For the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, we asked ten authors one question:
“What earthly thing gives you hope at this point in history?”
Click on the images for answers.
|E.O. Wilson||Pico Iyer||Krista Tippett|
|Amy Tan||Lauren Groff||J. Drew Lanham|
|David Treuer||Samantha Hunt||Elizabeth Kolbert|
It is hope that enables us to hue, only hope. Everyone will instantly accept that universal truth. But didn’t the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca say the same thing, with equal cogency, about mystery? This second truth is also everywhere recognizable. Without mystery, life shrinks to mere existence, and the future is a void.
Both of the statements are true for a reason basic to human nature: hope springs from mystery. The cognitive sciences explain why this connection exists. The brain is a time machine built to create narratives. It churns out scenarios of the past, present, and future, real and imagined, with equal facility. At a furious pace, the brain summons memories to make sense out of the chaos.
During the story-building process, the past is remembered, reworked, and remembered again. These repeated cycles allow the mind to retain small but shrinking fragments of former conscious thought. Over the years, the details of real events are distorted by edits that enhance and delete. Across generations, the most important resulting stories turn into history, and finally, myth.
Narratives projected into the future are the same, but with one huge difference. With the exception of mathematical trajectories, they are all imaginary. In the future we find what is most distinctive about the human mind: while creating scenarios of the future, the mind also manufactures options, conceivable consequences, and whole new venues for narrative itself.
The more fertile the mind, the farther afield it travels in search of future possibilities, the more intensely it is aware of mystery. In science, as in art, genius is as much manifested in the discovery of mysteries as in the ability to solve them.
Beyond the veil of the present may lie misfortune and death, but also, at the correct turn, bright fortune and, in some form or other, even immortality. Everything in life depends on how well the future is conceived. We are the future-seeking species. Our success depends on our ability to explore and to understand, and the insatiable hunger to do both.
How sweetly we long for those founts of mystery — the magical formula, the paradisal path, the sanctum sanctorum. We hope — and it is faith that sustains us. Evolutionary genetics teaches us this: if even one person in a thousand survives because she had the genetic predisposition to persevere against discouraging odds, then natural selection will install hopefulness as a hereditary quality, as a necessary companion of intelligence. Such is the instinct that spawns spiritual commitment. For some, it instills biophilia, and an attraction to wildness in the world. This last and concluding twist is why I am happy to be a naturalist. Humanity’s relation to the rest of life is unimaginably complex, and includes the deepest of all mysteries on this planet. Those who embrace it own the gift of a bottomless well of hope. O
E.O. Wilson is the author of On Human Nature, The Diversity of Life, and many other books. This essay appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of Orion.
I’ll never forget the forest fire that roared down on my family home in California some years ago, reducing everything my parents and I owned to ash. As I was writing this piece — we’ve had to evacuate our rebuilt house nine times already — another fire struck up, in exactly the same area, at exactly the same hour, and before we knew it, the water pump in our driveway as well as the structure around it, not many feet from our front door, were burned to the ground.
But this time, remarkably, heroic neighbors risked their lives to race over and stand up to the blaze, rescuing our home and immediate future as selfless firefighters came to the rescue, too. Experience, tragically, has taught us all to prepare for such shocks with mounting efficiency. And where once my family was unusual in facing such a fate, now, alas, we’re part of a community of millions, in Greece and Australia and British Columbia.
There’s no question that extreme weather is humbling us as never before. And yet, as a lifelong traveler, I can’t help but notice how we have the potential to combat this, in our global neighborhood, as never before. Whenever I return to my parents’ India, whenever I look in on Ethiopia or Cambodia or Colombia, it’s impossible not to register how many billions of our neighbors across the planet are living with more comfort, more convenience, more connectedness with every passing day. One in every five human beings in China enjoys a freedom and prosperity they could not have dreamed of when first I walked down the hushed gray streets of Beijing in 1985.
