Category Archives: Prose & Poetry

Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryI may have mentioned that 2013 was a steamroller of a year, and that Hibernation 2014 was basically me burying my head in the sands of sewing until I felt like I could look at the world again. After about nine months of denial, I thought I might be ready to test the waters of environmental catastrophe again–and I was right!

Have no fear. We are still mostly sewing here. But also, I read a book about one of the Ends of the World, and I survived, and I think I can even write about it.  So I will.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with all of Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing, it is beautifully written, compelling, meticulously researched, well structured, and absolutely terrifying.

The Sixth Extinction (which is happening now–you can be forgiven for not knowing that, since it is so abysmally reported on) is the tale of the many and varied ways humans are causing this latest mass extinction event. They’re all here: prehistorical and modern-day overhunting; transmission of invasive species; habitat fragmentation; climate change; ocean acidification. In keeping with the evidence, though very much against the preferences of human psychology, the book ends on a despairing note. While humans do expend a great deal of energy in identifying and saving particular endangered species when they are particularly beautiful or otherwise beloved, that is in no way up to the scale of what’s required, and it is very difficult to see how this could be turned around.

From page 214: “‘As a brief aside,’ he went on, ‘I read this news story the other day. A place called the Vermont Center for Ecostudies has set up this Web site. People can take a photo of any and all organisms in Vermont and get them registered on this site. If I had read that a few years ago, I would have laughed. I would have said, “You’re going to have people sending in a picture of a pine tree?” And now, after what’s happened with the little browns [bats], I just wish they had done it earlier.” (This after a chapter describing the collapse of bat populations from White Nose Syndrome, and bat researchers revisiting former caves where bats numbered in the hundreds of thousands, now not able to find any, walking through the empty caverns on a carpet of bat carcasses.)

I wish everyone would read this, or at least become more informed about it; not because there’s anything we can do by becoming more informed (there almost certainly isn’t:  many, and likely most, species will simply cease to exist). But because an event of this significance and caused by us deserves to be marked and mourned while it is happening. A biotic Holocaust is underway all around us, every day, species and families of species being shoved into gas ovens as fast as we can manage it; and outside, we celebrate sporting victories and royal babies and new gizmos to buy. I can think of no more severe condemnation of human nature.

That's a toad, eh?
That’s a toad, eh? Look at those itty bitty fingers!

Frances and I like to catch baby toads in the spring. They are itty-bitty, and they hatch en masse, so if you go to the right place at the right time of year, you will find dozens or hundreds of housefly-sized frogs springing all over the place like rubbery crickets. They’re adorable, and fairly easy to catch, and most children are entranced at the sight of these tiny little froggy things. You can have one perched on a fingernail.

According to The Sixth Extinction, this may not last. Amphibians are the most endangered class of animals globally, right now, due to chytrid fungus, spread from the use of the African Clawed Frog as an early pregnancy test, as well as habitat loss and fragmentation, water quality issues, climate change, etc. Over thirty per cent of amphibian species are at risk of extinction today, and the extinction rate for amphibians right now is 211 times the background rate as a conservative estimate. These are animals that have survived every mass extinction event since before the dinosaurs, but they may not survive us.

When I’m not sewing, or embroidering, or reading (or working or cleaning the house or making dinner or whatever), sometimes I do papercrafting. Not scrapbooking, per se, but it could be altered books or altered photos or painting  or calligraphy or some kind of multimedia project. When I was feeling particularly down about environmental issues last year (occupational hazard when you work in the environmental field), I made this.

PhotoScan-1

At the time I thought I was exaggerating.

But apparently not.

And now maybe we need even more happy sewing talk than before.

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W.S. Merwin as nothing-in-particular

poetry month-12-7This one has no stitching on it of any kind, but I like it and thought it was a fitting way to end Poetry Month (though if I have time, I may squeeze in Dennis Lee as well): from W. S. Merwin:

The Laughing Thrush

O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it

and the lost visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future

here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening

W.S. Merwin is a nature poet too, at least sometimes, though unlike Mary Oliver he can be a good deal darker and sometimes writes explicitly on environmental destruction. But he does it beautifully.

