Thursday, March 27, 2014

Holding Out in the Background - Can we Divorce from Fetishes tied with Crude Oil?

In isolation (momentary) someone says : am I the only person in this whole room/station/store, etc. who cares what's happening? though it seems of no consequence to care.

Yet it can only be changing--awareness of the unstable climate that's challenging all our prospects. In the seasons, what are we about to start seeing? (Could the forecasts of climate catastrophe still end up mistaken?) If I could declare seasonal patterns I've most noticed, they would be the long autumns that linger into what would have been winter months, in particular 2011/2012, the winter that barely took hold at all. January near Ely, Minnesota, whose winters are traditionally of the frigid sub-polar kind that build up a snowpack, exhibited the merest bare ground with cold glitter on it as I worked in or out of the parked car, laying in the multi-toned canopy of spruce that would shelter my favorite so far, the strutting spruce cock, whose illustration is still in stages of finishing two years later; it awaits the reappearance of bare forest floor these weeks with our ever-enduring fields of drifts. In April 2012 a visit to the Canadian shores of Lake Superior further evidenced the winter that had never been, with forest duff as dry as the lining of a scarecrow's pocket in a sun-withered corn patch, last year's ferns standing brown like the cornstalks under the firs and cedars. Lake Superior itself reveals boulders and rock ledges year after year that were always covered in water; this is attributed to faster evaporation following from markedly shorter seasons of ice cover. Last fall the water was a bit higher.

The winter of 2012/2013 was closer to the old norms, with recurrent snows and a generous snow pack, sub-freezing weeks and snowfalls showing up even into May, so that teens and young adults exclaimed at what a cold winter this was but the older ones said no, this was actually typical of what once was; it wasn't particularly brutal.

Now we have this long defiant snow season, when the influence of the North Pole is skewed way down over North America, and temperatures this far north in late March demand a parka hood or knitted 'tuque' for a person's head if you're walking a road some mornings or evenings. This was my first winter I've ever ached deep inside my back for several days running; suggestion was that it came from lung-burn borne of heavy breathing along the road and ski trail when the days never neared 0 Fahrenheit and northwesterly winds skated over field after field. Eastern Europeans and Alaskans meanwhile utterly lacked any of the protracted freezing required to maintain Olympic ski runs or sled trekking. Here in northern Minnesota between the snow-shrouded meadows as we peel off our coats we're asking each other what June this year might look like or whether there might not be much growing season, though we're not really worrying since we've never needed to before.

Since recent popular advisories, best-known among which may be the Rolling Stone piece titled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" have had their chance to be shared and digested, it was most of all fascinating to me to attend the hearing in Duluth on March 20th for a proposed expansion of an oil pipeline, Enbridge Energy's Alberta Clipper which would cross this state's northern third. The line is taking heavy crude oil down from what once was pristine taiga forest in northern Alberta, into the Upper Midwestern states where Superior, Wisconsin will be a hub for distribution to refineries eastward and south. At the same time the scientists studying the dilemma with regard to carbon release point to the requirement for our own survival that we leave all possible petroleum reserves in the ground or else push earth's climate into a regime of tumult and extremes that will take down civilization.

It was later reported that opinions at the hearing were about half for, half against the plan to increase the existing pipeline's shipping capacity from 570,000 to 800,000 barrels of oil a day. While I sat in the hotel ballroom among the 300 or so who were there to listen or testify I heard four or five testimonies opposing the project on the basis either of hazard to water due to leaks or spills or to the climate. Most emphatic were the president and CEO of a local solar energy company who called the Alberta tar sands project 'a lethal carbon bomb' and the young lady who spoke after him who, in her thin high voice, avowed that 'a barrel shipped is a barrel burned.' Each of these testifiers asked the company in separate wording: how do you react to knowing that?

