“When you’re in a place that is not your own among people not like you, your first impulse has to be respect. Even if you don’t understand, you have to show respect for what is technically called another epistemology, another way of knowing the world.” – Barry Lopez
After nearly eight years of blogging at Books Can Save a Life, I’ll be taking a break to work on other writing projects and bookish activities. I’ll be back from time to time, though, when extraordinary books and literary happenings come along.
When I started Books Can Save a Life, I was thinking primarily about books saving lives personally and individually. Over the years, my reading has come to include books that I believe save lives in a much broader sense. Books have always been a way for me to understand the world, and I believe books can help us save value systems, democracies, species, and perhaps even humanity.
We don’t really know, of course. Barry Lopez recently said there is no place for despair and pessimism if we are to have the energy and wisdom for a massive course correction:
“The whole thing is on the line now. The entire meaning of the evolution of homo sapiens. We either show that our power of invention is tremendous or we show that the development of the imagination in the hominid line was maladaptive.”
Barry’s latest book, Horizon, a culmination of his life as a world traveller and seeker, is a handful at over 500 pages. If you don’t want to take on the book, I encourage you to listen to this 15-minute interview with Lopez at Public Radio International’s Living on Earth.It is filled with transcendent words of wisdom I wish everyone could hear.
All of us can work toward a more humanitarian culture and learn to take better better care of the earth. We’ve reached an inflection point in human history, and it’s our destiny to do the important work we’re each called to do. Reading can fortify us.
I’ve enjoyed sharing my reading journey with you.
“You can call it global climate change, you can call it the disintegration of democratic forms of government….the need to attack this issue, to me, is like one of the great voyages that we now have to choose to make, to move into unknown territory, into uncharted lands….My hope is that people will say, ‘We’re in trouble. What is going to be the vessel on which we sail?’ And, maybe more importantly, ‘Who is going to be the navigator?'” – Barry Lopez
“What is being asked from us in the present in relationship to the past and unfolding future?” – Sandra Easter in Jung, etc…
Things were not going so well.
As I boarded the plane in Madrid for the last leg of our flight to Sweden, the handle on my brand new luggage broke. Inside, the bins on both sides of the aisle over my seat were filled with first aid equipment. The nearby bins were full, too. When I asked the steward where I should put my luggage, he snapped, “Do you want me to make the plane bigger? I can’t make the plane bigger just for you!”
What happened next, Carl Jung might call a synchronicity.
I left my suitcase in the aisle and squeezed into my window seat in the last row of the plane, next to a beautiful young Swedish woman, Amelie. As if the universe were making sure I paid attention, Amelie’s face bore a striking resemblance to my former college roommate and close friend, Kathy, who has Norwegian ancestry. Except that Amelie’s hair was ice blonde instead of dark, and her eyes, instead of brown, were brilliant blue.
While another, calmer, steward found a place for my suitcase, I talked with Amelie, who is a physician and a mom. I told her I was visiting Sweden for the first time, in part to research my family history. Mormor, my maternal grandmother, was from near Falkenberg on the Swedish west coast; Morfar, my grandfather, had been born in the rural, inland town of Fritsla. After sightseeing with a friend in Stockholm, I’d be heading to Falkenberg and Fritsla with my son.
“I grew up in Fritsla,” Amelie said. “In fact, my father has been researching the history of our family and the town.”
We couldn’t believe the coincidence.
I told Amelie that I knew very little about my grandfather, who had been an orphan. Apparently, he’d been raised by an aunt and uncle after he lost a parent and a sibling in a flu epidemic. My Swedish grandmother, Mormor, had often corresponded with family back in Sweden but, as far as I knew, Morfar hadn’t communicated with anyone in Sweden after he came to America.
By the time I knew him, Morfar was a solitary man who rarely spoke. He’d sit in his living room chair and gaze out the window for hours, then disappear when no one was looking, which upset Mormor, who would then go and fetch him from the corner bar.
I had always wanted to learn more about my Swedish roots, especially because growing up I’d felt distant from both of my parents’ extended families. My mother’s schizophrenia made her isolated and uncommunicative. She didn’t go to Sweden when my aunts traveled there in the early 1990s to meet their aunts and uncles and cousins, nor did she enjoy having visitors in our home. When relatives came to see us, they didn’t linger; the relationships my brothers and I had with them were markedly curtailed. These restrictions frayed our kinship, diminished well-being, and made keener my lifelong desire to connect with our larger family.
Trauma is a risk factor for serious mental illnesses. It’s theorized that the effects of trauma might be passed down through generations via genes that become “tagged,” or marked, in some way. So my mother’s troubled history made me extra curious to learn more about my grandfather’s life, since I knew his childhood had been difficult.
Even if the gene tagging theory isn’t correct, I believe the trauma and fallout are passed down in other ways. The further I got on my Swedish odyssey, the more it struck me how little many of us know about our ancestors, how missing they are from our lives, and how incomplete that makes us. What a loss.