I took a page I hated from a self-help book, gessoed it, painted it, stamped and stenciled it, then drew the calligraphy letters on with a brush, and mounted it on a bit of backing board to make it stiff. And now it sits on my bookcase, amidst piles of books and mountains of fabrics and notions and quilted blocks.

Something about thrushes seems to inspire poets grappling with finding joy and meaning amidst loss, doesn’t it? And the thrushes have no idea–they just sing.

Mary Oliver as wall art

Even if you don’t think you like Mary Oliver–even if you think you don’t like poetry–you have almost certainly read one of her poems, and you might even have enjoyed it. Mary Oliver is that most rare of all creatures: a poet who makes a living from poetry. She’s a nature poet with an eye for the small details of the world, constantly finding the universe in a grain of pollen. She’s also had her work and parts thereof shared on every social media platform–alone, on pictures, and in video–just about constantly, probably since the internet’s electronic heart first began to beat. And if you still think you don’t know who Mary Oliver is:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

That’s Mary Oliver, from The Summer Day, and if you’re saying you’ve never read it, you’re lying.

However, The Summer Day (much as I love it) isn’t the one I turned into wall art, and neither is What Was Once the Largest Shopping Centre in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon, though that poem is one of my favourite poems ever.

poetry month-9-5No. The wall art was taken from Mindful.

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

This piece is just a sampler, a bit of muslin on which I practiced different kinds of stitches until I had something I thought was pretty. It was fun and not very difficult and, as is common with embroidery, it took forever. I’ve always meant to make another, larger, better-planned embroidery from another Mary Oliver poem, but somehow there is always something else I’m working on. One day, right?

Rilke as bookmark

poetry month-11-6For years, I had these self-help books I dragged around with me through every move. Most of them were gifts (of a sort) from one particular person who shall remain nameless, and they inspired in me an absolute rage; the others, while less rage-inspiring, were quite notable in their absolute inability to help me help myself. They were more like self-unhelp books, or self-trouble.

After the last move, in 2012, unpacking these ridiculous books again, I got angry at myself (self-angering books): WHY was I torturing myself by lugging these horrible, offensive, accusatory, unhelpful, rage-inducing books with me through house after house? Just because they were printed and bound did not mean they were automatically worthy of respect.

If they weren’t going to be helpful–and they patently weren’t–if they were determined not to be useful as a product, then they could become an input.

I carefully cut about fifty pages out of the worst book, gessoed them, painted them, stamped them, cut them, folded them, stitched on them, and turned them into other things.

You don’t want to original text to be distracting but you do want it to show that it was originally a page from a book; I don’t want to be reminded of what I hated so much about the books whenever I see them, but I do want to see what I made of my life and myself out of what the self-help books were supposed to help me with. So it takes forever. But it’s satisfying, too.

This bookmark was one of the first. The lines are from a poem by Rilke, who I love (who doesn’t love German transcendental poets?), and the patterns are from a variety of sources meant to make it look a bit like an old-fashioned sampler. Here’s the full, original poem:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

My favourite Rilke poem is the 10th Elegy, but it is very very long (about 10 pages in my translation) and has no short pithy quotes suitable for hand-made bookmarks. He wrote so much gorgeous stuff, though. I can only imagine how it must thunder along in the original, with its rhyme and meter intact.

One of the things I love about Rilke is that when he wrote about God, he quite openly and clearly discussed having created him, built him, projected him out into the universe; that God was something we made, and then lived by. And yet the sense of worship and holiness is still there. It didn’t rob God of his meaning or value to have been created by people. It’s a fascinating perspective.

poetry month-2-1

Sara Teasdale in needle-book form

poetry month-3-1I like poetry, a lot. A shelf of my Favourites Bookcase is devoted to poetry books (and there are more in the basement).  I also–as you may have gathered–like sewing and embroidery, a lot. So what better than to combine them?

A few years back, I was in need of a needle-book (a fabric book with fabric pages for storing needles not in use). There was a pattern in an issue of Inspirations magazine that I liked structurally, with its multiple pages and french-knot border, but at the time I was not a fan of stumpwork and wanted something different for the cover art. I took a Sublime Stitching bird pattern (I realize it is not a wood thrush) and combined it with my favourite Sara Teasdale poem to make this little needle-book, which is in more or less constant use.

