I find it disconcerting that what we see depends so much on how we are looking--with what mindset, what focus, in what direction. Even physics has enshrined this truth in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which asserts that "the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known." Or if you can calculate the momentum, you lose track of the speed. (And this, of course, gives me a chance to tell my favourite Heisenberg joke. The story goes like this: he was screaming down the L.A. expressway in his little red sports car at a terrifying speed when the police pulled him over. The officer asked "Do you know how fast you were going?" Heisenberg answered "No. But I know exactly where I am.")
seen this fact about our attention in my awareness of the light this
summer. Approaching the summer solstice, I pay various kinds of
attention to the light. Mostly I'm chuckling over the minutes of
daylight my weather ap tells me we are gaining over the next week. Or
my head is in the soil: I'm planting my vegetable garden or putting in
new perennials where the last two brutal winters have killed their
ancestors off. I'm smelling fragrant compost and studying the
crystalline near-transparency of my old roses. I'm watching for rain or
for the seeds in my garden to begin to unfurl, to figure out which is up, and to stretch into the light.
we move past the solstice, I've been noticing something entirely
different: how the light arrives in my back yard in a different place
every week or so, giving me the shadows of branches dancing against my
fence one week, sending late-afternoon light into my east-facing kitchen
by way of a reflection in my neighbour's windows the next week. I know
I should be watching this process with foreboding: each change in the
light brings us closer to the shorter days of the year. But while I
know this intellectually, the only thing I can feel is wonder: that the
days are sending me these little surprises and little mysteries. Last
night I was out just before dusk, and the apricot light was changed both
by the setting sun and by the way the breeze moved the many trees that
line the west side of my yard. It was breath-taking, and in an odd way
time-stopping: I couldn't help pausing in my reading Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows to simply watch the light and the trees.
I don't feel so sanguine about change. I feel immense foreboding about
how we have given over so much of our attention to our cell phones, so
that we're ignoring the people we are talking to or the children
holding our hands, or not noticing how glorious today's breeze is. How,
my inner eco-terrorist asks, are we going to do all the complicated
things, make all the inconvenient sacrifices to save a planet we're not noticing?
And then beyond that, I think of everything Katherine Arbuthnott has
taught me about our interdependence with nature--how it makes us kinder,
physically and mentally healthier, smarter, less stressed out. We need nature for our well-being.
then, of course, when the answer presents itself with a late afternoon
traffic jam or the evening's news, I note the rise of impatient drivers
or autocrats who flaunt their racism and their sexism. In the rudeness
and stupidity and stress that we see all around us in
politics and grocery store lines, we can see already where
this incipient unkind, physically and mentally unwell, stressed out
culture is going. In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011),
Steven Pinker argued persuasively that most nations have widened the
umbrellas of rights and protections given to their citizens--to include
women, people of all races, LGBTQ, the handicapped, for example. Some
places are considering whether nature has rights.
something about the world's most recent manifestation--is it the
immense pressure of refugees, the loss of well-paying industrial jobs to
AI, or our belief in our carefully-curated Facebook personas--has many
of us shouting "Me! Me! Me! I'm the king of the castle and you're
outta here!" I should point to Martha Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear,
which I've written about elsewhere, for a more cogent, less
impressionistic analysis of the current moment, urging you to read it
along with Steven Pinker.
let's go back to change, which is really the subject of my wonder and
my anxiety here. I've noticed that we seldom back-track on change,
especially where there are sunk costs. No one has said "Well, the
internal combustion engine was a big mistake. It's made us unhealthier
and more isolated. It's hard on the planet. Let's backtrack." I doubt
many of us are going to give up our cellphones, though if you need to
remember how to cope without them, you can ask me. And while you are
looking at your screen, remember occasionally to stop and take stock of
the effect it's having on your life. Remember that, for the most part,
you only see what you're looking at, and this change has occurred with
such seamless rapidity that it's invisible to many of us.
