United in Change

For the past couple of years, I traveled across my country, falling in love with strangers. I sought them out—farmers, ranchers, fly fishermen, evangelicals— and stepped into their lives, uninvited but nearly always, inexplicably, welcome. I sought some kind of connection, asking them questions few seemed to be asking them, about their lives and what they care about and what they believe in. Who they vote for and why. What they remember from before and what they expect in the future, which to their collective grief are often different things.

I spent time with a Georgian peach farmer who faced a failed crop because the winter never got cold enough to set the fruit. I met ranchers in North Dakota who’d been devastated by a sudden and severe drought that had turned spring grass into stubble that left their cattle starved. A “frustrated Republican” fly fisherman from Montana longed for the conservation-minded Teddy Roosevelts of his party who might care about the increasing number of rivers closed to fishing because the waters are too low to fish, and too warm. There were a dogsledding father and daughter losing their sport because of erratic snowfall, a coal-country community struggling to explain why eight of their citizens were swept away in a flood, and young evangelicals turning to God to justify climate action. I sought them out because I wanted to see what climate change looks like up close, see its impacts on those who grow our food or fuel our power, the uncertainty it causes for people who live to race their dogs through snow or spend their afternoons fishing. What are the perceptions of those experiencing the changes under way to every aspect of American life?

Of human life.
Of life.

I FOUND THESE STRANGERS by scouring presidential election maps from fall 2016 down to the county level and searching for red. Really red. And then I looked for places that seemed to be on the front lines of climate change. I went as a journalist, looking for stories of these lost Americas. But I was also looking for something else. I think of it as love, but perhaps it was simply civility, which seems a suitable replacement for love these days in America—and rarer. The 2016 election laid bare how divided our country was, each side seemingly incapable of seeing the others’ viewpoints. News reports were filled with stories about the raging poles of the political spectrum, no room any longer for the middle, on climate or anything else. The months leading up to the election and the time since had left me feeling beaten down, like a child of parents on the verge of divorce, everything steeped in rancor, the capacity for dialogue broken, the sides separated by an insurmountable barrier. When InsideClimate News came to me with an idea for a series about conservative perceptions of climate change, I thought it might give me a chance to attempt to climb that barrier, to cross over what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild called the “empathy wall.”

Know this: I did not vote for Trump. I walked through the empty streets of Cambridge on November 8 under the silent glow of streetlights, gutted as I contemplated what was in store for my stepdaughters as they stepped into womanhood. For my immigrant cousin who had recently been told to speak English on a Massachusetts beach. For my brown-skinned father whose marriage to my white mother was illegal in many U.S. states back in 1964. For the future of an agreement so recently secured in Paris. For all the people who didn’t look like our new president-elect and for the nonhuman lives that never make the campaign slogans of either party.

 

(Photo: Robert Lee Dickey III’s family has grown peaches at Dickey Farms in Musella, Georgia, for 120 years.)

 

I didn’t look like most of the people I met in my travels. The red maps led me to white, rural counties, places that went overwhelmingly for a president who has referred to climate change as a “hoax,” “stupid,” and “nonsense.” But these are also places where the implications of a warming world aren’t speculative. Many I met work intimately with the land—the peach farmer waiting for cold winter nights, the dryland rancher waiting for spring rains, the West Virginia cop worrying over river rise. The louder voices in climate activism may come from blue coastal states, but the red states are arguably paying the greater cost of impacts now, today.

Most everyone I sought out had voted for Mr. Trump, though few spoke with the rage that sears our scorched social media landscape. What I experienced, standing with people in their home places, were humans hamstrung by the polarization of an issue that no longer has anything to do with atmospheric chemistry. I met people hindered from even uttering the phrase “climate change,” even as they lost the very things that defined their lives: the surety of spring rains, ripe peaches in mid-July, snow in a Wisconsin winter. But I set out not to lecture, but listen. I’d had it with hashtagged conversations of either political persuasion. I went to listen, because the partisan divide that was once a rift had suddenly grown into a chasm, and I was no longer strong enough to shout across it. The more I spoke of climate change, in my life and in my work, the more the temperatures seemed to rise, above us and between us. The schism was growing, and it was clear how catastrophically facts, on their own, can fail. So I went searching for stories instead.