“I had the feeling that I was a historical fragment, an excerpt for which the preceding and succeeding text was missing. My life seemed to have been snipped out of a long chain of events, and many questions remained unanswered.” –Carl Jung, as quoted in Jung, etc by Sandra Easter
Talking with Amelie kept my mind off of the turbulence, the swirling dark clouds, and the sleet outside the airplane window. She told me about her work at a medical clinic in Stockholm. She’s a reader, too, and we talked about Swedish and American literature. She showed me pictures of her beautiful children, and I showed her old family photos on my smartphone. Amelie offered to see if her father could find out anything about my grandfather and his family.
As the plane approached Stockholm, it broke through the thick layers of gray-white clouds. I saw Sweden for the first time: lush, rolling hills; sparkling lakes the color of Amelie’s eyes; dense forests; and land cultivated in orderly rows, dotted with red farmhouses and outbuildings.
During my week in Stockholm, I received an amazing surprise via email from Amelie and her father: a detailed, multi-page history of my grandfather and his family, complete with photos and documentation, culled from Swedish sources and translated into English.
This information would prove invaluable to understanding my grandfather’s childhood, and provide us with an itinerary of locations to visit in Fritsla. But first, we stopped in Älekulla to meet my cousin Jan and to see the land where my grandfather’s grandfather had lived.
“….Originating in what Jung refers to as the ‘mighty deposit of ancestral experience,’ each individual life originates in and is woven into this infinite ancestral story, this ‘original web of life.’ The fine thread of our fate, woven into ‘all the events of time,’ is connected to the lives of our ancestors and our descendants. Each of us is a unique response to all that has come before and all that will come after.” –Jung,etc.
I’m sure that life wasn’t easy for my grandfather’s farming ancestors in Älekulla. But I sensed they were bolstered by a strong faith, a deep connection to family, the land and their community, and a shared history going back generations.
As I would learn in part from Amelie and her father’s report, these blessings were not nearly as present in the lives of my great grandfather and my grandfather. More about that in my next post.
My son and I discovered that researching our roots is also about the journey itself, and the extraordinary people you meet along the way. Many thanks to Amelie Sandin, Pär Sandin, Jan Andersson, Jan-Åke Stensson, Irene Svensson, and Gunvor, who restored to my son and me many of the beautiful fragments of our family history. I hope we can return one day to learn more and to see these kind, generous people once again.
“Each one of us as a ‘historical fragment’ within a longer story, comes into this world with a particular ‘pattern’ that is, according to Jung, a response and answer to what is unresolved, unredeemed, and unanswered. The pattern of our particular life, our genius and gifts, become evident and are developed as we listen and respond to the ‘lament of the dead’ with love. Every person, every gift is an important part of the integrity and well-being of the interconnected web of kinship. Engaging in a more conscious dialogue with the ancestors, each of us can more consciously and fully live the life that is ours alone to live. Doing so contributes to the well-being of all our kin. I would suggest that in addition to our lives being a response to what is waiting for resolution, redemption, or an answer, each of our lives is also in service to our descendants.” – Susan Easter in Jung, etc. (Boldface is mine.)
During the months and weeks I prepared for my trip to Sweden, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg made great strides drawing attention to climate issues. In March, she was nominated for the 2019 Nobel peace prize. Her work speaks to those who believe that we live in service of our descendants. We’re at a turning point in civilization. Those of us who are alive now have an especially crucial role to play. We must step up, don’t you think?
After we moved from upstate New York to central Oregon, one of the most unsettling adjustments we had to make was contending with late-summer wildfire smoke. For several days in a row, I didn’t venture outside. On a couple of especially bad days, people wore masks if they had to go out and about.
As bleak as The Uninhabitable Earth is, it did relieve me of my wildfire and smoke worries, somewhat. Should we stay where the air can be so hazardous to our health? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. No place on earth will remain unaffected by climate change upheaval, and the climate we enjoyed growing up is gone forever.
This book is being compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which had an enormous impact when it was published in 1962.
But of course The Uninhabitable Earth was not a pleasant book to read. I hurried through it, sometimes skimming, often wanting to put it down.
“The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset…: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead.”
David Wallace-Wells intends for The Uninhabitable Earth to arouse fear, even panic, so that we will finally do something. He has been one of the first writers to synthesize research on catastrophic climate change that involves warming of 4 degrees Celsius or higher – because this is what we are on track for so far – and present it to a lay audience.
Something new I learned was that most atmospheric damage has occurred during the last thirty years, and not since the Industrial Revolution began. For the past thirty years, we were raising our children. It isn’t easy to acknowledge that my generation, more than any other, is most responsible for this mess.
“Many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries – all the millennia – that came before. ….The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld.”
It is also depressing to know that my adult children and nieces and nephews – and any grandchildren we might someday have – will have lives severely degraded by climate change. They will have no choice but to engage in an epic, lifelong battle.
It’s not just about sea level rise, either. If we do nothing, other catastrophic changes will “deform” every life on the planet: heat, hunger, wildfire, lack of water, unbreathable air, economic collapse, war, and masses of refugees.
