Remembering Nature as Hope
Julianne Lutz Warren
Introduction: Rain’s Hope
The issue of hope is a delicate one. As American poet Emily Dickinson put it:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Delicate things, though, like birds and like hope, as Emily Dickinson observes, can be astonishingly resilient, though not infinitely so. There are storms that come along, coming along right now, that are “sore” enough to abash hope. Perhaps hope does ask something of us after all. To keep hope in the storms of today, humanity must, I believe, remember hope’s grounds, as the poet reminds us. We must remember, in other words, that neither birds nor hope can fly for long without also bending to the Earth.
Hope is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in its most common sense as the “expectation of something desired.” It is also a feeling of trust or confidence, acknowledging dependency on some being or thing. Hope is of two parts: faith tethered to desire. Looking at it this way, hope thus can be only as reliable as the trustworthiness of the being or thing in which we anchor our confidence. And hope can only soar as far and as wide as the reach of our wants.
The dominating faith of Western civilization for some centuries now has been placed in human know-how and its driving desire has been for humanity’s splendor. As, for example, seventeenth-century philosopher, scientist, and statesman Francis Bacon famously promoted, we have been systematically involved in secreting out nature’s mysteries in order to bend them to our service. We have sought, in Bacon’s words, knowledge for the “enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire to the effecting of all things possible.”1 “The effecting of all things possible” largely has meant transforming the world in order to improve humanity’s material condition. To feed a burgeoning world population, cure diseases, and communicate with iPads we have replaced natively-evolved ecosystems with large expanses of single-species crop systems; mined and burned vast amounts of ancient stores of carbon; and constructed custom-built cells to manufacture medicinal chemicals. “We have got to the point in human history,” claims biochemical engineer, Jay Keasling, expressing the twenty first- century hope of Human Empire, “where we simply do not have to accept what nature has given us.”2 We can do better than nature, he believes. Similarly, David Eyton vice president for BP’s deepwater developments in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 expressed, according to a NY Times article, “buoyant optimism” that BP’s know-how would allow the company “to triumph over nature’s daunting obstacles….”3
For more than 300 years, since at least the time of Bacon, in an ecstasy of power and desire, many humans have worked hard trying to rapidly fulfill this hope of Human Empire. In so doing the lives of many—though far from all people’s—have been enhanced for a time. Many of us have good breakfasts, hot water, and fast cars. Undesired consequences of Western civilization’s past endeavors now, however, are rippling across the globe from bedrock and ocean floor to atmosphere. “As the world now knows,” Elizabeth Bishop of the NY Times tells us, “BP’s optimism did not overrule nature’s powers.” 4 It has become apparent in relation to the gushing undersea oil well we created “that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced,” in the words of the reporter.5 And alongside our oil troubles, soil fertility is eroding faster than it’s being built up. Biodiversity is shrinking 1000 times faster than the historic rate. For the first time since dinosaurs, extinction is happening at a greater rate than evolution of new species.6 Greenhouse gases have risen to unprecedented concentrations in humanity’s history, creating global warming and instability in many forms. Plastic trash is forming huge islands in the oceans. Oil gushed into a Gulf already suffering from a nitrogen overload running off of suburban lawns and over-producing corn fields. Meanwhile over one billion out of 6.8 billion people go hungry every day. The dominant hope of modern civilization is, in many of its reaches, discovering dead ends—quite literally.
Current conditions call us to question both the past faith and past wants that have led us to where we are—to figure out where we have gone wrong and what we have missed. For life, we need to discover hopes we have not yet imagined or rediscover possibilities we have bypassed. For all the while—existing side-by-side with the hope of Human Empire—for example, have been other, more encompassing and more gentle hopes. Hopes like those of eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White who discovered the world in his own backyard, loved it as it was. Respecting earthworms as vital in the life-prospering web of Nature he desired to learn how to live in concert with Nature’s ways.
In fact, in bygone centuries, in addition to a more open-ended “desired expectation,” the word “hope” also held a meaning grounded in nature. In English-speaking lands, hope referred to an actual area of welcoming land surrounded by wastes—surrounded, that is, by what may seem to humans the “chillest land” in Dickinson’s terms—by fens, marshes, rugged mountains or other expanses of nature more or less uninhabitable to humans. The word hope has also been used to mean an inlet, small bay, or haven—a place, for example, to which ships and birds or other beings might find refuge while riding out what our poet calls a “strange sea” and a “sore” storm. Like a bird singing in the turmoil of roiling danger, these places called hopes provided the harmonic intimacies of a peaceful home surrounded by wild, threatening expanses.
