knowing, forgetting, and making change

As the fall season settles in, I'm finding myself with a little more time to read in the evenings.  I've got a few things on the bedside table, but the one that's occupying my thoughts most right now is a book by Elizabeth Kolbert called Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change.  It's a journalistic account of what's happening to our planet, with first-hand reporting and interviews with residents and scientists around the globe, in the Arctic, in Holland, in Costa Rica, in Vermont...

I've just started the book, and I'll tell you, it's a challenging read. I had read a series of Kolbert's articles in the New Yorker, a few years ago, and they were shocking, actually.  I mean, we hear about global warming and climate change, and we have been experiencing increasingly unsettled weather in recent years. I've read about vanishing glaciers, and endangered polar bears.  But this knowledge hasn't really penetrated my visceral, immediate worldview.  Somehow, it's possible to know something--in this case, the vast dangers of global warming to our planetary ecosystem--but then to compartmentalize that knowledge away from everyday decisionmaking.  Kolbert's articles were shocking, they hit me hard, and I tried to share them with people ("You've got to read this!"), but soon thereafter, I forgot about them.

Our ability to forget such things, or compartmentalize them, is one of our real human weaknesses.  I smoked cigarettes for years.  I knew they were toxic, I knew they were lethal.  Yet I continued.  In the final year that I smoked, I would treat myself to a smoke after going to the gym, some kind of sick reward.  We humans are strange and complicated beings.

When we allow ourselves to fully integrate such scary knowledges--like the dangers of smoking, and the vulnerability of our planet--we can make real changes in our behavior.  But this is hard work, and perhaps why there is so much resistance to acting to slow down climate change.  (I'm referring here to change at the individual level, not the corporate/organizational/political level, which has another order of challenges...)

Personally, I'm working to integrate the knowledge that I've been gaining about eating meat: the tremendous strain placed on our environment from producing a meat-heavy diet, the miserable and fetid lives of animals that are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (and the diseases that thrive unders such conditions), the difficulty in finding meat that is sustainably and humanely raised and slaughtered...

We can take smaller steps, like participating in Meatless Monday, a campaign to cut out meat one day a week in order to improve our health and reduce the stress on the environment.  We can make sure we understand the manifold connections between food production and climate change (watch Food, Inc, if you haven't already), and pass on what we know.  We can support local farmers, and get to know the people who produce our food (check out the USDA's new website, "Know Your Farmer" and find farmer's markets near you).  We can choose organic, pesticide-free and heirloom varieties of food, to diversify our food supply and reduce the number of toxins added to our food and to the earth.  And we can start, all of us, to grow a little of our own food.  (There's an app for that: "Botanical Interests" can help you start gardening with your iPhone; thanks Urban Gardens for the find!) 

There's so much more we can do--we can step away from plastics, carpool and buy fuel efficient cars, press our government to invest in public transportation, and compost our vegetable waste, just for starters...

But mostly I think we have to let ourselves deeply integrate the intellectual knowledge we already have, and let a global perspective shape our vision.  The scientific community is very concerned, as each year, new research is outpacing earlier projections.  The icecaps are melting faster than we thought, there are redoubling effects that were unforeseen, and each year we are breaking more and more funky weather records...(If you haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth, the movie explains why weather will get more and more extreme and unsettled, rather than simply getting hotter.) 

All the knowledge in the world, though, isn't going to change our behavior, until we see ourselves as part of, integrated into, the natural world, rather than separate from it.  We are each of us organic matter, part of the universe, connected through the air we breathe and water we drink.  These elements cycle through us and swirl around us.  What I do to the air and the water impacts that planetary swirl.  We are woven together, and we are creating our future, at every moment, with every breath.

(This post is in alliance with Blog Action Day, focused on Climate Change)

your one wild and precious life

"The Summer Day" 
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world? 
Who made the swan, and the black bear? 
Who made the grasshopper? 
This grasshopper, I mean— 
the one who has flung herself out of the grass, 
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, 
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down— 
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. 
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. 
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. 
I don't know exactly what a prayer is. 
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down 
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, 
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, 
which is what I have been doing all day. 
Tell me, what else should I have done? 
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? 
Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?

I've been contemplating a new title for this blog, and was most recently settling on the phrase "one wild and precious life" from the poem above.  Part of my move to the farm, to this attentive life, came from my understanding, all of a sudden, on a small boat rocked by rain and waves off the coast of an island in Honduras, that we only have this one life, that we are such small creatures in this great universe, and that there is no time to be wasted.  

We had gone out early with a marine ecology boat, to look for dolphins and observe the marine life.  The boat was partially uncovered, and we sat toward the back, getting lightly sprayed with water as the boat rode against the waves.  And then it started drizzling.  And then it started raining.  And I thought, well, we're about to go snorkeling, what does it matter to get wet?  And then it started raining for real, and the chop came over the sides in huge waves.  As the water poured down on me from above and from the sides, I had a flash of insight:  we are mere specks in a giant sphere of water...And I began laughing, joyfully...

We are mere specks in the flood, and we are here for just a few moments.  This realization comforted me, gave me perspective...and made me desire to be connected to the natural world.  Being out among the open sky and the big water makes my soul soar...being among the trees and the dirt makes me breathe more deeply, slows my pace, makes me see.

So I've been toying with the phrase, "one wild and precious life," because that's what I want this blog to focus on...that realization that this is it, this is my life, and every bit of it matters.  How am I going to live this life?  How will I make use of the time I have?  What will I do to bring joy to others, to comfort, to heal?  I write to help me slow down and appreciate, to be present to my own experience, to stop rushing through time, to cease my stomping on the ground.  To prevent me from deferring, postponing, doubting, squashing.

And the phrase seems only more apt after this week, which brought about the death of one of the most remarkable women I've known, Gail Burns-Smith.  I knew her primarily as my best friend's mother, and she was like a second mother to me, especially during the rough years of high school and college.  She always welcomed me; when I brought my partner Anne to meet her, she welcomed her like a daughter, too.  Gail was also a passionate advocate and organizer, focused on stopping sexual violence against women.  This week, as tributes and condolences poured in from across the country, I learned just how effective she was, how her work was instrumental in passing the national Violence Against Women Act, as well as numerous state laws, and in creating the national model for victim advocates.  Her obituary, written by her husband Tom, the profile of her from the organization she built, and the feature on her in the Hartford Courant, together begin to illuminate just how much of an impact she had, and how much she was loved and admired.

But nothing can really capture her laugh, her incisive wit, her courage, her big heart.  By the way she lived her life, I think she must have understood that all we have is one wild and precious life...tell me, what will you do with yours?