“…150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5 degree warmer one….Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150 million is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts. It is three times the size of the death toll of the Great Leap Forward – the largest nonmilitary death toll humanity has ever produced. It is more than twice the greatest death toll of any kind, World War II.”
“The thing is, I am optimistic. Given the prospect that humans could engineer a climate that is 6 or 8 degrees warmer over the course of the next several centuries – large swaths of the planet unlivable by any definition we use today – that degraded middle counts, for me, as an encouraging future. Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced through many millennia of strain and strife and all-out war. But it is not a fatalistic scenario; in fact, it’s a whole lot better than where we are headed.”
Many people David’s age are opting not to bring children into the world. I was touched to read that while he wrote this book, David Wallace-Wells became a father. And, yes, he is hopeful.
“In the course of writing this book, I did have a child, Rocca…I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won…I have to admit, I am also excited, for everything that Rocca and her sisters and brothers will see, will witness, will do. She will hit her child-rearing years around 2050, when we could have climate refugees in the many tens of millions; she will be entering old age at the close of the century, the end-stage bookmark on all of our projections for warming. In between, she will watch the world doing battle with a genuinely existential threat, and the people of her generation making a future for themselves, and the generations they bring into being, on this planet. And she won’t just be watching it, she will be living it – quite literally the greatest story ever told. It may well bring a happy ending.”
Wallace-Wells has this to say, in a footnote:
“….particular market forces have almost conquered our politics, but not entirely, leaving a bright shining sliver of opportunity; and I also believe…that meaningful and even dramatic change can be achieved through the familiar paths: voting and organizing and political activity deployed at every level. In other words, I believe in engagement above all, engagement wherever it may help. In fact, I find any other response to the climate crisis morally incomprehensible.”
Currently, my husband and I are familiarizing ourselves with climate activism in central Oregon so that we can become involved. We’ll try to make environmentally responsible lifestyle changes, too, but we agree with Wallace-Wells that political activism is now our best hope.
Here is Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, now 16 years old. She has rocketed to fame in recent months and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize:
Thoughts? Please comment! What books, if any, are you reading about climate change? How are you coping psychologically, and have you found ways to feel empowered?
Next time, I will bring you a beautifully written book of hope by Rebecca Solnit.
embrace: to hold (someone) closely in one’s arms. From Middle English, encircle, surround, enclose; Old French, embracer, based on Latin ‘in’ ‘arm.’ (English Oxford Living Dictionaries)
Last week I had a writer’s residency in the 16,000-acre H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. West of the Oregon Cascades, the Andrews is the most studied forest in North American and perhaps the world. Much of the forest is old growth, and some of it is ancient – between 500 and 700 years old.
A fantastic thing about the Andrews Forest, which is supported by Oregon State University and the US Forest Service, is that the scientists and researchers there value partnerships with the those of us in the humanities. The Long-Term Ecological Reflections Program, co-founded by Kathleen Dean Moore, invites writers, photographers, musicians, artists and philosophers to “reflect on the meaning and significance of the ancient forest ecosystem as the forest – and its relation to human culture – evolves over time.”
Writing, art and music produced by guest artists at the Andrews become part of the Andrews Forest Log, which will be compiled for two hundred years.
Although I didn’t get a chance to do so during my stay, often writers and artists can tag along with scientists as they go about their research. My wish is to return to the Andrews so that I can go out with the spotted owl team – we’ll see.
I shared the beautiful Green House, trimmed in forest timber, with a talented writer (my son’s age!) and all-around beautiful person who has already in her young life drafted a novel and written and directed a play. Georgina and I were lucky that our stay overlapped for a couple of days with a working visit by photographerDavid Paul Bayles.
We spent an evening with David talking art and life. After you see David’s photos, you’ll never look at trees the same way – and you’ll understand why he refers to his photographs as magical realism. David spends hours in the forest shooting one photograph, followed by many more hours editing in his studio to achieve his singular technique.
I was anticipating synergies between the two books: Teddy Roosevelt fully embraced Darwin’s new theory of evolution, and Kingsolver’s novel tells the story of a 19th century instructor shunned for teaching his young students about Darwin’s theory.
I loved the Roosevelt biography but Unsheltered wasn’t for me.
I chose to read the biography because in my Oregon Master Naturalist class, one of the naturalist teachers literally hugged the volume as she referred to it as her bible. I don’t usually read biographies, especially of US presidents, but this one is fabulous. Author and historian Douglas Brinkley tells the story of Roosevelt’s passion for the natural world and how he set aside millions of acres in perpetuity for the public to enjoy. At 800 pages, it is a reading odyssey, but it’s well worth it if you’re interested in TR as an undeterred trailblazer of US conservation.
In the early 1900s, Roosevelt wrote in a letter that he thought the vast majority of the educated American public had come to accept the theory of evolution. I wonder how that compares with today?
I read all of Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction – I loved The Poisonwood Bible, Flight Behavior, and The Lacuna – but I was disappointed in Unsheltered. The intertwined tales of two 19th century devotees of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and a modern-day family in crisis underwhelmed me.