The seventeenth-century naturalist John Aubrey, for example, tells of a place in the English country of Surrey surrounded by hills and beyond, to the south, the sea, where a landholder had “ingeniously, contriv’d a long Hope . . . in the most pleasant and delightful Solitude for House, Gardens, Orchards, [Woods] Boscages, etc.” Delighting in cherry, orange, and myrtle trees and twenty-one sorts of thyme, the Hope’s inhabitant’s, Aubrey tells us—human, as well as finned, furred, and feathered, we may assume—“do enjoy themselves so innocently in that pleasant corner, as if they were out of this troublesome world.”7 In the county of Durham, in Northeastern England there are seventy-three real places named as “hopes.” Along a seaside brook in Scotland lies a little hamlet called Wolf’s Hope. It is unclear whether the place was named for British General James Wolfe or the green-eyed canid. It could have been the latter. There were wolves in Scotland until major land use changes began in the seventeenth century—the century of Bacon— leading to the wolves’ extirpation in the eighteenth century. Perhaps not coincidentally, this also corresponds to the time English-speaking people left off using the place-based sense of the word hope.
Discovering the necessity of the give and take of nature-placed hope for an enduring civilization is what conservationist and author of A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold was getting at when he wrote his now-famous essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain.” If we don’t recognize our dependencies on the whole of nature, he shows us, we end up with our future, in the form of nature’s life-supporting capacities, “washing into the sea.” “[T]oo much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.” In wildness, Leopold reminds, drawing from Henry David Thoreau’s thinking—“is the salvation of the world.” In trying to transform the world into a place that is secure in its material prosperity, without wild out-of-our-control wastes in other words, we end up diminishing the very sources of our civilization’s long-term survival. For example, killing wolves in the craggy hinterlands of Scotland and the Southwestern U.S. in order to make the lush plains and valleys safe for humans and their livestock and to keep all the deer the wolves would have eaten for ourselves, we also extirpate possibilities in these places for our own prosperous future. It turns out that deer need wolves as much as the other way around. Without wolves to prey upon them, we have learned, deer populations explode. Too many deer browse down all of the mountain’s forest sprouts; the forest cannot regenerate and the deer starve to death in winter. The soil of hillsides left without well-rooted vegetation, in stormy weather, erode quickly downhill. In a spiraling irony, no hope remains for humanity when we destroy nature to achieve hope.
In contrast with the hope of Human Empire, for example, stand the long-lived ways of the Tohono O’odum people of the American Southwest who have thrived for generations by the desert oasis of a welcoming spring of water. They have done so by respecting nature’s long-evolved workings. Rather than conquering nature, the Tohono O’odum have learned to work alongside it as their literal hope in the midst of a wild waste uninhabitable by humans. And, after all, one species’ waste may be another’s hope. Out of the wider expanse, game and other wildlife sometimes visit the oasis fed by and feeding its community of life. By planting small plots of crops and fruit trees along stream banks, helping to prevent them from eroding, the people also attract a diversity of birds seeking refuge from arid surroundings. The Tohono O’odum not only have refrained from diminishing life’s diversity and fertility—with their faith in and desire for nature’s creative goodness, they have enhanced it as community members.8
Nature is the well-spring of enduring human hope.
In the following four short acts, I will explore a little more closely ideas of Western civilization’s past, present, and future hope—“the thing with feathers,” in Dickinson’s words, that sings in the storm. Each act draws from the voice of one of America’s popular authors and of a particular bird song that seems to represent something of the spirit of that author’s hope, offering possibilities for our own, engaging questions: What deserves our confidence today where enduring, prosperous life is concerned? How encompassing should be the reach of our wants? How gentle? What form should—indeed must—twenty-first century hope take for thriving life to grow and endure?
Act I: John Burroughs, the most famous farmer-nature writer in America between 1870 and 1920, though his readership dropped off precipitously after his death in 1921.9 And, the hermit thrush, Burroughs’s favorite songster.
Act II: Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward: 2000-1887, a utopian story published in 1888. This novel was one of the most read books of the nineteenth century, surpassing Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in library circulations five years after its publication and selling millions in the twentieth century.10 And the European Starling, a species imported by Eugene Schieffelin from England to Central Park in 1890-91.
