Alternate Histories: 8/5, 8/7


I’m always anxious about the climate, always. I’m working on not getting anxious about it because it doesn’t do any good. My anxieties hit me typically if I wake up at three in the morning. If I catch a whiff of them, I just get going–not just climate, general ecological catastrophe. You forget about it enough and then it’s like, Oh damn it, I forgot about that.



The next night, W woke at 3:17, right on schedule. She got up quietly, shifting her weight away from the center of the mattress first so as not to wake her husband when she stood.

She wheeled out her bike and thought, as always, about leaving her blinker and helmet and reflective vest at home, leaving it up to fate or chance. As in the past, it wasn’t the thought of her daughter or her husband or her dogs or her garden that drew her hands to the buckles and straps. She just didn’t want to hurry up the process. The East Bay Bike Path curled out in front of her and even over the wind from her motion, she could hear the sound of the night woods.

A few people were already there when she got to the gravel beach in Barrington, and more arrived as she helped them light the fire. Its smoke wove into the smells of rotting algae and cooling bike sweat. Each of them said the name of something they were preparing to grieve for, something vulnerable to saline intrusion or shrinking ranges or the loss of its food plant, and the others around the fire repeated it after them, their voices swelling. W’s list was so long, and so many things on it were more essential to living, but, “The cool morning,” W said. “Every cool morning I wonder if it’s the last cool morning.” Her phrase echoed in several timbres: the cool morning, the cool morning. Anything can sound mournful if many voices say it in unison enough times.

As their vigil ended and their face of the earth turned out of its own shadow, others began in the country and the world: vigils for women with environmental cancers in Gary and Lima, for the corpses of salmon in the Nooksack River and the conifers their eventual absence would starve of fertilizer and the Nooksack people whose pride and history and survival were bound up with the salmon run, for children downwind of Fukushima whose spirits were cramped and contorted because they could not go outside. W thought of them while she was biking home, rinsing off, easing back into bed so that her daughter would find her when she came in for a morning curl-up.

People who went to vigils in the night brought their memories with them into the mornings. They behaved differently at work and with their relatives. They eased off on certain demands and made others more vehemently. Some of them were caught whispering ‘devotchka moya’ to the bees in the flowerpots on Nevksy Prospekt. Some of them were caught disabling coal-mining equipment in New South Wales. And in states and countries with many vigils, policies and practices began to change. It happened slowly–not fast enough to save some tracts of old-growth forest before they tipped into stumps and drought, not fast enough to allow the babies born that year or the following year to live asthma-free. There was always more to mourn for, more to rage about, more to resist. There was always more to praise, more to tend carefully, more to embrace.


Climate Anxiety Counseling: Providence International Arts Festival, 6/13/15

Weather: Hot and bright, windy at times.

Number of people: 38 stoppers, too crowded to really hear walkbys

Number of people who read the sign out loud without coming close: at least 13

Pages of notes: 18, but I had to use the fat blue marker again because I forgot to bring down spare ink cartridges for my usual pen

Alternate histories: 2!

Pictures taken with permission: 3

Pictures taken without permission: at least 8

Dogs spotted: too many to count

People who commented on the Peanuts reference: 1

Flyers for other concerns proffered and accepted: 1

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $16.85

Also contributed: a handful of chamomile flowers


The parade included many beautifully costumed contingents, marching and dancing; even more delightful for me was seeing people in their costumes after the parade was over, walking regular, back to wherever they wanted to be.

Something I noticed in another context was also striking here: when some people feel overloaded and helpless, their attention jumps around, so that they start talking about one thing they can’t really handle and then, when I try to respond to that, jump to another thing they can’t really handle either. I’d be interested to hear if there’s anything other than anecdata that has tracked or studied this response.

I got more irritated with more people than I usually get, and showed it. This may have been partly a volume problem. I apologize. I also got very, very sad and helpless-feeling again toward the end of the shift. My poet-friend Brenda Iijima and I have been trying to talk about sadness and stillness as potentially generative, potentially fertile, instead of just something to try to avoid; I tried to bring those ideas into a couple of conversations, but I don’t think it worked very well.

I saw the Mayor, but he didn’t see me.

