Surge

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A smattering of Midwestern and Northeastern American cities have posted their warmest (or one of their warmest) falls on record. But I don’t need news releases to tell me that these past few months were unseasonable.

I kept my window open at night as late as mid-October; on the 26th of that month the temperature in my corner of Connecticut reached well north of 70 degrees Fahrenheit; just after New Year’s, a forsythia bush in my parent’s backyard began to bloom. But what concerned me most was the low diurnal temperature variation—all through the fall and early winter the difference between night and day never seemed to exceed 15 degrees, which would align with one of the most well-established symptoms of a warming atmosphere.1

I could go on in this vein. Taken together, these anecdotes are nothing more than one person’s subjective experience. Admittedly, I have not performed a statistical analysis of local meteorological data. But neither am I writing a research paper. I don’t have to objectify the weather conditions of something as familiar as my lifelong home, particularly when my observations fit with what millions of other close watchers of the weather have noticed for the past half century—that something is amiss.

Throughout the unusual warmth last year, I sensed that global temperatures could be surging. It’s already well established that abrupt climate change has occurred in Earth’s past—the global temperature increased by 10 degrees Celsius in 10 years when the Younger Dryas period ended.2 Contrary to celebratory speeches from politicians, we also know that the global mean temperature is not going to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.3 My intuitive awareness of the climate is why I knew, while crossing my college campus in Upstate New York one humid fall morning in 2014, that dependably cold winters at that latitude were a thing of the past. I liked the cold, and I partly attended a college in northern New York to experience severe winters. So the realization that frigidness could no longer be assured came as a major paradigm shift. (Not long after this intuitive disclosure, researchers began confirming that the polar jet stream was becoming more erratic due to the rapidly warming Arctic.4)

A surge in climate change relates not just to temperature, but also to the oceans. By the middle of the previous decade the IPCC projected 2 feet of global SLR (sea level rise) by the end of the century, the UN predicted 3 feet for the same time period (a little less than 1 meter), while NOAA predicted an upper limit of 6.5 feet.5 Projections like these keep inching upwards as researchers better understand positive feedback loops and tipping points,6 but some climatologists still think most SLR predictions are far too low. Foremost among the contrarians is James Hansen, who surmises sea levels in 2100 will be several meters higher than what agencies are saying.7 Such large figures are not mainstream, but a number of climate scientists share similarly dire outlooks, albeit anonymously.8 We’ve even learned recently that a collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could be imminent and could lead to the swift rise in sea level that Hansen foresees.9 An acquaintance has shared with me how at an international climate change conference she asked a panel of experts if “it would be possible one day to hear a public service announcement to evacuate all coastlines because a huge Antarctic ice sheet had melted quickly.” Their response: “Yes, but….” Any response to that question other than resounding ‘no’ is concerning.

Storm-tossed shoreline (Nick Fewings, Unsplash)

The point is that there’s ample evidence that abrupt climate change will happen in most of our lifetimes. It’s not surprising then that many people—politicians as well as ordinary citizens—are in denial of surging temperatures or seas, since recognizing such a possibility opens us up to grief, and grief is unpleasant. This past October 7th, I spent an afternoon struggling with grief. The daytime and projected nighttime high temperatures were both well above the historical norm, and I felt sadness for the many specialist plant and animal species that cannot adapt to the new weather regime and will therefore go extinct. As I thought of what this wave of extinction will mean locally in southern New England—no more sugar maples, hemlocks, blazing fall foliage, or a number of endemic amphibians—I also realized I was sad for the loss of the familiar, my familiar. Familiarity is how we resonate with the landscapes we call home and end up caring about the other-than-human. And all I could do was lie in bed, rest my hands on my stomach, pay attention to the rhythm of my breathing, and allow my grief to be present; this exercise literally weighed me down and kept me in bed. 

Our difficult emotions – grief, anger, disappointment, pain – are as integral to our sense of self as our joy and hope. Holding the uncomfortable allows us to alchemize leaden feelings of dread into something that does not weigh down our energy. Alchemy has never been about turning literal lead into literal gold. It’s about internal transformation. In “The Conceit of Linearity,” the idea that we can get exhilaration out of embracing nonlinearity was never adequately connected to the undeniable truth that such upheaval is already causing grief. Here I would like to establish that making space for our heavier emotions can allow us to ride the tumult of surging planetary systems while also recognizing the devastation these discontinuities are inflicting.

I am not a master at holding the uncomfortable (if you are then you are also an expert in prayer), and I did not get out of bed on October 7th with renewed energy and enthusiasm. I happened upon that presencing exercise by chance, and I have only employed it a few times since. But other difficulties in my personal life have forced me to sit with unwelcome emotions, at least unconsciously, for many years. Which might explain why I am not paralyzed with grief whenever I face the long term realities of anthropogenic global warming. Most opinion and news pieces that take seriously Hansen’s prognostications are written in listless tones that evince the authors’ private thoughts of “We’re screwed.” But such a pessimistic mindset means that one has a narrow view of what cultural transformation looks like. In the words of Bayo Akomolafe, “an immaculate straight line was never ‘there’ to begin with…The world stretches far and wide beyond our blind spots, our analyses, and our convictions about what justice looks like.”10 The aforementioned authors probably think that change is a straight line and will come in the form of the orderly, responsive legislation envisioned by Al Gore or the grand societal awakening extolled in Melissa Etheridge’s accompanying anthem “I Need to Wake Up.” In my experience of growing comfortable with grief, though, I’ve learned that “waking up” is inherently chaotic, prolonged, and potentially violent.

The tumult and isolation of cocoons is necessary for metamorphosis. Indeed, lying in bed with my hands on my stomach, just being mindful of my breathing, made it feel like my grief and anxiety formed a claustrophobic seal. But because of this practice, which I had been unknowingly doing for years, I am able to look back at the past 3 to 4 decades of scientific revelations about atmospheric warming and the resulting lack of political action not as a waste, but as a necessary part of a prolonged process.

Surging sea levels and temperatures are proxies for the other transformation Spirit is asking us to undergo in the 3rd millennium. That transformation involves grief, and abrupt climate change is only one window into our despair. The real change we must manifest is uninhibited relation to our full selves, the Earth, and – by extension – the universe. Such a task is beyond any political party. All 7.9 billion of us alive today are being asked to do internal work and know our soul grounds, which necessarily include grief, anger, pain, and disappointment. When enough of us hold the uncomfortable, then we will realize that the path to the more beautiful world our hearts desire is much more convoluted and surprising than we thought. Then we will create that more beautiful world.

(Pixaby)

“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).

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.