For any veterans of civil disobedience, all that I witnessed at this hearing probably seemed unremarkable. But as if I were listening to a radio play, I was struck by the heard drama of those two testimonies, each offset by a numbed silence on the part of Enbridge's panel of engineers and attorneys. The gap must have sparked the question all over among those seated: what are they gonna say to that?? What do job production and sports and music sponsorship which are credited to Enbridge matter against a carbon outflow that, sector by sector, causes the huge linked economy to fold and come undone? And helps drive whole regions into mega-drought and food insecurity or outright famine? Then, just as we many of us were beginning to formulate our versions of the answer, the attorney in tones of pained patience, reading or not reading from a prepared rejoinder, said that the people of America have said that they want oil and gasoline in an increasing domestic supply to assure the supply of...whatever, name anything, etc. And so that determination for all these business-as-usual minds settles it; of course pipeline expansion is what we will do.

Petroleum pipelines and new mines, high-rises and new sports arenas, water diversion schemes and highway interconnections will continue burying and polluting soils that have given root to ourselves and more than ourselves as long as resources remain to do these things because none of us know how to quit at our investments, whatever we've made on our own or in partnerships. Our prehistoric ancestral societies' expansion schemes appear to have brought on die-offs and dispersals in so many cases where limits to growth were reached, in food terms especially. Weather that stunts and kills food crops is a direct threat to those of us living now. The Bible of my Christian forebears tells of the Tower of Babel, a legend borne out of Hebrew and Mesopotamian traditions in which people built a temple or ziggurat aimed into the heavens, based upon the assurance of a common language. But God somehow, exerting divine will through the nature of the peoples, decreed that the attainment of heaven was not to be. In The Greater Trumps, first published in 1932, the British theological novelist Charles Williams revealed through a character's vision a conception of the Tower of Babel as a linkage of hands:

"Somewhere, very vaguely, he would think that he saw in front of him, fashioned of the mist...the great Tower which reached almost out of sight, so loftily it grew up and then always--just as his dimmed eyes strained to see the rising walls--tottered and swayed and began in a horrible silence to fall apart, but never quite apart. It was raised by hands which, from within the rising walls, came climbing over, building themselves into a tower, thrusting those below them into place, fists hammering them down, so that the whole Tower was made up of layers of hands. But as it grew upward they changed; masonry below, thinner levels of masonry above, and, still above, masonry changing into hands, a few levels of moving hands, and (topmost of all) the busy working fists and fingers. And then a sudden spark of sunlight would fall on it from above and the fists would fall back out of sight, and the hands would disjoin, swiftly but reluctantly, holding on to each other till the ruin tore them apart, and the apparent masonry, as it was rent by some invisible force, would again change back into clutching and separating hands. They clung together fantastically; they shivered and writhed to avoid some principle of destruction that lurked within them,..."

Pricing for food, shelter and transport may start the undoing of the tower in our near future. If excess of sun, precipitation and ever-less petroleum-powered means to grow the gigantic grain crops a humanity of billions needs to cohere as a society become inevitable, why are we still building everyday cars so they will go above 80 miles per hour, and why are we still making and selling gasoline toys most of all bought and used by thrill riders? Because desperation was the only condition that ever broke people of their most wasteful joys. And even though the industry-based drive for conformity, ease and efficiency has herded the peoples of the earth into a tower of babble or a culture of interconnected mega-cities, many, many cherished differences and aching disparities have seen to it that we keep scattering, as well. Desperation due to an overburden of people will thin the ranks.

A thing I wonder each day is whether earth's loneliest, remotest, least-peopled places will in these times of difficulty retain their status as middle of nowhere. Will the most built-over lands on earth keep on being chosen places, hospitable to survivors of the future, because of amenities that linger there, or will just as many of them as not turn into wastelands? I wonder this because I live in a depopulated region, a farming area that still supports wolves, pine martens and fishers, my choice directly connected with the art I do. It's not urban art, nor hardly about what people cultivate, but about the living things that always took care of themselves, that I regret in so many cases are being crowded out of a homeland. Climate catastrophe threatens these plants and animals with losses or extinction, yet a collapse of our affairs may also mean salvation for some of the birds, beasts and wild herbs. I love the North with its icy breath as a consequence of my own history, but also because of the body efficiency it promotes for a robust type like myself--I burn up what I eat better than ever before--and the austerity shown by the plants and animals best adapted to these rocks and sands and peat bogs. The plant and animal trait I mean is the delicate set of adaptations to cold, poor soil, gales, mainly, including the capacity to grow slowly, like a 50-year old black spruce that looks little bigger than a long-handled mop upside down.