IT WAS PEAK SUMMER, a sunny day in July, when I met a peach farmer named, like four of his five forefathers, after the Confederate hero and Union villain Robert E. Lee. Robert’s family has grown peaches for 120 years. He learned from his now elderly father and was teaching his grown son, who both drifted into the office over the course of our interview. They all spoke candidly of the failed harvest and the too-warm winter, but shut down when I mentioned InsideClimate News, the outlet for whom I was reporting. It’s just the weather, they insisted; it could be cold as the dickens next year. Suddenly some urgent business materialized, and they had to go.

After that, I hung around the shelves of peach jams and peach confections and white rocking chairs like a stray dog, looking at the open-air processing line that had been shuttered two months early because of the failed harvest, workers left jobless. When Robert saw me looking longingly at a bus full of schoolchildren pulling up for a tour, he took pity on me and told me to hop in his truck.

We drove past the ruins of an old cotton gin to get to peach orchards leafy and lovely but with stunted fruit he called “buttons”— if they had any fruit at all. A peach, the essence of summer, starts making itself deep within a dormant bud in the cold dark days of winter. It requires a certain number of what are known as “chill hours.” That year, that cold never came. The year before had been warm as well.

“Are you worried?” I asked. He shrugged.

“How many more seasons like this could you take before switching to warm-weather varieties?”

“Maybe one,” he said, laughing halfheartedly. But he was more worried about other things. His harvest had failed, yes, but it was easier to hold out hope for next year’s crop than for the return of his community. All sense of opportunity seemed vanished. Anyone who did well in school left, he told me, and those who remained didn’t want the hard work of the orchards. I had read accounts from the region about the festive harvest season in the early 1900s, when college boys “filled the peach towns with lively, lusty times.” They picked and packed peaches all day and then headed to town to dance with girls come sundown. No one paused to consider if those college boys would return once they got their degrees.

I GREW UP in the Northeast, but I lived in Georgia, once, not far from Robert’s peach farm. I was in a University of Georgia undergraduate biology class thirty years ago when I first heard about a thing called global warming. Should it continue, my professor warned us, local farmers would no longer be able to grow peaches. It was just one bit of information in a deluge of coursework, but the data point settled in me like a seed.

I landed in Georgia after traveling around the world on a ship, where I had become consumed by what are emerging as the great questions of the twenty-first century: How can humans live rich lives on a planet with limited natural resources? How do we reconcile the needs of the planet’s growing population with the rights of the rest of Earth’s places and inhabitants? How might we close the unceasing gap between the haves and have-nots?

Back then, answering these questions for me meant door knocking around Atlanta suburbs to raise support for the radical act of curbside recycling. It’s quaint, now, to think that that was the battleground. (In the three decades since then, humans have burned more than half of the fossil fuels we’ve ever burned. And the global recycling system, now that Americans have finally gotten the hang of it, has basically collapsed.)

I wasn’t long in Athens. I was a lusty college girl who didn’t see any opportunities amid the rolling hills of Georgia, so I left the rural South for the Pacific Northwest, where there were jobs along Seattle’s steep asphalt roads and the added allure of being surrounded by what felt like rank wilderness and abundant waters. But I didn’t last long in the city, either; within a handful of years, I’d moved onto forty acres in rural Oregon, where I found a community of impoverished people making a rich life for themselves. We grew our own food, built our own homes, and dug ditches in the middle of the night when the rains came down too hard, headlamps piercing the watery darkness.

The partisan divide that was once a rift had suddenly grown into a chasm, and I was no longer strong enough to shout across it.

Together, we fought for old-growth forests, protested global capitalism, read Noam Chomsky and Winona LaDuke and Wendell Berry. I knew people who served time for monkey-wrenching and one who died when he fell from his work in the treetops. There in the woods of Oregon I realized that the political spectrum is not a spectrum at all. It is not a band with gradations from red to blue. It is a circle made with a Spirograph, with Earth Firsters and home-schooled Christians overlapping here and diverging there. You never knew who might own a gun or believe in God.

I left Oregon too, of course. I never quite fit the activist life, weary of confrontation and too reluctant to get arrested, so I headed to grad school in New York City in my thirties. I still wrestled with those same questions, but I wanted to explore them from the vantage of a journalist, where stories and science could lead the way.

Perhaps I seem a malcontent with all that movement, but it never felt like fleeing. Instead, it felt more like place collecting. Each location I’ve ever lived left its imprint, made itself my home, plastered a layer on my mosaic heart like a patchwork quilt of place. Some part of me remains pining for those past places still.

