Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Echoes, Glimpsed Faces, and a Rising Wind of Transformation

Since my oldest memory, dating from maybe as far back as 1962, I have loved winter fields especially with the quiet low light of evening or of a cloudy day. The reasons connect with the secure country home my parents kept for us, and my good health all those years, a robust build of body that resisted cold, and the abundant snows of those winters when I was just starting school, having the countryside to come home to. It was cheery there, indoors and out, so the frozen lands never symbolized the dreary to me but the wondrously forsaken, where noise was stifled and drama had been erased into the crisp framework of dead and living plants, cushioned and unified by snow. Their colors were varied and subtly reminiscent, bleached versions of what had been and what in just really a few weeks would be. The shadows were blue; the highlights were most often the hot tints found in fires. Nowhere else felt so safe or, at the same time, so invigorating. All of our small family at some time or other went enthusiastically into these places.

Now that I'm graying and stiffening a little with the years I look to the loss of these places with many questions as to extent of and reaction to the loss. It might have been around 1970 when I first heard, on a National Geographic TV special, about the greenhouse effect and how it would steal more and more from the experience of winter. I've never gotten over my dismay about that, though there have been many winters north of where I grew up, spectacular on ski trails, with snowdrifts, whiteouts and early blue dark. Inevitably I've broadened my view on climate change to include it as one in a cluster of symptoms that we are, in our numbers and demands on the earth, getting to be too much for it and will be forced to change the ways we do a lot of things.

While the news brings us an ever-lengthening list of weather and ocean cataclysms like ice floes as big as Singapore breaking away from the Antarctic, typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful sea storm ever recorded, smashing the Philippines and once in a lifetime November mega-tornadoes or June downpours besetting the central U.S., local and unscientific observers like me compare past seasons to more recent ones and notice tree hardihood and rain versus ice versus snow. Those of us living in the northern countryside still drive into whiteouts, freeze our fingertips and worry about our ignition on frigid mornings. But our winters trend shorter at both ends. A long cold winter is what an average winter used to be to the generation older than us. Today's real temperatures tend to be warmer than the ones we heard in yesterday's forecast for today. Warm spells last a lot longer than the cold snaps. One of the personal questions that looms especially large for me is: if I live to be close to a hundred, what will I see of change to the places I cherish along the U.S.-Canadian border as climate change escalates? Likely I will see fires burn away huge stretches of the resinous boreal forest after it's been too hot and dry for too long. Projections are that oak savanna and grassland will grow up in its place.

An interview one recent morning on Democracy Now, with guests Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin, climate scientists from England's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, affiliated with the University of Manchester, stressed the need of "radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the United States, EU and other wealthy nations." I was electrified to hear this report because the meltdown of our four-season climate and disappearance of its hallmark trees and creatures has so long been a sadness, like a known-of disease in someone I love. Just two examples given of de-growth strategies were sizing down the refrigerators used in the United States, where evidently fridges are manufactured and sold bigger than in the rest of the world, and abandoning the habit of a daily shower, or even a twice-daily shower, that requires so much hot water, using tons of fossil fuel in affluent countries. Such practices are called for because, per Mr. Anderson, the developed countries of the world have missed the chance to shift their reliance to full-scale renewable energies and the impending changeover will take place too slowly to safeguard the climate we call normal for the sake of sea levels below coastal city street level and crops that come in every year.

The urgency of the climate crisis is described among researchers like the two from the Tyndall Centre in degrees of warming. Two degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees F. are in our time thought to be the extent of further survivable global warming for civilization. But according to Alice Bows-Larkin the rate of emissions for carbon and other heat-trapping gases put us on track for something more like four degrees Celsius; a listener/reader easily senses that she refrains from grimly hinting that it could be even more than that. Two degrees Celsius was also the limit agreed upon by the Copenhagen Accord in 2012, and earlier, among the Group of Eight summit meeting of largest nations, in 2009. But as indicators of inhospitable climate, these numbers have no real coordinates in the realm of what it would take to force civilization into some mode of living in which we release so little carbon or other heat-trapping gases that offsets come into play for what we do emit, and we become neutral in how we affect the atmosphere. What drives people to change their ways is pain, not readily measurable, which can be sub-classified into grief, bodily misery (hunger, thirst, illness, agony) and economic loss. For many people, impending pain in one or more of these categories will breed change--and by impending pain I naturally mean fear. Degrees of planetary heating probably can't be uniformly matched with degrees of the different forms of pain or fear brought to bear on people in stressful times. And could increments or measurements of pain ever be used in policy-making? Probably it will need to be deaths.

