It’s Thanksgiving Day and I am looking out of my studio windows. I never tire of the view. The view changes seasonally but each season offers its own delights. I’m situated on a small cove off upper Broad Creek. The cove doesn’t look much like a cove at all, or even a part of the great Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the U.S.A. It looks more like a mud pond. The wind is shifting to the northwest, blowing across the creek and cove, driving most of the water out. It exposes a mudflat, strewn with the half-shells of spent oysters. It’s one of the hidden graveyards of bivalves, common around tidewater.
It’s fall’s last gasp. Wind seizes the remaining leaves from the limbs they cling to; the tethered leaves flutter at first, reluctant to surrender their moorings. Unable to hold on, the leaves break free, off on the ride of their lives –their first and last – and before they finally light they zig zag, whimsically, as moths and butterflies flit this way and that before they land. In the meantime, trees sway to and fro, and the residual water in the cove shivers as if chilled. It’s a natural thing, timely.
I am thankful for the beauty of this place. The day before Thanksgiving, in the media, I learned that the world, as we know it, is on its way out. I wish it were fake news.
The United Nations Environmental Programme issued a decisive report of their findings concerning climate change. A changing climate is impacting us now. Although the subject is about warming, the report is chilling, even apocalyptic, as it reveals the extent of our relentlessly warming atmosphere. Its effects are already evident; diseases, like malaria expanding into higher latitudes, more severe hurricanes, coastal flooding inundating cities and the increased acidity in our oceans which destroy the world’s coral reefs that sustain the life of millions of fish species. I’m sad, I feel helpless. Do leaves feel this way when the wind tears them from their limbs? I don’t think so. What’s happening to them is at the right time. In our case, it’s not.
It was fifty-three years ago when I felt this same helplessness and grief. I was scared, then, too. It had been a warm, sunny June day. I sat by a window in my mother’s room. The window was open, enough that a warm breeze wafted through the open window making the curtains slowly rise and fall. My mother was in bed. I am sad because I knew she was dying. Cancer is so rapacious; its errant cells mercilessly devour a body. You don’t notice it at first. Then it metastasizes and there’s no doubt. The cells traveled through her body and this once beautiful woman wasted away. I sat, helplessly, and watched the subtle changes in her breathing as she slept. She is being wrested from her limb but something has gone awry; it is not the natural time for her death. She is in her mid-fifties. It is not the right time.
The president says the U.N. report is a hoax, fake news. Congress gives no indication of having any will to act on any of the recommendations of the Programme. Devouring the fair beauty of the earth will also waste its inhabitants, and it will be a lingering process. This seems so wrong to me. I sit at the window of my studio; the trees sway, like curtains in a breeze, indifferently and I grieve.
Love and loss. They’re part of the deal. The world we are born into, as stunningly beautiful as it is, with all its delights, lays out strict terms for its residents; some of these terms are bitter. In the course of our lives we will struggle to make our peace with them, chiefly with suffering and death. Losing someone or something we love is a harsh condition; it’s just how it is. But what’s more bitter and not written in our contract with life, are losses sustained because of ignorance, and I don’t mean ignorant in its common use as an insult; we are all ignorant. We know little for certain. There’s another kind of ignorance, the kind that, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the evidence is ignored and dismissed. Suffering always follows.
The United Nations Environmental Programme has revealed how, with scientifically verifiable data, the planet’s disease process is metastasizing rapidly. Disease symptoms have been identified in several parts of our world body; the air, earth, air and water, effectively its essential organs. The forces we have put in power claim that the data is a hoax. Politicians are silent and inert.
When Rachel Carson wrote her book, Silent Spring, it was published in 1962. Her findings were dismissed as fabrications. The then captains of industry, men, the ones in power, insisted that because Dr. Carson was a woman, and women were known to be hysterical – especially unmarried women – her claims weren’t credible. Dr. Carson documented how agricultural chemicals were poisoning the food chain. Toxins were being insinuated into the soil, into vegetation, into fish and wildlife, leached into aquifers, emptying into the sea and finally appearing in the human body. Carcinogens, from waste disposal of common household chemicals were inducing cancers in various parts of the world body. As enlightened visionaries emerge, ignorance grows up around them like weeds. True prophets have a rough way to go in our land.
But what to do.
Recycle. It seems a small step but the one over which we have immediate control. But recycling also indicates a realistic understanding of what the earth is – not something we use and throw away but a treasure. The second step, a more challenging one, is voting out the nay-sayers, and voting in advocates who are not immobilized by ignorance but ready to take remedial action. Finally, rethinking how we understand the earth will inform how we act. If we treat the earth as we do now, as real estate, a commodity primarily for our profit, the way we once regarded slaves, abuse is inevitable. If we see the planet as a sacred trust, we will behave toward it with deference and respect
John Mitchel, in his thoughtful book, The Earth Spirit, wrote this: “The earth [is]sacred, not because pious people chose to regard it, but because it was in fact ruled by spirit, by the creative powers of the universe, manifest in all the phenomena of nature, shaping the features of the landscape, regulating the seasons, and the cycles of fertility, and the lives of animals and men.”
The earth, like our bodies is informed by the same spirit. “Speak to the earth and it will teach you,” wrote Job. Listen to what it’s saying. It’s a matter of life and death.
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