Kingsolver sometimes uses her characters as mouthpieces for her themes and political beliefs, and she does this whole-heartedly in Unsheltered. The dialogue is preachy and tiresome, especially between the modern-day out-of-work journalist and her professor husband. Granted, the two are intellectuals, but I found their conversations (even in bed!) heavy-handed and unbelievable.
I’m just starting Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory, which has gotten excellent reviews. David Paul Bayles is reading it too, and he told us that the forest depicted in the novel is the HJ Andrews Forest!
I’ve heard this is a complex, multi-layered book. I’ll let you know what I think.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be working on a new “From Where I Stand” audio essay based on my stay at the Andrews Forest.
I don’t want to give away the theme of my essay, but here’s a clue: yesterday, a newly released report warned of a planetary climate crisis as early as 2040.
Oh, but some of us in this country don’t believe in science, do we?
Many thanks to the H.J. Andrews Forest folks for generously supporting opportunities for science and the humanities to meet and for enabling artists of all kinds to enjoy this special place.
Have you been reading good eco-fiction or nonfiction nature writing? Tell us about it.
This is the scary, provocative, grieving, truthful, and energizing book to read if you want to come to grips with climate change and decide what, if anything, you are going to do about it.
Great Tide Rising is not filled with climate science and facts about global warming and how to “solve” it with know-how and technology. In her book, Kathleen Dean Moore, an acclaimed nature essayist, philosopher, and environmental leader, frames climate change and habitat destruction as moral and ethical questions, guiding readers toward possible answers. Two of the gravest moral questions we face are:
Why is it wrong to wreck the world?
What is our obligation to our children, our children’s children, and the future?
“I object…to the language of the sixth extinction and will not use it. The current extinction is something morally different from the first five. For all their horror, for all their calamitous power, the early extinctions were natural Earth processes, what the insurance industry calls ‘acts of God,’ beyond human control or culpability. This current great wave of dying is the direct result of human decisions, knowing and intentional, or willfully and wantonly reckless. That’s a difference of moral significance. It changes a calamity into a cosmic crime, a perversion of human power….To call this just the sixth in a long series of extinction cycles is what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’; it’s not the same thing. Extinctions one through five call us to awe. Number six calls us to rage – rage against the dying.”
For me, Great Tide Rising is a kind of primer, or bible, for our time. A bible in the sense that it contains Moore’s eloquent, clarifying language, as well as the wisdom of our greatest environmental prophets, including Aldo Leopold,Edward Abbey,Joanna Macy, and even the poet Mary Oliver.
A bible, too, because it urges us to bear witness to that which must change, and then to act. By “act,” Moore does not mean switching to eco-friendly light bulbs; she means for us to seek a larger purpose and vision for our lives in light of the disaster we face. Great Tide Rising is a kind of bible because it can be turned to often for wisdom and guidance as we head into a treacherous future.
“It’s a… stunning thing that we face climatic changes that will undermine the lives of our children – and very few people are talking about it….most likely it’s a variety of what American intellectual Lewis Mumford called a ‘magnificent bribe.’ The bargain is that each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education’ – on the condition, I would say, that they never ask where it came from, or at what cost in human suffering, at what cost to the future, or to what long-term effect. That’s the deal: If they ask, they have to turn away from their glittering lives.”
Great Tide Rising refers not just to sea level rise, but to the growing groundswell of people questioning our way of life and committed to a profound shift in thinking. Joanna Macy calls this The Great Turning. In Macy’s words:
“The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization…A revolution is under way because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world….Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.”
Macy, Kathleen Dean Moore, and other environmental leaders do not know if humans and other life forms will survive what is to come, even if we take massive action. The deal is, we are to bear witness and act regardless of the outcome.
For Great Tide Rising, Moore interviewed Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor at Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who spoke of the human instinct to create. Her words compose one of the most beautiful and hopeful passages in the book:
“Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life – that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways – creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves….
Our work is to align ourselves with evolutionary processes instead of standing in their way or derailing them. So our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the fourteen-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves. Our challenge is to construct livable cities and to cultivate healthy foods in ways congruent with Earth’s patterns. We need the variety of ecological understanding so we can align ourselves with the creative forces of the universe.
Something is changing; an era is changing. If we are shutting down the Cenozoic era…the great work is to imagine how the new era can unfold. Our work in the world is not just a stopgap to extinction….We are part of the Great Work, as Thomas Berry would say, of laying the foundation of a new cultural era.”
I have only touched on highlights of Great Tide Rising. There is so much more, including a special appeal for grandparents to act on behalf of their grandchildren and future generations.
We learned that a manufacturer’s leaky septic tank has been releasing a plume of heavy metals and a cancer-causing chemical, contaminating some of the groundwater and soil in our former upstate New York town. Testing will determine the extent of the contamination. Fortunately, the affected water is not the drinking water. Ironically, my first audio essay on Terrain.org, “Water Bewitched,” celebrated our neighborhood’s life-giving underground streams and how great it was to raise a family there. I’m not celebrating now.