Act III: Bill McKibben, climate change activist and contemporary author of several books, including The End of Nature (1989) and Eaarth (2010). And the Wandering Albatross.
Act IV: Cormac McCarthy, author of the 2006 Pulitzer-prize-winning novel The Road and no bird at all, only silence.
Act I: The Beginnings of Hope[audio:https://newfound.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1-Hermit-Thrush_3674.mp3|titles=Hermit Thrush] Cornell Lab, ML Audio 3674, Arthur Allen, June 20, 1951 (Bay Pond, Clark Camp, Adirondacks)
In the Earth’s beginnings, wrote John Burroughs in 1879, reaching back to the ancient past to help in understanding the present, the sun shone on the planet, but the rain did not fall and there was as yet no life. The “great fact about the rain,” Burroughs said, “is that it is the most beneficent of all the operations of nature . . . it means life and growth.” It was only after the globe began to “‘sweat’; when these soft, delicious drops [of rain] began to come down” and once “the period of organic life was inaugurated,” that “there was hope and a promise of the future.”11
Water courses through all organic nature—plants and animals, including humans. “Our life is indeed a vapour,” Burroughs says, drawing on a passage from his childhood Bible training. Humans “are a breath, a little moisture condensed upon the pane. We carry ourselves as in a phial.” “Cleave the flesh, and how quickly we spill out!” The trees, too, are “liquid,” as Burroughs’s friend Walt Whitman put it. “The tree and the fruit are like a sponge which the rains have filled,” Burroughs continues: “Through them and through all living bodies there goes on the commerce of vital growth. . . . to build up, and repair, and restore the waste of the physical frame” of life’s forms.
To Burroughs’s ear the song of the hermit thrush “is the finest sound in nature.”12 Dependent upon intact expanses of forests, the hermit thrush—solitary, with its wild, ethereal hymns-songs, known by some as the “Swamp Angel13” for its habits of dwelling in damp localities—eats the same juicy fruits of bushes and trees, like blackberries, gooseberries, and elderberries, as we do. The Barred Owl—how often do we think of her as fluid?—may eat the thrush’s fledgling in springtime. Our bodies, too, if not by wolves, may be ravaged to death by mere droplets of some microbes—and we pour out of our vials into the soil and perhaps rise up as a gooseberry. Not only from dust to dust, but from watery body to watery body, the forces of life flow on from day to day and age to age, physically connecting all beings. Life is a river.
Rain has meanings beyond the physical, Burroughs again observes. The ebb and flow of rain—in fits and starts—turning and returning in nature, on the whole, finds out “every hidden thing that needs water, falling upon the just and upon the unjust, sponging off every leaf of every tree in the forest and every growth in the fields; music to the ear, a perfume to the smell, an enchantment to the eye; healing the earth, cleaning the air, renewing the fountains; honey to the bee, manna to the herds, and life to all creatures—what spectacle so fills the heart?”14 What substance may so overflow not only body, but soul: “. . . rain is the grief, the weeping of Nature. But tears from Nature’s eyelids are always remedial, and prepare the way for brighter, purer skies.”15 Rain, Burroughs believes, is a wild force whose “skyey influences” cannot be replicated with a garden hose. It is as necessary to the human mind as to the soil, the vegetation, the birds, the wolves, and the trees. “Who does not suffer in his spirit in a drought and feel restless and unsatisfied?” he asks. “It is hard work,” he admits, “to be generous, or neighborly, or patriotic in a dry time; and as for growing in any of the finer graces or virtues, who can do it?”16 Indeed, without rain we would have a dead world, nothing wild—no singing thrushes—and no hope.
Act II: Past Hopes of Today[audio:https://newfound.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/2-European-Starling_14868.mp3|titles=The European Starling] ML Audio 14868, Ithaca, NY, James Kimball, Sept. 1, 1961.
But rain is wet and people are not fish, after all. Even John Burroughs owned an umbrella and failed entirely to relish nights spent in the woods under a downpour.17 It is a matter of degree, though, how much protection from inclemency is enough or too much, which makes a great difference between Burroughs’s ideals and those of Edward Bellamy.
