Friday, July 25, 2014

Sunshine, Sweat and Purple Flowers

Lately, the days are warm—so wonderfully warm that if feels like a miracle after the cool, wet summers we’ve had here in England in recent years. There are butterflies everywhere. The grasses are high, the meadowsweet is fading into seed and there are small green berries forming on the brambles.

The colour palette for these late July days is deep pink to purple, ranging from willowherb and loosestrife through to thistles, knapweed, betony and purple vetch.

I am still taking a long, brisk walk in the early afternoons, but today, as the hot sun beat down out of a cloudless sky I found myself slowing down a little and even wondering if I should change my timetable and walk in the cool of evening instead.

Not that I am a stranger to the heat. I have lived in the tropics and in California and in rural Texas and the only times when I ever found it too hot to go for walks were those searing summer days in Melbourne when the temperatures soared above the century and every gust of the merciless north wind was like opening the door of a hot oven. To take any vigorous exercise in those conditions would have been to court heatstroke and even I am not that silly.

But today, as I paused in the shade to touch the bark of my favourite oak tree and felt the salty sweat trickling down my face, I thought about the evolutionary gift of homeostasis that Nature has bestowed on all warm-blooded organisms like us. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it—a precious gift, in fact. From arctic cold to equatorial heat, we can adjust our lives accordingly and keep our body temperatures pretty much constant at all times. And that is something to feel very grateful about.

It is also salutary, I believe, to reflect that the principle of homeostasis applies to many, many other things in the universe. It’s another case of ‘as above, so below.’ As James Lovelock demonstrated, with his famous Daisyworld experiment, Earth herself operates that way. Like any other living organism, she has to keep her temperature within a certain range and she has a number of ways to achieve that but her ways are not limitless. Like us, her adaptability has limits. Gaia’s temperature regulation  is a mechanism that has worked for billions of years—until human beings came along and started messing with the system. And now we have anthropogenic climate change. If our precious planet ends up dying of heatstroke because we were too silly to change our ways, we can’t say we were never warned.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Greenie's Not (For) Dozing

One day, back in the early 1990s when we were homesteading in the Australian bush, we went to town for supplies. Just before we headed into the hardware store for our latest unglamorous purchase of whatever it was we currently needed in our build-your-own-self-sufficient-mudbrick-house project, I noticed that we had parked immediately behind a very large and very full logging truck, to the back of which was affixed a sticker that said: "Fertilize the bush: 'doze in a greenie."

I remember hoping the cowardly hope that when the logger came back to his truck he would walk around the front of it rather than around the back of ours where the Greenpeace sticker was, in all its rainbow glory. Both vehicles were on a very steep hill, after all, and ours was an awful lot smaller than his.

I made light of it at the time but I do remember well the frisson of fear that I felt when I saw that sticker. Australia is a land of rough humour, to be sure, but there was some real hostility in that message. In fact even more of it than I had suspected, and steadily growing – as witness this blog post from a decade later:

Fortunately for us, the morning passed without incident. But I found myself remembering it  again today, when several friends posted a story on Facebook about ‘coal rolling’—a particularly unpleasant tactic the Neanderthal inhabitants of some nether regions of the USA are now using to intimidate anyone they suspect of being a ‘greenie,’ which they seem to think includes anyone whose politics might be significantly to the left of theirs.

Back then, when our dreams were new and shiny and we really did believe we could head off total environmental disaster by reducing the size of our own eco-footprint and encouraging others to do likewise, an incident like that one with the log truck caused only a small, temporary shadow over the day. Once we had driven out of town again we could even enjoy the humour of it. For deep down we still believed that commonsense and eco-awareness would eventually triumph over small-minded self-interest. After all, we could empathize with the plight of the loggers who felt their livelihood being threatened. Many of them had families, some with young children. We realized how hard it must be for them to see beyond that to the bigger picture and to understand that the health and welfare of any individual life form in an ecosystem, whether it be a logger’s newborn son or a newly-hatched sparrow, is only ever as good as the health and welfare of the whole ecosystem.

But back then we still believed that governments would see sense eventually, even if it took a while longer than we would have liked. In our naïveté we still believed they had the power to change things and that once the truth dawned on them and the laws of the land starting coming into line with the inexorable laws of Nature, as they surely would, everyone would rally round and work for the wellbeing of our planet and all would be well.


I wish I could still believe that. But the shadows that fall over my mornings nowadays –like this morning’s coal-rolling story—are darker and gloomier and last longer.

My way of dealing with them is no longer to rely on a bright dream of a revolution in human consciousness but to face firmly into a future that is adapted to deal with—and somehow to survive—a collapsing economy, a collapsing civilization. And to help save seeds for whatever post-industrial future there might be. And meanwhile, to keep loving and honouring this beautiful Earth. Because we don’t stop loving those we love, even when they are ailing. In fact, when they are ailing, our hearts open to them even wider than before. That can only ever be a Good Thing.

Even an elderly greenie is not willing to be 'dozed in. Neither is this one dozing. Her eyes are wide open and so is her heart. Her sleeves are still rolled up. Whatever the future is—and however much or little of it is left to her—she intends to be fully there for it.