I’m writing to you, from my damp state to your dry one, in the warmest December I’ve ever known. That feeling of not wanting to know because I might have to change what I’m doing is one I share so strongly. I think that’s evidence that what either one of us might do, alone, is not enough: the scale of the things I don’t want to know about, and the things I’m afraid I might have to do if I did, is much more of a rupture than what you’ve described, though you may think about those things too. But the feeling that we might be doing the wrong thing, and might have to leave our lives behind to do the right thing, is the same. We’re attached to our lives; we think our lives are us. Liking them doesn’t come into it.
Maybe, when we think, “I’m only one person,” when we think our actions are weak, it would help to remind each other that there’s only one of each person. This twitchy consciousness, but also the things we praise on a baby–fingernails, wisps of hair–are in an utterly refutable and irreplaceable combination. If delight is born in variation, your irreducibility, like everyone else’s, is a boon in itself. Think a minute how strange that is–that a violent person, a spiteful person, could be by this standard as lovely and as important as you. The variation of our specificity causes beauty, and so too with a rat, a fern, a moth, a mold, though their identities may not be much like ours or like each other.
Poet Magda Kapa posted on Twitter, where you and I know each other a little, a picture of a cherry tree blooming in this warm December among other cherry trees that weren’t blooming. We speculated that different trees, like different people, might be more stimulated by certain things–maybe this was a tree particularly susceptible to temperature, to warmth. Maybe if one of its flowers earlier in the season was fertilized and a bird ate the fruit and shat out the seed in a likely place, this tree’s child too would be sensitive to temperature. Maybe that would help it, or kill it, in the coming changes. This tree and its hypothetical descendant showed me how hard it is for me to think about a nonhuman creature as an individual, a genetic and spiritual individual, how in my head I’ve been equating the death of a human with the extinction of a species. How strange is that, if you want to talk strange?
One of my students, given the chance to write about something that grosses her out, wrote about guinea worms. They’re disgusting to human aesthetics, painful to humans infected with them, and nearly extinct thanks to human intervention. It’s hard to mourn the passing of an entire genome when that genome makes more worms that grow up in your gut and come out usually through the bottom of your foot (you can look it up). It’s hard to praise the part of variety that offends our senses and our sensibilities in this way, but picking and choosing isn’t just academic: what will we allow ourselves to eradicate, and what will those eradications take down with them? What does the voice that says to you, “You’re weak, you’re garbage,” have in common with the voices of elimination? But I don’t want to go too far down this road. Cruelty, violence, dishonesty, carelessness, when they describe actions, can eat away at a person’s presence in a system. It’s better when we take care; it’s better when we are just.
And these things are true because the idea of each of us as one person is factually incorrect, from the food that forms our tissues to the people that grew it to the gut bacteria that help us use it, from our pets to our priests. To our eyelash mites, a country; to our microbes, a planet. Vast swathes of corn grown in states we have never visited come to our cells to transform, and the pipes our or someone else’s ancestors built bring us water from the reservoir that at one point also sustained cattails and duckweed and ducks and turtles, aggressive phragmites or pickerelweed, water that drowned a town maybe or is even now being sucked up by the sun and carried elsewhere, not to be replaced for many years. History gnarls our toenails and plaques up our synapses. The rocks of the road rush toward us and away from us, and so much of what can kill us can do so because it can also nourish us.
The night I started this letter, I ate pizza at my friend’s house for her birthday, walking past the cords of wood she’d stacked for the woodstove that furnishes her only heat and the coop she keeps her chickens in and the tubs in which her housemate grows his garden. I thought about comparing myself to her and did so, briefly, and then I thought about everything that had to work perfectly in order for everyone who was there to be there, eating and talking, petting the cats and the dog, cooking food from a store (from a farm, from a factory) with gas from a pipe, from a tank, from deep in layers of stone, forced out and compressed and brought in on trucks, I think. My friend rubbed the dog’s belly and talked to him and us to show him that we wouldn’t hurt him. He’s new to the house.
It’s been months since you wrote to me with your climate anxieties, and many things have happened. You may have different ones now; mine have changed as I’ve been unable to avoid learning things. I don’t want to list the acres of forests that people have burned or the tons of carbon that power plants, mostly, have added to the air or the volume of sea ice that’s melted, not because it’s too sad or too infuriating but because in most cases it’s too far away and I still haven’t figured out how to bring it closer. I can’t find all the middle terms in the chain between the plastic fork we throw out and the rising temperatures of the air and water and dirt, between the warm weather and the lasagna we eat. It’s not just you. Everyone who talks to me at the booth reverts to this, either uncritically or with sneering criticism, but it comes to the same helplessness. I believe the kinds of small actions you mentioned in your letter are important in the sense that they remind us we are located, that each of our actions has reverberations, and because they may be good discipline for a day when resources are scarcer for more people.
But the question behind your question–or maybe it’s just my own question refracted through yours–seems to be, How do I change? And I’m wondering if any individual, irreplaceable person, or culture, or family, or nation, or ecosystem, can change before they have to–and sometimes not then. One of the first essays I read about climate change, by Elizabeth Kolbert maybe ten years ago, was about a colony that could not adapt to its new circumstances–how their middens the winter before they starved to death contained boiled shoelaces and the bones of next year’s calves, but no fish bones, because they didn’t eat fish. They couldn’t imagine living a different enough way; they didn’t change their sense of what was possible in time.
How does change that is not a crisis move? If you’re not in an emergency, you have it in you to make a choice with some deliberation. The more precarious your life is, the more everything feels like an emergency and the more unscrupulous people can profit from the disorder that accumulates when everything feels like an emergency. This is true whether you’re a person or a government, a synod or a council or a country or a minyan; it may even be true if you’re a wombat or a mangrove. If change that is a crisis moves spasmodically, sharply, change that is not a crisis moves deliberately whether fast or slow, testing the rock ahead of it with its foot.
How does change that is not progress proceed? I’m drawn to change that is not progress because one person’s progress is another person’s razed forest and poisoned river. I’m tempted to say it proceeds fractally, except that I don’t really know how fractals work. Maybe it’s more like roots, responding to both necessity and possibility, to the appeals of minerals and water, changing form, communicating with other roots. I picture the other cherry trees whispering to their orchardmate through the soil–in a tree way that I have to understand through my human mind, so take what I’m about to say with a touch of suspicion: maybe they couldn’t stop her from blooming out. Maybe all they could do was be there.
Fear is at the vein of your questions and mine; I didn’t even look back at your question for a while because I was afraid of what I’d have to do to respond to it. The fear of action, wrong action, no action; the fear of what might be required to move us out of this life and into the next. Do I only do the things I know won’t work?–go to marches, add to the compost, even run the booth itself, write poems? Is that my shameful secret, that I cling to my life by doing weak things, that if I really meant it I would do something grander, something worse, something wholly unmoored from this life? Have I hedged myself around with relationships that make me think that impossible, entwined myself with permissions, stitched myself deliberately to money and people and buildings and things so I could then describe myself, with truth, as helpless?
I could relinquish my house to the Narragansett people whose land this was first, donate all my money to reparations for the descendants of enslaved people. I could chain myself to construction equipment when Spectra Energy or National Grid start work on fracked-gas infrastructure in Providence or Burrillville. I could lie down in the grass and die, relieving the world of the burden of me–but we’re alive for such a comparatively short time–we have such a short time as living, particular beings. The things I can do as a dead person I can do just about anytime, but this is my chance to do things as a living being. Which ones will I do?
With love and gratitude,