“A heavy rainstorm came up during the day,” explained Mr. Julian West, the time traveler in Bellamy’s highly popular 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. West went to sleep in his cellar in 1887 Boston and awakened 113 years later to a world he hardly recognized—a world vastly better, he believed. In consequence of the falling rain, which according to his nineteenth-century experience would make the roads muddy and sloppy, West assumed that his host family would change their plans to go out for dinner. “I was much surprised,” he reports, “when at the dinner hour the ladies appeared prepared to go out, but without either rubbers or umbrellas.” “The mystery was explained,” he continued, “when we found ourselves on the street, for a continuous waterproof covering had been let down so as to inclose the sidewalk and turn it into a well lighted and perfectly dry corridor, which was filled with a stream [not of water, but] of ladies and gentlemen dressed for dinner.” Edith Leete, West’s love interest in the story, upon learning of her visitor’s surprise “intimated that it would be considered an extraordinary imbecility to permit the weather to have an effect on the social movements of the people.”18
Indeed, in this imagined world people are in control of themselves and of nature. The “animating idea of the present age,” the time-traveler West explains, “is an enthusiastic conception of the opportunities of our earthly existence, and the unbounded possibilities of human nature.”19 And those material “opportunities of our earthly existence” were most fully realized by the organized labor of men. By approaching nature in an attitude of its most careful, efficient use, a perfectly cooperative society could turn train-loads and ship-loads of nature’s goods into the hopper of a gigantic mill, which perpetually ground out plenty to meet the material desires of every citizen.20
Bellamy turned Burroughs’s ideas about water upside down, placing confidence for prosperous life not in wild “skyey influences,” but in human know-how. West explained that the work of humanity was itself “the fertilizing stream which alone rendered earth habitable.”21 Humans would sustain themselves in abundance by watering the Earth with their labor, that is, we might imagine, with a garden hose—mapping out where the ground should or should not be made wet. In this world people did not rely on the natural ebb and flow of rain, but on their own human-created system of managing, gathering, and churning elements of nature into food, radios, and velvet.
As far as I’ve been able to discover, there are no birds directly mentioned in Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel; their possible existence is implied. It seems fairly unlikely, though, that hermit thrushes, winter wrens, or Eagles could thrive in his landscape. More likely, for example, is that flocks of starlings might be present—if not poisoned to death as pests (the treatment often given them in real life today). Starlings forage for food on the ground, probing with their muscular beaks for insects, earthworms, and small seeds. They also love staple grains, such as wheat sprouts and cattle feed. Starlings are most at home where ground vegetation is short and not too thick, which is why the bird thrives in pastures, lawns, parks, golf courses, and single-crop agricultural expanses.22 This is the type of landscape we are led to conceive within and surrounding Bellamy’s ideal city where there is no wild waste. All land is tilled and cultivated so that the “eyesores” and “inconveniences” of “weeds and briers” were not allowed to grow up.23 In Bellamy’s ideal world—as in the real one—humanity overshadows nature. Nothing remains that is not mixed with us. Knowing what we now know about ecology, it is unlikely that this world of Bellamy’s could long endure. In the expansion of Human Empire, wildness—nature’s own will apart from humans—has been trampled, and with it many of hope’s possibilities.
Act III: Today’s Hopes of the Past[audio:https://newfound.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/3-Wandering-Albatross_42306.mp3|titles=The Albatross] Wandering Albatross, ML 42306, S. Georgia and S. Sandwich Islands, Theodore Parker, Feb. 1, 1988.
The ways we imagine hope emerge out of and return back to the real world with potentially transformative power, and Bellamy’s work was something of a mirror for what was already becoming reality. For the first time in Earth’s history, realized Bill McKibben in his best-selling 1989 book, The End of Nature—published almost exactly one century after Looking Backward—“human beings had become so large that they altered everything around us. That we had ended nature as an independent force, that our appetites and habits and desires could now be read in every cubic meter of air, in every increment of the thermometer,” and also in every rainfall or lack thereof. One day, now more than 20 years ago, McKibben was walking along a river near his home in the Adirondacks. He stopped to change his socks by a waterfall. As he did so he realized that in altering the climate, humans also had altered the water flowing into this cascade. As a further consequence, that water now had a different and lesser meaning. “Instead of a world where rain had an independent and mysterious existence,” McKibben explained, “the rain had become a subset of human activity. . . .” While (ironically) remaining beyond our power to entirely predict or control it [the rain] had come under our influence: “The rain bore a brand [our brand]; it was a steer not a deer.”24 “Most of my hope fades,”25 wrote McKibben upon realizing that Earth already had passed over the threshold between its own wildness and the conquest of Human Empire—nature having become overshadowed by humans and our ambitious desires.
