Out of the Woods On Climate/Borders/Survival/Care/Struggle

This conversation with Out of the Woods, a collective investigating capitalism and climate change, gets at the heart of a lot of what I’ve been trying to do with the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth, the alternate histories, and the Interdependence Day gatherings (now on hold, but these writings may help us reinvent them).

“To say ‘yes’ to what we want,” they say, “and what is already created in cramped spaces – necessitates saying ‘no’ to the world that dominates save for those cracks or openings.”

I knew about Out of the Woods, but hadn’t spent a lot of time with their ideas and questions. I’m going to do so now.

Children, Meaning, Transformations

A few things by me/with me in them and relevant to this project appeared online this week, so I thought I’d share them here.

I wrote about climate and political change, having or not having kids, and record-keeping for the present at Catapult.

Kate Colby and I talked about mattering, meaning, and ecology at Ploughshares.

And Jonah-Sutton Morse talked about stories, transformation, attention and Annihilation at Cabbages and Kings.

 

Some Alternate Histories and an interview in Reckoning

Michael DeLuca interviewed me about the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth, and published three of the alternate histories in Reckoning (the other writing in there is great too).

“Everything I see, both firsthand and reported–not just predictions for the future, but observations about the present–says that we are in the middle of a hard time that’s going to get harder, more painful and full of loss and grief, falling unevenly according to who’s already suffering or exploited. I don’t feel better about anything, ever, anymore, except in little tiny patches,” I said.

“But those tiny patches matter to me and I want to nourish them,” I said.

I also said, and 100% meant, that I would LOVE it if other people want to do a version of the booth in their own city (this has always been true) and if you want to, I will help you. Just saying.

Remembering the Arctic Ice Cap: A Celebration of Life

Ever since I started offering Climate Anxiety Counseling, I’ve gone back and forth about mourning the places and people–human, nonhuman–that we know climate change will not just hurt, but kill, before they’re gone. It seems like ill-wishing them–pre-grieving, shooing them out of the world, walking over their graves. And it also seems like something that you’d do instead of trying to keep them alive.

This summer, in Newport, RI–which is admittedly a very odd place–they held a funeral for a beech tree that’s reaching the end of their life (fernleaf beeches usually live for 150-200 years–I’m not sure how old this one is or was, and I also don’t know if they’re still standing). I changed my tune a little bit. The tree was dying; this gave people a chance to appreciate it and acknowledge them while they were still alive.

And now, my friend Maya Weeks is holding a memorial and celebration for the Arctic Ice Cap: She writes, “As we anticipate losing year-round sea ice as soon as 2018, we are taking this occasion to gather and process our feelings about this changing ecosystem together. We will gather to say goodbye to the sea ice algae and the Arctic cod and the polar bear. Please feel free to bring candles and loved ones to the Mosswood Amphitheater [in Oakland, CA] at 2pm on Sunday, December 18.  Please feel free to say a few words if you would like. This is an outdoor venue with a ramp for accessibility.”

This comes just after another group of literal and figurative deaths in Oakland: people living and celebrating at the Ghost Ship, which burned, and the way of living and being that was possible there. You can donate to the relief fund here, and to funeral services and end-of-life costs for the trans women who died at the Ghost Ship here. When I donated to the latter, I also donated to the Trans Assistance Project’s main fund, which “exists to finance legal/ID changes and healthcare for trans folks in need,” because the living and the dead both need care, but in different ways.

Other living beings don’t necessarily do peopledom the way human people do. A forest might be a person; a jellyfish might be a community. And equating human and nonhuman death is full of bad logic and bad history, especially when the human who died died at the remote hands of structures of power and capital and cruelty. Who gets to die like a person, and who like a plant; who is a martyr, a casualty, a throwaway–these are all mediated by the structures I just mentioned, and I’m not looking to draw a comparison that isn’t there or isn’t right.