of the antidotes to my anxiety about change is curiosity; another is
magpie (or bower bird) reading--my habit of reading and collecting a lot
of information trinkets to take them out of my pocket to study when I'm
cutting vegetables for pasta primavera or weeding my garden. Much of my magpie reading makes clear how inventive people are--and indeed, much of that inventiveness has gone into making cell phones helpful. I'm not a complete Luddite. But consider this: in England doctors are now making "social prescriptions" for their patients, many of which involve art. The doctors send patients to their artists in residence, who know what is going on in the community. If you are having trouble breathing or if you are isolated, the artist may recommend that you join a choir--and if you are nervous about going, the artist will go with you the first time. Or you might be sent to an art gallery or to a painting class. Creativity, like nature, is good for us, and the research is starting to show this clearly.
Here's another such story about ingenuity. An engineer from India, Shubhendu Sharma, has started a
business that helps communities grow forests--though if you want to do
it yourself, he'll send you the instructions for free. While he still worked for
Toyota, he heard Akira Miyawaki speak at his plant before Miyawaki used
his method to return part of the industrial site to
forest. Sharma decided one day to remove the grass from his 75-square
metre back yard and put in 224 saplings of 19 different species,
planting them thickly and spoiling them for their first three years by
ensuring they had enough water. He noticed the effects almost
immediately: birds and other creatures moved in, creating
biodiversity. Monsoon rains didn't flood his tract. It was almost 5
degrees cooler under the trees than in the un-treed areas around his
a Blue Planet award-winning botanist, studied phytosociology--the way
plants interact with one another. This area of study is growing and
disseminating in books like Richard Powers's The Overstory, Richard M. Ketchum's The Secret Life of the Forest, and Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees.
We now know that forests are a kind of organism, not a collection of
individuals, for example. These books not only answer our curiosity
about trees; they also implicitly (if not explicitly) address one of the
greatest of our climate change challenges. Since 1990, the world has
lost forested areas the size of two Texases, contributing about 17% of
to our global carbon output. When Miyawaki was first considering how to
re-make the forests that had been lost, he visited Shinto sites to
understand how their small forests managed to thrive, "showing how
indigenous forest was layered together from four categories
of native plantings: main tree species, sub-species, shrubs, and
ground-covering herbs" (Lela Nargi, "The Miwaywaka Method: a better way
to build forests? Found on J-Stor Daily).
Using the strategy later
followed by Sharma, Miyawaki created a system for recreating these
"indigenous" forests that Sharma has turned into a grid for planting and
advice on native plants. What difference can these tiny forests make?
"Sharma is adamant that the impact of even very small forests on local communities is significant enough to matter. Research from Wageningen University
in the Netherlands, which found increased fungi, bacteria, pollinators,
and amphibians on two tiny planted forest sites in urban Zaanstad that
were based on Sharma’s models" (Nargi) suggested these small forests had a significant impact.
A few days after reading Nargi's essay, I watched a documentary that was part of David Suzuki's "The Nature of Things" on fire. The research is clear: climate change is contributing to more forest fires which, as they burn, release an incredible amount of carbon into the atmosphere which in turn makes global warming worse. Suzuki revealed that around the world researchers have turned their curiosity and ingenuity to learning how fires behave. But I found the last segment of the documentary most interesting. This explored how the ancient knowledge of Australian Aborigines is teaching us that a "mosaic" or patchwork" system small fires can lessen the occurrence of major fires like "the beast" around Fort McMurry. Fire made culture possible, Dean Yibarbuck knows; it is both helpful and symbolic; it must be treated with respect before it destroys his people's cultural heritage on nearby rock paintings. And he has the ancestral knowledge to ensure the well-being of the forests.
Change and being deliberate about where you are looking. What these examples share is the creation of positive change that involves looking backward, to ancient spiritual or cultural practices, in order to address modern challenges. These examples also remind us that however benighted our leaders are, however wrongheaded some changes are, we can keep hope alive by looking elsewhere, most likely closer to home or on the ground, on the front lines of lived experience. People are inventive: don't forget that.