To read any of today's spokespeople for the movement to curb climate change, such as Bill McKibben, is to see an implication of the extractive industries, chiefly oil, gas and coal, our leading fossil fuels, and of the other industries that ally themselves around oil, gas and coal, like automotive manufacturers. The comfort-filled, fast-paced ways of life that are established courtesy of industries enabled by gasoline and diesel-powered transport are so taken for granted that any public statement that these modes of living could be the death of civilization is dismissed as doom and gloom but is most of all kept out of the mainstream news. The internet, if you google articles on climate change is full of written pieces, a few with someone's grinning face below the headline, which soothe the glancing reader that fears about global warming are overblown. The fossil fuel and auto industries have been notorious for funding coalitions that dismiss the urgency and/or the reality of what our heat-trapping gases are doing ever faster to the one and only earth, home not just to ourselves.

Doom and gloom are not well-received in marketplaces driven by standard, everyday brands of allure; it would take an honest and powerful brand of creative advertising to arouse a mystique around a product expressly designed to stave off the degradation to earth and atmosphere caused by the overshoot of human demand. I'm convinced, based on hunch, hearsay, on-line articles and Facebook, that marketing promotions designed to save civilization from environmental collapse are on the air waves and in cyberspace right now, coming from not-so-far-off places. But we still have the fossil-fuel industries with us, to outspend us, dominate the major news channels and, by many appearances, to drive everyone but themselves into extinction if that's destiny as they see it.

Doom and gloom have been relegated to mass entertainment, where they can be shut out by anyone who doesn't thrill to the sagas they are woven into. I've delved into a literary genre of doom and gloom myself, very haltingly, first when I read Margaret Atwood's novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and most lately as I finished Stephen King's novella The Langoliers. Margaret Atwood's two late novels are futurist, giving her readers a world in which genetic engineering is in its heyday, cloned and crossbred animals, wild or feral, forage in open country and corporations rule a world in which nations get no mention. The most secure of the citizens are the corporate work force, protected inside gigantic company-owned dorms. North America is hot year-round and tornado-prone daily, with a cool breeze perceptible if a person travels as far north as, she suggests, Moose Factory in what was Canada.

The Stephen King story, like others of his, features time travel. The Langoliers, as it progresses, switches scenes from mid-air in a 767 passenger jet cut off from all sight and sound of life on the ground to a deserted Bangor International Airport in Maine. King's tale challenged my imagination by segregating the notion of time eroding backward from what should to my mind be a reversal of place-making. If time was to peel backward then the technological landscape should sink and crumble, the forests should flourish and shrink back under ice caps, land and sea rise, fall and intermix. In the story however the land below the jet, forced on pain of the travelers' death to take off anew from Bangor and return west, is scorched away by balls of searing red and black, calling to mind some sort of runaway fantastical tires, which in their wake leave nothing but a breathtaking abyss. It worked well in the story as a vision of doom. But it's not the doom that we in our materialist mania for ever more growth are likeliest to spread in a series of spin-off reactions, one health and environmental crisis or several at a time, across the breadth of the continents still holding above sea level.

Crossing St. Louis County, Minnesota daily in the little old Toyota I recognize that it's bound to be the car itself that's my number-one source of carbon output, though it is a hybrid. High speeds make me cringe so I'm normally a gentle driver, passed by nine-tenths of the other vehicles. But the car burns gasoline and emits carbon. To the extent that we all share in the responsibility--to our offspring and to our wild warm-blooded and cold-blooded and plant kin--to stop dumping carbon into the air, won't I try to reduce the worst that I'm putting out, on my commutes and intermittent longer trips? And that is the question I have trouble imagining an awful lot of people asking themselves, skeptics that so many still are about the idea of winter ever being conquered (cold is their enemy) and earth's whole climate flip-flopped by our very selves. What will it take, leaving out some of the most agape-filled, civic-minded, devoutly spiritual ones like those who buy carbon offsets or especially those who demonstrate and go to jail, for a majority to say:  I'm tired of knowing I help upset the water cycle and the mountain glaciers, ruin the summers and the cool green forests, escalate the rash of extinctions, and endanger the very weather that feeds our food crops? I have real trouble imagining that behavior on the part of a lot of people. And yet, whole nations have been known to rush to co-ordinated schemes for everyone's salvation when they finally sense the urgency.

