Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

Our Only World
“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 Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies.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

Ten Essays by The Mad Farmer, an American prophet

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?

My Last Continent

my-last-cont“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 Vavilov is 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.

Here is a Daily Beast essay she wrote about cruise ships in the polar regions: “Cruise Ships in the Arctic Take Titanic Risks.” It is truly frightening.

And one more quote from My Last Continent:

“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…..”

penguins-429136_1280

Any books about Antarctica to recommend? Which wild and faraway places would you like to visit someday? Let us know in the comments.

 

 

A Woman in the Polar Night

Polar Night“Meanwhile the world out of doors falls into deepest night. The mountains are no more than white shadows, the sea no more than a black shadow – until that too dissolves away. And then everything is dead.

In this pitch darkness we cannot move far from the hut. I make the smallest possible turns around the hut – all that is left of my walks. When it is not snowing we spend hours outside the hut chopping and sawing wood by the light of the hurricane lamp….

The wind that, rising and falling, lasts for days, is in fact our last link with the reality of the world…”  Christiane Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night is an astounding memoir by Austrian artist Christiane Ritter who, in 1933, joined her scientist and hunter-trapper husband, Hermann, on the remote island of Spitsbergen 400 miles off the coast of Norway.

If you love memoirs of travel, adventure and, especially, nature, I highly recommend A Woman in the Polar Night. This is an extraordinary book written in poetic, painterly prose by a woman with a fearless spirit who was profoundly moved and changed by her year in the Arctic.

Christiane writes brilliantly about the beauty of Spitsbergen and also its terror. She thrived on Spitsbergen, but during both the darkest and the brightest stretches of her polar immersion she approached the edges of madness. As anyone might.

She writes of a terrifying two weeks spent alone in a fierce snowstorm. The hut was buried completely except for the stovepipe attached to the roof. Christiane’s husband and their companion, Karl, had gone on a hunting trip, and she was left alone with the darkness, snow, and raging wind.

She survived the storm and isolation. But when a full moon finally broke the long darkness, Christiane became moonstruck:

“It is full moon. No European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight…. One’s entire consciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself…..

Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am moonlight myself.”

Fearing Christiane had rar, a strangeness that befalls some who winter in polar regions, Hermann and Karl kept Christiane in the hut, so she wouldn’t succumb to ishavet kaller – meaning “the Arctic calls” – which can drive a person to throw herself into the sea.

“Surrounded by this boundless deadness and rigidity of everything physical, one’s living senses begin slowly to go their own way. More frequently and more brightly as the winter is prolonged, a strange light spreads before the inner eye, a remote and yet familiar vision. It is as though here, in this apartness, we develop a particularly sharp awareness of the mighty laws of the spirit, of the unfathomable gulf between human magnitudes and eternal truth. Outside of time, everything is annihilated. The imprisoned senses circle in the past, in a scene without spatial dimensions, a play in which time stands still.

Often I see the flowers and trees of the distant sun world, but I do not see them as I used to see them. They are glowing with color and piercingly beautiful. Their most secret meaning lives in their growth and their color.”

Dutch Whalers Spitzbergen.jpg

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen. By Abraham Storck – Stichting Rijksmuseum het Zuiderzeemuseum. 022296, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5040261

Christiane writes of bear-hunting with Hermann and Karl in a “gigantic wilderness of ice”:

“We are in the middle of the bear kingdom. All my fear of bears has vanished. As in a dream I go on through the splendid strange world.

How quiet it is here. The sun shines on a soundless scene. The magical hues of the soft shadows glow deeply. Everything belongs together here, even the bear tracks in the deep snow, which show with what peace of mind the animals have gone on their way. Everything breathes the same serenity. It is as though a current of the most holy and perfect peace were streaming through all the landscape.

I feel that I am close to the essence of all nature. I can see its paths interlacing and still running alongside each other in accordance with eternal laws. I divine the ultimate salvation before which all human reasoning dissolves into nothing.”