In California, my neighbors can meet — and learn from, and marry into — the cultures of Iran and Vietnam and El Salvador without ever leaving the state. London, the dullest and deadest city I knew as a boy, quickly turned into one of the most vibrant and youngest communities on the planet, in part because the average resident you meet there today was born in a foreign country.
We all know that this dissolving of Otherness has moved some demagogues to play on tribal fears and work to create new divisions. And, of course, the material developments that have sweetened life for so many are precisely what often endanger the planet. Advances in technology allow us to live longer than ever before, but in many cases that means living for years after our minds and memories have begun to come apart.
Yet still, I could never have guessed, while growing up, that a half-Kenyan man raised in Indonesia would become, on paper at least, the most powerful man on the planet. I could never have anticipated that a country in which 95 percent of people disapproved of mixed-race marriages when I was young would become one in which 97 percent approve of such alliances.
“O brave new world / That has such people in ’t,” is innocent Miranda’s cry near the end of The Tempest. To which her wise father replies, “’Tis new to thee.”
Balancing the seasoned voice of realism with the hopeful voice of possibility is the challenge all of us face every day. It depends largely, of course, on seeing which parts of life we can control and which we have to submit to. What man is doing to nature, we can all see, is precipitating what nature is doing to man.
As I prepare for the next forest fire, I keep thinking of those heart-lifting beings who can anticipate such dramas so expertly nowadays, and stand up to them in beautifully synchronized ranks. A model for us all, even as they know they can never control the winds. O
Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, most recently Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan.
A couple of years ago I started sometimes asking, at the end of my conversations: “What makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?” It turns out that answers to the two parts of that question are more often conjoined than oppositional. The puzzle of us, the contradictions alive in each one of us and in this moment we inhabit — these are the crucible of my hope.
I should say that hope for me is distinct from idealism or optimism. It has nothing to do with wishful thinking. It is a muscle, a practice, a choice: to live open-eyed and wholehearted in the world as it is and not as we wish it to be. We are strange creatures. We mask fear with rage, and despair with violence. Growth is always messy, never linear. We have so far to go to live into our name, Homo sapiens: the creatures who are wise. And we may not get there. Yet I know that in life and society, wisdom emerges precisely in those moments when we have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay: power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and fierceness, mine and yours.
We are at one of those in-between moments as individuals, as nations, as a species. I cleave to a line of a poem by William Stafford, on vocation: “Your job is to figure out what the world is trying to be.” You could make a persuasive case that humanity is hurtling backward. But hope calls me to attend, too, to the world that wants to be born. Our strangeness turns up as ugliness and betrayal and destruction, and it turns up as bravery and creativity and unfathomable dignity. I see beautiful lives, everywhere, stitching new relationships across rupture, seizing new life out of loss.
Hope keeps me amazed at the larger narrative of our century too, of the learning and wisdom unfolding right alongside our better-publicized dysfunction and decay. In self-understanding as in social planning and science, we’re working with words and disciplines that did not exist when I was born and others that are a mere century old: neuroscience, social psychology, ecosystem, biome, tectonic shift. Evolutionary biologists in our day are rediscovering humanity’s superpower of cooperation and so are redefining how the fittest might survive, the principle around which the Western world has organized.
In that world, we advanced by dividing our bodies and minds and spirits, our territories and our knowledge. We perfected systems for making an “us” and an “other”; we made of the natural world an “other.” Now, on frontiers of seeing inside our brains, we are grasping new forms of agency to change. Now, as we explore the cosmos above and underlands below, we’re understanding that we live in stardust-infused bodies — and that we’ve inhabited ecosystems while we organized around parts. For us, all of life is being revealed in its insistence on wholeness: the organic interplay between our bodies, the natural world, the lives we make, the world we create.