But one thing that the dead share is their absence–even if we, the living, are in communication with them or take their advice, we mostly recognize that the way they are is different from the way we are. And one thing the nearly dead share with the living is their presence, their ability to be touched and known. I’m still on the fence about mourning the still-alive. But I don’t think that sorrow and anger for one kind of loss needs to displace sorrow and anger for another kind, and I think that mourning the dead can help the living to fight like hell for each other.

 

A New Whale

My friend said I’d probably already seen them: the “new species of rare beaked whale discovered in Bering Sea,” according to the headline at OregonLive. I hadn’t already seen them, and I’ll probably never see them in person, but I now know that they dive deep to feed on fish and squid in underwater canyons; that in Japan they have the common name “karasu” or “raven”; that scientists have so far, if I read the article correctly, only found them dead, and determined their newness by comparing their appearance and their DNA to that of other, more familiar beaked whales. If this is the case, there might not be any alive anymore.

The whale isn’t really new; it’s my knowledge of them that’s new. The fish and squid they eat know about them; the water knows about them; they know about each other. The whale this article refers to was found in 2014, and for all I know, human knowledge of this whale has risen and sunk many times over the years. And in order to exist now, these whales must have already existed for a time that seems long to us; that’s evolution for you. Ending them forever could be much quicker.

When I saw the artist’s rendering of this whale, I was seized with the desire to protect them. The OregonLive article, too, quotes Erich Hoyt of Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the UK: “The implication of a new species of beaked whale is that we need to reconsider management of both species to be sure they’re sufficiently protected, considering how rare the new one appears to be.” But to protect a creature you have to protect everything around them: it’s not enough to just stop killing them directly. Whatever they eat–plants, live animals, corpses–has to keep renewing itself; the land, air and water around them have to maintain the qualities and relationships that make their lives possible, with at least tolerable levels of warmth, contaminants, movement and activity.

And some of the forces that affect those things originate hundreds, thousands sometimes, of miles away from the path these whales are thought to swim, from the tropics to the pole and back: currents of warm water, gouts of greenhouse gas, nitrogen-based fertilizers. Typing away on my coal-powered computer, sitting in front of my coal-powered box fan, I am injuring those whales right now, molecule by molecule. I’m injuring the creatures whose predators they eat, and the creatures who eat their corpses after they die.

This is the point at which a lot of us break down, I think: we recognize our interconnection with the systems of life and their defaults, both human-engineered and not, but so many of the systems that sustain humans in particular have abuse of other parts of those systems built into them. So many of our motions do harm we can’t see firsthand, and a lot of people’s response to this–judging by what they say to me at the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth, and in conversation, and in a kind of low-grade hum that arises from the ways that people talk in public about complicity–is a moment of stricken paralysis, of suspended motion, and then a resumption of similar actions because there’s nothing they can do about it, after all: there’s no other place for their actions to go, no other way for their actions to lead. The most they can hope for, or so they think, is to do less damage, with things like renewable energy sources and water-saving dishwashers and buying fewer new objects.

What if instead of harming these whales incrementally, my ordinary tasks allowed me to help them incrementally? Could we wean ourselves onto methods of eating, building, burying, that shifted the flow and the burden of work, of waste, of making and mending and breaking down? Where is the give in our relations–what can’t we interrupt without severe damage, and what might be more mutable than we might suppose?

Not every system we’re part of may be susceptible to this, and we may not have time to adapt the ones that are. Climate scientists like Guy McPherson and others say that we probably don’t, that it’s too late not only for the new whales but for us, that talking about conservation, preservation, borders on the insane: what are we keeping, and for whom?

Back in the early days of the booth, I had a conversation that I didn’t handle my part of well; my interlocutor seemed to think that something could only matter if it mattered forever, if it persisted unchanged; that something that ended could not matter. I wish I’d asked that guy a few more questions. I’m still here, and if these whales really are still here–if the last of them didn’t wash up on St. George Island in 2014–I would like to make their life here as possible as possible, even if that time is short. The same is true for your life, you who are reading this: I want your life to be possible for you. I want us to change whatever we have to change for that to happen. I would want it if I knew for a fact you and I and the last of these whales were all going to die within the week. I would want it if we were all going to swim through the world for centuries to come.