Burning fossil fuels and plowing up carbon-storing soils has changed the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. It now contains more carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases, than it has in the past 650,000 years.26 Homo sapiens has only been around for about 200,000, so this means that we, like many other life forms on the planet, are living within an atmosphere unlike any our progenitors have experienced. Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s energy like a blanket holding in heat. These changes in the atmosphere have already led to more than a 1 degree-F rise in global average annual temperatures. It is such rises in temperature that, in turn, have caused changes in rainfall—more extreme weather, more droughts and more floods.27
“One of the key facts of the 21st century,” writes McKibben in his latest book Eaarth, “turns out to be that warm air holds more water vapor than cold: in arid areas this means increased evaporation and hence drought. And once that water is in the atmosphere, it will come down, which in moist areas like Vermont [where McKibben lives] means increased deluge and flood.”28 In the state of Vermont there were a total of 8 flood emergencies in the 30 years between 1960 and 1990 and more than double that, a total of 20, in the two decades between 1990 and 2009,29 damaging roads, culverts, and eroding soils down hills and along stream banks. Peterborough, Canada recently experienced two 100-year flood events in 3 years.30 Australia’s eucalyptus forests are burning after more than 10 years without rain, the lowest rainfall on record.31 And Iraq’s great marshlands, once believed to be the site of the Garden of Eden, as a result of drainage and drought now are baked mud.32 No one event tells the story of climate change, but an accumulation of such evidence, growing over time, and our understanding of basic process at work do.
Not only has the change in global atmosphere led to physical and perceptual changes in rainfall patterns and the flows of waterfalls and rivers, but also in the frequency of lightning, the intensity of winds, in the heights of oceans, in the turning of seasons, and in the relationships between organisms, which have depended upon the relatively predictable timing of nature’s cycles to meet needs like finding mates and food.
There has been a change, in fact, in the relationship of the past with the future. It is increasingly difficult to determine when, where, or even if we should sow and harvest.33 It’s a complicated business. North American soybean growers may see increased yields due to climate change in the coming decades, but they will need to accurately adjust planting dates to reduce the risk of late season heat stress.34 Ulmali Kurai Wragg of the South Pacific’s Cook Islands recalls that three breadfruits to a stalk used to mean that cyclone season was coming. Now that season is drawn out, beginning before and lingering long after this formerly reliable signal of nature. Now her community suffers from flooding, eroding shorelines, and dried out riverbeds.35 Polar bears, who depend on ice flows for spring seal-hunting, find them melting earlier forcing them to go hungry.36 The Golden Toad of Costa Rica—the color of a flaming tangerine—depended upon a certain amount of rain to create shallow ephemeral puddles for breeding.37 After two years of unusual dryness, the toad disappeared—gone completely—with countless others likely to follow.
Without memory of the Earth before we caused such changes, the spine of humanity’s narrative of itself is lost38 and with it many of hope’s possibilities. Indeed, hope, writes photographer and author Robert Adams, beyond the mere unwillingness to die, is necessary to what makes us human: “Without hope we lapse into ruthlessness or torpor; the exercise of nearly every virtue we treasure in people—love, reason, imagination—depends ultimately for its motivation on hope.”39
Bear witness, then, McKibben urges.40 Remember the names of the missing, injured and dead: Sabre-Toothed Cat, Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk, Blue Pike, Rainbow Orchid . . . the whole Earth as we have known it with the securities as well as the dangers to which we have adapted—gone. The lives of Ulamila and her family, all eroding under rising sea surges and parched out by shrinking rivers; the possibilities of our babies’ future; and those of the Siberian Tiger, Philippine Eagle, Bog Turtle, Karner Blue Butterfly, and on and on—all under threat of extinction.