We should allow ourselves to pause, every once in a while, and draw a long collective astonished breath. Culturally, we are the generation of our species that is redefining elemental human fundaments like community and marriage and gender. We are, that is to say, retreating famously into either-or, tribal feeling and organizing. At the very same time, life by life, we are softening the either-or that has defined each and every human from birth. And for all our awakening to the power of digital technologies to divide and isolate us, this too is true: our technologies have given us the tools for the first time in the history of our species to begin to think and act as a species.
We are strange creatures, hope reminds me: again and again we are made by what would break us. O
I think of nature drawing as a spiritual connection to nature, and nature journaling as a written testament of miracles in the wild. Each day, I wake with curiosity over what is happening in my yard. Each day holds discoveries that I write down. The sounds that juvenile birds make when they are unsuccessful in finding food. The stretch mark patterns of bark on an oak tree. The glints of gold on the bay that I mistook to be a school of anchovies. The tangled fingers of beached bull kelp drying into sculpture. Each day I can do what I loved as a child: put pencil to paper to capture life, whether a detailed rendering with colored pencils or a lively sketch in the moment noting mysteries while sitting on a log. Through the practice of nature journaling, my fear of making mistakes is gone. I have abandoned my lifelong need for perfection. I am freed from the rusty rules based on can’t and don’t and won’t. My brain is more flexible. In fact, scientific research proves that active learning through nature journaling can change the brain and boost intelligence. It makes sense. If kids are free to wonder aloud without feeling dumb or tested, they remain engaged. If they are happy in what they are doing, their attention span grows. By noticing how they feel when they experience something new, they absorb ideas more quickly. By being excited with what they’ve created, their memory expands and becomes the wellspring for future learning. Imagine it: whether we are six or sixty, we can forge a new brain path that goes beyond former dead ends.
In one of John Muir Laws’s books, I read something profound that changed the way my brain thinks. “As you draw the bird,” he writes, “try to feel the life within it.” So now I look at the bird before me and imagine how it senses the world, how it feels breathing cold air, how it feels to have its feathers ruffling in the wind, how it feels to always have an eye out for possible food and possible predators. The bird sees me and is a nanosecond from flying off, but it stays. Why? By imagining the life within, the bird I am drawing is alive, no longer a shape and its parts, but a thinking, sentient being, always on the brink of doing something. By feeling the life within, I am always conscious that all creatures have personalities, and so do trees and clouds and streams. To feel the life within, I now imagine myself as the bird that is looking at me. I imagine its wariness, the many ways it has almost died in its short life. I worry over its comfort and safety, and whether I will see my little companion the next day, the next year. To feel the life within is to also feel grief in the goneness of a single creature or an entire species. Imagination is where compassion grows.
Let us join with children to imagine and wonder, to use curiosity as the guide to miracles in plain sight. Let us enter with them into wild wonder so that we become guardians together of all that is living and all that must be saved. O
Amy Tan is the author of six novels, including The Valley of Amazement, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and The Joy Luck Club. This passage is excerpted from her introduction to How to Teach Nature Journaling: Curiosity, Wonder, Attention by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren (Heyday, 2020). Used with permission of the author.
A month ago, my husband and I took six children, two our own, to the beach for a birthday party. The day was brilliant, the beach nearly empty because the wind was cold. There was a storm out at sea, and the waves were rougher than normal, but we saw no red flags. I am cautious around water: I was a lifeguard for many summers, and I know how swiftly things can go wrong. I forced the boys to take precautions: all had to have boogie boards, both parents had to be in the waves. We took breaks every hour, and we didn’t allow them to go in deeper than their waists.
In the afternoon, we found a sandbar where the water came up to my knees; my husband and the boys were in the waves at the edge. With the dog, I was standing in lifeguard mode fifteen feet behind them when I saw one of the boys drifting away. I shouted at my husband to get him, but it was as though a monster had seized the boy’s legs and whipped him away. A riptide. My husband dove in after him. In seconds they both were gone. I still had five other children to get to shore. I screamed for the boys to come in, and they began to wade back toward the beach. My youngest had difficulty because he was so light. I saw the riptide beginning to take him and unleashed the dog and ran to my little one and pushed him so hard with a cresting wave that later he told me he coasted most of the way to shore. But another of the boys, who just seconds before had detached himself from his boogie board, was caught. I didn’t know if the other boys would make it in to shore. I couldn’t see. I only saw this one screaming boy being dragged out to sea. I went after him.