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-29ed-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Ptarmigan was part of Christiane’s Spitsbergen diet. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The memoir’s conclusion is triumphant and sad. Christiane must finally leave the island, forever changed and knowing she will never return. She doesn’t reveal she has an infant daughter at home in Austria until nearly the end of her memoir, a startling bit of information that for me highlighted what an unusual couple the Ritters were.

I was curious about what it was like for Christiane to return to civilization and wished for an epilogue (there is none), but on the other hand I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. On top of having to re-integrate into society, Christiane returned to Austria as Europe neared the onset of World War II.

I found a 1954 edition of Christiane’s memoir at the local library, illustrated with line drawings by the author. You may want to look for the University of Alaska Press edition, published in 2010, which includes a preface with biographical information about the Ritters. It may satisfy some of the inevitable curiosity you’ll have about how the lives of this remarkable couple played out.

Christiane wrote, “You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness.”

It seems to me her memoir is a remarkable example of someone whose extreme adventure pushed her into completely letting go of her ego and recognizing that we don’t have dominion over nature; we are instead part of nature itself. I think the world would be a much better place if we could all come to know this.

What We're Fighting for NowSo it was especially sad to read the excellent book I picked up next, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice by Wen Stephenson, which makes clear that humanity hasn’t learned what Christiane Ritter learned. This book is depressing but empowering at the same time.

Stephenson reports that many climate scientists now believe climate catastrophe is inevitable.

He explains the term “climate justice” and how it is different from climate activism and environmentalism. Many have come to realize that climate change is the moral and spiritual issue of our time, inseparable from social justice and equality. The poor and disadvantaged will suffer the most from climate disruptions, as we’ve already seen in places like New Orleans and in countries around the world.

Stephenson lives near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and he looks at climate justice through the lens of Henry David Thoreau‘s principles of civil disobedience. He likens climate justice to the social justice struggles of abolitionism and civil rights.

Stephenson writes about how he came to leave his career in mainstream journalism to immerse in climate justice, and it’s fascinating to read his interviews with others devoted to the cause as they explain the spiritual and other motives that drive them.

Most are young, some got their start in the Occupy movement, others are evangelicals, Quakers, atheists, community organizers, and grandparents. Many of them have come to believe that the way to survive climate change is to build strong, local communities where people trust and look after each other.

I couldn’t get out of my mind a young woman Stephenson interviewed, Grace Ann Cagle, who said she’d much rather be on a farm having babies than on the front lines of climate justice. Grace took part in the Texas Tar Sands blockade. 

“She’d been up in the trees for about a week, in late September, 2012….Sure enough, TransCanada’s machines came up from the south.

‘They came over the creek….They had a feller buncher – it grabs the trees, cuts them, and throws them. And as they cross the creek, they’re coming like ten feet, twenty feet away from me, practically at the base of my tree – and I thought they were going to kill me….Why would they care about me? And so I jumped onto this traverse rope, and I’m dangling there, wearing all black with a mask on my face, screaming, Go away! Get out of here! They stopped their machines…..I spent like six hours dangling there, in a harness, because I could protect two trees at once….'” 

How sad that, since Christiane Ritter’s time, we’ve come to this.

Read A Woman in the Polar Night to be transported and to understand what we’re losing. Then, if you want to consider what your role might be in the greatest battle of our time, you could follow the memoir with What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice.

 

 

The Collapse of Western Civilization (in 50 pages)

WesternCivilization“The year 2009 is viewed as ‘the last best chance’ the Western world had to save itself…”

The Collapse of Western Civilization is a disturbing 50-page work of fiction that reads with the authority of nonfiction.

In the Second People’s Republic of China in the year 2393, a scholar writes an account the Great Collapse of 2093, brought about by failure to take action on climate change.

Pair it with CCR’s Bad Moon Rising; you can read it in an hour or two.

The book came about when co-author Naomi Oreskes, a geologist and historian who teaches at Harvard, reviewed the scholarly literature on climate change to see if indeed there was a lack of consensus among scientists, as is often claimed.

After looking at 1,000 peer-reviewed articles, she concluded that in fact scientists do agree that a high concentration of greenhouse gas is causing climate change.