Austerity is found among plants and creatures of hot deserts as well, and they have their champions as they should. A citizen of cold deserts might, on immersion in southerly deserts of cacti and sage, learn to feel his or her inner kit fox and make a home there, but so far I want to speak for the little half-forsaken things that stand and quiver before a northerly wind a thousand or two miles closer to the Arctic. What will be our fate?

Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees of Canadian/U.S. Border Region and Northward

Monday, March 10, 2014

In the Mind: Southern Fiction has Brushed against Snow-Country Art

In literature most widely cherished as art--some novels, short stories and plays--action or a course of development, narrated in deliberate detail, is woven through still portraits constructed of the most perfect language, whether portraits of people, indoor or outdoor space. The portraits would never mean so much as they do when the story line or action has culminated in that exact truthfully-wrought, exquisitely-developed scene. For me, enlivening these late winter days have been two works by Carson McCullers, a 20th-century writer of the southern U.S.-- just this morning her short novel The Member of the Wedding. The unnamed little southern town in the years of World War II reaches out to me like a setting I may have come up against at some time though not had a chance to live in or visit except in glimpses.

The last portrait which is the book's concluding scene reports on the death of a child character whose lingering image, in the mind of the main character Frances, is 'solemn, hovering, and ghost-gray.' He was a little boy of six years, presented by the author all during the story as inward-looking, with his own secret fascinations that help to set him over on the edge of society more than most boys. On at least two occasions he's drawn to the girlish belongings of his older cousin Frances--a doll given her as a gift, which he names Lily Belle in the shadow of Frances' disinterest, and her plumed hat and high-heeled shoes. More than once in her characterizations Carson McCullers revealed the frustrations of non-heterosexual people in a time when their affinities were treated much more than they are now as a form of emotional disturbance. The little boy John Henry West for all his childish manners and early youth comes across as a package of complex inclinations never to be defined, with evidence of bisexuality presented as here-again but gone again due to unanticipated death.

On this March Sunday with the clocks set ahead for the summer season and a melt commencing in trickles and drips from all the trees after this showcase boreal winter, I felt as if time had come unfixed a little and we were free to push not just forward on the calendar but in all directions, any period we chose to visit or revisit. That closing scene of The Member of the Wedding was full of a sense of flight out of desperation, between regrets, into the hope of a new and broadening era in the lives of both leading female characters, the white teen-ager and the black matron who has done her best to set the girl examples from out of her own striving. Stories, like our solitary and shared conversations, move backward and forward and sideways in time.

In a vision of the deep South, here's a passage from the third- and second-to-last page of my library copy:
     "It was the time of the Fair and a big banner arched the main street and for six days and nights the Fair went on down at the fairground. Frances went twice, both times with Mary, and they rode on nearly everything, but did not enter the Freak Pavilion, as Mrs. Littlejohn said it was morbid to gaze at Freaks. Frances bought John Henry a walking stick and sent him the rug she had won at Lotto. But Berenice remarked that he was beyond all this, and the words were eerie and unreal. As the bright days followed one upon the other, the words of Berenice became so terrible that she would listen in a spell of horror, but a part of her could  not believe. John Henry had been screaming for three days and his eyeballs were walled up in a corner stuck and blind. He lay there finally with his head drawn back in a buckled way, and he had lost the strength to scream. He died the Tuesday after the Fair was gone, a golden morning of the most butterflies, the clearest sky.
     'Meanwhile Berenice had got a lawyer and had seen Honey at the jail. "I don't know what I've done," she kept saying. "Honey in this fix and now John Henry." Still there was some part of Frances that did not even yet believe. ... He came to her twice in nightmare dreams, like an escaped child dummy from the window of a department store, the wax legs moving stiffly only at joints, and the wax face wizened and faintly painted, coming toward her until terror snatched her awake."

