Mary B. Kurtz
A Dark and Gnarled Wood
I want to write about the weather. I mean I want to write about climate change. But finding the words and naming the issue feels fearful to the point of unmentionable, like when we avoid speaking of ‘death’ and instead, say, ‘The deceased. She passed away. He’s at peace. She’s in heaven.’ But never straight ahead—‘She’s dead. She died.’
I’m expecting my first grandchild in several months. In his or her lifetime, will he or she see what I saw today on the ranch where I live? The lone coyote who slunk across the meadow coming up from the riverbank as I sipped my morning coffee. A mallard duck pair searching for nesting ground as they wandered the cottonwoods outside my kitchen window. Three crows harassing one another for a mate and twigs for a nest, their decisions thoughtful but quick. The five, petite, white tail deer who ran across the county road, leapt over the barb wire fence and scampered south into an early spring wind. And the ritual first sighting of the diminutive Rocky Mountain Bluebell and the delicate yellow Glacial Lilly, faithful along my walking trail.
I couldn’t watch Alfred Hitchcock and other scary shows when I was a child. The threat felt all too close and too real in my mind. And now in my sixties, when I lay in bed in the middle of the night thinking about climate change, I feel the same way: it’s too close and too real. When fears overwhelm me: I foresee heat so high life must be lived inside; I imagine drought that threatens food stores and fuels fights over caches of seeds; I draw up floods in my mind more primal in their will each spring as though Noah’s story may become mine.
I am powerless in the inky silence. I grasp for control to protect my children and grandchildren. In the morning, I ask in daylight, how close, how real, how threatening?
When my children were young, the micro-climate of our home was different. The year my daughter, Cassidy, was born, warm weather and shorts for Memorial Day picnics were never a given. The last few years, late May might be rainy, but short-sleeve shirts are hanging in Pete’s closet. For over thirty years, my husband, Pete’s, hay season began in late July and lasted through the county fair in mid-August. This year he the rolled out the mower, rake and baler and made tracks with his John Deere in early July. In the eighties, I expected the tomatoes in the garden to freeze by Labor Day. As the gardening season came to a close last year in mid-September, I gathered green tomatoes from my vines and put them in the windowsill to ripen.
And in 2012, snowfall records were broken. We knew the run-off would be high, but when warm days and moderate temperatures at night collided, the melt accelerated. With my son, Andy, I stood on the county bridge over the waterway. Above the roar, I said, ‘Andy, my mind tells me we’re safe, but I don’t feel like we are. I’ve never seen a river like this. No one could survive in there.’ I failed to find the words for the raw power of the waterway that midnight in the years since. But if there were a nightmare, it was but a few feet below where we stood. The Steamboat Pilot, our local paper, wrote the next day, ‘Elk River sets a record at 8,250 cubic feet per second’. Later, it was declared a 500-hundred-year flood event.
Thoughts and conversations about the weather, once light and inconsequential, a point of easy common ground in social conversation, now carry a heavier weight. Extreme weather events, like the 2012 flood, and the changes in our seasons shadow our thoughts about the future. Several years ago, I felt reassured that mankind could cooperate successfully with the will of the earth when scientists believed the stratospheric ozone layer could right itself if human activity changed: less carbon emissions and less deforestation. Now, new predictions, statistical data, forecasting models, create a new disquiet and questions arise.
What mood are the climatologists in? Like me, do they toss in their fears, too, just as vulnerable in the silence of the night? Is there hope in the models, even those on the fast track? Will spring always erupt in the brilliance of green or will it one day weep?
Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University climatologist, reports that changes in parameters like temperature, sea levels and carbon emissions have occurred ahead of the best projections. All time global temperatures have risen for the last three consecutive years. Both the North and South Pacific regions have experienced one of their strongest cyclones in the last year and a half. Tropical cyclone expert Dr Phil Klotzbach reported in Di Liberto on 5 May 2017, that tropical storm, Donna, was the strongest May cyclone on record for the entire Southern Hemisphere.
And the West Antarctic ice sheet is on the brink of collapse, which in turn would destroy the ice shelf, creating a rise in the sea level of ten to twelve feet. This would be catastrophic for coastal life in Australia and New Zealand. When our overheated earth, now a greenhouse with only modest ventilation, threatens all living things with heat waves five times more likely to occur and portions of the Western Antarctica ice sheet due to collapse, what would help create change?
The new Climate Assessment report now predicts, too, that the future of our world is truly threatened by climate change and a shift to extreme weather events. Produced by thirteen federal agencies, the scientific report predicts dire consequences to health, global food stores, economics, damage to infrastructures, and mental health. Of greatest concern, the pace of the changes to our climate that have occurred since the last report in 2014.
I recently discovered the word, krummholz in Barry Lopez’s book, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. The crooked, gnarled wood lives in the transition zone between sub-alpine and treeless tundra, pressed by extreme vagaries of weather and physical circumstance. It survives at its environmental limit, its growth slow and irregular, windward branches failing to develop, but it remains a survivor, an elfin tree seeking low lying growth, intertwining, fortifying, and strengthening its hold. I weighed the question: as the extreme vagaries of weather create extreme circumstance for mankind, can we maintain survival at some future environmental limit?
Laurence Gonzales, writing in, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Dies, and Why, explores, with the help of science and story, how and why certain individuals survive, whether in the wilderness or in facing any of life’s challenges. From stories of those who survived, they did so by keeping their wits about them and seeing the world, the situation at hand, as it is. They didn’t protest the situation. They worked with the reality of their condition, their plight, the scene as it was, one in which they needed to survive.
Mann believes there’s hope if we look at history. When we do, science and honesty prevail. When society delayed acting on the issues of tobacco, ozone depletion, and the banning of chlorofluorocarbons, and lives were lost and damaged, we did eventually take appropriate action. So, I look for hope.
After the signing of the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015 by 195 countries, Norway agreed to ban all sales of gas and diesel-powered cars by 2035 and France has pledged to eliminate coal in the production of electricity after 2022. In addition, the Dutch government has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 49% by 2030.
According to recent reporting from National Geographic, China is focusing on renewables: wind, solar, and hydropower; Germany currently generates twenty-seven percent of their electricity from renewables driven by their commitment to reduce nuclear energy use; and with America’s Clean Power Plan, the United States will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by thirty-two percent by 2030 and produce thirty percent more renewable energy.
In the middle of my nights, when I lay awake with restless climatologists, I still wonder, if the largest contributors to carbon emissions do not take effective action, what can I do to tame rowdy rains and winds, and polar bears looking for safe passage over a dwindling ice cap? Will my small efforts to recycle and reduce my carbon footprint, along with larger renewable energy programs and clean air plans worldwide, be part of civilization’s cooperative sculpting of a simplified but survivable existence, just like the intertwining of the crooked and gnarled krummholz wood?
The unanswerable. The unknown.
I’m reminded of the movie, Life is Beautiful. Set during World War II, it tells the story of a father and his young son’s internment in a Nazi concentration camp. As the threat of death hovers each day, the young boy’s father creates an illusion of their life, a slight of hand in the movements of the small freedoms they both have. Guido, the father, tells his son, Giosuè he must perform certain tasks and with each task completed he will earn points towards a tank, a tank that would rescue them. As they lived each day, Guido was a joyful, magical mime for his son in the dysphoric scene.
While I don’t wish to deny the reality of the changes in the climate, I feel the need to live with hope. So, as I place faith in science and technology to create a sustainable and viable transition zone where extreme vagaries of physical circumstance threaten our survival, I will also remember the inspiration of Guido, the joy in daily living, the mime he embraced so his young son would live each day free from worry and fear. AQ