The Albatrosses are a family of seabirds—with wing spans up to 12 feet, the largest of any bird. They spend most of their lives at sea—sometimes flying around the globe’s entire circumference annually—depending on high winds to keep aloft. They require islands for breeding (bi-annually) and a food supply of flyingfish roe, crustaceans, and fish, but especially squid, which they pick up near the ocean’s surface with their special tubenose bills. The birds sometimes follow ships at sea to take advantage of the air currents they help generate and to feed on scraps of garbage. The Albatross is a global citizen and as such is particularly vulnerable to all of the forces of change humans have brought about. One species, the Wandering Albatross, has decreased 1 to 7% annually over the past fifty or so years.41
To humans, the value of Albatrosses has a complex and ancient history. Like so many things, the significance of Albatrosses and whether or not we care about their vulnerability depends on how we look at them—in what we trust and what we expectantly desire—in, that is, what we hope:
For sailors stuck in the doldrums, trusting in fate and desiring a harbor, an Albatross gliding across the sky, might be hailed as the messenger of rising winds, which finally float the sails. For a ship caught in a storm, the same Albatross may be despised as a harbinger of tossing, ship-wrecking waters.
For nineteenth and twentieth-century businessmen and ladies—trusting in money and desiring luxury—Albatrosses meant money in the bank or turning heads on the street. Hundreds of thousands were killed for these ends.
In more recent decades, to those with faith in violent power and desiring control, Albatrosses have meant nothing or nothing but trouble. As military bases expanded into the Pacific, Albatrosses collided with antennae and airplanes or were killed as pests. Hundreds of thousands more have been caught by fishermen in lines and fishing nets accidentally, drowning to death as by-catch.
Today—we who cling to the past’s dominating confidences and consumptive desires of Human Empire—the bodies of Albatrosses have become the receptacles of pesticides and other chemicals running off land from lawns, industries, and farms down rivers into aquatic and pelagic food chains. Many die with plastic forks, toy wheels, and toothbrushes in their guts, which they have picked up accidentally in the middle of the ocean while feeding near its surface. Oil spills also contaminate prey and damage the birds’ plumage. Meanwhile, rising sea levels due to climate change are inundating Albatross nesting islands, contributing to the likelihood of their extinction.42
For others, with Burroughs-and-McKibben-like hope, Albatrosses are interconnected members of the watery world of life and have value, quite simply, because they are Albatrosses.
The way we act depends on the form of our hope. Our form of hope depends on how we view ourselves in relation to what is not us, to what is beyond us. It depends on the stories we tell.
The saying “to wear an Albatross around your neck”—signifying guilt—comes from the poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in which a sailor kills an Albatross. Afterwards, the wind flags, the mariners’ ship will not move out of the insufferable sun, no rain falls, and the sailors are surrounded by “water, water, every where,/Nor any drop to drink.” The Albatross finally falls off the killer’s neck and he re-learns his interdependence with nature when he re-discovers love for it, blessing dancing water snakes—“blue, glossy green, and velvet black.” The sailor pardoned, winds blow him to land—a hope in the old nature-dependent sense of the word—where a hymn-singing hermit of the woods would wash away from his soul the guilt of the “Albatross’s blood.”
Forgiveness doesn’t bring back the dead Albatross, but it returns life to the forgiven, and, therefore, creates space for reformation of attitudes and activities. Look at the stars, which still remain unchanged by humans McKibben urges at the end of The End of Nature, quoting John Burroughs: “at least for now when we look into the night sky, it is as Burroughs said, ‘We do not see ourselves reflected there—we are swept away from ourselves, and impressed with our own insignificance.’”43 We are bent to the Earth as we are swept into a merciful dependence on and desire for something greater, the posture, it turns out, of realistic hope.
Act IV: Mature Hope (Silence)
Hope without reality’s grounding is mere fantasy. “But hope has to be real,” McKibben reminds us, in order for it to lead to life’s prosperity and not disappointment. “Maturity,” he writes, “is not the opposite of hope; it’s what makes hope possible.”44
Maturity requires us to admit that there are some things that we have done that can never be made right again no matter how much we might wish otherwise.
“Then the wind shifted and there was just the silence,” the narrator in Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic tale of an ashen future tells us. A father and a son—two of the few human survivors of an Earth-charring catastrophe—are traveling together across a leafless, birdless, lifeless landscape made all the more dreadful by small bands of roving cannibals. The pair heads downhill from the Appalachians to the sea . . . where all life ends and begins.
Early during their journey, the father awakens in a barren wood and “lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead…. He wished them godspeed till they were gone. He never heard them again.”45 Later, he “dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue.” But the father is “learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. . . . He thought if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.”46 The names of things, he realizes, [as has McKibben] are slowly following real things into oblivion: “Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already?”47 Without memory we lose imagination. We lose meaning.
