herring Pond Road
Dina Path beyond Elmer Raymond baseball field.

Finally, we paid a visit to the the tribe’s other burial ground, right next to Herring Pond. In addition to being a cemetery and a place of mourning, however, Melissa explained to me that her community has used the site for social functions and for gathering wild herbs, and that she even looked forward to coming to the burial ground while growing up.

Contrary to centuries of Euro-American romanticization, people of Native ancestry aren’t inherently “closer to nature” by virtue of their blood quantum. However, there is no single story of how human cultures relate to the landscapes they inhabit. The globalized industrial perspective of viewing the natural environment through a reductionist Cartesian lens – that is, as an inert substrate that is discrete from humanity – is only one narrative among many. Most indigenous communities in the world today have retained the pre-industrial conception of the human realm as being enmeshed within a planetary ecological whole. It is no surprise, then, that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is found in indigenous territory, or that American Indian tribes are at the vanguard of adopting climate change resiliency and adaptation plans

Globalized society needs narratives in which human culture is bound to a larger and deeper ecological continuum; where cemeteries can also be places of celebration and sustenance, or where sacred lands can lie just beyond a baseball diamond. The maelstrom of environmental crises that define the 21st century is the product of the mechanistic mindset of human separation from nature. Inculcating a sense of identity that is rooted in the organic palimpsest of living things that composes each landscape serves as an antidote to the story of separation. 

In addition to the Herring Pond Tribe, southeastern Massachusetts’s Wampanoag presence is comprised of the Assonet Band of the Wampanoag Nation, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). All of these communities have persisted despite their traditional lands being ground zero for the American nation-state, and with them they have kept alive their particular stories of how they as people are consanguineous with the other-than-human world.

This regional ferment of indigenous continuity (and renewal) is why I reached out to the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe and tried to infuse my former employer’s ecosystem conservation work with the insights of Native people. In addition, I was in dialogue with the  Indigenous Resources Collaborative (IRC) – a group of Wampanoag and non-Native educators. Hopefully, a sustained synergy will emerge where my former employer, the IRC, and the Herring Pond Tribe will assist each other in environmental and educational endeavors. 

It is not my place to force these collaborations into being, though. As a non-Native outsider, I can’t put indigenous groups on a pedestal and demand guidance from them (“Be our saviors!”). Instead, the Wampanoag relationships I pursued unfolded organically as I learned more about my organizational partners, and vice versa. Goals such as shifting the dominant narrative and recognizing indigenous input may be admirable. The more I’ve learned about the persistence of the indigenous worldview amidst the “One Story” of Industrial Age separation, the more I fantasize about the sorts of fruits that partnerships between traditional and nontraditional players can yield. But it’s ultimately up to America’s first people whether they want to engage the rest of us.

In a Heath Hen, Everything

Recently at work, I helped construct a list of every known plant and animal species that has been lost from the landscape of Massachusetts. Some of the species on the list, like the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and Appalachian tiger beetle (Cicindela ancocisconensis)  have only been extirpated, meaning they can still be found elsewhere in the world. Other species, like the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius) are fully extinct. All told, 46 known species have been lost from Massachusetts in historical times, most of them in the past two centuries.

But quantitive data such as the number of species that have gone extinct in a given area is inadequate. Raw numbers obscure the singular gravity of what it really means to lose an entire lineage of organisms. The world is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with thousands of species disappearing every year. Exact estimates vary widely (one of the larger figures comes from the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, which pegs the annual number of species going extinct as exceeding 50,000). Holding in our minds the singular gravity of a lost bird or flowering plant, rather than a list, is perhaps the only way we can comprehend the rolling tragedy of shrinking biodiversity.   

