Searching for Moral Imagination

canstockphoto9973547.jpgI spent part of Earth Day last Friday at a lecture given by Terry Tempest Williams. She was not a natural speaker and began by saying that she was nervous. At first, I felt a little impatient, trying to understand her flow and taking notes of various names she mentioned. She continued to speak haltingly, but something else happened. I was moved by her sincerity and her passion for our wild spaces.

I’ve always been environmentally aware, doing the simple things like not treating our yard with chemicals, growing produce organically, recycling. We gave up two cars and now drive a hybrid. We inconsistently try to be better humans. Her lecture really shook me up, though. What we miss in all this picayune environmentalism, is the bigger picture. We are distracted by the minutiae when all around us, companies (complicit with our consumerism and population growth) are polluting the air and water and destroying the land, acre by acre.

canstockphoto17612177.jpgMs. Williams talked about fueling moral imagination. I’ve been thinking about those words over the last few days. I’ve always believed in human ingenuity, growing up in a time of vaccines, exploding technology and a media that churns out daily new stories about this invention or that. It seems like we could really solve some of these problems.

Being change, rather than just wanting it, is overwhelming these days. I am not a mover and shaker. I am an unpublished writer, having crept my way from poverty into the middle class. The sense of not belonging, of always waiting for the other shoe to drop, has me holding my breath constantly. The problem with holding one’s breath, biding one’s time, expecting the worst, while hoping for the best, is that it becomes about place holding, feeling victory in the status quo.

canstockphoto20070383With news of the world and politics always at boiling temperature these days, one feels lucky just to have a job and health insurance and to not fall into a random sinkhole while walking down the street. You feel lucky if you get through the day not getting shot or being diagnosed with a fatal disease. Holding your breath and sighing as you sink into bed at night.

What I heard when Terry Tempest Williams spoke, was this: I am afraid, but there are bigger things than fear.

Some people seem like seers. They take the long view early on in their lives and they stick to the path. I have never found that path. I am a product of unrealized opportunities and ideas. I am a product of the information age – never sure that I have enough information to make informed commitments to causes. We watch heroes fall and causes become corrupt with self-importance. What is there to believe in, that won’t be wrong tomorrow?

canstockphoto5925912Whenever I go through checkout lines, I like to think about aliens perusing our magazines. Maybe they have. Maybe it was this that keeps them hidden. We are apparently a species intent on making money, high fat foods and having indiscriminate sex, but only for the six-packed and large-breasted among us. Our royalty is comprised of pimply 17-year-olds who sing falsetto and Amazon women with eyelashes which weigh slightly less than their entire body.

Yes, I’m the old broad out on her front lawn shaking her fist at popular culture and the dearth of ethics it espouses. We are saturated with inanities and Tweets and consumerism. I’m not immune, nor an innocent in all this. I am a privileged bystander, able to stand a little apart. Enough distance to mock and criticize and get up on my soapbox and my high horse, but close enough to enjoy the spectacle.

Ms. Williams did not entertain me with polished words and slick salesmanship. She cut through it all and gouged into my self-satisfaction. I lack courage of conviction and moral imagination and the right to feel smug about anything at all. I’ve felt the weight of that this week – the sense that my life is so small and that I’ve wasted much of it just trying to stay afloat.

Perhaps there’s a certain recklessness of youth that comes around again in middle age. A second chance to be passionate and outspoken. An opportunity to decide what matters to you and pursue it with abandon. Like novels, our lives have emerging themes – the things that we think are important, show up again and again.

canstockphoto9307772.jpgShe spoke of her friend and fellow conservationist, Doug Peacock. When the battle was being lost to have the wolverine listed as endangered by the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, he said “You lose nothing by loving”. To me, this is such a simple, but profound statement. You lose nothing by loving.

I think about the shadow of perfectionism that follows me. I tend to embark on sure things. As a writer, this has been crippling. As a human, this has stunted my full potential. Any human who is successful, truly realized, is someone who has failed repeatedly. They believe that they have nothing to lose in loving, whether it be the land or animals or their art or other humans.

canstockphoto5614534.jpgThere should be a happy ending here, like I’ve decided to abandon my suburban life to live in the wilderness or camp on the steps of Congress; that I’ve somehow realized what it is that calls to me. Instead, I sit here uneasily, feeling a subtle shift in my perspective that will either help me find what fuels me, what fuels my imagination or it will leave me in the desolate land between watching and acting.

