A Reading List for Earth Day

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, and I intended to have this post ready. Instead, I am writing it today, because (as some like to say) Every Day Is Earth Day.

The global pandemic has been going on for several weeks now and my winter of solitude has stretched into spring. I’m not suffering because of that. It’s not much different from how I live when there’s not a current catastrophe. As an observant reflective person, I thrive in situations where my hands are busy with gardening, sewing, baking, etc., and my mind wanders all over the place. I like to give myself little thought exercises and play my favorite game, which I call “What If?” So what if I read a book very slowly? I’ve skimmed through Mary Oliver’s last book Upstream, published in 2016, but never read it from beginning to end. It might be the perfect book to read very slowly. The essays are short, topical and lyrical in a spare way. Oliver, who died last year, was best known for her poetry. Her prose is the prose of a poet who has spent a life taking her time to choose the exact words she needs. Every tool in the literary toolbox—imagery, metaphor, foreshadowing—has been used so skillfully to construct paragraphs of her thoughts that you aren’t aware of that tool have been used at all. Oliver was a master craftsman who never hurried. I would read portions of an essay most mornings, and getting to the end of one was like finishing a large meal. I had to digest. Ruminate. Let settle.

Mary Oliver was an observer of the natural world, rising early to walk in the woods and fields around her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the title essay, “Upstream”, she recounts being taken to the woods as a child. She wandered away from her family to explore a small creek, and kept walking upstream, discovering small pools, mossy banks, ferns while hearing birds. As well as the voices of her family growing fainter as she moved higher. She comes to the conclusion that she’s been walking upstream ever since. Away from the known and predictable, toward the unknown and the wild.

I had to stop reading sometimes, for the words and ideas filled me so completely I couldn’t take any more in. The language felt so exquisite and polished that I despaired of my own writing. Then I realized I was comparing myself to Mary Oliver, and laughed. My life has been more adventurous and messier. I haven’t focused on one thing, such as poetry. My writing voice has been shaped by where I came from, what I’ve done, and the teachers and companions I’ve met along the way. But I believe I too, have been walking upstream since childhood.

Some books are meant to be read slowly. This is one.

I’m still reading this one. Also slowly. I bought the book last year, intrigued by the title. Usually I am frustrated by subtitles. If you need a subtitle, then maybe you need to do a better job developing a descriptive main title. War and Peace for example. Or Love in the Time of Cholera. Those titles make you curious to find out what the book is about, rather than explain it in a subtitle. But maybe with our short digital attention spans, we need things spelled out a bit more.

Anyway. This one—Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man—caught my eye because it’s an idea that has been rolling around in my head since before the first Earth Day fifty years ago. We live in a culture that has drawn a line between Man and Nature. We are accustomed to think in conflicting dualities—Heaven and Hell, Male and Female, etc. It has to be Either/Or, not Both/And. Or All That Is. Jason Mark spends the first part of the book trying to explain how this has all gotten to the point that some academics and writers have declared the End of Nature. We are all now “post-natural”. Huh? Mark is a gardener and farmer in the Bay Area of California and understands that gentler cultivated nature. This is the nature of the nearby, where processes are harnessed toward human ends. But he also believes that wildness still exists, where nature is uncontrolled and more or less free to follow its own path. Each chapter is the story of his search for evidence, from the Arctic to the habitat of Mexican red wolves. Everywhere he goes, he finds human conflict over how the diminishing wild should be protected or used.

When I read that soon anyone will be able to access a Google street view of anywhere in the world, I had to shut the book. I felt incredibly sad. Is it necessary for technology to infiltrate every nook and cranny of the planet? Just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Is nothing sacred? Is there no place where we can just leave things alone? No place to be alone?

I intend to finish the book. A part of me wants to be left with some kind of hopeful conclusion. But I’m not holding my breath in anticipation.

Much is being written about the convergence of the Covid-19 pandemic with climate change. Global catastrophes combining in a perfect storm of unforeseen consequences! What horrible event will happen next? Much is also being written about anxiety and mental health as humanity faces the reality that life is not a continuous train of progress and upward mobility.

I started reading Pema Chodron about 15 years ago, when my marriage was falling apart. Chodron is an American Buddhist nun who was a student of Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Her writing and teaching has made Buddhist philosophy available to westerners in a simple, humorous, and compassionate way. Finally, someone said: Yep, life’s not fair. You can be going along minding your own business and then the rug gets pulled out from under you. Things are always falling apart, coming together, falling apart…there are ways to grow up and face uncertainty, your fears, all the dark demons. Everyone suffers. Through self-awareness, we can begin to end our own suffering. In this way we can also help others end theirs.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate Chodron’s writing. Buddhist teaching has a lot in common with other major faiths of the world. Or you can adapt it to your own personal philosophy. Meditation can be of benefit to anyone.

These times require the skills to be comfortable with uncertainty, to recognize and examine fear, and even get to enjoy the sensation of no solid ground under your feet. If you know how to land without getting too damaged, then falling isn’t so scary. To the extent that you can have compassion for yourself, that is the extent to which you can offer it to others.

And certainly this is a time when compassion and loving-kindness to all beings is needed more than ever.

Reading is a comfort and a challenge. Solace and escape, as needed. Stimulation and learning, as needed. The process continues when I close the book and get up to be more active. The words and ideas, the voice of the writer, the reflection and insight—all as necessary as breathing.

Yesterday as I filled the kettle at the kitchen faucet, my eye caught the flash and glimmer of a hummingbird at the feeder. I know a pair of rufous hummingbirds is nesting in my neighbor’s spruce tree—he is shiny and coppery with a bright red throat, she is plain green with a streaked white belly. But this new bird! Iridescent green back shining like silk, a violet neck sparkling like jewels—my breath caught in my throat. Had I ever seen him before? I exhaled slowly as he zipped away.

That’s the thing about this life, this living in the world. The news can be sad, unsettling, frightening. A person can read, can compare and despair, can be brought down by visions of a hopeless future, can have moments of insight and moments of thrashing around. But a good chunk of the non-human world goes on just as it does. A brilliant hot spark of life can fly by your window, stopping your breath and holding you hostage to immediate beauty and the persistence of things to live.

Happy Earth Day.

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