In order to understand the ”singular gravity” of a lost species, I trekked to Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area in the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod. Frances A. Crane WMA encompasses one of the largest sandplain grasslands that is managed for conservation in New England. Sandplain grasslands are prairie-like assemblages of grasses and bushes that are dependent on periodic brush fires for perpetuation. They used to cover hundreds of thousands of acres of the Northeastern United State’s coastal areas. Now, due to urban development and fire suppression, sandplain grasslands cover less than 10% of their former area. In their heyday, these natural communities supported a population of the greater prairie chicken (Tympanchus cupido), which is now only found in pockets of the Great Plains. Sandplain grasslands were also home to the heath hen (Tympanchus cupido cupido), a related ground nesting bird whose males, like those of the prairie chicken, emitted distinctive boom sounds as part of the specie’s mating ritual.

Heath hen illustration

The heath hen was endemic to coastal grasslands from Maine south to the Carolinas. The bird was said to be so plentiful and easy to hunt that early American colonists complained of eating heath hen too often. Its meat even may have been served at the first Thanksgiving. 

You can probably guess where this story is heading. Intense hunting pressure (by both humans and feral cats) and destruction of coastal grasslands led to the extirpation of the heath hen from the US mainland by 1870. A population persisted on Martha’s Vineyard (in what is now Manuel F. Correllus State Forest) but was decimated by a wildfire in 1916 that was made worse by fire suppression and the accumulation of dead wood. The island’s last heath hen, a male, was heard booming for a mate in the spring of 1932 and died soon after.

So loss was on my mind when I set out for Falmouth. Even the drive through the Upper Cape was punctuated by a sense of loss; I couldn’t help thinking of how, over the decades, the homogenous stretches of dry oak forests on the roadside have replaced a more ecologically dynamic mix of pine barrens, meadows, heathlands, and cedar swamps. Once I arrived in Falmouth, I could see that Frances A. Crane’s several hundred preserved acres were in fact picturesque and worth conserving; the milkweeds, wild carrot, and dozens of other wildflowers I couldn’t identify were in bloom, and there were probably rare insects buzzing through the grasses. But the boom of a once-abundant galliform was absent.

Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area

In his essay, In a Rhino, Everything, Charles Eisenstein writes that the sadness engendered by an extinct or disappearing species contains in it all of the grief we have suppressed in response to the other injustices of the world: poverty, police brutality, the destruction of nature’s beauty – the list goes on. The sadness I felt due to the absence of the heath hen was in fact grief, and my grief was wide ranging. I was sorrowful that the wide open skies and natural beauty of the grassland surrounding me could now only be found in a few fragmented conservation areas; about the possibility of exponential global warming, which imperils even these conservation efforts; about the thousands of daily deaths due to COVID-19 and the social isolation society is practicing to prevent further fatalities. 

This grief had a purpose, though. Earlier in the summer, I attended a webinar conducted by Penobscot educator, writer, and attorney Sherri Mitchell named “Processing Our Grief.” Mitchell reminded us that when we allow ourselves to grieve, we are feeling the pain of all of Mother Earth; when we feel this planetary pain, we can effectively pray to and ask for help from the spirits. So I suppose that my grief first for the heath hen, and then for the rest of the world, was a ceremony of seeking guidance for how to live with integrity in the unravelling years of the early 21st century.

I cannot say that my vigil immediately led to any epiphanies or profound solace. Only now, as I think about guidance and the lessons I can learn from the heath hen’s extinction, I am remembering the words of another Penobscot elder, John Bear Mitchell, which he imparted to Elizabeth Rush in her book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

The losses [from climate change and natural resource overexploitation] have been slow and multigenerational. We have narrowed our spiritual palettes and our physical palettes to take what we have. But the stories, the old stories that still contain a lot of these elements, hold on to the traditional. For example, our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don’t live here anymore. Similarly, we know the petroglyphs still exist, but now they’re underwater. The change is in how we acknowledge them.”

If physically absent animals and cultural artifacts can live on in our stories, as John Bear Mitchell suggests, then how can the heath hen live on in the collective imagination? The effort of conservationists to protect the heath hen, beginning in the late 18th century and going through the 1910s, was one of the first times in the US that a conservation project was directed at preserving an endangered bird. The effort’s failure therefore animated future conservation measures and helped prevent wildlife officials from repeating mistakes. So we could say that the spirit of the heath hen is still extant in the joy of animals that continue to thrive precisely because we learned from the hen’s extinction.