Special thanks to Thompson Webb III and S. Hollis Mickey for being part of this day’s session in multiple illuminating ways; to Rachel of the Free Pass Project for the generous and unprompted gift of a blueberry lemonade; to Yesica of the Avenue Concept for incredible facilitation; to Jen Long for holding onto the umbrella for me, for the loan of your jambox, and for your lovely and lengthy company.

Some conversations:

Money. The fact that I–obviously we need it to survive. I’m afraid that I won’t have a dime in my pocket again, it’s happened before, and I have to figure that out. But sometimes you have to question it–some people have so much, and some people have to decide whether or not to buy food.

Can you imagine what a world without that worry would look like?

It would be more primitive [sic], more focused on sharing each other’s talents, instead of being such a self-centered society. But if you just started doing it by yourself, it wouldn’t work–you need other people to join with you. They need to see how they can benefit too …

What are you good at, what could you contribute to something like that?

My time, my art. I’m good at writing, listening, dancing.


Climate change doesn’t bother me that much, but then I think, I wanna move to parts of the country that are close to water, and when I’m thinking about that I don’t think about the fact that the sea level is rising and that the coastlines will be–not where they were.

When you start thinking about it, why do you stop thinking about it? Or like, what if instead of stopping, you kept thinking about it?

I feel hopeless, like, Well that’s a thing that’s probably going to happen. If I thought about it more, then I think it would become this dystopian fantasy, and then it might get exciting, kind of morbidly thrilling because then I could write a story about it.


You wanna do it?

Well, I did it before.

That’s right, I forgot. Do you wanna give me an update on your anxieties?

There’s still so much trash. I was on the east side when Brown and RISD students were moving out, and they were just throwing out so, so much, and that’s just one or two small schools in one small city. I’ve been out to the landfill before, that’s not getting any smaller. I know that the Johnston landfill upgraded their recycling so you can just put everything in the bin together, and that improved recycling by like 25% or something. I think it’s about tackling stupidity, how do you do that?

Well, how come you aren’t–like you obviously don’t do this thing you’re noticing, how come?

My mother is something of a packrat, but she would always be like, This goes in the recycling. I can’t say what’s keeping people from doing it. Maybe there’s a stigma, like it’s like a hippie thing? A lot of [why people change things] comes down to cost. Like in manufacturing facilities I’ve been to, the distance between 2 machines will be more efficient because it saves money, not because of some holistic [didn’t catch the word]. How can we make it cheaper to recycle?


The drought in California. I joked about it, but then I was like, Maybe I shouldn’t joke about that. Maybe joking is my way of coping or maybe of being ignorant, using jokes as a way to hide my ignorance.


[This was a family who came up together]

Daughter: I know it’s the Ocean State, but I don’t want it to be an ocean state. It’s hard to evolve the ability to breathe underwater–it’ll take us at least four, five generations. I can’t swim very well. I can doggie paddle but I can’t swim, like, strokes. I’ll just have to sit on a log raft for the rest of my life.

Dad: I’m gonna put Mashapaug Pond on the map.

Mom: It’s already a toxic waste dump.

Dad: I know, I wanna protect it.

Can I ask–since you know that the things you just described are probably not what’s gonna happen, why do you bring them up that way, instead of things that are more likely to happen?

Daughter. Because a lot of people are very complacent, people aren’t paying attention. Hyperbole is a way to get them to see that it’s totally affecting them, it already has affected them. Maybe they don’t need it, but maybe they should.


Little Compton would be an awesome place to start conserving.

Can you say why Little Compton in particular?

Personal reasons. My brother and I used to go there together in the summer, and we called it the Shire, from the Lord of the Rings. It looks like the Shire in summer bloom. I hope it stays that way.

What could you do to help it stay that way?

My life is full–I could make more room in my life [for conservation].


I worked at Apeiron, I worked in Woonsocket. Life is so totally out of balance, so disconnected. We’re all implicated. It makes me so unutterably sad.

What do you do when you feel that sadness?

I try to put parts of my body on the grass and connect with Mother Earth … A lot will survive, but I think it might not be us. I try to breathe. I think about the bad things I do and how they contribute … I believe that everybody cares, given the opportunity to care.

I’ve been trying to think about what sadness might make possible.