It has a page for sharp needles, a page for crewel needles, and a page for beading needles, and little endpapers of crazy bird fabric scraps. The needle pads themselves are made out of wool felt, since it holds needles so nicely. The titles are just poetry month-4-1stamped in with regular ink, and the wool felt is held to the pages with regular zig-zag stitch–nothing fancy.

Sara Teasdale was not the world’s happiest poet, though she did win the first ever Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I once spent an afternoon reading a chronological anthology of her work, which became progressively more depressive; unsurprising since she died of suicide in her late 40s. Wood Song is one of her more uplifting poems, and it’s from comparatively early in her career. As you can see, it’s not so much the work of someone who is happy, as of someone who is trying very hard to be happy.

Wood Song

I HEARD a wood-thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.

Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.

It is gorgeous work, if sad. As much as I appreciate its artistry and the portrayal of having found meaning and solace in an interaction with nature, I also wish someone had been there to hold her hand and offer her some solace.

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happy poetry month

Because it’s the one I have with me, and because it’s been stuck in my head for six months. Like a musical earworm, it demands to be spread … er, shared:

Here, in this little Bay
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

(Coventry Patmore, Magna est Veritas)

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

I promise that future poems shared this month will not be quite so despairing. Look on the bright side: last week, this poem was the introduction to a whole post about those last three lines.

Review: Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life

Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life by George Monbiot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am, first of all, so thankful that George Monbiot broke his mold and spent a book writing about something with more hopeful overtones than the end of the world. Not that the end of the world isn’t a worthy subject for a life’s work, but as a change of pace, was it ever nice not to read about death and destruction on every single page. Thank you, George.

Feral is about rewilding. Not conservation, which he equates to a “prison” in which well-intentioned folks try to arrest ecosystems in artificial stages, whether it’s good for them or not. Rewilding is about people letting go of the reigns and allowing nature to do whatever it is that it’s going to do, and as it turns out, in every place it’s been tried so far (whether intentionally or no), it’s led to something good. Go figure. Nature knows what to do without people bossing it around.

Feral is, too, an awful lot about George pulling an Ernest Hemingway, although in wilderness or its closest counterparts rather than in bull-rings or war zones. He gets himself nearly dashed to pieces at sea in a kayak at least a couple of times and goes tramping around in various inhospitable places, looking for danger, and sometimes he finds it. In this, it has tones of a mid-life crisis, but at least it’s directed at something of possible benefit to the biosphere, which was thoughtful.

The one considerable downside of the book was the several chapters George spends (as other reviewers put it) muttering about how much he hates sheep. No doubt, over-grazing by sheep has been enormously destructive everywhere it’s been tried, and it is stupid beyond belief to expend precious conservation dollars preserving landscapes that are the result of sheep eating everything not actively poisonous to them. I really don’t think it deserves the amount of space George gives it in this book, and it certainly reduces the interest and impact considerably for anyone not living in a place dominated by a sheep economy. This is a shame.

Still. Rewilding is a lovely and important idea with emotional appeal for everyone who cares about nature and, when George isn’t balefully staring down sheep, Feral explores it well.

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Review: Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship

(What happened? Summer. Also, home laptop broke. New laptop working, but would not connect to network. None of these things facilitate blogging.  Hiking and gardening are more fun anyway, yes?)
Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship by Franke James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am the first person to mark this book as “read” on Goodreads. I find that a little depressing … but I’m happy to be the first to tell you why you should read this fabulous book:

1. The art. Franke’s illustrations and visual essays are always striking, quirky, and to the point.

2. The number of essays included. If, like me, you’ve been following her work for the past few years, this is a great way to have several of the back-story essays (including “Dear Prime Minister,” “Fat Cat Canada” and “What Can One Person Do?”) as well as the “Banned on the Hill” essay that chronicles her attempted censorship by the fine folks the Department of International Affairs.

3. The information and the stories. It’s infuriating that this is happening in Canada, but since it is, it’s better to know about it than not. And it is wonderful to have people like Franke James so determinedly bringing that message to so many different audiences

There were at least a dozen pages I wanted to rip out and frame. Instead I might scan, print and frame them (solely for personal use of course).

If you care about climate change and the obstructionist position Canada has taken both internationally and domestically on this issue, you will want to read this book. When you’re done, share it widely.