And always, it seems, all is wet and muddy. At the top of a hill, the father and son stand “in the cold and the wind, getting their breath….” The father “got the binoculars out of the cart” that contained their essentials—a tarp, cans of food pilfered from abandoned cellars . . . The father “stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste”—now barren. There is: “Nothing to see. No smoke. ‘Can I see’ The boy said.” “Yes. Of course you can.,” the father answers. “’What do you see?’ The man asks.” “’Nothing,’” the boy responds, lowering the binoculars. “’It’s raining.’ ‘Yes, the man said. I know.’”
The two of them—father and son—find a ledge of rock and from under there, huddled together, watch the “gray sheets of rain blow across the valley.”48 If rain once gave life to the Earth, distinguishing it from all other known planets, then McCarthy’s planet is no longer Earth because this rain merely washes downhill, carrying life’s charred remains with it. The planet should be given a new name, as McKibben suggests in Eaarth. If rain was, as Burroughs once put it, the “grief, the weeping of Nature,” the Earth had become inconsolable. An umbrella, indeed an entire Bellamy-esque, globe-encompassing roof, could not provide shelter enough from the stark reality that there was nothing left along the road to sustain life, human or otherwise.
Or maybe there was? We can’t really be sure.
The novel begins and ends in a shroud of mystery—with wet rocks, light in the darkness, old dreams, breath, love, a father and a child. It begins “barren, silent, godless.”49 It concludes barren, silent, god-breathed. Disconnected from the green Earth he had known, the father is losing his memories of that past and the child had none, but they have the “now” and that includes each other. The father whispers to his sleeping son, “I have you,”50 a love that sustains him. “You have to carry the fire,” the father in between wheezing coughs—rattling death—later explains to the boy. “I don’t know how to,” replies the son. “Yes you do,” says the father. “Is it real? The fire?” asks the boy. “Yes it is,” his father says. The son asks: “Where is it? I don’t know where it is.” “Yes you do,” pleads the father: “It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it. . . . Just don’t give up. Okay?”
After his father’s death, the boy, “tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget.” Discovered by another surviving fire-bearing couple, the mothering woman tells the boy: “that was all right [to talk with his father as a prayer]. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.”
Once there were golden toads and ivory-billed woodpeckers. Written in their genes, on their skins were “maps and mazes.” Whispering through their feathers were songs of things that now lost can “not be put back. Not be made right again,” as McCarthy concludes at the end of his novel. In the deeps where life originated, “all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”51
McCarthy’s story is one of grasping reality with maturity: In the course of the expansion of Human Empire, there are things that humans have changed that can never be put back right again. In truth, we must acknowledge this, but we must, at the same time, never give up on life: the well-spring of real hope and its enduring promise.
Conclusion: Hope’s Reign[audio:https://newfound.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Track-4.mp3|titles=Bird Chorus]
The birds get the last word.
(Status based on IUCN Red List 2010.1; ML numbers Macaulay Lab-Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Hermit Thrush (least concern)
European Starling (least concern)
Wandering Albatross (vulnerable and decreasing)
Greater Prairie Chicken (vulnerable and decreasing)-ML 50126, Cherry Co, Nebraska, April 10, 1990
Whooping Crane (endangered and increasing)-ML 2743, Audubon Park, Nebraska, Feb 6, 1954
Spotted Owl (near-threatened)-ML 20870, Chiricahua Mts, AZ, May 22, 1977
Striped Wren-Babbler (near-threatened)-ML 73681, Teman Negara Malaysia, June 19, 1951
Bachman’s Warbler (possibly extinct, last breeding record 1937, no report since 1988)-ML 10715, Near D.C., VA, May 15, 1954
Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (possibly extinct, last confirmed record 1987)-ML 6784, Singer Tract, Louisiana, April 9, 1935.
Originally delivered as a talk for: Sharp Eyes VI: Old Lessons for a New Millennium: Nature Writing and Environmentalism in the 21st Century, Oneonta, NY, June 7, 2010.
1. Bacon, Francis. Francis Bacon: The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 480.
2. Specter, Michael. “A Life of its Own.” The New Yorker, Sept. 28, 2009.
3. Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “Our Fix-It Faith and the Oil Spill.” The New York Times, May 29, 2010, p. WK1.