When Oreskes published her findings in Science, she was championed by the likes of Al Gore. At the same time, to her astonishment, she began receiving hate mail. As she said in an interview, articles published in the scholarly literature are typically ignored by the public.

She and coauthor Eric Conway hoped a work of fiction that remained true to the facts of science might change opinions. Conway is a fan of science fiction and has been especially influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogies about Mars and climate change.

It’s unsettling to read about ideas and ways of life that we take for granted portrayed as extreme short-sightedness, self-delusion, and magical thinking.  The Collapse of Western Civilization will give you a jolt. It’s a quick, page-turning read to put you in a receptive frame of mind when the UN/Paris Climate Change Conference begins on November 30.

Here are some excerpts:

“There is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering. Suffice it to say that total losses – social, cultural, economic, and demographic – were greater than any in recorded human history. Survivors’ accounts make clear that many thought the end of the human race was near.”

“At the time, most countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state.”

“…survivors in northern inland regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.”

Commonly used terms that we don’t question are cast as old-fashioned and obsolete in the Lexicon of Archaic Terms at the end of the book:

“capitalism: ….One popular notion about capitalism of the period was that it operated through a process of creative destruction. Ultimately, capitalism was paralyzed in the face of the rapid climate destabilization it drove, destroying itself.”

“invisible hand: A form of magical thinking, popularized in the eighteenth century, that economic markets in a capitalist system were “balanced” by the actions of an unseen, immaterial power, which both ensured that markets functioned efficiently and that they would address human needs. Belief in the invisible hand….formed a kind of quasi-religious foundation for capitalism.”

“Period of the Penumbra: the shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”

Coming Back to Life book coverFor an antidote to all the doom, read Joanna Macy‘s books, Coming Back to Life and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. See also her short film, Joanna Macy and The Great Turning, about civilization’s shift from industrial growth to sustainability.

Have you read any good books about climate change? Are you planning to follow upcoming events related to the UN Conference on Climate Change? Are there local activities planned for your area?

Nine books that can (help) save the planet

Laudato Si books

It still amazes me that there has not been more discussion of climate change in the media in the United States, nor have the presidential candidates said much. But we seem, finally, to have turned a corner; more people are paying attention.

Recently, stories have been published about Exxon’s alleged campaign of climate change disinformation and denial, while another industry leader has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030. This week’s Hurricane Patricia was the strongest hurricane ever recorded at sea, while climate scientists expect 2015 to be the hottest year on record. I’ve a son living temporarily in southern California, and I just read that mosquitos carrying dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever have arrived. Scientists believe they are rapidly reproducing in part because of the drought.

Countries around the world are preparing for the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris November 30 – December 11. There will be climate marches in major cities around the world on November 28 and 29 and a Mass Mobilization and Civil Disobedience Action in Paris on December 12.

When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, he spoke to Congress, the United Nations, and other groups about the need for action on climate change, framing it as the greatest moral issue of our time. His climate change encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, calls for the world to adopt an integrated ecology that combines eco-justice, which understands the earth has limits, with social justice, which recognizes that the poor are the hardest hit by the ravages of climate change.

The Pope calls for “a revolution of tenderness, a revolution of the heart” in regards to the earth and the earth’s poor.

The Huffington Post article at this link is a brief and excellent introduction to the concept of integral ecology. The author of the article, a former NASA researcher, says: “The fates of all peoples are linked, and they are linked ultimately to the fate of the earth. What befalls the earth befalls us all.”

Here is a link to the Buddhist perspective on climate change: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change

If you will be following the UN Conference on Climate Change and would like to do some reading beforehand, here are eight more of my favorite fiction and nonfiction titles that are relevant:

Arcadia book coverArcadia, by Lauren Goff

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Collapse of Western Civilization, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway (See my next blog post about this fascinating fictitious “report,” written in 2393 from the Second People’s Republic of China, chronicling reasons for the collapse of western culture.)