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Review: The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture

The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture
The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture by Mary Pipher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did.

What environmentalist has not at least sometimes felt the way that Mary Pipher did when she set out to write this book? It can be devastating: every day you set out to fight something, and most of the time you lose; when you win, the wins are often temporary and lost again in the future. Climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, all continue to worsen, while society as a whole remains willfully unaware, determined to shop its way to salvation. Each of those problems has the potential to collapse human society and even end the human habitability of planet earth; combined, they are terrifying, and yet very few people seem to be terrified. For people working, either professionally or on the side, in the environmental field, the combination can be psychologically debilitating.

So what a wonderful idea, to write a book from a therapist’s perspective, on how not to become unhinged and to maintain one’s ability to work productively.

Except that Mary Pipher is not qualified to write this book. Her environmental activism began in 2010, and she is unable to consider the humanity of her opponents.

I admire her body of work and have read most of her books, including Writing to Change the World, which was phenomenal. I understand and respect that she has a lifetime of activism behind her on many issues. But environmental activism and specifically climate change activism are different in some key ways that she does not discuss or admit to, the key difference being that the loved Other is constantly dying, and this may cause the death of everything. And with all due respect, those of us who have been working on this for more than three years have already gone through the process she describes–more than once. What will she do when all of the work she pours into this comes back again and again as worth nothing or less than nothing? When she fails, not once, but dozens of times–will she keep getting up and finding solace in continuing to work and building a community? Maybe. But I’d find it a lot more convincing if she either had that experience herself, or had talked to those of us who had.

The other issue, the dehumanization of the proponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline, is particularly ironic as she spent a large part of Writing to Change the World arguing how important it is not to do that. As a result, she comes off as less of a climate activist and more of a NIMBY, determined to keep the Keystone Pipeline away from Nebraska but otherwise content to keep her climate activism to reusable shopping bags and CFL lightbulbs.

As someone who has been in the environmental field since highschool (I helped start my highschool’s environmental club), who has studied it and worked in it full-time ever since, it is impossible to overstate how enormously frustrating this is. Every landscape is special to the people who live there. Every one has some feature or service that makes it unique and important and worthy of conservation. No project is perfect or without impact. There is no such thing as a “perfect” location for any project; just ones that are good enough, and ones that aren’t.

Having been on the receiving end of the kinds of character assassinations that she engages in (in my case for wind energy projects), I can state categorically that it has no positive outcome whatsoever to speak or write of people that way. Whoever produced the Keystone XL Environmental Impact Statement, and without regard to the quality of their work or the accuracy of their conclusions, they are almost certainly good people trying to do what they believe is the right thing. To characterize them as corrupt evil-doers trying to buy off Nebraska politicians goes far beyond “unhelpful.”

There is some good material here to those new to climate activism–say, post the Copenhagen debacle–in terms of how to cope and keep working. For anyone who has been through more than a few rounds on this one, this is not the book for you. I wish Pipher had sat on this for a few years and written it with the benefit of more hindsight and perspective, after having had some conversations with her enemies, and after having talked to climate activists who have had to cope with these emotions over decades. How great it would have been to hear Bill McKibben’s thoughts on this, or Hansen’s. I very much suspect that by 2020, Pipher will feel the same way.

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Lappe’s Eco-Mind & Jensen et al’s Deep Green Resistance: the matter & anti-matter of environmentalism

It's either a Tilter's produce of Jensen's worst nightmare, or Lappe's dream come true. Or maybe it's just a wind turbine.

Reading Deep Green Resistance followed by Eco-Mind over the course of a few days is a great way to get vertigo.

They’re both written by well-respected, well-known environmentalists and authors.

They rely on many of the same facts: 90% of fish gone, global warming inevitable, hundreds of millions of human deaths to follow, screwy notions of “democracy” in the western world, and so on.

Yet you could not find two more different books resulting from such similar premises.

Deep Green Resistance: Western industrial civilization will never undertake a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of life, so it is up to people who see what is going on to organize, make some explosives, and start blowing things up.

Eco-Mind: Western industrial civilization has not largely undertaken a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of life, but look at Costa Rica! They are doing some interesting things. And Denmark! Let’s all be like Costa Rica and Denmark. There, all fixed.