Sadness leads to the desire for connection. Sadness informs reaching out. But I don’t share sadness often, because I want to make opportunities for people to perform their own responses, to facilitate a journey to authentic response. I want to be careful how I influence people–to promote why it’s good to be green [sic].


Once I dreamed that penguins were walking on the frozen ice of Lake Erie. They were zombie penguins, and they were hunting. People–not other penguins … There are a few dreams stashed in my memory about Lake Erie–I grew up on Lake Erie, and it usually registers strongly in my dreams. I like the name, Erie, the eeriness of it. I remember seeing something on TV about a place above Toronto that was melting, and people were seeing the opportunity to create economic profit from climate change, like, Bring on climate change, it’s gonna be good economically. My dream did the opposite–it froze the lake. I also dream about tornadoes, and when I dream about them, the air pressure in my ears always pops. I don’t know if that happens in a tornado, but I know the air pressure change can blow out windows. I’ve seen a lot of tornado aftermath–I remember working one night in the design office [in Ohio], I heard something, and I came out and there were trees all over the road. There was a lot of tornado anxiety–we lived in a ranch house with no basement. One took off my grandparents’ porch, and a fireball from a tornado burned the house across the street from my aunt’s house … Tornado season in Ohio is mainly in the spring–warm air and cool air just collide together and the sky just starts to roll over itself. That’s something every Ohio kid knows–the sign is that the sky turns green and it turns sideways.


Not having water, and burning from the heat. I come from another country, and in my village, we show respect to nature. We make sure that we use the land in a proper way. I’m quite aware that it isn’t done the same way here–the same level of respect is not applied. People here make fun of me–I even save my dishwater, and put it on my plants. Now I see that people are actually doing these things here more, and it makes me happy. I’m not such a weirdo after all … I’m not going to let ridicule undermine me. I do it out of love and care. If I can influence one person I will have won. Only for them I feel bad–I’m okay! I have Mother Nature’s approval and that’s much more.


[These two were mother and daughter.]

Mom: Warming in general. Typical stuff that you hear all the time. We’re connected together, so once one thing gets out of sync, the whole thing falls apart. I live in Pennsylvania, and this past winter was so cold, and a lot of people in the neighborhood suffered–they lost plants or trees. Nobody has any time to do anything. I just keep on going. But–I know how it sounds to say this, but I have faith in the next generation coming up.

Daughter: They say you’ve already screwed it for us.

Mom: Anything they tell me to do, I would do.

Daughter: We learn the limitations of humanity. In Rochester, the winter there every year is like this winter tenfold. I live up here, and this winter, we had federal emergency aid, we ran out of sand twice–if something actually catastrophic happens, we’re hosed. We’re not ready. We’re comfortable.

How can we get better at being ready?

Daughter: We’ve been conditioned out of it. It’s not an education issue, it’s an agility issue. “Here are the things that are in my capacity to do.” … And the media hype–I was at the grocery store before one of the big snowstorms, not because of that, I was just like, “I need some food, let’s go to the grocery store,” and there was someone from ABC in the parking lot asking me, “So, are you terrified of the big snowstorm?” We have the tools we need, it’s a mental thing.

Mom: I turn off lights, I do those kinds of things. It’s just the scientific things–now this is approaching, what am I gonna do? Now they’re saying that ethanol is not the solution because they may not want to use corn for fuel if they can use it for food–

Daughter: What, because you read one article? We’re really uninformed, and there’s not somewhere to get informed about this stuff clearly. We’re being slackers.

Mom: I’m being serious, I’m not being funny.


[These two came up together.]

Him: My big anxiety is that if you look back 65 million years, when the temperature jumped, it jumped in a span not of 100 but of 15 years, 8 degrees Celsius. We couldn’t adjust for it.

Her: The sea level rise from that–

Him: Basically if you melt all of [the] Greenland [Ice Sheet]* you get 8 meters of rise. If you melt East and West Antarctica, you get an automatic 300 feet. Countries other than the U.S. are gonna push for geoengineering, but that has massive negative consequences. And the other thing is methane. There’s a tipping point with methane release as polar ice melts, and it’s greenhouse gas with 27 times the power of carbon dioxide. That’s really the thing that’s gonna put us over the edge. No policy can stop that. Barring geoengineering, this will happen.

