I quit work early yesterday to go for a hike over the stone wall – to trade the madding crowd’s ignoble strife for the smell of leaf-mould and the jab of the greenbriar.
I was distracted, though. We’ve been doing work lately on environmental issues and I’d been reading the doomer blogs again. So I took the ignoble strife in with me. One prominent doomer, Guy McPherson, blogs that the speedy collapse of the industrial era is the only thing that can save the world from utter catastrophe. The sooner the better if we want to preserve a viable biosphere. A few days ago, he was writing about the myths that sustain our complacency in the face of global warming and the end of cheap oil, and there was one myth that I would have added: the myth that we’ve progressed beyond the possibility of famine. I spent half of September as an ethnographer among CAFOs, traveling through New Mexico, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and could see the way our food system is growing more and more monolithic and fragile. It’s not just that we are shifting our food production to a CAFO system utterly dependent on a small class of operators, requiring huge inputs of grain, water, and fossil fuel – it’s that we are dismantling our back up systems precisely at the time when climate instability and fossil fuel shocks may completely change the rules of the game. To say the family farms are disappearing is cliché, but what once seemed unfortunate, now seems potentially suicidal. It's disheartening to see that broad base of expertise, commitment and attention to the food system, being systematically dismantled and tossed into the ashbin of history – all so that we can concentrate our food production into an ever more unstable edifice.
So it was that the normal grounding therapy of a walk in the woods, wasn’t having its effect. I looked at the bounty of acorns under the scarlet oaks and found myself wondering how much nutritional value was there and how exactly did the Native Americans get the tannins out. Staring up at the empty cones of the pitch pine, I tried to reckon what time of year you'd need to steal pine nuts away from the red squirrels. Though there seemed to be no squirrels around. Maybe they could sense my mood.
There is a spit of high ground that juts out toward the Pawcatuck river with swampland on either side. At some point in the past someone had homesteaded it, and in a clearing there is an old stone foundation built into the side of a hillock, a few dead apple trees and one lilac being slowly smothered by old-man’s-beard. I found a place where beaver had been girdling some cherry trees and I pushed through stands of arrow wood and out onto the swamp. The oaks have all gone red, the pines green and yellow and the lily pads were dying back into the black water. I stood on the hummocks made by the small cedars and noticed that the sphagnum moss under my boots was taking on its own fall colors. A flock of ducks circled, their wings whistling. The jays, who had been offering noisy commentary ever since I left the path, grew quiet. A light mist was falling on the back of my neck, a cool arpeggio from the darkening storm-sky.
And as I looked up the swamp toward open water and the colorful line of trees beyond, I found that my anxiety and depression had lifted. I didn’t care what happened to humans. We were the species that were supposed to have vision but if we were going envision ourselves to extinction, I just didn’t care. The rain continued to fall onto my bare neck. Cedar Waxwings flitted overhead, linking themselves together with their calls, their thin, barely audible thwees. I found that I stopped worrying about what the damned species was doing. At least we couldn’t destroy the swamp. Oh, we could destroy this swamp, and we might take the red cedar and the tawny cotton grass with us into oblivion, but we couldn’t destroy the swamp – the wet confluence of rot and growth and slimy adaptation that meant swamp. The sphagnum moss had outlived the dinosaurs and it would outlive us.
A flock of Canada geese splash-landed noisily on the water and I withdrew back into the woods to leave them in possession of the place. I began my hike back on the path of pine needles and oak leaves, and gradually back into caring – about humans and what we are doing. The fog of depression had cleared a bit. I was ready to get back to work in the salt mines of public communications. On the way home I stopped at an apple tree in the woods and knocked down a half-dozen small apples to take home to the boys. And I would still look up how you eat acorns, just in case.