From the 20th-century author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who lived in and wrote about old Florida in the 1930s and prior times, before it was discovered by second-home developers, I've gathered a sense as to what we have lost in America, equating that to my own memories of 1960s springs and summers and their clamor of crickets, whippoorwills and tree toads. Here is her passage from Cross Creek, in a chapter titled 'Toady-frogs, lizards, antses and varmints;' it is her description of frog chorus in the lakes and marshes. "I have lain through a long moonlit night, with the scent of orange blossoms palpable as spilled perfume on the air. and listened to the murmur of minor chords until, just as I have wept over the Brahms waltz in A flat on a master's violin, I thought my heart would break with the beauty of it. If there is not a finished tune, there are phrases, and there is assuredly a motif, articulated, reiterated." I've never been in Florida, but reading in my own time about hordes of amphibians lost to rain-borne toxins and abrupt seasonal change, I wonder if modern people in Marjorie's Florida still get to hear frog symphonies as expressive.

Everything wild that I can remember may be dwindling sooner or later like the bobwhite quail we would hear across most of the months in a year. It's another reason to draw and paint the places just in the ways they have haunted me, because as memories they are precious as the most revered ancestors and infants all rolled in one, tender and self-renewing, strange yet still fabric of our thoughts and emotions, our muscle and nerve fibres.  Here's bait, if you like, or a friendly invitation: if you relish and buy this art or  this organic fair-trade chocolate you are helping us, in our depleted and depopulated locale, to stay there and do our work without having to start our cars to work somewhere miles off that requires day to day car travel.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Rolling in amid a Pack of Wolves - (They Scattered)

Timber wolves still prosper within stretches of the U.S./Canadian border region, mostly with great reluctance to show themselves to human eyes. Coming and going now daily from Duluth, Minnesota in my spry little old hybrid car I look for wolves whenever there's daylight to expose one, just as I peer before me in the night lest anything four-legged, or a rogue car with dark headlights catching the shine of my lights, cross my path or come at me. In years past, only two wolves, to my knowledge, had crossed a road ahead of my car.

On a recent Friday morning with an overcast making all the November drabness a supreme monotone, my habitual searching toward the front found one or more animal forms, tails flowing out behind them, a sort of brown on the deep grey of the road. Beasts the size of big dogs, all with out-held tails, crossed to and fro, north or south in the two blank lanes ever closer ahead of me. The boreal bog land spread uninterruptedly back from the roadway.

I slowed and slowed the car as I quickened with exhilaration. These canines looked at least as big as German shepherds, though some wolves grow as high in the rump and shoulders as a deer. Their response to the car seemed semi-practiced, as though they had an action plan--in case of a car coming the As go north and the Bs head south--which group are you in?--yet at the same time nonchalant like teens making way for a car while they play street hockey. I slowed to a stop. The car, a first-generation Prius, makes no engine noise as it brakes. Maybe the wolves could hear the electric motor or other thin, high non-characteristic car noise.

However that was, one animal remained in sight, shoulder-high in grass and seedlings on my right. It had a picture-perfect wolf face, with blunt muzzle, head and shoulders gold-tinted on white with black tips, a bit of pink tongue forward, ears neat to the head unlike the coyote's tall ears. The exchange of glances was real yet ultra-brief, a reward from out of the wild, something I had hoped for over all my remembered years. I gathered from that glimpse a fellow-animal's cautious curiosity, mixed with the same nonchalance as that of the pack-mates crossing and re-crossing the road within the past half-minute. The wolf was crouched, viewing me just like a guy inspecting a newcomer at a distance of twenty feet or so for one second, gone like a magician's handkerchief in the next. My foot quivered on the pedal as I got back in motion and left the scene of deeply secret clannish movement.