I think that when we acknowledge loss not only as an occasion for grief, but as an opportunity for integration, learning, and growth, we start getting at what it means to heal in these times. If the only stories we tell are ones of linear decline and apocalypse, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy where all the future holds is further darkness. Therefore, I’d like to think that each story that acknowledges loss, but followed by renewed resolve to protect and celebrate life, creates a ripple of light that disempowers the narrative of doom that we are all too familiar with. In this manner of mindful grieving and celebration, we may be relieving – transmuting – the sorrow of the past and all the injustices of the world.

If It Makes Me Happy

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing the Sheryl Crow song “If It Makes You Happy” in my head, especially the chorus:

If it makes you happy

It can’t be that bad.

If it makes you happy

Then why the hell are you so sad?

Those lyrics capture how I’ve been feeling about the COVID situation lately. It’s as if my guides are saying “you wanted this, didn’t you?” And it’s true. I’ve been longing for some paradigm rattling global event for years. When it became clear in March that the novel coronavirus would sweep the globe, the impish part of me was undeniably excited: the seismic shaking of the jar had arrived.

But the collective grief and loss of the past 4 months have finally come knocking at my door, and I have to make room for the Dark Mother. All of my daily tasks are accompanied by deadweight, and now that I’m dealing with this profound heaviness that so many other people are carrying, I guess I’m a bit more sober. I don’t get to be an aloof spectator to the Great Unravelling, or even an ascendant beacon of hope and energy amidst the darkness (that can come later).

The racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes in the United States are an echo of the genocides of native people that were integral to the founding of the American nation state. I and my co-citizens have also had to contend with shambolic politics, massive (yet inevitable) failures in unadulterated capitalism, and the institutional persistence of racial caste systems. All told, we’re being forced to deal with inherited karma and the historical baggage of our culture. Even though I’ve been anticipating for months that we as a global collective would be forced to deal with our shadows in this time, I too am struggling, to the point where it feels like I’m moving through molasses. But I guess that’s the point; we can’t quantum leap forward until we’ve been dragged through the mud. As the writer Charlotte Du Cann repeatedly intones, we must descend if we are to transform. We must learn to embrace the Dark Mother.

By Kristina Trpkovic on Unsplash

Reflections on Nature in the Time of Corona

I’ve been living in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the past 9 months, where I work as an AmeriCorps service member. Almost every weekday between this past September and March, I drove by the general vicinity of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary on my way to the office. I had an impression of what Tidmarsh is about: a 400+ acre former cranberry farm that now constitutes the largest freshwater ecological restoration project in the Northeastern US. But I had never actually set foot on the place. So it loomed at the edge of my awareness, an important environmental undertaking that I should probably see for myself at some point.

On a balmy Wednesday in early March, Rob, one of my AmeriCorps colleagues, gave me a tour of the sanctuary. The Entrance Trail, which departs from the visitor parking lot, first follows level terrain through mixed coniferous-deciduous woodland that is typical of southern New England. But even here there are surprises in the details. At one point, Rob pointed out a hummock of brush-covered land that is composed of soil that was excavated in the digging of an artificial channel last century, a testament to Tidmarsh’s recent cranberrying past.

Next, we emerged from the forest onto “the meadow,” and I felt like I had been transported to the prairies of the western High Plains. The meadow, which can be traversed by either the Ridge Crest Trail or the Meadow Trail, encompasses what used to be a dumping site for sand. The barren expanse has now been colonized by grasses and, along the edges, young pine trees. If the pines continue to propagate over the years and wildfires are allowed to burn, then the meadow could eventually be home to a proper pitch pine-scrub oak savanna, a habitat type that used to cover hundreds of square miles of southeastern Massachusetts.

The meadow, from the Ridge Trail

Onwards we walked, along the Forest Trail and Red Maple Path, over the recently undammed Beaver Dam Brook, and out to the expanse of open wetland that composes the heart of of the restoration project. Along the way, we passed plantings of white cedars that may eventually restore the regionally rare Atlantic white cedar swamp community.