Her: Based on the models.

So if this is definitely happening, what does that mean–

Him: For civilization?

I don’t think you know that. For you.

Him: It would be very sad, because we’re of the generation that actually had a chance to have an engineering impact for future generations. Cheap agricultural production is gonna collapse, and there’s gonna be an expansion of people who are denied their basic human rights.

Her [to him]: I’m done, I’ll see you later. [Leaves.]

Do you think there’s structures we could set up now that would reduce the chance of that?

Him: When I was younger, I went to Cuba and I looked at agricultural reform that was part of the reaction of the government to Russia’s collapse. All the imports of things like grain stopped. So they had to move from an agriculture that was focused on producing coffee, sugar and tobacco to a diversified local agriculture that could feed the population of the island. They were overall able to adapt the food supply, shift away from state-run agriculture. If we could facilitate such a shift–but agriculture runs off fossil fuels and glacial meltwater … I got burnt out on international development. Now I’m just trying to make money enough to make sure my family is safe. I’m building nonmilitary drones–they make 3D plans of buildings … I don’t see a total extinction event, I just see a very rough period for human rights. We have a tendency to hunt till there’s no more, drill till there’s no more. I personally think that humans are awesome, because humans make awesome things–humans are grasping the fundamental nature of reality in a way that no other creature has.

*Doctor’s note: Follow Ruth Mottram on Twitter to learn more about the Greenland Ice Sheet.


I work with fishermen–for example, I try to develop different fishing gear to solve some sort of problem, ways to catch this but not that. So one guy tells me that the times when he’s allowed to fish for whiting have shifted away from when the whiting are actually running–he wants me to help him shift the season so he can target these fish.

So let’s say you were successful in doing that. What other changes might you expect to see?

I can’t answer that, because if the population is changing because of something other than what he’s doing–there’s just too many factors. There needs to be a step back before that question. One of the buzzwords right now [in the fishery] is switching from population-based management to ecosystem-based management, but no one has defined the ecosystem they want. First you need to define that–if you don’t know where you’re going, what are you doing? So in fisheries management, we know historically the highest population of cod, and we also know the highest population of dogfish. But were they ever the same? Can they both be at their peak at the same time? Instead of the maximum sustainable yield, what do you want your world to look like? We have a strong dogfish population right now, but we have problems with other species–it’s not even necessarily that one’s eating the other. They could be competing for the same food. As a fisheries guy I try to take an unbiased stance–not saying this is good or this is bad, but let’s make things sustainable … if it’s not sustainable, it’s a losing game for everybody.


My sons are gonna be adopted. I have two sets of twins and they’re all gonna be adopted, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop drinking every day. Other than that–I just got a job, I’m okay.

You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want, but is it the kind of adoption where you can see them?

I can see them one day every month, and that day I can see them all day long. I’m friends with the lady who has them–she’s my babysitter.


I have several anxieties. I can’t grow stuff in my garden–there’s too much lead in the soil. I just got a notice from the water department about lead in my water at the same time as a notice about a rate increase. The environment is so compromised that it’s beyond repair. But then there’s the people who rebuild Jacob’s [Point] Saltmarsh–they rejuvenated a thousand-year-old ecosystem. I wanna be involved with something like that.


Person 1: I recently decided not to have children, and I’m worried that no one will be able to take care of me. I think it’s partly the influence of society–when I tell people this, they’re all, “Who’s gonna take care of you when you’re old?” I have two elderly friends, and I’m actually their caregiver. I’ve been a CNA before, and one of the things that made it hardest for me was actually the lack of compassion and creativity in my colleagues–and losing friends.

Person 2: There are a lot of professional caregivers in my family, and I’ve learned that the caregivers need as much stress relief as the patients do. The people in my family who do it have high blood pressure, they’re overweight, a lot of them smoke–

Person 1: I’ve started and quit smoking several times.


I have a job interview on Monday in account management.

What are you doing to get ready for it?

I’ve talked to someone who’s a current employee, and I’ve been doing meditations. I’ve been listening to those subliminal ones about confidence.


When people can’t afford to just move away from problems–like, when the sea levels rise and you can’t afford to just leave your beach house because that’s your house … Have you done anything with You could send some of this stuff in to them.