But were they even still there? While I stood with the peach farmer in middle Georgia and heard his lament for this changing place, my once-homeland of the Pacific Northwest was on fire. The fires now come every season, though they were rare when I lived there just fifteen years ago. Barren peach trees. Flooded hollows. Flaming forests.

Dislocation often refers to the loss of equilibrium experienced within the confines of our minds, but can also signify the disturbance of a body part, like a shoulder or a knee. Its root draws on the word place. With our mindless daily actions—Robert farms, I travel—we require ancient carbon to be unearthed and burned for our benefit and so, together, alter the planet. Climate change transforms the word dislocation into a literal upending of place.

The mind tilts in response, toward longing or anger or a desperate search for certainty. Because what we know about our world we have learned by looking to the past. Whether considering our individual lives or what the fate of human society might be, it is the past—the steady experience of seasons throughout history—that sets our expectations for the future. Such a fine model of existence is no longer relevant. “The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid,” the latest National Climate Assessment states. Standing in the peach orchards of Georgia, holding the button of a peach that never reached its potential, I had the troubling sense that nothing was, or ever could be, the same.

 

(Photo: Byron Carter on his ranch in Divide County, North Dakota, where a sudden drought hit the community hard. In town, tractors rust on a lot.)

 

MONTHS LATER I was in Divide County, North Dakota, smack up against the Canadian border, sitting in the kitchen of a cattle rancher named Byron. He’d gathered his neighbors, some driving thirty miles to meet me. Muddy boots collected by Byron’s back door, and everyone was seated around the table, drinking coffee and answering my questions about the drought that had come fast and furious the prior season.

One rancher named Jim brought the conversation back to New York, where I’d mentioned having lived. He’d been thinking about that city the other day, he said. “I had a cow in the chute and we were going to pull a calf, and it’s a strain for the cow. I was right behind—”

“Eyeball to asshole?” another rancher interjected.

Jim nodded and continued. “And, well, it was time to go to the bathroom, and I ducked. I saw it coming, but I got a shot down the neck and side of the head. And I was thinking”—here he shook his head—“I wonder if these frickin’ New Yorkers know just what we do to put that steak on the table.”

A chorus of agreement rose up from the men.

They also agreed that climate change wasn’t the cause of their predicament. Sure, they were one more drought away from liquidation, but heat wasn’t the only problem. They’d “thrown global warming out the window” when the spring had been bitter cold, after all. And they’d seen this before. Some spoke of a particularly bad drought back in the 1980s. Others defended their improved methods; now they keep weeds at bay with combines and chemicals instead of the repetitive disruption of tillage that used to cause so much soil erosion. They did not mention what those chemicals do to soil health or water quality. They spoke of their connection to the land instead. “It’s pretty tough to find anybody besides a farmer-rancher that loves Mother Earth as much as we do,” Byron said. “We work with it every day.”

(Somewhere between stories, I returned to New York City. I put on my uncomfortable shoes and spoke to a roomful of people about those in Trump country who care for their land and mourn their ailing communities. Later, over cheese and crackers and wine, I was struck by the number of people who came up to me saying, “I had no idea . . . ”)

The folks in Byron’s corner of the Dakotas, a sparse place of prairie potholes abundant with waterfowl and the platforms of flaming fracking fields, were fiercely proud of how hard life could be there and how well they managed in spite of that fact. You might get yourself caught in a ditch, but you had neighbors you could call for help. The guys in Byron’s kitchen called one another a lot. Of the seven men, only two were married. Several were in their fifties and sixties. When I asked why, they said all the girls went off to college and married someone there. Few wanted to come back and be a rancher’s wife.

Loss comes in many forms. When biologists call a species “functionally extinct,” they don’t mean that it’s disappeared completely; individuals of a functionally extinct species may still exist, but there are not enough of them to ensure their survival. Their ecosystem has been shattered, the threads that link them to the rest of their world are stretched too tight, and at that point, it’s only a matter of time. No wife to share the load, no children to sass, no grandchildren to spoil. A naturally sparse landscape becomes vacant in a new way, a twist on the same abandonment in the streets of Detroit. Communities dismantle. Those who remain, dig in, in body and mind both.