4. Rosenthal, “Our Fix-It Faith,” WK1.
5. Rosenthal, “Our Fix-It Faith,” WK1.
6. Ceballos, G., Garcias, A. and P. Ehrlich. “The Sixth Extinction Crisis.” Journal of Cosmology, 2010, Vol. 8: 1821-1831. See also Bates, S. “One in Five Mammal Species on Extinction Red List.” Guardian, Nov. 2, 2009, guardian.co.uk.: One in 5 mammals, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 7 plants are under threat of extinction.
7. Aubrey, John. The Natural History and Antiquities of Surry. Begun in the Year 1673, by John Aubrey, Esq. London: E. Curll in Fleet Street, 1718-1719, 163-165.
8. Nabhan, Gary P. “Where the Birds Are Our Friends.” Pages 1-10 in G. Nabhan. The Desert Smells Like Rain. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982.
9. Warren, James P. John Burroughs and the Place of Nature. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2006, p. 1.
10. Roemer, Kenneth M. The Obsolete Necessity.Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1976, p. 2.
11. Burroughs, John. “Is it going to rain.” Pages 97-132 in Locusts and Wild Honey. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1884, pp. 105-106.
12. Burroughs, John. “In the Hemlocks.” Pages 55-98 in Wake-Robin, Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1884, p. 69.
13. Burroughs, John. “The return of the birds.” Pages 9-54 in Wake-Robin. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1884, 38.
14. Burroughs, “Is it going to rain?”, 112.
15. Burroughs, “Is it going to rain?”, 107.
16. Burroughs, “Is it going to rain?”, 108.
17. Burroughs, “Is it going to rain?”, 131.
18. Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887. New York: The Modern Library, 1942, p. 121.
19. Bellamy, Looking Backward, 238.
20. Bellamy, Looking Backward, 146.
21. Bellamy, Looking Backward, 271.
22. Newton (Warren), Julianne. “The Many Stories of Starlings.” The Illinois Steward 13(2): 23-26.
23. Bellamy, Looking Backward, 178.
24. McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 2006, 76 and Eaarth, New York: Times Books, 2010, xii.
25. McKibben, End of Nature, 175.
26. IPCC, 2007. Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. [Solomon, S., D. Quinn, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.T. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller (eds).] New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2,3.
27. According to the best data of the IPCC, globally averaged intense rainfall events have increased since 1950. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch3s3-8-2-2.html While, at the same time, very dry areas have more than doubled on the planet since 1970. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch3s3-3-4.html.
28. McKibben, Eaarth, xvii; http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch10s10-3-6-1.html
29. McKibben, Eaarth, xii.
30. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007: “Practices and options”: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/ch14s14-5-1.html, Accessed June 2010.
31. Engelhardt, Tom. “Tomgram: Nobody Knows How Dry We Are.” Posted Feb. 17, 2009, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175035, Accessed June, 2010.
32. Engelhardt, “Nobody Knows How Dry We Are,” http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175035.
33. McKibben, Eaarth, 76.
34. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007: “Agriculture, forestry, and fisheries,” http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/ch14s14-4-4.html, Accessed June, 2010.
35. And Constance Okollet of Uganda, a mother of seven, suffered along with her whole village when they were displaced by unusually heavy rains and then were starved by drought drying up their crops and wells. Personal Communication, Wise Women, 2010, NYU; http://www.climatewisewomen.org/who.htm.
36. Barnosky, Anthony D. Heatstroke. Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2009.
37. Kolbert, Elizabeth. Field Notes on a Catastrophe. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006, 81.
38. Lopez, Barry. “Learning to See.” Pages 13-33 in Vintage Lopez. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
39. Robert Adams, “In the American West Is Hope Possible” in To Make It Home: Photographs of the American West. New York: Aperture Books, 1989, 157.
40. McKibben, Personal Communication, Winter 2009.
41. IUCN Red List: http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/144899/0, Accessed June 2010.
42. Sibley, David A. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Knopf, 2001, 132-135.
43. McKibben, End of Nature, 185.
44. McKibben, Eaarth, xiv.
45. McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006, 53.
46. McCarthy, The Road, 18.
47. McCarthy, The Road, 89.
48. McCarthy, The Road, 8-9.
49. McCarthy, The Road, 4.
50. McCarthy, The Road, 54.
51. McCarthy, The Road, 278-287.
Julianne Lutz Warren teaches environmental studies at New York University and is the author of a number of research articles and essays on nature-human relationships. She is currently writing her second book, tentatively titled “Nature’s Utopia: Audacious Fictions, Real Hopes.”