We are purchasing a few acres of land, and so we plumbed the mysteries of central Oregon irrigation, which is being modernized for less water waste (because mountain snowpack, an important source of water, will decline with climate change) and to restore flow in area waterways. (Strange timing for us, as we mourned the polluted and possibly dangerous groundwater in our former hometown.) Thanks to irrigation upgrades here and other efforts, a local creek no longer dries up every summer and, as of 2016, steelhead trout and chinook salmon seem to be returning. We’ve had something of a tribute to salmon on this blog of late. For more salmon thoughts, see “The memoir I didn’t want to write about” and Turning Homeward.
Indoors, I started lavender, rosemary, chives, kale, and pearl onions from seeds. We reclaimed the raised beds in the backyard of the home we’re renting, and so far we’ve planted carrots, spinach, kale, miner’s lettuce, winter lettuce, and maché. Lately, it’s been fun to discover flowers blooming in our yard planted by former tenants.
I completed the first half of my Oregon Master Naturalist class. For our final essay, we reflected on whether, to save endangered species, we should “transplant” species back into habitats in officially designated wilderness areas. By law, federal wilderness is typically free of human intervention. In my essay, I wrote that carefully selected species transplants are worth a try. In my heart, though, I believe Naomi Klein, “Only mass social movements can save us now.” The question stimulated much discussion and a good share of angst. A classmate doubts moving species around will make a difference, and cited Stephen Hawking:“We must continue to go into space for the future of humanity. I don’t think we will survive another 1000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” Someone else wrote that, given the sixth extinction, hard choices about which species to save are in order. Triage is required, as in medicine. He went on to say that human efforts will ultimately have no meaning and no importance. Wildlife experts, naturalists, climate scientists, and volunteers are grappling with these issues, while many of our government leaders pretend they don’t exist. The cognitive dissonance in our culture is deafening.
The cognitive dissonance in our culture is deafening.
I put The Sixth Extinction back on my shelf for another day. Sometimes, a book of this nature, no matter how critically acclaimed, is just too much information.
The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association released its new Event Code of Conduct. It is meant for booksellers, librarians, exhibitors, guests, attendees, and volunteers. The new code states, in part:
“Prohibitive behavior includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, ethnicity, and religion; deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, sustained disruption of talks or other events; unwelcome photography or recording, physical contact, or sexual attention.”
Books, their heroic characters, and the talented writers who create them can make a huge difference in a young person’s life. When these heroes fall, it can be devastating.
Adrift, and a timely new edition of a little-known book
One year ago, my husband left for a two-week expedition to Antarctica. He traveled with 90 other tourists aboard a former research vessel and ice breaker. It was the trip of a lifetime, and he was among the sixteen or so tourists who ventured out kayaking. I asked him to bring back some sounds of Antarctica, and he did.
Finally, in November, I created an audio essay, “Adrift,” from some of those recordings, and it was published as part of my “From Where I Stand” series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environment. The audio essay is six minutes long, and I hope you’ll take a few moments and listen. I would appreciate comments, thoughts, and feedback here or on Terrain.org. If you’re intrigued, please check out the other poems, articles, letters, and features on Terrain.org, an outstanding online journal.
I gave my audio essay the title “Adrift” for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this past summer a massive iceberg broke off from the Antarctic mainland, alarming climate scientists and environmentalists. The rogue iceberg has since been floating away from mainland Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. “Adrift” also came to mind because our country is more seriously adrift than ever in regards to acknowledging climate change and taking action.
This past Christmas, our older son who is the avid reader brought home the novel Ice by Anna Kavan. I’d been seeing the 50th Anniversary Edition online, but I’d never heard of the book or the author. Curious, I read the novel in an evening. It embodies the lost feeling of being adrift in the worst possible way. It’s difficult to summarize Ice, except to say that it is a singular, dystopian masterpiece that is eerily of our time, even though it was written in the 1960s. Reading it at this particular moment is especially resonant, given the recent bomb cyclone and deep freeze in the eastern half of the United States. In the novel, ice and bone-chilling cold encroach on the world due to an unnamed environmental or nuclear disaster. Iceis, in part, the story of an ecocatastrophe. (This is the apt word of a New York Times reviewer, not mine).
It is also the story of a man searching for a woman; he finds her but then loses her. He finds her again but then is somehow apart from her. And on and on, his search continues, as in a dream from which he can’t awaken. Reviewers say that his endless, obsessive search is in part a metaphor for the author’s struggle with drug addiction.
In the novel’s foreword, Jonathan Lethem writes that Ice has a nightmarish quality, with a disjointed, endless loop of a narrative similar to the style of Kazuo Ishiguro, and I know what he means: the tone and narrative reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. It’s a disturbing novel by a relatively unknown author who has not gotten the attention she deserves, an arresting but bleak story. There is, though, a note of redemption on the last pages.
Books Can Save a Life, 2018
In a sense, my husband and I have been adrift, too, but in a more positive way. If you’ve been following Books Can Save a Life, you know that in October we left our dear, long-time upstate New York home and embarked on a cross country journey by car and train, stopping at several National Parks and scenic places in search of adventure and a new home.