Deep Green Resistance: Indigenous cultures have a lot to teach us about how to live with and in nature. Most of them will tell you that “listening to nature” is not a metaphor, but something serious, and if you do, nature will tell you what it wants you to do to protect it. When I listen to nature, it tells me to organize, make some explosives, and start blowing things up.

Eco-Mind: Indigenous cultures have a lot to teach us about how to live with and in nature. Indigenous peoples all over the world have loving and respectful relationships with their immediate environments. We should emulate that. There, all fixed.

Deep Green Resistance: Green technologies are promoted by hacks and sell-outs who want western industrial civlization to continue, and therefore, they are all nature-haters who will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes. Especially wind and solar energy. Ugh. You know, wind turbines and solar panels are produced in industrial processes with pollution and effluents and crap. No, it’s definitely time to organize, make some explosives, and start blowing things up.

Eco-Mind: Green technologies are a fabulous way to maintain our current way of life while reducing our carbon footprint. Look at Denmark! They produce all kinds of green electricity, and they’re not barbarians living in caves in the woods, either. We need lots and lots of wind and solar energy. Turbines and solar panels are produced by angels whose only industrial wastes are a few discordant notes from their heavenly choir. If we all produced as much green electricity as Denmark and Germany do, that might take us a whole quarter of the way towards solving the global climate change crisis. I mean, challenge. What about the other 3/4? Umm, look, angels! There, all fixed.

Deep Green Resistance: Five billion people are going to die at least and the sooner we get started, the fewer people who will die, not to mention all of the other species we’re driving to extinction, and they count too, you know. Nothing good for the environment ever came out of western industrial civilization, so the whole thing has just got to be destroyed. Who’s with me? Let’s organize, make some explosives and start blowing stuff up!

Eco-Mind: OK so people are dying and species are going extinct and deserts are growing and we’re not sure our grandchildren will be able to breathe whatever atmosphere we’re creating for them, but that’s no reason not to think positively! Only our thoughts and perceptions of the environmental crises are holding us back. OK so we’ve created a few little problems here in western industrial civilization but I’m sure it’s nothing we can’t fix with some optimism and determination. Look at Denmark! And there was some guy in India who started growing crops differently, too. Eh? There, all fixed.

Conclusion 1: If two intelligent and well-informed people can take the same set of facts, more or less, and construct such entirely different narratives with recommendations in such different universes, then whatever is going on here has precious little to do with rational argument and full consideration of the facts. (I would however like to point out that neither one of them is saying, “Ocean collapse? What ocean collapse?”)

Conclusion 2: I’d like to take Jensen and Lappe and lock them in a room together, not letting them out until they collaborate on a book. Now that–if they survived it–would be something to read.

Jensen et al don’t account for anything good or any progress whatsoever (ozone layer, reforestation in some parts of the first world–yes, I do realize that’s because we’ve exported our deforestation to poor countries–and so on), yet Lappe never analyzes whether these bits and pieces of progress could ever add up to a liveable world for ourselves and our children. Their blind spots are so complementary it’s frightening.

If you’d like to get the same effect without shelling out for the books, they both have websites:  Deep Green Resistance and Eco-Mind.

Here is what I would like, in my ideal LappeJensen Frankenstein book:

Lappe’s analysis of our destructive and incorrect assumptions about human nature, how they’re harming us, and what to replace them with.

Jensen et al’s analysis of the scope and extent of our environmental crises and exactly how much trouble we’re in.

Lappe’s summary and analysis of the good that people are doing about it, worldwide.

A Jensen analysis of how much those solutions will actually solve, and what problems will remain when they’re done.

Some Lappe ideas about what might bridge the gap.

And some Jensen proposals for how to hurry this thing along using stronger activist approaches than “write to your politicians, sit in the square and be arrested” left-wing thing that’s been doing us so much good so far.

In other words, I’d like the truth, solutions that match the scale of the problem, and enough optimism to keep working at it.

If you read both books, once you’ve recovered from the migraine induced by having two authors use the same facts and ideas to pull your brain in opposite directions like a piece of silly putty, you might have some sense of where that is. Or you might not. You might just have a desperate need for painkillers and a nap.