More storms. But it doesn’t feel personal to me, not like a personal fear. It’s more like the collective weight of an increasing level of disaster. It feels like a heavy weight, a collective weight of too much–too much happening at once. I have some sense of the fallout of that kind of [event]. I think there’s a lot of people that would vanish, would fall away, would die, and then the few people who are left would have to sort it out.


I remember in 1978 Louise and I were discussing, and I said, It’s justice, we gotta work on justice, and she said, No, we gotta work on the planet. She said, If there’s no planet, what’s the goddamn point? Well, I went and worked in the justice system, in prisons, tried to clean things up a bit. I did good work, but now I think she was right. I’ll die before it’s dead. I’ve got about 15 years, I think. But it’s just getting more and more dead. My generation lives with it all the time–I don’t know about this generation, I don’t know how they see it. I can’t bear to see the trees being cut down. I can’t watch anything about the Amazon. It distresses me.


[While talking with me, Person 1 saw her friend, Person 2, and called her over.]

Person 1: Are all the trees gonna go away?

I don’t know. That’s one of the things that scares me the most, and I have the hardest time thinking about it.

Person 1: It’s even hard to be in New York, where there are trees, but just so few. It feels like dying when I think about it.

I’ve been trying to figure out what to do when I feel sad and scared like that.

Person 1: I personally have to heal first and then do things. Sadness is not an action on its own for me–I’m still, I can be quiet, I can listening, feel whatever I can–but I can’t act out of that. I wish I could desensitize a little.

Person 2: Today there was a dead seal on the beach, and it didn’t have a head. I think maybe some scientists came down and decapitated it? Would a human decapitate a seal? I feel helpless when I think about [climate change], I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.

Person 1: When I’m in traffic to Boston, for my job, I feel so helpless. How many trees am I killing, just sitting here? Like who am I now? That’s when I get angry.

Person 2: I just landed this lifetime in this world, I didn’t make it this way. I can’t allow what I’m not doing to [didn’t catch the word].

Person 1: I feel so overwhelmed by all these years of, Let’s have a garden! Let’s ride our bikes! I don’t wanna say I wanna give up, but I’m exhausted.


The East Bay Bike Path is done for. It’s too close to the water, and it is my daily commute. I think about it a lot. … I think it’s not really valued enough–these are the types of things we’re gonna lose first, because things that can be profitable, people who can profit from them will protect them.

I didn’t write a poem for this day.

Climate Anxiety Counseling: Reflections on Week 2

Part 1: I Am Becoming Very Strange

“Mitigation”, from people involved in climate change activism and response, refers to efforts to stop worsening the problem– legislation that limits greenhouse gas emissions, for example. “Adaptation” refers to efforts to help people, ecosystems and structures / infrastructures endure the results of the changing climate. One of my interlocutors, who speaks to state agencies and groups of professionals about adaptation, talked to me about the “look of fear” they often give her at the end of presentations. “The issues seem so huge,” she said. “So if we can bring it to a to a local level, an individual and neighborhood approach, people will feel less — alone.”

She backed off the notion of feeling alone, but because it was one of my reasons for beginning this project, I want to return to it. I hoped that through talking about the climate and the ecosystem, their changes and my fears, I could contribute to a public discussion of urgency–mitigation–but also of loss–adaptation. American culture at large is bad at loss. Our language for it is impoverished, sparse, invariant. I hope, and still hope, to enrich that language as a gift to myself; I hoped, and still hope, that the people who talk with me, and who read this blog, will also receive it as a gift. At the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra: you can’t feel less alone all by yourself. You need company.

But another and possibly contradictory hope is that people who haven’t thought about the changing climate very much, or who push it to the backs of their minds in the ways that several of my interlocutors have described, will say to themselves, “Wow, this must be a big deal, because this person is willing to do something very strange about it, and to make herself seem very strange.”

I was kind of strange to start with, in the sense of “odd” (she wrote, chewing the handful of greens she stuffed in her mouth straight out of the fridge) and in the sense of uncommon: for many of the people who speak with me, the amount of time devoted to this project–never mind what I’m doing with that time–is taken up with labor, paid or unpaid, or absorbed by other tasks of survival. While I tried to keep expectations low when I started the project, I did have some, and one was that someone would tell me to get a job. That hasn’t happened.  (Future passersby, in person or online, please don’t feel you have to fill that gap. I have a job; this isn’t it.)