In November, we landed in Portland, Oregon and in December we found the place that we’ll be calling home, at least for the next year: the high desert of Bend, Oregon. We’ve signed a year’s lease on an adorable bungalow in Bend’s historic district, known as Old Bend. Our intention is to spend the year immersing in nature – a face of nature that is novel and new for us, embodied in the dry climate east of the Cascade mountains.
We’d also like to see if we can learn to live more sustainably, in a more ecologically responsible way.
For example, we’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood where we can walk to the grocery store, the library, church, coffee shops, and restaurants. At the moment, we own one car, not two. We may take classes in permaculture and we’re looking into Oregon’s Master Naturalist and Master Gardener programs. Joe has signed up to renew his Wilderness First Responder Certification.
On Books Can Save a Life,books will continue to be the unifying thread, but I hope also to write about our lifestyle changes and their challenges. Concurrently, I’ll continue to highlight environmental and nature writers such as Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry,Terry Tempest Williams,Bill McKibben, and other modern-day prophets who are deeply connected to the natural world.
As always, I hope to feature other important, topical fiction and nonfiction as well. Jaron Lanier was one of the writers new to me in 2017 who impressed me the most, with his vision of a humanitarian information/technology economy. These are challenging times, and I’d like to focus on novelists and nonfiction writers like Lanier who give us visions of a more humane world.
Originally, I began writing Books Can Save a Life to extend my author platform in preparation for publishing a memoir about mental illness in my family. Now, I have a rather ungainly memoir draft that needs cutting and that’s offering me plenty of opportunities for further creativity and deepening. (In other words, it needs revising. :))
As time goes on I’m more convinced that memoirs are making a difference. To that end, on Books Can Save a Life I’ll continue to occasionally tell you about memoirs that I think are exceptional, as well as books and writers concerned with maintaining and deepening creative practices like writing and art.
In the meantime, here are a few glimpses of our new home:
Next up: Our older son recommended Ice, which was my final read of 2017. I’m giving equal time to our younger son, whose Christmas gift to us was Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. It’s a tremendously inspiring book (even though I have no interest in starting a business), my first read of 2018, originally meant to be a manual for Patagonia employees. I know that sounds boring, but it’s not. It’s been translated into ten language. A new edition was published in 2016.
Happy New Year to all, and let me know what you’re reading!
“Humboldt talked of ‘mankind’s mischief…which disturbs nature’s order’. There were moments in this life when he was so pessimistic that he painted a bleak future of humankind’s eventual expansion into space, when humans would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets. The human species could turn even those distant stars barren and leave them ‘ravaged’, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with earth….”
I didn’t have the camera or the skills to do justice to the landscape we drove through late one afternoon and into the evening on our cross-country journey. Mile after mile of drilling, fracking, and water pillaging, as far as the eye could see. We found our way into this surreal place unawares, and emerged a few hours later, shaken and sober.
Living in the Finger Lakes region, I’ve been spoiled: citizens came together to successfully outlaw fracking. Scenes such as these are not unfamiliar to me, though. I grew up in Cleveland and saw heavy industry smokestacks often. But I have never seen anything on this scale before. Hundreds of gas flares marked the landscape as if there were some dire emergency – which I believe there is.
We arrived at our rather desolate, but welcome, motel room and, as timing would have it, that evening I finished reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, about a man who, over 200 years ago, predicted that humans would wreak havoc on the environment.
The German scientist and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten, even though he was an international “rock star” of his time, and even though many parks, lakes, mountains, towns, and counties in the US are named after him. Andrea Wulf’s biography, published in 2015, has resurrected his legacy and spirit. Her book won the James Wright Award for Nature Writing, the Royal Geographical Society Ness Award, and many others, and it was named a best book of the year by many newspapers and publications.
It’s a wonderful read, especially if you love well written biographies with themes of history, nature, travel, and adventure. Here’s how Humboldt’s story opens:
“They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide. The path, if you could call it that, was layered with sand and loose stones that shifted whenever touched. Down to the left was a steep cliff encrusted with ice that glinted when the sun broke through the thick clouds. The view to the right, with a 1,000-foot drop, wasn’t much better. Here the dark, almost perpendicular walls were covered with rocks that protruded like knife blades.
Alexander Humboldt and his three companions moved in single file, slowly inching forward….It was 23 June 1802, and they were climbing Chimborazo, a beautiful dome-shaped inactive volcano in the Andes that rose to almost 21,000 feet, some 100 miles to the south of Quito in today’s Ecuador.”
As a young man, Humboldt spent five years exploring South America and, later in life, about a year traveling through Siberia. For much of the rest of his years, he conducted research and scientific experiments, lectured, taught, and wrote books about his findings. His books were unlike any seen before, with his discoveries about climate and the natural world. Nearly bankrupting himself, he hired botanical illustrators, naturalists, and researchers to assist him in creating magnificent volumes that were much in demand and translated into many languages.