*

Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life, which I’m in the early middle of, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which I’m rereading, helped with the framing for this writing.

Climate Anxiety Counseling this week CANCELLED

Yesterday, about an hour into my Climate Anxiety Counseling booth shift, my stomach started to hurt and it intensified until I was in too much pain to walk. Two very kind people–one who’d spoken to me at the booth before, and one who was a stranger to me–stayed with me while I called and waited for an ambulance. Long story short: ectopic pregnancy, emergency surgery, lots of professional and personal help; I am now at home eating apples and feeling okay, though my midsection hurts and I’m a little sad–going from “you’re pregnant” to “but in a life-threatening way” in a couple of hours was intense.

I can’t do climate anxiety counseling for the rest of the week because I’m not supposed to lift more than 10 pounds, which excludes moving the booth around and setting it up.

I’m telling you, the internet, my business in this way because I think it’s important to be open about what affects us when it’s safe to do so; because I wouldn’t abandon the booth, even temporarily, for just any reason; because I want to acknowledge the people who generously helped me; and because those people demonstrated the reality of the interdependence we all share.

One of the people who stood with me while I waited for the ambulance also took the large components of the booth over to the Kennedy Plaza Lost and Found so they’d be safe until I could pick them up, and handed the smaller components to one of the paramedics–who actually BROUGHT THEM TO ME in my hospital room when I was waiting to see the next doctor. Everyone who treated me was professional and kind (full disclosure here: I am a thin cis white woman with health insurance and no drug addiction), and they may have saved my life. My husband James was and continues to be present and exemplary in all ways. I am thinking of them all right now, but especially of the people who had made no pre-existing promises to or about me, but who kept my well-being in their sights and in their actions. May I always strive to do as much for them.

Climate Anxiety Counseling: To Keep In Mind

Tomorrow is the first day of the new Climate Anxiety Counseling season–I’ll be in Burnside Park, opposite Kennedy Plaza,  3-6pm tomorrow and Thursday. Here are some things I want to remember to do and ways I want to remember to be while I’m there:

LISTEN, first and throughout.

ASK QUESTIONS, many, before (or instead of) offering suggestions.

ASK PEOPLE MORE ABOUT WHAT THEY’RE FEELING AND WHAT THEY DO WHEN THEY FEEL THAT WAY, before asking them to move into imagining or “solution” mode. I think I and sometimes also my interlocutors want to get to that point too fast, because staying in the painful feeling is, well, painful. I want to keep things open, not try to seal them off.

BUT ALSO: BE RESPONSIVE, not formulaic; LISTEN well enough to know what questions might help a person talk and think more, maybe reach for words they haven’t thought of yet.

MAINTAIN A FIELD OF CALM for myself and them; don’t get agitated and definitely don’t escalate.

If I do offer a suggestion or prescription, make it both PARTICULAR to them and CONNECTED to people, creatures, forces and things outside but nearby or intertwined with them; REVEAL CONNECTIONS that are already there

Sometimes I call this whole booth thing a “project,” and I think the various offshoots of the booth thus far have been a project, but the booth itself is more of a practice. I am practicing the world I want: a world where we observe and trust, where it is safer to be more vulnerable, where we improvise responsively, where we listen. A shared world in which sharing is possible. A world where we take care of each other so that amplitude and hardship ebb and flow but are never fixed in any one person, place or role, a world that doesn’t destroy the carer or the cared-for. I want to enact that world here. I hope you all will help me bring it out of the world we know.

Taking Time

Earlier this week, the city of Providence hosted the Resilient Providence Lab, inviting experts in sustainable design, city planning and urban policy to listen to Providence residents (referred to as “stakeholders”), look at the city’s streets and trees and ground and buildings, and make some recommendations to make the city more “sustainable”, “adaptable” or “resilient.” (Sorry about all the fingerquotes.) I went to a “stakeholders’ meeting” on Monday where the visiting experts served as moderators, asking people, essentially, about the city’s strengths and weaknesses in the face of climate change and its effects.

