A blog at Thoreau Farm
editor, Margaret Carroll-Bergman
founding editor, Sandy Stott
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” –Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”
A conversation with journalist Mark Hertsgaard, author of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth
Mark Hertsgaard, an accomplished global-environmental reporter, wants you to remember the first Earth Day, how it really started, 42 years ago, on April 22, 1970. He wants to remind you of the far-reaching change it brought about — under a conservative Republican president, no less.
In an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation, Hertsgaard notes that here in the U.S., as Earth Day has become “a bland, tired ritual that polluters and politicians have learned to ignore or co-opt,” there are environmentalists who are ready to get rid of it altogether. But rather than do that, he writes: more »
April 1 . Walden is all white ice, but little melted about the shores…. We have had a good solid winter, which has put the previous summer far behind us; intense cold, deep and lasting snows, and clear, tense winter sky. It’s a good experience to have gone through with.
–Henry David Thoreau (from The Journal 1837-1861, edited by Damion Searls)
Remember winter? Here in New England, especially this year, the experience (good or otherwise!) of “intense cold, deep and lasting snows,” seems like a fading memory.
Amy Seidl has been tracking this change — not just scientifically, but culturally, even psychologically. Winter, she writes in her much-admired 2009 book, Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World, “is no longer the season it was a century ago…. The hard fact is we see far fewer periods of deep cold.” In that book, Seidl closely observes the landscape surrounding her home overlooking the Champlain Valley, and contemplates the effect of a changing climate on our senses and our inner lives. “What will happen to the world, to us,” she asks, “if a season like winter all but disappears as a result of global warming? Some have proposed that as our seasons begin to radically change we are becoming deseasoned, which refers to the experience of losing or skipping over a season.”
To grasp just how radical this shift is, try to imagine a “deseasoned” Henry Thoreau. I, for one, can’t. No winter, no Walden. more »
It was a great treat to see and hear Gary Snyder on Tuesday night at MIT, where he received the Henry David Thoreau Prize (for “literary excellence in nature writing”) from PEN New England. I’ve written a short piece on Snyder for this Sunday’s Boston Globe Books section, so I won’t say too much right now (I’ll post the link and a few more thoughts on Sunday).
UPDATE, 4/15/12: My appreciation of Snyder appears in the Globe Books section today (if you’re not a subscriber, you can also find it here, but the version behind the pay-wall is far more attractive and easier to read). I like the way my piece is paired with Christina Thompson’s review (for non-subscribers here) of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind, by paleontologist Richard Fortey. It ties in nicely with the point I make about Snyder: my mini-essay begins with a note about climate change and the bristlecone pines, the earth’s oldest living trees, growing along the rim of the North American Great Basin, and a poem of Snyder’s, “The Mountain Spirit,” in which he spends a night among the bristlecones. I then write:
“Snyder has long been celebrated as a poet and essayist of place — Cascade peaks, Kyoto temples, Beat San Francisco, the South Yuba River watershed in the Sierra foothills where he’s lived since 1970 — and the idea of truly inhabiting one’s surrounding landscape is vital to his environmental ethic. But these days I think of Snyder, even more, as a preeminent poet of impermanence and time: from cosmic kalpas and geologic eons down to the evanescent ripple of the present moment.”
I go on to say that this interest in impermanence has never led him to passivity or fatalism in the face of suffering. I hope you’ll read the rest of the piece and let me know what you think.
But I do want to share some comments of Snyder’s, from his introduction to his reading at MIT, in which he drew an implied (or more than implied) connection between Thoreau and the 8th-century Chinese Buddhist hermit-poet Han Shan (“Cold Mountain”), whose poems Snyder (famously) translated in the 1950s while a grad student at Berkeley. It’s a connection I’ve thought about at times myself (and I’m sure I’m not the only one).