But how strange am I willing to get? Which is another way of asking: what changes am I willing to choose? When I sit at the booth on a rainy day, my arm crooked around the umbrella to keep it from blowing away, I feel more dedicated, more committed, more serious. “People aren’t willing to go out of their way,” a few people have declared, looking me in the face as I sit at the booth, more in their way than mine.


Part 2: Adaptation

As I noted on Day 8, I’ve adapted, and adapted to, this project. I know which sloped curbs collect deep puddles when it rains, and where the nearest detours are; the muscles in my calves and lower back are gaining power from pushing the handtruck up the hill. The “CLIMATE ANXIETY COUNSELING 5 cents” sign, which in Lucy’s booth is above her head, now has its bottom edge flush with the tabletop because the wind kept blowing it around and even breaking it off. Not only do I hug the umbrella, I bungee the handtruck to the park fence.  I’ve repainted the lettering with waterproof paint, after a rainstorm turned both my signs into a suffusion of yellow. After a few shivering end-of-shift hours in this cold spring, I’ve finally figured out how many layers to wear. My booth-unpacking and booth-repacking time has shrunk. I’ve started bringing sidewalk chalk for younger visitors.

I’ve also made mistakes in engagement–arguing even though I promised myself I wouldn’t, losing a potential conversation because I was replying to a text — and been scathed. I replay those interactions, imagining a more genuine and less strategic response, a better redirect, an opening rather than a shutting down, or a quicker insistence on boundaries. What could I have said? I think. What should I have said? What will I say next time? For most interactions, there is no “next time”; I can try to adapt to what that last encounter required of me, but the next encounter may require something different.

If you’ve been following the daily posts, you also know that a few questions (in italics) recur: What do you think of when you imagine this hard future? is one that I ask often. And when people come up and ask, “What is this?”, I answer them more or less the same way, at least to start. But then I’m on my own–or rather, I’m there with them. Being more or less scriptless means that if I don’t pay attention, I can screw up any chance of actual communication, and miss what someone has to offer me. It means, too, that some people ramble, a few bloviate, and none are compelled to tell me if they fear what I fear. It also means I have a chance to see their particularity, whatever about them is irreducible and urgent. It gives me the chance to transform myself into the listener they want–to adapt myself to their story.

Paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote once about the Lamarckian idea of inheritance: that organisms respond to “felt needs” in their environments (growing a thicker coat to survive a colder climate) and pass those traits on to their offspring. Gould’s point was that while biological evolution doesn’t work that way, cultural development does. Based on what we think we know, what the people around us have known, and what the world around us seems to be demanding from us–and the complex ways these interact–we change ourselves, and we change each other.


Part 3: Nothing But Feelings

The relationship between feeling and action is also complex. A feeling isn’t an action. Feeling something isn’t doing something, it isn’t the same thing or kind of thing. A feeling can motivate action, or inhibit it, or make it seem like a good or bad idea. That’s the relationship. And the feeling in another person can only spur you if they allow it to inform their actions (which could include telling you about it). A feeling is like a gene–you can’t see it, you can only see its expression, and usually what you’re seeing is the expression of many genes or feelings working together, some more obvious or visible than others, some jerry-rigged with historical parts of distant origins.

Like all analogies, this one breaks down if you push it far enough. But it’s helpful for me to think about because if I (or anybody) expect what we feel about climate change–its causes, its effects–to do direct work, that’s like expecting magic. But feelings are real the way genes are real: they lead or they withhold. What can our climate anxieties lead us to do? What will they cut us off from? What mutual gravities will they exert with other factors–innate and environmental, the changes we choose and the changes written in other people’s choices, out of our reach in the past? How can what we feel guide what we do with what we know? Those questions will hover over me as I move into Week 3.

Money raised to date for the Environmental Justice League of RI: $46.55

Rhode Island sites for which people have expressed concern, either in conversation or on the map:

Whatever they’re spraying along the East Bay Bike Path

[I’ll add more to these tomorrow: the map is out in the garage]