Beaver Dam Brook
Atlantic white cedar saplings

After Rob showed me around, I returned alone to the Ridge Trail, where a south facing overlook offered a vantage of Beaver Dam Brook flowing through a valley. I sat at the overlook, and the expansive view (who knew there were such vistas in Plymouth?) left the impression that I was regarding a whole contained world. And it was just beyond the edges of an expressway and a state road this whole time! I couldn’t wait to return in a few weeks when everything would be in bloom.

View from the overlook

I haven’t had a chance to return to Tidmarsh. Less than a week after my “tour of the edges,” I retreated to my parents’ house in Connecticut, where I rode out the first wave of COVID-19 until the second week of June. Things change fast. Almost all of us have retreated and battened down the hatches, and here we still are: staring at our computer screens, trying to make sense of a pandemic the likes of which the industrial world hasn’t seen in a century. Mass Audubon’s sanctuaries were closed for a time. But nature never closed. Many of us have seen the videos of dolphins playing in formerly bustling commercial ports, or of coyotes sniffing deserted campgrounds. Maybe you have noticed unusual birds coming to your feeder; a birdwatching aunt of mine in Florida has made such an observation. It seems that the agency and intentionality of other-than-human nature is suddenly demanding our acknowledgement.

The agency of nature is what the world’s indigenous and traditional cultures call the spirits. I am reminded of the message imparted to Bayo Akomolafe by a traditional Yoruba priest: You have chased away the spirits with your roads and development projects. They hide in the thick forests, and it is there we must go in order to understand what is happening.” Later, Akmololafe is told by a different priest that if those of us who live amidst the trappings of modern society want to find our way back to the spirits, “we must first come away from the road and become lost.” Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, sandwiched between two thoroughfares, is a good place to get lost in. The fact that Tidmarsh is a vast ecological restoration site adds more layers to the art of losing one’s bearings. There, the natural processes of a freshwater ecosystem are being allowed to exert their own intentionality (spirit) after decades of human imposition. True, ecological restoration involves human intervention, but only at first. To walk through Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, one is offered a glimpse of what it can be like when we decide we no longer want to be the stars of the show. Now, though, as the world locks down, the wildlife sanctuaries are coming to us, and we’re witnessing a possible future where the vanity of economic development for its own sake is not our culture’s raison d’être.

You are not a defective person if you are taking refuge in displays of emerging nature amidst so much human suffering. You do not have your head in the sand. To quote Jack Gilbert’s self-explanatory words, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Moreover, I’d wager that there’s an imperative to pay attention to nature’s exuberant spirits at this moment in time. They can teach us truths we’ve forgotten.

Here’s one such truth: things change rapidly for the better as well. Through most of March and April, as interminable rain and sub-normal temperatures stalled over the Northeastern US, the return of foliage here in southern New England moved at a snail’s pace. It seemed like the trees were holding their breaths as their branches grew heavier with red, yellow, and pale green buds. Meanwhile, the number of worldwide COVID-19 cases and fatalities ascended a mind-numbing exponential curve we’re all now familiar with. Beginning in early May, though, as the sun re-emerged and the mercury started to crest 70 degrees, a different sort of exponential curve came into focus: the buds were bursting open and the leaves were finally unfurling themselves.

I began composing this essay in my head, while lying on a hammock beneath a mature black cherry during that initial warm spell. With each breeze, bud scales showered down, and it became clear to me that coming away from the road and apprehending the spirits need not involve setting off into deep wilderness with a machete. We don’t even need suburban nature preserves for this work. We can become lost in our own backyards, in the margin of woods at the edge of the road. And it turns out, once we leave the road, we won’t find any monsters. Apocalypse isn’t lying in wait for us. There will be blue sky, new growth, and ourselves. We will discover we’re about as discrete from the landscape as dolphins and coyotes.

We may also find that we’re encased too, waiting for a catalyst so that we can unfurl in our own phase shifts of renewal. As the systemic global crises of the 21st century bear down, the spirits, the guardians, the ancestors – they are all waiting for us to ask for their help. They will have our backs. Our story does not have to end in chaos.

Hardwood trees at dawn, Connecticut.