“Resilience” has limits and misdirections that I’ll talk about in another post (building on Melissa Chadburn’s and Lynda Barry’s ideas about it), but at this meeting what struck me more was the intensity and length with which the people in attendance, often there to represent a group, spoke about the thing they had come there to speak about, sometimes to the side of the moderator’s question. People sometimes challenged, or defended against, what others said; building on another person’s response was less common.

These were mainly urgent things: nourishing food and safe shelter, health and dignity and quality of life. All things that deserve time, thought, and swift response guided by both time and thought. More than one person pointed out the rarity of “a seat at the table”–the city’s table–for organizations attempting to serve and defend the Providence residents who are injured most by the city’s policies, social structures and economic systems. Experience, then, has taught them that opportunities to state what they need the city–the people in charge of the city–to hear are few,  that they must seize the moment and hold it as long as they can.

I sat in the “neighborhod/community” group the whole time, as distinct from the “buildings” group and the “infrastructure” group, so I don’t know how other people were speaking and listening to each other. One person in our group posited that in other groups, they weren’t having this conversation or stating these needs; another noted that the people who were at this table are often together, hearing each other, and that they wanted to introduce these needs into the two discussions that might be ignoring them.

Our home city had trained us well in scarcity.  As advocates, as representatives, we had learned that we were at odds with each other for the attention of those whose help (and resources, and skills) we need in order to change what needs changing. People were respectful, self-aware, restrained; we  were also fighting people who weren’t in the room, on behalf of other people who weren’t in the room, in an effort to get from one what we needed for the other. It seemed like this made it hard for us to hear each other, to note and emphasize the overlap of what we wanted, to insist together.

 

The Alchemists at Home

I wrote about the very specific climate and environmental anxieties I have about becoming a parent, which I’m not currently in the process of doing, but would like to do, and am afraid to do.

If you click that link, you’ll see some things about me that many people choose not to share about themselves, and a couple of things that I have in the past chosen not to share about myself. I decided to share them for one of the same reasons I started the Climate Anxiety Counseling project: I wanted to know if I had company. The Toast has a particularly responsive and generous commentariat (and a rigorous commenting policy) and people wrote in with their own fears, decisions, declarations of willful avoidance or painful preoccupation, showing where they overlapped with or diverged from mine, and expressing a gratitude that I also feel towards them for putting these feelings into words.

Twitter user @eveewing asked a similar question on the last day of January. There, too, people spoke of their reasons for fearing or not fearing, for holding off or going ahead. Some were flip, some grim, some earnest; all of their responses were, unsurprisingly, informed by what they revealed of the rest of their lives. Someone who works on climate change and environmental justice wrote that they can’t help thinking about it, and pointed out how little most of us know about earth’s systems and the way they interact. An EMT wrote that they’ve “been to too many senior apartments as an EMT and have seen too many people dead alone not to want a family.”  Someone from Sri Lanka spoke of the vulnerability of their home and the ways climate change is already affecting their agriculture and their coasts. Others spoke of raising a generation to mediate these problems and take care of the world, and of talking about it with the kids they do have.

Conceivable Future frames climate change as a reproductive crisis, and interviews people about the ecological calculus of making and raising a child. There, too, people’s stories of their own decisions are moving and direct. Many of the people interviewed there so far appear to be white, but many writers, investigators and scholars have articulated environmental racism, even before it’s exacerbated by climate change, as a reproductive crisis as well: the lead-filled water in Flint, MI and Ottawa County, OK;  African-Americans ghettoized into floodplains; schools built on toxic sites in Providence and New Orleans. Without drastic, prioritized revision of physical and social structures, climate change will make things worse for people for whom things are already bad, the people whose lives are most delicate, most precarious, most tender.

I was glad, reading those comments, that people were hearing what I said; I was glad to hear their stories, and the responses to @eveewing’s question, and to see the faces and hear the voices of Conceivable Future’s interviewees. If they’re important, it’s because hearing that we’re not alone can help shape how we act together, toward each other.

Climate Anxieties: An Open Letter to Another Friend

Dear ________,

 

 

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,

Kate