Pathos followed me into the spruce, fir and cedar forest this afternoon as I slogged like Indians before the mechanized age that's fattening us now, scooping heavy, liquefying snow on the front ends of my snowshoes while I broke a pathway, then found a spot to sit below a cedar that bore the spiky dead lower branches I wanted for my painting of the spruce grouse. There isn't much more work to do on it by now--just a whole lot more bristling deadwood. I sat sinking ever lower, due to the effect of body heat on snow below me, on my spread-out parka behind the snowshoes, which I kept strapped onto my moccasins while I detailed my art piece and looked out in the nearly still shadows all beset with dead and living wood at all angles, and lichens formed like hair or encrustations, snow slumping off of boughs where it had held on all these past frigid weeks in great globules, and the wind like a vocalization of thaw and coming leafburst.

Pathos is normally described with the onset of fall but I felt it for the approach of spring with all its overt busyness. The spruce grouse painting still sends me on a few more footpaths in search of certain rocks and latticed fallen branches without full satisfaction yet, since the painting is for me an ultimate showing of what's found year to year under the tree tops near the U.S.-Canadian border and increasingly north of it, down at the grey-green ground level. Here is one precious occasionally-seen bird, relative of the ptarmigan that lives to the north of the tree line. This I've come to know and cherish, with a sense that it won't stay with us forever, long though the time has seemed.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

We Encounter What We are, and Transform

Probably a few more people, in the course of any day, any work or pastime, wonder a little at the priority they still put on whatever they do--artistic endeavor, marketing, haute cuisine, just as examples--since we're listening to the warning that by thirty or so more years living on earth will be all about mere survival. An instant's thought may admit some futility in whatever we are developing in our careers, because who will set much store by that stuff in the desperate next generations?

But since life demands we carry on with the things that bring us power or delight, we figure that in the best case we'll modernize them in accord with trends that surface. The tallest and bleakest trend in more and more people's perspective is the emerging volcanic mountain range of symptoms that indicate our own over-extension, through too many human users promoting massive, ever-growing industry to support our material lives. Climate change is the syndrome, or the plague, which is nothing so much as this living earth like a human body overwhelmed by metastasis in one of its own organs. We are those organs.

A few years ago it sounded a little more than it does any more as if I was stating a religious belief whenever I said I believe we're already experiencing global warming, as climate change then was more often called. I knew--and who didn't know?--individuals who were dismissive, saying things like 'the earth is very old and has coped with many, many changes in climate through the millennia' or 'it's all a liberal hoax.' And those people are still scoffing and turning inward or out to their own comforts. In whatever ways the corporate media by now are treating climate change when they address it at all, more and more people on their own are figuring out that despite the best funded presences on TV, their hipness and flash notwithstanding, the news documentaries scattered through the years introducing a changing global weather regime were correct and bode frighteningly ill for future generations.

Speaking as I am like some movement's disciple, I duly and respectfully cite as this outlook's prophet Bill McKibben, the author and organizer who has publicly done the most in the United States to describe the climate crisis and to muster people to events crying out the need for, as nearly as possible, abolishing our mass reliance on fossil fuels. It was Bill McKibben, interviewed recently on Democracy Now, who said that before the end of the 21st century, with average global temperatures risen to seven or eight degrees F per the computer models, all of civilized life on earth will consist of emergency response measures. In the same interview he alluded, most meaningfully to me, to an earth where winter will be gone, winter as so many of us cherish it with all its majestic gliding sports and immaculate frozen scenery.

In this exhilarating winter of 2013-2014 I can't help feeling a rush of sentiment to create memorials to the landscape in all its variety around me.

Or I reach around me for literary parallels that help explain the behaviors of all of us who've pushed the problem to the stage we are in now. The most classic parable I can recall about the climate crisis can be read in Grimms' Fairy Tales, in the tale 'The Fisherman and his Wife.'

The apparently lonely fisherman and his wife start out the story living on the sea coast in 'a miserable little hovel.' A magical fish, the flounder which the man luckily reels in one day, grants wishes which the wife puts to her husband in a series, each time sending him to call the flounder ashore to approve the latest.  First she wants a pretty cottage with several rooms, a larder and well-appointed kitchen. In another week or so, tired of the small cottage, the wife calls for a big stone castle in its place. Promptly the next day she finds the castle a disappointment without kingship to signify it, so she sends the husband back to call the flounder to declare her the king. Then it's emperor, pope and lord of the universe that the wife must become with the flounder's ordination. Each time the husband, ever more humiliated, goes back to the edge of the sea he finds both sea and sky uglier with turbulence and foul coloration.

By the time the woman announces she can never be satisfied unless she's made lord of the universe the man can only go back to the flounder out of fear of his wife's rage. Quoting the last paragraph of the story:
     "Then he pulled on his trousers and tore away like a madman. Such a storm was raging that he could hardly keep his feet. Houses and trees quivered and swayed, and mountains trembled, and the rocks rolled into the sea. The sky was pitchy black. It thundered and lightened, and the sea ran in black waves mountains high, crested with white foam. He shrieked out, but could hardly make himself heard:
                "Flounder, flounder in the sea, 
                Prythee hearken unto me:
                My wife, Ilsebil, must have her own will,
                And sends me to beg a boon of thee."
     "Now what does she want?" asked the flounder.
     "Alas," he said, "she wants to be Lord of the Universe."
     "Now she must go back to her old hovel," said the flounder, "and there she is!"

In the event of overreach, we might say in a religious spirit of justification, there will be punishment, even death. I see that this old parable is touching not just on narcissism to the extreme of wanting to be God but also hinting at a hunger to be bigger and bigger in our consequences on the face of the earth. The waves, the houses and trees react the way they do in the mega-storms filling our news reports today. Very possibly there will be cycles in human evolution, or even human devolution, from which the dream in recent centuries of super-cities, climate-regulated and self-serving and mutually supportive, will be cast away just as the super-cities are flung into outposts of human survival, each making do with strategies that fit the place where they find themselves. Things of course may or may not come undone so completely or severely as in this reckoning.

'Hell on earth' is a phrase coming to mind, as in the last days of the Biblical Revelation, or in the notion that people are so stupidly evil and greedy that all but a few souls maybe will be wiped from off the earth. Hell has to be considered as the consequence not just of greed and evil but of mysterious causes too, causes for which questioners of all different disciplines will be seeking as long as there are thinking minds yet living. Theological interpretations of suffering suggest that it's necessarily based upon evil carried out by a predecessor or visited upon someone's neighbor in the form of a curse, or that it's temporary, attending the person's passage to all-transforming glory.

Charles Williams, the British theological novelist, poet and critic of the mid-twentieth century, ended his novel Descent into Hell with a man's spiritual and probably physical death into a pit, dropping ever lower beneath the moon which the character, Wentworth, confuses with a clock-face in a tower and at the same time his own watch, over-wound and left broken at home. A silver, million-miles-long rope has just shot from his hand upward into the moon, disconnecting him with time in which he remains able to act for the better or the worse.

Charles Williams' talent allowed him to narrate from within a dimension that included the metaphysical and physical in their connectedness. He relates the most subtle gradations of difference between one moving force and other, "percipient  and impercipient," conscious and unaware. The fictional Wentworth had allowed obsession with a woman he only knew casually to turn her into a phantasm who went with him, agreeing to all his own lustful wants, wishes and notions, till her image dwindled into something that disgusted him and collapsed altogether. But he is also full of hate for everyone else, rivals to his own self-importance. In the concluding few lines:

     "He had now no consciousness of himself as such, for the magical mirrors of Gomorrah had been broken, and the city itself had been blasted, and he was out beyond it in the blankness of a living oblivion, tormented by oblivion. The shapes stretched out beyond him, all half turned away, all rigid and silent. He was sitting at the end, looking up an avenue of nothingness, and the little flames licked his soul, but they did not now come from without, for they were the power, and the only power, his dead past had on him; the life, and the only life, of his soul. There was, at the end of the grand avenue, a bobbing shape of black and white that hovered there and closed it. As he saw it there came on him a suspense; he waited for something to happen. The silence lasted; nothing happened. In that pause expectancy faded. Presently then the shape went out and he was drawn, steadily, everlastingly, inward and down through the bottomless circles of the void."

What is personal among each of our motives will remain, I think, till it is burned or corroded out of each of us. Fabulous landscapes ever veering into winter will for a long time I think be mine. But in sorrowful recognition that Bill McKibben is likely right about a future earth with the phenomena of winter cooked away from its sub-polar regions, I titled the above painting Repercussions. Interpret it how you will, the gull is dashed to smithereens that are one with the snow flakes as it crashes against the strange edifice of combined origins.