I’m working intensely on climate change issues, so I feel I should be reading the literature. But honestly? I can’t bear it. The usual format for the climate change book—(1) here’s why we’re screwed, and (2) here’s how we might prevent the worst of it—depresses me twice over. First, because the case for being screwed is completely convincing, and second, because I don’t see how we’re going to take those mitigating steps. So not only are we destroying the glorious natural systems that support our lives and those of our children and theirs, but we’re doing it needlessly. Or heedlessly, whichever is worse. To me, these books are savagely ironic.
And I can’t read the literature of willful innocence, either. These are nature books by authors who celebrate a beloved place without acknowledging the anthropogenic violence it’s suffering, or books that rejoice in the healing power of a hike through a forest, say, without noticing that it’s poised to burn to the ground. These days, looking away is hard to forgive.
So I’ve turned to what I call “broken-hearted hallelujah books.” The reference, of course, is to Leonard Cohen’s song. In an interview, Cohen said, “Yes, we live with broken hearts in a broken world. But that’s no excuse for anything. We have to sing the broken-hearted hallelujah.” Send me these books of grief and beauty.
One is The Book of Ice, by Paul Miller, whose stage name is DJ Spooky. Paul is a composer and a writer, who went to the vanishing ice fields to understand their physical properties by making them into music. Here are synthesizer and violin, playing the fractal structure of snowflakes.
Another is The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Kraus. Bernie travels the world to record the natural music of birds and jaguars, snapping shrimp, roaring whales, and calving glaciers. He knows the music may pass away, and he openly grieves its passing. So I buck myself up by reading about these natural astonishments, which are no less wonderful for being at terrible risk.
Another is Craig Childs’s new book, Apocalyptic Planet. With his heart in his throat, Craig hikes to the Earth’s extremes of heat and cold, danger and beauty, beginnings and ends.
Also, I read everything that Carl Safina writes. Ditto for Julia Whitty and Sandra Steingraber. I want fierce. I want gorgeous. I want honest and, therefore, furious.
And now and then, I allow myself the nostalgic pleasure of re-reading one of Edwin Way Teale’s books—North with the Spring, Autumn Across America, etc. Do you remember these? They are books from a time when flowers bloomed and birds sang and bees buzzed and buzzards returned in synchrony with what we then thought were the eternal rhythms of the changing year. The books are so sweet, so unsuspecting, I read them weeping.
Kathleen Dean Moore is the author of several books, including Moral Ground, which makes the case for the moral necessity of halting climate change. Her most recent piece for Orion, which accompanied sculptures by Basia Irland, appeared in the March/April 2013 issue.
“Be as I am â€” a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic.” Amen!
Paralyzing depression doesn’t help anyone, but at times – and often – we must face this problem soberly with eyes open.
Good contemporary writers, whether of poetry, literature, or songs put into words what many of us are feeling but can’t express in our own words. In doing so, they help form a movement by giving us language to express what we feel. Their words are so basic, so necessary, and so invaluable that there really isn’t a sufficient way to say “Thank You” and we can really never know how much they have influenced history except perhaps in retrospect and then only fleetingly, like trying to define and place value on something in our peripheral vision or in sunspots on closed eyelids. Like the music of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Thanks to Kathleen and all other writers who are employing their skills against climate change.
I am a long-time fan of Dr. Moore’s. Yet I must take exception when she writes:
“I canâ€™t read the literature of willful innocence, either. These are nature books by authors who celebrate a beloved place without acknowledging the anthropogenic violence itâ€™s suffering, or books that rejoice in the healing power of a hike through a forest, say, without noticing that itâ€™s poised to burn to the ground. These days, looking away is hard to forgive.”
My father nearly broke his own health taking care of my mother as she deteriorated with Alzheimer’s. Yet he felt he would be disloyal to her if he took a break for lightness and respite. “There’s too much to do,” he felt, and that he was the only one who could do it, as he had for their 50 years of marriage. Finally, we convinced him to leave her in others’ capable hands. The break made all the difference in his own health and thus in his capacity to take care of her.
Similarly, we absolutely must be allowed to celebrate sacred places and walk through forest beauty without having to be reminded every second of their endangered status. As I’ve written in expanded form on my website, this is how we remember why we’re doing it all. Delight is absolutely critical to our health and our future. That’s not looking away: it’s looking toward.