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding

The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben

The Only Kayak, by Kim Heacox

And if you are an earth and nature lover, you absolutely must acquaint yourselves with these writers if you haven’t already:

Wendell Berry (essays and poetry); Mary Oliver (poetry); Barry Lopez (See “The Case for Going Uncivilized.”)

This Changes Everything book cover

Pope Francis spoke with great passion and love about families during his visit to the US. There are many parallels between our nuclear families and the family composed of all creatures on mother earth, aren’t there?

Are you planning to participate in any climate change events before or during the UN Climate Change Conference? Do you belong to a climate change group? If you’ve read other good books about the topic, please let us know in the comments.

If you believe we need to act to prevent disastrous climate change, please share this post on your favorite social media.

 

“I wish to address every living person on this planet.”

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”    Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home

Columbia River Gorge

(Columbia Gorge) “If we acknowledge the value and fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress.” Pope Francis

Pope Francis will visit the United States September 22 – 27 and will no doubt speak about climate change.

His recently published encyclical on the environment and human ecology can be downloaded for free or ordered at this link: Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

I believe Laudato Si’ will prove to be one of the most important documents of our time. It is a stirring, eloquent, and direct call to action.

I’ll be featuring it here on Books Can Save a Life during the pope’s visit. I hope you’ll read it along with me and join in our discussion. I welcome both secular and faith-based perspectives.

On Care for Our Common Home is urgent and wide-ranging; you may be surprised at the topics addressed as the pope seeks to show how our values and our actions have far-reaching implications for humanity and for the planet.

Here are some excerpts to get us started:

“…the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor…”

“The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

“…access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.”

“We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

“We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

“…when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously…True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution….Today’s media….shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences….alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.”

Please share this post on social media and leave a comment. Will you be watching and listening to Pope Francis? Have you read, or read about, Laudato Si’? Do you agree that it may prove to be one of the most important documents of our time?

Laudato Si' books

This Changes Everything

“…only mass social movements can save us now.”  Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

This Changes Everything book cover

Notice the cover. No author, no subtitle. One clear message.

 “….this impossibly thin blue curve keeps everything alive beneath it.”  Reid Wiseman, #spacetweets.  

For starters, take two and a half minutes to watch astronaut Reid Wiseman’s video, “A Photo I Love,” and then come back here. You’ll see a new view of Italy (some of you know how much I love Italy). Notice in particular Reid’s photo of the earth’s atmosphere, “….so blue, so incredibly thin….” and Reid’s tweets (#spacetweets).

I wanted to begin on an upbeat note, hence Reid’s video of “watching our earth be alive” that so vividly highlights what the stakes are when it comes to the climate debate. It’s not that Canadian journalist Naomi Klein doesn’t offer hope in her latest book, This Changes Everything. Certainly, she does, but this is a read with plenty of emotional lows before you get to the highs.

This Changes Everything is proving to be enormously influential as well as controversial. If I read her correctly, Klein does not advocate a dismantling of capitalism, but her book is indeed a polemic against the extreme version of capitalism that pervades much of the world today. Her message is that the earth cannot possibly continue to sustain a world economy based on unlimited growth and the endless extraction of resources. We need to change course to keep the earth’s warming under two degrees Celsius (this is according to many climate scientists, who also maintain that a warming of four degrees Celsius would be catastrophic). We need to act now, on a massive scale.

If you care deeply about climate change, I highly recommend putting This Changes Everything at the top of your to-read list. There is so much I don’t know about this huge topic. Though I’ve been against fracking (recently outlawed here in New York), I didn’t know much about it, and I knew absolutely nothing of Canada’s tar sands project and its devastations. Klein brought me up to date on all of this, as well as the current climate change activist scene. She synthesized an enormous amount of research, which makes for slow reading at times, but it’s worth it if you want the big picture.