There is a hunting season in Minnesota on wolves now, with a quota or 'target harvest' of 220 kills for the months included. Recently I heard or read an official with state government talking about wolves with what may be the stock Department of Natural Resources middle point-of-view, that yes, wolves are intelligent, sensitive creatures but that no, they don't merit the bleeding heart defense coming from people who say there should be no wolf hunts. That's just romanticism. They are legitimate game animals. But, making a stretch from out of the wild into human affairs, if you were to ask me I'd say that the point of view that abortion of human fetuses should be made illegal is romanticism of human fetuses--babies, of course, since babies is always going to be the word of choice. Comparing the level of sensory development of most aborted babies with the same in a full-grown adult wolf shot and killed calls into question whether the elective abortion or the wolf kill is the act of greater cruelty to the victim.

I take this viewpoint not out of hatred for babies of my own kind but out of a desperate love for the other creatures whom our endless expansion is crowding out their own territory since we always need to clear more land, dig it, farm it and build over it. We seem not to be able to shake the notion that people should multiply till the whole earth and every possible other place is taken up by our civilization, as if nature could be managed to become nothing but a grand human life support system, or as if we would really want to live in a universe completely of our own construction, with maybe a little relic forest, brush or desert like a decorative border. Taking the religious perspective about either matter is inevitably getting personal; you cannot convert me to your religion.

I would prefer a world that holds the values belonging to only a scattering of people, maybe especially to aboriginal peoples: that human beings have no greater importance than any other species we neighbor with, and that we live peaceably in motley forms and adaptations, sometimes learning and modelling each others' magnificent expertise to each others' greater glorification. The wolf in its solo resourcefulness and social graces, with its muscular power and embrace of landscapes just as those places evolved, makes a fascinating model for possible human interaction with the world.

I'm a great fan of Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf, in which the author worked as a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service and lived alongside a pack of Arctic wolves in the Keewatin District north of Churchill, Manitoba. His wolf neighbors gained his admiration on a whole series of levels: first of all, their resourcefulness in eating oftenest what was near at hand, especially mice, when their reputation among the white hunter constituency of Canada was that of voracious deer-slaughterers, helping denude the tundra of caribou. But also the wolves had a sense of fair play among themselves and extending to the lone researcher living at the edge of their territory in a tent. An unmated male wolf baby-sat for the mother whose litter of pups had exhausted her with their rambunctious bouncing and biting, letting them bounce all over him. The alpha male, father of the pups, immediately respected the scent boundaries that the man had made, wolf-fashion with squirts of his own urine, along a line of low shrubs. The adult wolves lined up along a ridge to watch the man, with obvious good humor, as he tumbled down the slope of crumbling sand and dislodging rock, overloaded by his own gear. He learned that the native Eskimo people had no wolf prejudices like those of European humankind, and knew each of these wolves as individuals from long acquaintance. He learned to relax and drop the idea that he'd better have his rifle or revolver at the ready when the wolves were near.

Wolves are clever, retiring and seldom seen, by comparison with many of the other creatures that share their realm and their exuberance with the atmosphere that sustains them. We all, it seems proven by people's observations time and again, have emotions of joy, curiosity, respect for others who pass by and do us no harm, bereavement, fear, foreboding, anger and vengefulness when hatred was enacted against us. The northern lands that are hold-outs of today's remaining wolves have their smaller life forms that sing, whirl with unfathomed mixes of passion and enliven the people, probably the hawks and other birds, the foxes, the deer and other four-legged community members who witness them.

Along with the occasionally heard and seldom-seen wolves, I savor the sight of birds everywhere. The gaiety of birds is confused again and again with their evasiveness, a drive to save their own lives from hawks, maybe more than any other predator. In the northern U.S. and Canada one intensively social bird, full of bounding travel-zest and pale wintery tints of white, dawn-pink and dark, is the redpoll, which sorts into at least two distinct species, the common and the hoary. The animus of wolves romping, galloping, lurking and howling is echoed by the redpolls foraging along the paths we travel and swirling into flight, diverging and converging as they leave the scene to re-group somewhere else.

