Sunday, March 20, 2011

Believing It

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring, by Lucille Clifton. Illustrations by Brinton Turkle
There’s a children’s book that was a favorite with my daughters and that I have now started reading to my granddaughter, called The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring. A little boy in, I’m guessing, Brooklyn named King Shabazz gets irritated with  the grownups’ talk about nesting birds and flowers and crops, things he has never seen, until he and his best friend Tony Polito take an unauthorized walk on their own to the next block. There they find a vacant lot with a fabulous-to-five-year-olds dead car….and some flowering weeds (“Crops!”) and a birds nest.  Tony’s big brother finds them out of bounds and they’re in lots of trouble, but they don’t care. Spring is here. 

I thought about King Shabazz and Tony yesterday while spreading compost and gathering the first “new growth” garden salad of the year: corn salad, kale tips, and tiny bits of lettuce and radicchio from two plants that mysteriously survived the hard freezes and torrents of the last couple of months, while my artichokes, rosemary, and even some of the leeks bit the dust  February-sown spinach is up outside, along with the first few chards and lettuce sprouts, and leeks and artichoke starts are thriving on my glassed in front porch. Granddaughter Hailey and I planted peas in a raised bed in the alley, her main job being to walk over the row to tamp it down. Parker the dog took a nap in a patch of sunlight. Although it will be a couple of months before I can figure to get most of my salads from my own yard, all this cheers me up. I admit to being tired of roots, and greens at the store are both expensive and travel weary, a dreary combination. 

Besides their existential pleasure, these “crops” make me feel self-reliant and sustainable, and that’s where reality threatens to intrude. Mostly I subscribe to the “every little bit helps” school of response to uncertain times. A Post-Carbon Future looms? I’ve got my peas, artichokes, and 50 heads of garlic on the way, and I can walk to the grocery store. Western Washington is overdue for an earthquake and tsunami that could rival the tragedy in Japan? I’ve got a windup radio under my bed and rain barrels full of water—I’m ready. Commuting solo in my car contributes to global warming –at least it’s a Prius, and I bought it used.  I recognize the magical thinking involved in these responses, but since I can’t personally create the societal and economic retooling it would take to meet a global challenge, I take some small steps, and teach people how to cook with local vegetables. Like most everyone else I know, at least people of my age, I do want a comfortable life as well as a useful one. I want to be, as I recently read in a beautiful eulogy that showed up on my Facebook, “worthy of rest” when my time comes. Plus I want to eat good food, get good haircuts, and go dancing a lot while I still can. 

Do small steps matter? In any revolution, and a drastic change in climate and fuel supply is likely to resemble (if not create) one, there comes a time when moderation gets swept away, for good or ill. Years ago my friend Marilyn memorably described the kind of 1970s style academic Marxist who was all for the revolution, unless it would interfere with tenure. I cringe a bit at being the kind of environmentalist who is all for sustainability unless it would interfere, for example, with my plans to jet off to our next international tour with the Kulshan Chorus.  Some of the wildly varying estimates for the carbon footprint of passenger jet travel put it at twice the use per mile of single occupant car travel, even allowing for hundreds of passengers on a flight. (One factor complicating the estimates I’m seeing debated on science blogs is that emissions produced at higher elevations have a stronger greenhouse effect.) Add that to the longer distances of most air travel and one would have to make a whole lot, a lifetime’s worth, of bike rides to the post office to offset one trip to Europe, let alone reduce  energy use. For people who don’t accept Peak Oil scenarios, that’s irrelevant as long as they can afford a ticket. For people like me, for whom the end of the carbon age seems plausible, and quite likely preferable to the alternative of stripping oil out of every fragile ecosystem under which it hides, it creates a dilemma. As long as I’m burning jet fuel at 30,000 feet to sing about peace, justice, and human understanding, does that make it ok? 

Presumably, the right thing to do is to start living a post-carbon life in advance of dire necessity. If this is what awaits our children and grandchildren, aren’t we more likely to get it right if we practice? And if I believe that living in tune with what the planet actually can provide its own rich satisfactions, I shouldn’t feel that staying home is a sacrifice.

It’s easy to way overthink the simplest things. The obsessively examined life, or diet, or political philosophy, can be a great big preachy bore, and most people won’t live a preachy bore of a life unless they have no choice. 

Meantime, spring is coming whether or not my carbon conscience is clean, and thank goodness for that. When I was a teenager, my dad was diagnosed with a cancer that was generally terminal. The next spring when he walked out to the “Druid’s grove” of trilliums in the woods behind our house, he promised himself he would see them the following year as well. Thirty-five years and many health scares later when he was finally too ill to make that short walk, I knew for sure that he wouldn’t be with us long; he died a few months later. Since I left home, everywhere I’ve had a patch of dirt I’ve planted trilliums from that grove. Once they get established they go on and on, so I assume they are fulfilling their own vows of renewal in the hills of Sonoma County, on the end of E. Yesler Way in Seattle, and on the border in Sumas, just as they were in my yard yesterday, when I pulled back some mulch and saw them unfolding. Like King and Tony, I may be in trouble but I believe in spring. 

For a much crisper take on some of these issues, written a couple of years back by someone younger, more energetic and with a stronger scientific background, here’s the “friendly neighborhood Apocalyptic Dominatrix of Doom,” Sharon Astyk:

And for general inspiration about doing what we can where we are, Wendell Berry:
The question which must be addressed… is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious and exciting way different from all the others.


Carol McIntyre said...

Hi Lane,
At last I've read your blog. I'm blushing. Where does the busy time go?!
As I read your musings, I feel a kindred connection to you in your garden, and struggling with "big questions" facing us all. Yup, I'm of the every-bit-counts school, too. As a mentor once said on a particularly rough day at school: It may not be enough, but your efforts count.
I hope you'll sign up for my blog, too. And I'll think of you as I watch expectantly for the snow peas and leafy greens to come up.
Still enjoying your wonderful book! We didn't get a signing happening in my area; hope we still can.
Best regards!
Carol of Winter-harvest Vegetables

Lanester said...

Hi Carol--

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I did sign up for your blog, and realized that I hadn't checked in with it for months, so it's good that I get notifications now. Teaching is good preparation for not getting it all right, isn't it. I mess up and fall short all the time, but I also know that I make a difference sometimes, with some kids.

My peas are up, also beets, chard, spinach and lettuce. But it snowed a couple inches today, so I'm glad I didn't get carried away with sowing warmer weather stuff.

Happy spring to you. Maybe we can come up with some kind of winter food event next near the end of the year. I'd love to see your place.