Humboldt is incredibly important because he concluded that nature was a vast, interconnected global force, and that human impact locally could have ramifications globally.
He had the radical notion that nature did not exist to serve humanity. His work and ideas influenced Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others. I like that Wulf devotes entire chapters to Darwin, Thoreau, Muir and a few others, so we can see how they carried Humboldt’s ideas forward in understanding nature and climate.
“… [John] Muir experienced the natural world in a new way….he now began to see connections. Everything was important in this grand big tangle of life. There existed no unconnected ‘fragment’, [John] Muir thought. Tiny organisms were as much part of this web as humankind. “Why ought man to value himself as more than an infinitely small unit of the one great unit of creation?’ Muir asked. “The cosmos,’ he said, using Humboldt’s term, would be incomplete without man but also without ‘the smallest transmicroscopic creature.’”
I love this description of Humboldt’s privately sponsored lectures, which women were allowed to attend. (At that time, women could not attend university lectures or meetings of scientific societies.)
“By not charging any entry fee, Humboldt democratized science: his packed audiences ranged from the royal family to coachmen, from students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers – and half of those attending were women.
With his gentle voice Humboldt took his audiences on a journey through the heavens and deep sea, across the earth, up the highest mountains and then back to a tiny fleck of moss on a rock. He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting. Meteorology, the history of the earth, volcanoes and the distribution of plants were all part of his lectures. He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna and the migration of the human race. The lectures were a portrait of a vivid kaleidoscope of correlations that spanned the entire universe.”
Humboldt wrote prolifically. His most influential books are:
Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (Five Volumes)
Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799 – 1804
Views of Nature
“The connection between knowledge, art and poetry, between science and emotions – the ‘deeply-seated bond’, as Humboldt called it – is more important than ever before. Humboldt was driven by a sense of wonder for the natural world – a sense of wonder that might help us today realize that we will protect only what we love.”
Our reward for making it through the landscape in these pictures was a full moon rising.
Days later in our journey, we passed by Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest in eastern Nevada.
Coming up next, places and images of great beauty and more luscious books, I promise!
“I can tell you confidently that the many owners of small farms, shops, and stores, and the self-employed craftspeople who were thriving in my county in 1945, did not think of their work as ‘a job.’ Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies. Local economies, local communities, even local families, in which people lived and worked as members, have been broken.” Wendell Berry,Our Only World
A few days before I wrote this post, people in our government were planning to vote on a cruel, senseless health care bill that would have meant insurance companies would no longer be required to cover outpatient care, emergency services, hospitalization, pregnancy, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment (mental health is a cause especially close to my heart), prescription drugs, rehabilitation, laboratory and diagnostic tests, preventive and wellness services and pediatric care.
I thought about all the working poor and those without jobs in Ohio, where I grew up. This health care bill would have wrought only further misery and suffering, and yet many of those who would have been adversely affected had voted in the current administration.
I was afraid to look at the news on Friday, and relieved and thankful when I finally did. There had been no vote on the bill. The fate of health care in the United States would be determined another day.
For some reason, it seems we are forcing ourselves to sort everything into the categories of liberal or conservative, and pro-government or anti-government, when of course the world is far more complex, and far more beautiful.
To keep myself sane and as a balm when I’m tired of all the vitriol, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry. I’ve wanted to dive into his writing for a long time. Needless to say, Berry doesn’t give much credence to strictly liberal or conservative world views.
He is a long-time Kentucky farmer and a devout Christian who writes poetry, short stories, novels, and essays, brilliantly. Affectionately known as “the mad farmer,” Wendell Berry is an American prophet, a voice of reason, humility, and humanity who has been compared to Emerson and Thoreau. If every person in America, young and old, read a few of his poems or stories, maybe we’d be in a better place.
Our Only World, a collection of ten essays, is a good choice if you want a concise introduction to Wendell Berry. (The book pictured above refers to eleven essays, but my copy had only ten, so I assume an essay was removed before publication.)
There were so many passages I wanted to quote, it was hard to choose. When I read the passages below, I thought of the economic devastation I’ve seen in my home town and in my home state of Ohio:
“….the disposability of people….is one of the versions of ‘creative destruction,’ which is to say the theme of heartlessness, heartbreak, and permanent damage to people and their communities….We now use ‘Luddite’ as a term of contempt, and this usage, often by people who consider themselves compassionate and humane, implies a sort of progressivist etiquette by which, in the interest of the future (and the more fortunate), we are to submit passively to our obsolescence, disemployment, displacement, and (likely enough) impoverishment. We smear this over with talk of social mobility, upward mobility, and retraining, but this is as false and cynical as the association of ‘safe’ with the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil and nuclear fuels.”
“The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility – and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.”
“If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction clearly are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare and its unavoidable massacre of innocents as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion. Jesus taught that hating your neighbor is tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors as a matter of policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses, not all of them together, has made as much political-religious noise as homosexual marriage.”