Snyder can be very funny in person. He admitted at the outset that he has sometimes struggled with Thoreau over the years. For instance, “Why the heck didn’t he get himself a girlfriend?!” When the laughter in the room subsided, Snyder continued (this is from my own recording): more »
The great American poet and essayist Gary Snyder will be in Cambridge tomorrow night, Tuesday, April 10, to receive the Henry David Thoreau Prize for “literary excellence in nature writing” (now there’s an understatement) from PEN New England. You’ll find the details online here. (The Poetry Foundation has a selection of Snyder’s poems and a few recordings online, which I recommend to the uninitiated.)
I’ll have more to say about Snyder and tomorrow night’s event in an upcoming post, but for now I’ll simply say that Snyder is a literary hero of mine. As I mentioned in a comment on my exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, Snyder’s engaged Zen Buddhism has great appeal to me (as a student of Zen myself). I see him as a profoundly unifying figure, bridging the divides between eco- and anthropo-centrism — and between withdrawal and engagement — that Kingsnorth and I represented in our “debate.” Perhaps Snyder should be a reconciling model for us both.
Stay tuned. More on this to come later in the week.
. . .
So, just as I sat down to write this reply, I reached for the remote to turn off the TV, and realized I was looking at a concert video of Arcade Fire. They were playing (I kid you not) their anthem “Wake Up” to an enormous outdoor crowd of beautiful bright-faced young people in Galicia, Spain, in 2010. As the camera panned over the audience, you could see that these kids were — what’s the word? — rapt? ecstatic? (Was religion in Europe ever this good? The band certainly seemed to relish a revivalist role.) But where will those young people be in twenty years? Thirty years? 50? And are they to blame for what’s in store? Those 20-year-olds? (I won’t even ask what responsibility the culture industry bears…. whoops, I just did.)
“Children … wake up.”
So, yeah, for whatever that’s worth.
I want to pause for a moment and emphasize what we have in common, before venturing another question or two about where we differ. I’ll try to keep this brief.
Paul Kingsnorth responds
(See part one of this exchange.)
. . .
Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.
But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals – because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.
This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.
Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
– “State of the Planet Declaration,” London, March 29, 2012
That’s the warning issued last week by a high-level group of scientists, business leaders and government officials at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London. As The New York Times Green blog reported, “The conference brought together nearly 3,000 people to discuss the prospects for better management of the earth and to build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.” (The Times’ Andy Revkin offers a good wrapup at his Dot Earth blog.)
Earlier last week, at the start of the conference, visitors to the website were greeted with this short video, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” charting “the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes” (the idea that the planet has passed from the Holocene into an “Age of Man” has, of course, gained wide acceptance):
It’s certainly an arresting video. And many might see in those images a call to action, however belated.
Not Paul Kingsnorth. An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. He’s moved beyond it. If anything, his message today is too radical for modern environmentalism. He’s had it with “sustainability.” He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and — unlike, say, imprisoned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who might be seen as Kingsnorth’s radical American opposite — he seems to welcome what he sees there. more »
In which I praise (sort of) The Boston Globe and look ahead to my conversation with Vermont ecologist and author Amy Seidl…
Though all eyes are on the Supreme Court this week, the big news on the climate and environment front is the EPA’s announcement of its rule curbing carbon pollution from new power plants. “The move could end the construction of conventional coal-fired facilities in the United States,” writes Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. (David Roberts over at Grist has an excellent rundown on “the top five things you need to know about EPA’s new carbon rule.”)
With all of that excitement, news readers in New England might have missed The Globe’s important (if somewhat low-key and underplayed) story by David Abel, headlined “Spring frost could doom early blooms,” about the wild swing in temperatures we’re experiencing right now, from unprecedented highs to a sudden freeze, and what it means for flowering trees and plants — and, perhaps even more important, for farms: more »
An interview with the 350.org founder, Keystone resister, Occupy supporter, Jesus follower (and, yes, Thoreau scholar)
“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present…. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated…. There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament — the gospel according to this moment.”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
“My only real fear is that the reality described in this book, and increasingly evident in the world around us, will be for some an excuse to give up. We need just the opposite — increased engagement. Some of that engagement will be local: building the kind of communities and economies that can withstand what’s coming. And some of it must be global: we must step up the fight to keep climate change from getting even more powerfully out of control, and to try to protect those people most at risk, who are almost always those who have done the least to cause the problem.”
-Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010)
“With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
-Climate activist Tim DeChristopher, after his sentencing in federal court in Salt Lake City, July 26, 2011
I take up that question in today’s Boston Globe Books section, in a “By The Book” essay on a recent collection of short fiction, I’m With the Bears: Short Stories From a Damaged Planet (Verso). As it happens, the volume has an introduction by Bill McKibben, and I’ll be posting an interview with him — not about these stories but about climate and politics (and, yes, Thoreau) — here on The Roost this coming week.
The Globe essay begins this way: more »
Part three of my exchange with David Roberts of Grist.
Couple more things:
– Jay Rosen (and plenty of others, including my old colleague Jim Fallows at The Atlantic) recently wrote about NPR’s new guidelines and the so-called end of “false equivalence” in reporting (giving equal weight to opposing “sides” in a debate, regardless of the evidence supporting one or the other). more »
Part two of my exchange with David Roberts of Grist.
> deviance is what we just don’t talk about, positions that don’t even earn a mention in mainstream coverage, e.g., climate change means economic growth is no longer viable.
I’d suggest that a position like this — “climate change means economic growth is no longer viable” — gets mentioned, maybe even discussed at some length (in the pages of the better newspapers and magazines), but is framed as, yes, deviant. The mainstream enjoys a little deviance — letting it into the discussion can be an amusing parlor game, and of course helps define the boundaries of what’s Serious (i.e. legitimate) and what’s not. Or are you saying there are truths and/or serious arguments about climate that really are unmentionable? more »
A central part of our mission at Thoreau Farm is to look squarely at the present and face, to use Thoreau’s language, “the essential facts.” To that end, if you’re not already reading David Roberts, longtime staff writer at Grist in Seattle, please start now.
Roberts is not only one of the smartest writers you’ll find on climate politics and policy, he’s got my vote for the most readable (any other nominees?). Which is no small achievement. The challenge of writing about climate change in an informed, urgent and accessible way — as anyone who’s ever tried surely knows — is daunting. more »
Early this morning, as I do a lot of mornings, I walked out into the parcel of conservation land, formerly part of a farm, behind my house in Wayland. I didn’t want to miss what could be the last frost of this season. more »
Last week in my introductory post, I suggested (only half jokingly) that I launched this blog “because I wished to blog deliberately.” Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write a Walden parody — for one thing, the competition is too intimidating; how could I top this? But I’ve been thinking that I should say a few more specific things about what I’m planning to do here (you know, just to “manage expectations,” as they say), and what it might actually mean to blog deliberately. more »
“The most alive is the wildest,” Thoreau wrote. I couldn’t help thinking of that line as I read the first pages of Vivian Gornick’s Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, the book she’ll be reading from and discussing at our first Thoreau Farm Forum at Concord Academy this Sunday. Read Gornick’s opening paragraph, and you’ll see what I mean. It draws a bead on Thoreau’s idea of wildness as something within — something he wanted to liberate. She writes: more »
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
–Walden, Ch. 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”
I’m sitting here in the office at Thoreau Farm, in the house where Henry David Thoreau was born, in 1817, out on Virginia Road in Concord, Mass. It’s late-morning, quiet inside and out, another unseasonably mild winter day. A few minutes ago I took a brisk walk around the property. The house itself has been moved a few hundred yards from its original site, but I’m glad to say it still has a small working farm out back, a local community food project called Gaining Ground, dedicated to hunger relief in the area. An organic farm with a social conscience – it’s hard to imagine a better neighbor to Henry’s birthplace, or a better image with which to begin this blog.