As I sat with the men, I remembered the ditches of my own past, digging in the dark, in the rain, with the friends who made up my community. I remembered the sweet stench of slaughter, our hands together in the blood, and the disappointment when a crop failed. I’d gotten a steady $400 each month from the nonprofit where I worked at the time, plus room and board, so my livelihood wasn’t at stake, just my labor, my time, my hope. I remembered moving from a barn on twenty acres to a studio apartment in New York City and realizing that few people I met had any clue what sustained them. A decade at the end of my dirt road in Oregon, pre-internet, with no television and only a humble small-town library, had left me an idiot by New York standards—What was Sex and the City? Who was Foucault?—but I knew how to build a staircase and what kind of Douglas fir tree would be big enough to mill the lumber required to do it. I could milk a goat and make cheese and prune the apple tree that thrived, in part, from my pee. I knew how to dig ditches. The endless bartering that I experienced in rural Oregon, exchanges of eggs or zucchini or assistance, translated to expressions of love and generosity absent in the city. The only currency was money, and earning it was cleaved from any living, breathing, growing thing.

 

A WEEK AFTER sitting in Byron’s kitchen, I was standing along a river in Montana. It was good to be in the mountainous West again, a place where the water slipped toward sunset and salmon headed inland along the arteries of rivers to spawn, or tried; most of those rivers are dammed now. One that has remained wild is the Big Hole River, in southwest Montana, and it was there that I met Craig, a fly fisherman and self-described “frustrated Republican.”

Around the time I was in that undergraduate biology class in Georgia, Craig was opening a lodge and fly-fishing operation in Montana. In the time since then, the state has had only three years that have been cooler than the average temperature for the last century. Even when Montana gets good heavy snows, summer surprises spring, melting water off in a rush and leaving rivers low and warm, exactly what rainbow trout and arctic grayling dislike. They get stressed. They get diseases. They die.

Craig loves his place, his daily sacrament on the river with rod in hand, the way a sandhill crane waylays itself in his backyard. He notices when a stonefly hatch happens a month earlier than usual. A couple years ago, a geologist friend mentioned to him that the climate was changing at such a rate that nothing else could account for it but the human burning of fossil fuels. That stuck with Craig, though his love of small government and unborn children kept his vote to the right. Some of his neighbors see the changes too, but dismiss the possibility that the warming will really continue upward. There is an arrogance to believing that we humans could have such a profound impact, I heard from many, including Craig’s neighbor Frank, whom I met later. Holding an unlit cigar beside the river, Frank recognized that the fish species have changed, that temps hardly ever reached fifty below anymore. “There’s been changes, but there’s always changes,” Frank said. “What I see about the climate is, nobody can predict it. And as soon as they do, it changes again.”

 

 

(Photo: The Big Hole River in southwest Montana, where outfitter Craig Fellin (right) wants Republicans to take climate action. Fellin’s neighbor Frank Stanchfield of Troutfitters (sign), another outfitting service, dismisses climate change.)

 

I HEARD FROM THOSE who trust their lives to the scientists who design their trucks and tractors, invent the chemical concoctions for their fields, breed better cattle and crops, stock their rivers with trout, but still wholly dismiss the scientists who dare speak of atmospheric concentrations of gases. I heard talking points passed down from right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, and amplified by Fox News and @realDonaldTrump. I heard about natural cycles and sun flares and we’re-just-in-a-warming-phase and this-all-used-tobe-under-ice. I heard volcanoes were the reason ice sheets were melting. I heard farmers say they’ve seen worse. Could be cold as the dickens next year.

I emerged from these conversations across America sure of two things. First, reluctant Republicans like Craig inhabit a space that is not ever newsworthy. You will not find him bubbling up on your social media feed, will not hear his soft deliberative voice on Fox or NPR. He is not going to Trump rallies, wearing t-shirts about stringing up journalists, or driving his car into crowds. He still exists, and many, many more like him.

Also, the refuters in Byron’s kitchen recited a script of climate change denial that seemed a subtext of a story about something much deeper and more visceral. To dismiss the science was to stick with a tribe, to stake out a claim about meaning and relevance in a changing world. It is an attempt to retrieve something irretrievably lost. It is a fight against one’s own functional extinction. Deep is the nostalgia for a vanishing rural white America, one where boys don’t disappear to college and girls stay home to marry and mother.

But that world, of course, is gone. As is a world in which carbon in the atmosphere is below 350 parts per million. And in the peach orchards and on the cattle ranches of America, those two facts are colliding. We in the developed world created the conditions that made both of these conditions vanish. Together, we will have to reckon with what those changes mean.

We would stand together on prairies, in hollows, agreeing about how unrecognizable so many of our home grounds have become.