The riptide was the most powerful phenomenon my body has ever felt: the churning waves were twelve feet high, smashing down constantly; we barely had time to breathe. I was swept past the boy, and had to swim against the riptide to reach him. I had once been a competitive swimmer, but this was the hardest swim of my life. Pounded again and again, I was so exhausted after a minute that I thought this was the end, that I would die by drowning. I wondered if the other boys and my husband were already dead.
I finally reached the boy. Dive under the waves, float on your back between, I shouted; in this way, we were carried until I could touch the ground again. I dragged this poor shaking child to the beach, where, to my relief, I saw the four other boys had made it with the dog.
We scanned the waves in dread until one of the boys said, There! and, four hundred feet beyond the breakers, we saw my husband’s bald head. He waved. He had saved the first child not once but twice.
The police came. The boys trudged silently to the condo. We celebrated the worst birthday party ever. And every night since then, I’ve woken from a riptide nightmare.
We are in the Anthropocene. Disaster will strike from unconsidered directions; nature will always be more powerful than the fragile human form. My joy finds itself now in the bodies of my children: stinking, bruised, lanky, growing, alive. The future is theirs. The urgency is to work together without despair, to breathe, float, swim, to carry them as far as we can. Real grief is mixed with the joy of being animals in living bodies. A terrible mix, grief and love. We need to use both as fuel. O
Lauren Groff is the author of the novels Fates and Furies, Arcadia, and The Monsters of Templeton, as well as the story collections Florida and Delicate Edible Birds.
Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps I’m just twisted —seeing birds in everything. Every. Thing. A break from the monotonous must-do necessaries (Why do today what can be worried over tomorrow?), and forgotten summer-hoarded shells fallen out of an old bag were just the entropic entangle needed to inspire a fantasy ramble. Without much thought and minimal rearranging, a thicket-dwelling gray-winged wishwelker (welker being the Old Afro-Dutch for thrush) flew out! I’m not sure where one might find the species on a field guide page. Everyone from Johnny Jim Audubon to Kenn Kaufman seems to have forgotten it. From what I recall, the old folks called ’em “farther muckers,” owing to their legendary long-distance intergalactic peregrinations. It didn’t utter a single identifying call and I’m not so sure it even sings. I’m surmising that it was miraculously created on the first day of the week by a lesser pseudogod, given to easy distraction, procrastination, and an admiration for adaptation and evolution as wondrously divine — and too, a keen noticer who sees migration as miraculously sublime. Guessing too that the inspiration came from some attention to nonattention and wandering thoughts. Now this is the kind of deity with whom I fall in line!
Regardless of origin, it is immediately listable on the life-is-how-you-live-it list. That makes 10,569 on mine — or is it 3? Who knows? In any case, I will submit to ME-Bird (but later, I must get an accurate count of the one I thought I saw or else enter the taboo mark of an unquantifiable X). I’m thinking the powers that be might not go for my photographic evidence. I would guess they’d whisper “contrived.” I really could not care one alula less. The appearance of such an ethereal being stunned me. But I regained my composure, collected my wits, and watched carefully as by thicket dead reckoning and wishful declination, it appeared to be headed north by northwest — guided by the unseen filtered refraction from a waning moon snail shell. Perhaps it is one of those aberrant reverse autumnal migrants. Like me, it chooses to fly against convention, hurling itself headlong into a headwind. Ornithologically backward and by ichthyologic salmonic leanings, upstream. Whether taxonomically aligned with shorebirds or the passerine kind, I’ve got its gestalt down. If it looks like what you think it might be, then maybe it could be not. The so-called experts who drop names on things might code the shell bird with W-I-T-H. First two and last two letters being recognized convention. But I wanted more. And so without consultation of any authority other than my own, L-O-V-E is the second four-letter code I’ve assigned. That’s the archaic pre-Latinized Anglicized abbreviation for Lesser Opportunistic Vexing Empidonax (some once thought it a flycatcher but have since been proven mostly incorrect — but not quite completely wrong). If you so choose, you can expand and explode convention and call it the WITH LOVE bird. Good? Good. Seems the best way to ID such oddly rare happenstance creatures of memories gone on and future desire is with a singular focus of the heart —and a zoomed-out, close-focused, wide-open mind. Its range is mostly unpredictable, but always check your backyard for molted dreams. That’s a sure sign a Wish Thrush has been around. I’m petitioning already for inclusion as a “wistful species.” Its status is primarily threatened by a persistent fragmentation of the imagination, demoralizing predation by indoor house cats — and a proliferation of invasive exotic hopelessness. O
J. Drew Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. He teaches in the forestry and environmental conservation department at Clemson University.
Dec. 5, 2019. My daughter and I are on the lam. She has just turned fourteen and is in the eighth grade and normally she would be studying — American history worksheets, math worksheets, PE worksheets. As if being American means to fill in the blanks. Her mom — we split our daughter’s time — doesn’t want us to be on the road. She has missed too much school, she said. Well, kid, what do you think, I asked. Do you want to go? I want to go, she said. Let’s do this. And so we’re doing it. We are heading for Utah. It’s dark and the highway is empty. Our phones are off. We don’t turn on the radio. As Vegas comes and goes, we talk.
Nov. 1, 2019. My daughter and I are out to dinner. She puts down her phone. I only use my phone ten minutes a day, she says. I’m not on social media. I run cross-country. I only eat game that our family has killed in a traditional way. I’ve got good friends. I get good grades. I love being outside. Life is pretty good. I admire her more than I can say. I don’t know how she became the person she is. I watched her grow up, I helped her grow up. I don’t know how she grew up.
Dec. 6, 2019. We are too tired to drive any farther. We pull into a state park campground. It’s cold. Snow and rain have been general across the West. The campground is mostly empty. We can’t see beyond the halo of our headlights. We eat ramen and go to bed. When we wake up, she looks out of the tent. Oh my God, she says. Look at the rocks! I look. We are surrounded by red spires, the sagebrush is jeweled with dew. Can you believe it? Can you believe it? She is vibrating with joy.
Oct. 2007. My daughter is two. We are on our reservation near Bemidji. I need to check my snares, and she can’t keep up. I put her in the carrier and set off through the woods with my shotgun and a game bag. She babbles in my ear. Halfway between conversation and song. I don’t see any game. My snares are empty. But I’m happy.
Dec. 6, 2019. We drive north and cut over to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. There is snow on the dunes. She takes off her shoes and runs. She says it’s like a world inside the one we live in. We drive on. There are dead deer along the road. A golden eagle rises up from the ditch; it can’t ascend quickly enough. We are going to hit it when suddenly it flares in front of the windshield, its wings wider than the car. And then it’s gone.
Dec. 7, 2019. We camp along the Paria River. We hike in the Grand Staircase–Escalante. We get coffee in Kanab and check out the trailhead. The canyon won’t flood, our guide says, but your car will never make it down there. It’s four miles one way. I look at my daughter. Whaddaya think, Squirt? Skoden, she says. It’s an Indian thing. It’s a long walk in deep sand through the juniper. We make it. But we have to turn around and hike back soon because the sun is going down. We are exhausted and happy. She puts her arm through mine.
Dec. 6, 2019. We stand before petroglyphs in the Valley of Fire. Maybe four thousand years old? My daughter is fourteen. And there she is: an Indian girl on the verge; an Indian girl looking at Indian art 125 years after we were all supposed to have disappeared. But there we are. There she is. A world within a world.
Dec. 7, 2019. We walk out of the Toadstools at GSE. Clouds are scudding across the mesa tops. We see three dark men walking in, carrying packs. Their walk and demeanor are unmistakably Native. They don’t stroll with wonder or a flaneur’s repose. They walk with purpose. They are there to do something. They know who they are. I catch their eye. One man smiles wide and tilts his chin at us. O
David Treuer is the author of several books, including The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee and Rez Life. He is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.
Awake in the dark I am hidden, tiny as dust and calm. I am part of something tremendous, an ocean of rest, the unseen, fear, death, dreams, peace, dead, everything darkness becomes inside a human mind.
I wake up with a worry and bring it to the dark. I step outside in the night, really most every night now. And each midnight I’m stunned to find that the dark remains here with us, just outside my door, a shelter, a blanket both general and inexplicably generous. The dark still accepts humans, even if I can’t understand why.
There’s a small bench by my back door. The dark surrounds me, or rather includes me.
I like winter. I like the darkness and its fiction of pause. I imagine that this stillness could trigger a reset. I tell a story about the dark where we absent our destructions, addictions, and ferocious egos. I like fictions. Even if they don’t last long in the industry of sunlight.
I sit in the dark night and somewhere nearby is a mother deer who sees clearer than I do. A truck downshifts on the highway. A mole blinks. A bucket rusts. A train passes through my town. Somewhere nearby is a patient boulder, a worm, a grackle. Somewhere nearby is you and all the bacteria that call you home.
The dark breaches the borders of bodies.
Eventually I go back to bed, inside, one human, but somewhere behind the locked door of my gutsy insides, the dark comes with me, saying, in here, it is dark. In here, an ocean. O
Samantha Hunt is the author of the novels Mr. Splitfoot, The Invention of Everything Else, and The Seas, and of the story collection The Dark Dark.
From my desk, I watch clouds gather over Mount Greylock, which, at 3,491 feet, is the highest mountain in Massachusetts. Mount Greylock is very old — more than 450 million years old — and, although this may not be polite to say, it looks its age. Thousands of millennia of erosion have worn its peak almost flat and left its flanks smooth and rounded. I have been to the top of Mount Greylock many times, so I know that somewhere up there is a parking lot and a snack bar.
I like to gaze out at Mount Greylock in the summer, when it’s blanketed in green, and in the fall, when it’s swathed in orange and red. In the winter, hoarfrost makes the bare trees glitter, and in spring, color returns to the lower elevations first, then slowly creeps upslope.
For those who care about what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the natural world, it’s a pretty grim time. Bird populations are crashing. Insect populations are dwindling. The Arctic ice cap is melting; the Amazon rainforest is shrinking; the oceans are filling with plastic. Whole ecosystems are on the verge of collapse. Every few weeks, it seems, comes news of a record-breaking heat wave or flood or hurricane. As I write this, an enormous “blob” of unusually hot water is sitting off the West Coast of the U.S., threatening, among many other forms of marine life, Hawai‘i’s coral reefs.
And things are only destined to get worse — a good deal worse. There’s a lot of inertia in the climate system, so the world still hasn’t experienced the full effect of heating that’s already guaranteed. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere at the rate of roughly a hundred million tons a day. If you’re not pessimistic about this situation, then you are, I would argue, simply not paying attention.
Whatever happens, Mount Greylock will still be there, at least for another few tens of millions of years. When it was first formed, during a geological mash-up known as the Taconic orogeny, life was still largely confined to the water. What is now Massachusetts was situated near the equator. Eons went by, as they are wont to do. Life crawled out of the sea. A major mass extinction 250 million years ago did in something like 75 percent of all terrestrial species; this opened up space for dinosaurs, who became the dominant creatures on land until they, too, were done in, 66 million years ago. (Dinosaur footprints can be found just east of Greylock, in the Pioneer Valley.) Meanwhile, the continents continued to drift — a dance to the music of time. North America collided with what’s now Africa, and then the two went their separate ways. One day, maybe, they will meet again and form a new supercontinent. Geologists have already named this supercontinent: Pangea Ultima.
What will Mount Greylock look like in the future? No one knows. A geologist friend tells me that the schist on the top of the mountain is more erosion-resistant than most of the surrounding rock, so, in a relative sense, Greylock may, over time, grow higher. I believe — I want to believe — that it will always, in its own way, be beautiful.
“Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelope the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas,” Edward Abbey wrote half a century ago, when humanity seemed most likely to destroy the biosphere — and itself — through nuclear war. “The canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here . . . and after sufficient time, no matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course.” O
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of several books, including The Sixth Extinction, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize.
One Saturday in early September, I joined some friends at a recently opened Szechuan restaurant down on Wickenden Street. As we plowed through course after course of smoked tofu, dan dan noodles, and mouthwatering chicken, the conversation covered a range of topics: local composting programs, the new piece the composer would soon hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform, and the process of purchasing a home in Providence, the town that we’d adopted because our jobs deposited us here.
Toward the end of the night, one woman (let’s call her Lillian) spoke about her newfound environmental awareness and how lonely and depressed it made her feel.
I’m ashamed to admit that when the words first exited Lillian’s mouth, I felt frustrated. “You think caring about parts per million and food waste is alienating now,” I wanted to say, “try five (or ten or fifteen) years ago, when the climate crisis wasn’t consistently above the fold on the front page.” But empathy and a desire not to shut down her growing passion wisely helped me keep my thoughts to myself. Instead, I nodded in quiet agreement.
The thing is, no matter how isolated Lillian feels, she is not alone. Over the past year or so, many people have discovered that the climate crisis is not a future worry, but is unfolding in the present and rewriting every single thing about the only planet we call home. Lillian spoke of her pain because she is suffering and searching for a way forward in wildly unsettling times. Lately it feels like the more people who understand the depth of the problem we now face, the more often I am asked how I maintain a sense of hope. In truth, my hope comes from those asking these difficult questions, from the ever-expanding environmental movement.
The more I think about it, the more I find myself wanting to also offer what may sound like strange council: to arrive at hope, you must pass through the fear that hope will not arrive. You must get lost in the dark wood, because when and if you come out the other side, only then will you emerge with the will to act. Hope without action is like desire without discipline; only dedication can coax these things into producing the wished-for results.
The next week, as I brushed my teeth in preparation to attend what was likely the single largest environmental protest in Earth’s history, I looked out into the blousy branches of my neighbor’s seven-son tree. There rested dozens of pollen-drunk monarchs, wings hinging open and closed in syncopated time. It filled me with hope: not just their presence, but the backstory behind it. The return of these migrants is something so many have fought for and, at least for the time being, won.
Back when I was a girl, an occasional monarch flapped through our garden on its way south. And yet, in the decades since, I can’t recall seeing a single one. Then this past fall, southern New England was full of them. I even received an excited missive from a seafaring gent out on Block Island who remarked on the monarchs’ seemingly unfathomable return. But it wasn’t a miracle that brought the butterflies back — no, it was the care-work of thousands of humans who nurtured milkweed seedlings (the only plant monarchs will lay their eggs on) in the dead of winter, who despaired at the monarchs’ potential extinction and decided to act with the heart of another in mind.
This small-seeming success speaks to the subtle ways in which paying attention to the more-than-human world is the beginning of justice; when this species’ decline became apparent, so too did the need to do something. Despair at what we see happening all around us is but a waypoint to pass through on the path toward learning to act in extraordinary ways to support the most ordinary things, especially those that appear to be––at least on the surface––less eye-catching than a painted butterfly. O
Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches creative writing at Brown University.