Environmental and Conservation Writing:

At the end of her lecture, Ms. Williams stood stock still at the podium while Max Richter’s re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played over the speakers. If you’re a Vivaldi purist, this might not be your cup of tea, but I enjoyed it:

Dragonfly Summer

canstockphoto0529698Extreme weather and the loss of natural habitat have made my garden a little lonelier this year. No butterflies. I’ve seen a couple of Cabbage Whites, but usually I see Swallowtails (black and yellow), Painted Ladies, Fritillarys, Monarchs, Skippers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, and Coppers, as well as a pretty good range of moths.

The monarch population has dropped significantly over the last 18 years, with 2012 being the lowest year ever (a 59% drop in one year). The push for biofuels (aggressive large scale farming in the Midwest) and the use of GMO and herbicide tolerant crops has eliminated huge amounts of milkweed, a plant that Monarch larvae feed on exclusively.  The population of Monarchs may rebound, but when the numbers are low, vulnerability to other factors is high. It wouldn’t take much to decimate the population.

It seems we are headed into a zero sum game. People can argue all they want about climate change and farming practices, but all it takes is a little common sense math – the more resources we gobble up, the fewer types of crops we cultivate, the less biodiversity this planet will have.

At times, I feel despairing that any of us will get the message before it’s too late. I’m not sanctimonious on the subject – this is not about them, the other, those people. It’s about me as well – the resources I casually blow through as a human being. The water, food, gas and electricity I’ve grown up with and take for granted. The footprint I leave and the narrower the path my child will have to walk on in the future.

I’ve read about living off the grid, conserving, trying to live smaller and more efficiently. I’ve adopted some of the practices, but I’m still in denial that my mere existence is doing real damage. I’m a suburban consumer – a predator on a planet whose only real defense is natural disasters, pestilence and disease. Predators are useful in natural population control. When there is nothing left to control, they turn on each other.

When people argue and point fingers about conservation, they seem to be in one of several camps:

  • Ignorance is bliss. There’s enough for me, so why worry?
  • Stop exaggerating. There’s more than enough for everybody (in my house, city, state, country) and we humans are super smart. We’ll solve the problem.
  • The sky is falling! The sky is falling!  And P.S. – humans suck.
  • Overwhelmed by the problem. There’s too many ideas/solutions/choices and I’m just one person, so I’ll just continue living in my paralytic state.

I tend to bounce between the latter two. Torn between time-consuming tasks of kitchen composting, hanging laundry outside to dry or mixing my own household toxic-free cleaners, I’ll take door number 4 – a nap. I’m being facetious, but there’s a reason things are called modern conveniences. People didn’t become ungainly, sedentary putty when they had to spend four hours scrubbing clothes on a washboard. When there’s an easier way, it’s human evolutionary nature to take it. Sometimes we have to push back against our own nature and work a little harder.

The dragonflies are here. Not in tremendous numbers, but enough to notice. They are super predators, effective and efficient, with bottomless appetites. They catch 95% of the prey they pursue. We like them in Minnesota and Canada, because they eat mosquitoes and the aerial shows at dusk are amazing. They also eat beetles, ants, bees, sometimes butterflies and on occasion, other dragonflies.

Dragonflies are marvelous and slightly creepy. In a lot of ways, they’re like humans – adaptable and voracious. Unlike us, though, they are preyed upon by other predators, such as birds and spiders, as well as humans, who gobble up the natural habitat needed for the dragonfly larvae. Survival instinct dictates that we’d always choose to be the dragonfly over the butterfly or a bee, but a world of predators is not sustainable.

Last summer, I didn’t write blog posts for a couple of months, but I think this year, The Green Study will be gettin’ its green on, figuring out how to take more steps towards leaving a smaller footprint. I’m visiting some wildlife and conservation centers over the next month as part of our family vacation. I’ll share those experiences here, while trying to transform knowledge into action.

Because I’d miss the butterflies.