I RETURNED to Oregon to visit an old friend. He’d been a guest at my wedding; I was now a guest in his house. I was telling him about the Montana river and the fish, a story he knew well. He fights for the survival of arctic graylings and other vanishing species, from the Canada lynx to the Ozark hellbender. And he knew the exact stretch of the Big Hole River where I’d just come from, knew that native arctic grayling, which once swam wild in waters from Michigan to Idaho, now only swim in that one stretch of that one river in one state of the lower 48. As I stood in his kitchen in my socks, I was troubled. I have long admired the work of conservation biologists, but even if all the legal and biological support for the struggling grayling population were to succeed, could they actually change the fact that Montana’s warming rivers can no longer sustain them? Was climate change making his work futile?

Even if we disagreed, even if he took offense to that, we both viscerally feel the silencing of the world that is under way. It is the embodiment—or rather, the disembodiment—of Edward Wilson’s term Eremozoic, the age of loneliness. The feeling that our world is filling up with humans and the things we need and think we want, leaving scant room for much else that doesn’t serve us. There is a parallel sense that in some places the humans themselves are vanishing, their changing landscapes both a cause and effect of their departure.

With Robert and Craig and so many other men and women I met, I couldn’t shake a sense of familiarity, and it wasn’t until later, when I was thinking about how I pushed back with my friend, that it struck me. I was falling for these strangers because their words, or what hid between their words, reflected the same love I held for the places where I’d lived. Even the most skeptical of my sources and I would stand together on prairies, in hollows, agreeing about how unrecognizable so many of our home grounds have become.

This, then, is the shared lament between the climate-stubborn Right, the Green New Deal Left, and the majority who inhabit the space in between: the fundamental shared experience of the land shifting beneath our feet. Those I met were no less bereft than I was about the way the world is changing, even if the details varied. The culture wars will rage on, and the algorithmic news silos that we inhabit will accelerate their feed, but this one element links the aching loss felt on both sides. They are prisms of each other, shadow worlds, the same and different.

Sometimes I allow myself to wonder if the extreme weather events—the droughts, the fires, the dying cattle, withered peaches—could unite us, everybody, everywhere, as we wrestle with the first truly global crisis. Could the shared catastrophe be akin to gazing at that first iconic image of Earth from the Apollo 8 spacecraft in 1968? Oh, that’s where we live . . . There.

Because nowhere will be left untouched. This isn’t the Irish potato famine, where you could set sail for America. This isn’t the Dust Bowl, where you could move on to California. California is on fire.

America is on fire.
The planet is on fire.

The Australian ecophilosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” to mean a “pain or sickness caused by the loss or lack of solace and the sense of isolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory.” But other words are emerging. The Dutch have come up with landschapspijn, translated as “landscape ache.” In Welsh, hiraeth refers to a homesickness for a place you can no longer return to, or that perhaps was never even there. In Portuguese, saudade describes the emotion of being infused with melancholy and longing for a loved one, a loved place.

But more and more I am reminded of an older word: bodhicitta, Sanskrit for “awakened heart.” It is that moment when you are overwhelmed by a great compassion for all around you, and you finally let go of the attachment to yourself as a thing in isolation, something separate. The recognition of the web that holds us together, that prevents functional extinction, that, in today’s America, could keep democracy alive.

Many religious faiths affirm that we are all one in sickness and death. That only on the way into the ground or the flame or the vulture’s craw can we find the universality of human experience. But we don’t need cosmic or even global consciousness to find common ground here. Today we are all inhabitants of what is rapidly becoming “the uninhabitable Earth.” Though our places are different, we all share a sense of place loss. All we need to do to find what connects us is to look down at the dirt beneath our feet. Or stand at the edge of the chasm as the waters rise. And then, maybe then, we’ll build a boat to cross, warring tribes will make alliances and the masses in the middle will coalesce, each calling their friends in the night, and together we’ll get to work on the overdue task at hand. O

Inside Climate News contributed significantly to the production of this piece. Visit Meera’s “Middle Ground” column.  

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Meera Subramanian is a US-based journalist, MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow (2016-17) and Fulbright-Nehru senior research fellow (2013-14)  who writes about culture and the environment for newspapers and magazines around the world. In 2019-2020, she’ll be the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities at Princeton University.

Her first book is A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, published in August 2015 by PublicAffairs in the USA (and as Elemental India: The Natural World at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity by HarperCollins India).

Comments

  1. Meera – thank you for an informative and insightful article. I learned from it and now have more understanding and empathy for those people who provide our food.

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