Here are some things I learned that surprised me:

  • We’ve come a long way with alternative energy technologies. It seems like a no-brainer – if we can meet our energy needs at very little cost using solar, wind, and other technologies, why would we continue using expensive and dirty fossil fuels?
  • Native Americans and indigenous populations around the world are winning important victories against the fossil fuel industry, more so than activists in the mainstream. In Canada and the US, for example, some of these groups, by treaty, retain rights to their land, including the right to make a living from it. The courts have, in many cases, upheld these rights, effectively blocking or delaying extraction projects. These delays have given alternative energy technologies time to develop.
  • Though it’s important for developed countries to convert to clean energy, it’s crucial that we help developing countries turn to clean energy, too–otherwise we’ll never be able to stop global warming. Klein and others maintain that, since developed countries have grown wealthy from fossil fuels, we have a responsibility to help developing countries pay for their energy infrastructures.

A New York Times review called This Changes Everything “…the most momentous and contentious book since Silent Spring,” and “…a book of such ambition and consequence it is almost unreviewable.”

This Changes Everything is absolutely a book that can save lives.

Have you read This Changes Everything? Do you recommend other important books about this topic? If so, please do in the comments. And if you care about climate change, I hope you’ll share this post.

Scopello sunset

What we don’t want to lose. View of Zingaro Nature Preserve in Sicily. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

Chasing Ice

This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone. It may never be seen again in the history of civilization.    James Balog

Ice Book CoverHe is a master photographer, an obsessed and possessed artist documenting our dying glaciers.

We sat with a packed audience Tuesday evening at The Little Theatre in Rochester watching Chasing Ice, a documentary about James Balog’s quest, which has become the quest of many others. After the movie, producer/director Jeff Orlowski (thoughtful, intelligent, thoroughly engaging) spoke with the audience via Skype.

Your first stop should be here, to listen to and watch this perfect marriage of music, image and theme: Scarlett Johansson singing “Before My Time”  to a montage of Balog’s magnificent work.

Chasing Ice is playing in selected cities around the country. You can request to host a screening by filling out a form on the Chasing Ice site. Let’s hope that it will be available on Netflix and other venues soon.

While you’re waiting for the documentary, visit the Extreme Ice Survey (art meets science) to see the official trailer, and then stop by the Earth Vision Trust.

Balog has just published Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers. His other books include Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest; Wildlife Requiem; Anima; and Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife.

The filmmakers dedicated Chasing Ice to their children and their children’s children.

So stop by for a listen and a look. It’s the next best thing to seeing the movie.

Next up at Books Can Save a Life

At the moment I’m interested in nature, art, memoir, and fiction all rolled into one, so I’ll be featuring Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Winter Count, About This Life, and “Sliver of Sky,” a recently published essay in Harper’s Magazine); The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett; and When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams.

Arcadia, and what’s next

“The monster is peering in the window. The ice caps have melted, the glaciers are nearly gone; the interiors of the continents becoming unlivable, the coasts so storm-battered people are fleeing by the millions. New Orleans and the Florida Keys are being abandoned. The hot land-bound places are being given up for lost; Phoenix and Denver becoming ghost towns. Every day, refugees show up in the city. A family takes shelter in the lee of Bit’s front steps, parents with two small children, silent and watchful.”       from Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

Arcadia book cover

In the novel Arcadia, Bit and his family leave the dying commune they helped establish and move to New York City when Bit is fourteen. As an adult with a teen-age daughter, Bit is a good man who nonetheless feels guilty over what he calls his selfishness: his greatest concern is Grete’s survival in a world rendered dangerously unstable by climate change. No matter what happens, he says to himself and any greater power that may be listening, let Grete survive. That’s something I wonder about too, the kind of world my sons will inherit and the challenges they’ll face.

Reading this novel and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior   got me thinking about a symposium on the environment I attended in 2010, sponsored by the Rochester Zen Center. Rochester has many treasures, and the Zen Center is one of them. Founded by Roshi Philip Kapleau in 1966 and now one of the largest organizations devoted to Zen Buddhism in the country, it occupies one of Rochester’s stately old homes off of East Avenue near the George Eastman House.  It has been extensively renovated, and the zendo is a stunning space for meditation.

