Facebook, the present-day harbinger of all things bright, beautiful, disturbing, joyous and enlightening, informs me that there is a climate rally of sorts at the New England Governors’ Conference this weekend. The hope is to gather enough popular support to urge the governors—all of them—to ban tar sands oil from New England. I support that action.
This meeting is being held at Bretton Woods, at the base of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains and just across a thin ridge from the Pemigewasset Wilderness area.
I came to know my best self in those mountains, came even to the concept that I might have a best self that could be better striven towards, cleaved to. I never sought to leave my mark on the mountains, but I now and continually seek to do justice to the mark they left on me. It was in summer camps and mountain huts and winding trails and long conversations on porches and roofs and under stars that I learned how to get along with people, how to treat and be treated, and how to hold something sacred and unspeakable in common delight. At least, I like to think that whatever drew each of us to the hills was coordinated if not near identical.
When I get hot and bothered about the scourge of climate change—which is regularly—the thing that drives me forward against the despair is the idea that this place, and all that it has ever meant to me and to those I love, could be lost. When I can spiral that out further, to imagine that the soul-identifying places and landscapes of strangers are similarly threatened, then I have a larger more urgent fire in my heart. If nothing else, I want to preserve the places where such wonder and awareness can bloom.
By rights, then, I should be the first person pounding on the door of the Governors’ Conference. What they do, by not banning tar sands, by not acting with the power citizens vested in them to protect the lands they represent and lead, is to allow dangerous ways of being to continue. To not actively reject tar sands or coal burning or fracked gas is to passively, permissively accept to the fuels that are violently destroying the world as we know it.
However, I am sick of being schooled in anger. In writing formulaic letters that talk about the beautiful and meaningful places that are threatened—letters that will not be read, in chanting “no” on street corners, signing petitions begging legislators to oppose bills and movements and factions, I am sick of being scared into action by new studies, by new photographs, by the new reality. Fear is not a sustainable fuel; it burns through our hearts and leaves us exhausted without hope.
Let’s try this, instead: Imagine if the politicians, the power industry bigwigs, the fossil fuel barons and whoever else is dirty with power, whoever else we would rally against, try to push towards righter action, imagine if they all walked out to the climate activists, large and small, and said, “Okay. You win. Tell us what to do.”
What would you say?
I would take them by the hand and bring them to the mountains. I would sit them on a mountaintop at sunset, and have their loved ones draw near. I would have them walk, alone, through a glowing birch glade in September. I would let them feel the wind on their face, the peculiar delight of not quite outrunning a hail storm. I give them a wrench and ask them to fix the loose bolt on a solar panel. I would have them live for a time with only what they can carry on their back, among strangers who become friends. I would hand them a pitchfork and rake out a composting toilet. I would take them to places in this world where people live so differently and love so similarly to each of us. I would have them watch closely as an osprey dives into the ocean, popping its wings out of joint to avoid breaking on impact. I would have them awaken to the prehistoric call of a single loon before dawn. I would have them sit by the ocean and watch a full change of tides. I would stand them in the moonlight, holding hands and singing under the night sky with friends. I would show them pipes that connect a mountain spring to a faucet, and the frogs that live near the spring. I would bring them to the farm, bid them dig and plant and watch how things grow from the labor of their bodies. I would dress them warmly and bring them into the frosty beauty of the morning after an ice storm in the mountains.
I would do anything, everything, possible to imprint on their souls how precious—not rare—beauty is in this world, how varied. And how much more we are each capable of—our bodies, our hearts, our minds—than is ordinarily assumed. I would show them the places where I have found joy, where I have learned to put my one little life in perspective, to be at once capably self-reliant and interdependent on the people around me, and all the things I know about how satisfying it is to live off kilter from normal. I wonder what laws and policies and business plans the (allegedly) powerful people would enact if their hearts where known and free to be followed?
I do not think that anyone can witness the beauty that is out there and remain as they were. The challenge, as ever, is how to hold that truth once out of the woods. How to connect the dawn chorus of Bicknell’s Thrush with the rising sea levels in the Pacific, and with the habits and routines of your own life. I write this on my computer, with the lamp on beside me, the fan going across the room, my phone plugged in and charging, and my car gassed up outside. In the winter, my apartment is heated, and in all seasons the gas stove runs, the lights flick on and off every day, and hot water is boiling and abundant. My life is normal, in these ways, but I know I could be happier with less. I know I have been happier with less of these “necessities.” I feel cleaner and sleep easier. I try to live more and more away from the lulling, devastating ease of normal. I can want this, because I have seen it, know it is real and viable.
How we live, each of us, does matter. Why is there a “need” for tar sands oil, for natural gas, for coal burning power plants, for wars over oil in holy lands?
The answer is in the choices and traditions and habits we have formed as a people. We cannot ask our leaders to make changes we are not prepared to make ourselves.
It is not just about keeping tar sands out of New England or the mountains whole in Appalachia or the water inflammable in fracking country or about letting fossils rest in peace. It is not about who signs what paper and what law degrees what degree of pollution is acceptable and what is not. It is not about what banner you make, what march you join, what rally you attend, whose ear you pour what plea into. It is about learning how to live without dirty fuels, without always cars, without relying on entities larger than your heart to make the shape of your life. It is about learning the truth of less is more, about the priceless nature of one wild moment, of a lifetime of such moments strung together. And it is about sharing what stories we have of all those gorgeous ways in which we each know what is possible out there.