Even more than mental health and health care, I care about our earth and climate change. Here are some things Wendell Berry has to say about our relationship to the natural world:
“…. the limited competence of the human mind… will never fully comprehend the forms and functions of the natural world. With the development of industrialism, this misfitting has become increasingly a contradiction or opposition between industrial technologies and the creatures of nature, tending always toward the destruction of creatures, creaturely habitat, and creaturely life. We can respond rationally to this predicament only by honest worry, unrelenting caution, and propriety of scale. We must not put too much, let alone everything, at risk….
….all our uses of the natural world must be governed by our willingness to learn the nature of every place, and to submit to nature’s limits and requirements for the use of every place.”
A poet and writer I know writes of “the daily bread of language,” and lately I’ve enjoyed partaking of the daily bread of Wendell Berry. One of my blog readers suggested that I look at Berry’s fiction, too, so next week I’ll write about Hannah Coulter and a few other novels that take place in Port William, a fictitious Kentucky town.
The Bill Moyers interview below is a wonderful introduction to Wendell Berry. Listening to him measuring out wisdom in his musical Kentucky cadence calms the mind and soothes the soul.
By the way, the march for climate, jobs and justice, sponsored by the People’s Climate Movement, will take place in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017, together with thousands of Sister Marches around the world. My husband and I are planning to march in Washington or New York City. Will there be a march near you?
Have you read Wendell Berry? Which of his books would you recommend? Are you a fan of other writers of a similar nature?
“Sometimes I wonder whether some other force is at hand–something equally obscured, warning us that none of us should be in Antarctica at all.
I tell them I was here when the massive cruise ship found herself trapped and sinking in a windswept cove of pack ice. I tell them that the ship was too big and too fragile to be so far south, and that my ship, the Cormorant, was the closest one and still a full day’s travel away. I tell them that, below the Antarctic Circle, the phrase search and rescue has little practical meaning. There is simply no one around to rescue you.
I tell them that 715 passengers and crew died that day. I don’t tell them that 2 of those who died were rescuers, whose fates tragically intertwined. Most want to hear about the victims, not the rescuers. I don’t tell them that we are one and the same.” My Last Continent, by Midge Raymond
My husband is going to Antarctica in January. It’s been a lifelong dream but, as he points out, even though he’s traveled more than I have, I’ve been to more continents. So I think he may be partly motivated because he’s trying to catch up with me. We get competitive about traveling in our family but, given their extensive travel for work, our sons are leaving us far behind when it comes to the number of countries visited.
Anyway, now that the time is drawing near, I thought I’d better pay more attention to my husband’s upcoming trip. When I learned about the recently published novel, My Last Continent, I had to pick it up, though it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the safety of Antarctic cruises, because it’s about a disastrous one.
On the other hand, I comfort myself that my husband will be traveling with a vastly experienced crew, on a polar research vessel expressly made for the perils of Antarctic waters. The Akademik Sergey Vavilovis one of only two polar expedition cruise vessels that conduct active scientific research in the months between the Antarctic and high Arctic seasons.
The trip is sponsored by a local travel/adventure group, Pack, Paddle & Ski. Rochester is lucky to have this amazing organization, which leads trips around the world and has raised thousands of dollars for charity.
I don’t tend to like fiction with a message, but My Last Continent by Midge Raymond is a beautifully written love story and a what-would-happen-if novel.
As if we don’t have enough to worry about given climate change, My Last Continent highlights an issue I wasn’t aware of. In addition to polar research vessels that take tourists to Antarctica, there are now oversized luxury cruise ships that travel to both northern and southern extremes. Because the polar ice is melting, such ships can go where they have never gone before.
The problem is, these large ships are too fragile for treacherous polar waters, and they carry way too many passengers. Should the ship get into trouble, it’s not likely all the passengers could be rescued. For one thing, there is no one around – polar waters are isolated and too far away from other ships.
This is what happens in My Last Continent. I learned this on the first page, though not the details of who survives and who doesn’t, and I was of course compelled to read on to see how it all played out.
Another problem is that these cruise ships are highly disruptive to fragile wildlife populations.
There is beautiful writing here; it is not simply a disaster tale. Midge Raymond takes us deep into the heart of Antarctica: its weather and terrain and, most of all, it’s wildlife. At the same time, it is a portrait of two complex characters–explorers and naturalists who are in love with this forbidding land as much as they are with each other.
If you like books about adventure and travel to the wildest reaches of nature, and if you are concerned about planet Earth, I think you’ll love My Last Continent. This is Midge Raymond’s first full-length work of fiction. I look forward to reading more. Midge Raymond is also the founder of Ashland Creek Press.
“It is not uncommon in Antarctica to see what does not exist–to see the mountains levitate in the distance, to see the rising tower of a city on the horizon. When the sea is colder than the air, a layer forms that creates a polar mirage. The more layers, the more refracted the light: Mountains are born from the sea; cliffs turn into castles. Such mirages usually last only moments, until the air layers mix, and then they disappear…..Such visions have a name–fata morgana…..”
Any books about Antarctica to recommend? Which wild and faraway places would you like to visit someday? Let us know in the comments.