The symposium, called “Turning Toward the Earth,” centered on the Buddhist response to our environmental crisis. This was an intense and unsettling day, the kind of day that makes you want to take dramatic action, upend your life to make a difference – but just how do you do that? The name of the symposium came from “The Great Turning,” a term coined by Joanna Macy, one of the featured speakers that day. Her stance is explained in an article in the Zen Bow:

“The Great Turning is a concept developed by Buddhist philosopher and activist Joanna Macy to help us understand and engage with the momentous change in worldview that is required of us now, at the close of the modern age. Because our species’ enormous technological power is not matched by our spiritual development we have reached a crisis-point unlike any other in the history of humankind, one in which all other sentient beings and so-called inanimate things are irrevocably caught up.”

In her talk at the symposium, Macy encouraged us to act, regardless of any specific outcomes, no matter how overwhelming the challenges may seem. Author and Zen Buddhist David Loy also spoke. He, too, talked of the need for spiritual transformation on an individual level to save our earth as we know it. A tall order, but he seemed hopeful. Conservation biologist Michael Soule, also a speaker, is largely concerned with the dramatic diminishing of species. He believes humans must change their self-centered nature and overcome their selfishness to solve the the extinction crisis, but he is less hopeful. He wasn’t shy about saying he thinks it is already too late.

If you’d like to know more about the Buddhist response to the environmental crisis, take a look at some of the books authored by Macy and Loy. I have read Macy’s World As Lover, World As Self, and I want to read more of her work.

Buddha

Chasing Ice is a documentary about environmental photographer James Balog, who set up time-lapse cameras across the Arctic to record the melting glaciers. One of the trailers shows an astounding view of a glacier calving – breaking up into an immense iceberg. Once part of a glacier becomes an iceberg, it melts much more quickly.

We’ll be watching the documentary Tuesday evening at the Little Theatre.

Introductory quote from Arcadia, Lauren Groff, Hyperion, New York: 2012. Quote from Zen Bow: “It Goes Along With Everything Else: Mass Extinction and the Great Turning,” Sensei Amala Wrightson, Zen Bow, 23(1), 3 – 8.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward, she thought, words from the book of Job, made for a world unraveling into fire and flood.          Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior book coverBarbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior blindsided me; I didn’t see the end coming, though perhaps I should have. Reading it on the heels of Hurricane Sandy only added to its impact. What incredible timing for this novel to be published just days after a superstorm brought a 13-foot storm surge to New York City.

I once lived in New York, so I found it hard to believe the scenes in the news: water pouring into the 9/11 construction site at the World Trade Center, Bellevue and NYU’s Tisch hospitals in lower Manhattan evacuated, entire neighborhoods destroyed on Staten Island.

Flight Behavior is about climate change and its consequences. If you don’t believe in climate change, you probably won’t like this book. If you do believe in it, you may still find Flight Behavior to be a thinly disguised polemic. I did. Sometimes I had a hard time losing myself in this particular fictional world as I like to do in a good novel.

Nonetheless, I found Flight Behavior to be powerfully and beautifully written. It made me uncomfortable, which is what I think Kingsolver intends for her readers. She loves the earth and respects it as a scientist. (Kingsolver has a degree in biology and worked as a scientist before she began to write fiction.) She wants people to wake up and do something before it is too late.

I couldn’t help thinking of Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption, one of the most disturbing nonfiction books I’ve ever read on The Great Disruption book coverclimate change. Gilding believes our first priority should be to stop the earth from warming another couple of degrees, and this can be done only with a worldwide, cooperative effort, the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II. If we don’t do something, Gilding believes disaster will soon be upon us – floods, famines, wars, the end of life as we know it.

He predicts (and hopes) enlightenment will come soon, this decade. People will realize something is wrong, mobilize, and take action.

In Flight Behavior, for a farmer’s wife with two young children, climate change quite suddenly becomes personal. She’s forced to take a stand and brought to a kind of enlightenment. I believe that’s a road we’ll all have to travel.

What do you think about climate change? If you’ve read Flight Behavior or The Great Disruption, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Quote from Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2012.

%d bloggers like this: