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