Here is a link to the redpoll note card, a frameable item at 5x7 inches or 12.7 x 17.7 cm. Like most of my others, the card is blank inside with a little descriptive text on the outer back flap. Common and Hoary Redpolls on Take-off

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Real Chocolate and Other Gifts of the Trees

In the northern latitudes extending onto the belt of Arctic tundra you enter a realm of birches, various species giving way to each other as longitudes, soil types and land masses change. The northernmost in the family are shrubs, and there is a yellow birch, a black or sweet birch, a silver birch, and American paper birch, that really showy best-known of the clan, with its white bark curling loose to expose salmon-pink inner patches. The peelable bark has provided generations of craftsworkers with material for canoes, rafts, baskets, cookpots, shelter, footwear, writing paper, toys and fire starter.

A co-worker recently posted that as a child he was afraid of birch trees. I can imagine a kid alarmed by any crooked white thing in a dark woods. Once long ago there was a contest on the radio with a cash prize for the person who dared the strangest stunt. The winner was a guy who ate a whole birch tree, leaves, twigs and all, it seems after I had asked about those details. Size and degree of rawness were sketchy at best when my sister, the one who heard about it, told me.

Birch was the choice when an art client commissioned me to design a family tree as an anniversary gift for the folks, who live here in birch country where they raised their three offspring. The project was illuminating on many fronts, triggering a sense of how a tree's characteristics, if you start to pick and choose from among them, can resonate with a family's traits. The listing in my Etsy shop for a family tree made to order asks that the customer choose a favorite kind of tree along with any other specifications to be part of the illustration. Trees after all are cherished fellow-beings, as individuals and as types. There are family trees, phone trees, coat trees; they are symbols of any organization, whether seen as the one in the many or the many in the one.

Here is homage to the birches from my own writing of 1988, titled The Education of Trees (in Memory of Scott Starling:)
               "Seeds of the birch tree chose rockfield, pocked with bog;
                 Betula lutea (Yellow Birch) peeled a gold rind;
                 Betula papyrifera (Paper Birch) traced cold humus to the Arctic, wrapping its trunks
                 in white lapels, its badges darkening it as its descendants eked from dells on
                 the tundra, recommending reclining postures, which Betula minor (Dwarf Tundra Birch)
From any perspective, people who are enamored with birches are most concerned with the aesthetics or poetics of these graceful white-barked, orange-barked, silver-and-gold or black-barked trees.

The influence of some kinds of tree is hugely pervasive around the world through flavoring and food value, as in apple or citrus, coffee, and most significantly to our household, cacao which leads to everything chocolate.

The tree that bears cacao beans is described as small, especially in its cultivated state,with white wood and frail branches. The leaves are large, glossy, red at immaturity, changing to green. Picking the pods requires long-handled knives for the higher reaches of the tree, machetes for the lower branches. Fragile branches and shallow roots typical of the trees used for commercial production prevent climbing to get at the crop by any means. Though most of today's chocolate harvest comes from African countries, another third or so comes out of South America where cacao originated and appears to have been first enjoyed by the Mayans and the Aztecs, its human history going back more than two millennia. Theobroma cacao, the tree's Latin name, means food of the gods.

This household's Meadowlands Chocolate Company offers bean-to-bar chocolate in four varieties, each from a distinct part of South America--Belize, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Each variety has a sub-flavor of its own, in contrast with the chocolate of major brands offered in vending machines and convenience stores or the luxury chocolate offered for Valentine's Day and its equivalents. Meadowlands Chocolate is not candified by dollops of added sugar in the manufacturing, or by milk or emulsifiers; instead the unadulterated terroir or unique regional flavor can be discovered and recognized, the taste of the very soil that fed the beans, much the same as with fine wines. My own favorite is the Venezuelan Amazonas, with a warm drawn-out quality that seems a perfect blend of chocolate, sweetness and forest itself. Beans for this product are brought by canoe from within the Amazon region where the manual harvest takes place using the patient methods described above.

Organic cane sugar and organic cocoa beans are the only two ingredients in Meadowlands Chocolate. The bean supplier carries only certified Fair Trade and other certified organic products. Organic certification, in its quest to promise ongoing harmony between the crop plant and its retinue of harvesters, pollinators and land supervisors, serves in part to simplify, or clarify, the connection between the artisans and the tree that is their source.

From another perspective, there is a whole jungle of motley crops and beauties and supportive strengths for endless art, music and feasting once you step out even to the edge where the tame confronts the wild.