Many years ago, my mother-in-law, who was not aging well, came for Sunday dinner – roast beef and mashed and brussel sprouts, her favourite. She choked. I leapt to my feet, seized her under her ribs and jerked with all my might. No luck. Her son leapt up and walloped her on the back. No luck. He picked up her tiny body, yelled ‘call the hospital’ and raced for the car.
An ER doctor somehow tweezered out the sprout leaf and she breathed again after 10-minutes, fifteen (?). Whereupon she kicked him.0
I happened upon Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the end of a civilization (2015), advice about how to live in its waning days. The title intrigued me for several reasons. It is outrageous, for one, of course, but it just so happened that a 92-year-old friend made a run at leaving the world at the same time. She got such good care from her daughter-in-law and her son for the next 6-weeks, that she got much better, but the care was killing the carers, and it was 5000 ft. up a mountain in winter. She had a crisis in the middle of a bad snow storm, hours from a hospital, so she had to move to a long term care home in Bakersfield. She calls this $6000 a month accommodation, a prison.
This coincidence lead me to write a number of posts, 115journals Nov 2020- Feb 2021 the first six about learning to die as I observed it and what compromised a good death. The last two posts dealt with the book itself. Scranton like many others, who understand climate science, holds out little hope that our race will survive, but he recommends that we take refuge in our culture, the narratives that have sustained Homo Sapiens throughout its 200,000 year history. Since I had built my life on the study of literature and philosophy, it resonated with me as did his experience as a private in Baghdad. I didn’t serve, except in the private army that was my father’s family. We had spies, assault and defensive units and despite indications to the contrary, we four children survived and grew old. Believe me when I say that we practiced dying every day. We had seen what our father could do.
I was surprised to find there was another book called Learning to Die: wisdom in the age of climate crisis (2018). It is a very small book by two Canadian academics, Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky. It contains three essays, the final one is part of the footnote section and refutes the optimism of Steven PInker’s Enlightenment Now: the case for reason, science, humanism and progress (2018) by pointing out its logical flaws and use of questionable science.
Bringhurst, Zwicky and Scranton are not ghouls smirking and rubbing their hands at the bad news. They have looked at climate science and seen the obvious conclusion: it is already too late to avoid disaster. Yes, it’s good to eliminate plastic from your life, stop flying off to Mexico for the fun of it and driving a gas guzzler, but do you really believe ‘they’ are turning your recycling into new products. Might ‘they’ be sending a lot of it to the third world on barges. Canada has had one such barge returned lately. Oddly, when I surveyed my friends – not a large group, to be honest, but informed and intelligent, they all admitted they also thought it was too late. Seven billion of us and another billion every decade.
Bringhurst advises us to seek grace in the wild in his poetic essay ‘The Mind of the Wild’, first given as an address in British Columbia, Canada. He begins by referring to Mark Twain who said, “It was wonderful to find America, but would have been more wonderful to miss it?” He goes on to tell us that the sailors in 1492 carrying their Bibles with them, like even the best scholars, did not hear the Hebrew text laughing to itself, weaving… puns, reversals and half-rhymes to tell us hubris and pride are a widespread disease. ‘But in translation, no one hears the laughter.’
My first experience of a synagogue was, – these fleeting thoughts are almost subliminal, arising from habituation and actually a profound relief and source of joy once I’d dealt with the shock -‘Why don’t they sit down and stop chatting and act respectful in a house of God?’ Even if the service hasn’t started yet. Not like Church of England people. The synagogue people are jovial and outgoing at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, maybe funerals, I never went to a Jewish funeral. A joke in the Bible?! Bringhurst has just quoted the bit where humanity is exhorted to ‘be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it’. Oh, unhappy choice of words for ‘upright’ ears. I have spent a 35-year career speaking in public, but casually ask me to speak at Passover dinner.’But I’m not…’ I manage to do as I’m asked but only just. To me that is a kind of wildness, such as I see in African American church services – on TV. I haven’t been lucky enough to have family like the latter, although I’m grandma to a bunch of Rosenbergs.
But even a White Anglo-Saxon can love the wild. When the government took a few feet of my grandfather’s farm to widen the dirt road, he acted as if they had abused his soul. One family lived beyond him and they didn’t want or need a wider road, but look. ‘They’ve moved rocks. ‘They”ve gouged out the slope.
Bringhurst describes the wild as ‘various and rich’ although at least 98% of its species is extinct, ‘so the wild is not only rich and complex but at the same time economical and lean.’ If our species followed its model, there would be fewer than a billion of us.
I have driven across most of America three times, once by myself, once a few weeks after 9/11. Driving west, I got a sunburn on my left arm. And every single day, even on the throughways, I was goggle-eyed at its immensity, its density, its numberless vehicles, its ‘wealth’ of consumer goods. I drove to Chase County, Kansas to see what William Least Heat Moon describes in Prairie Erth as the centre of the county. In the grasslands, I saw crowded pens of cattle getting fed fat and had a delicious steak dinner. The wild punished me by locking my steering wheel. I sat in pitch dark with the light on, reading the owner’s manual for the Toyota Tercel and rereading it until I figured out how to unlock it. (Reef like mad.) Then into the desert. I knew this desert, having come several times from LA to a hot pool near Victorville, so I started out before dawn. I came finally to Fourth St. in Santa Monica and the left turn just before the Pacific Ocean.
I got to know the partially wild ridge trails near Los Angeles – Topanga Canyon, Malibu State Park, Will Rogers, but it was not until 2014 that I found myself in the wilder, forested mountains of Kern County where it abuts Los Angeles County. By then I was flying not driving and requesting wheelchair assistance. I could walk the edges of the wild, but that was all. Fortunately, my daughter could hike the wilderness. She tells me when she is setting out, but since I am stuck in Toronto these days, she also tells someone there and checks in when she gets home. She hikes up to 18 or 20 miles a day, gives me detailed accounts and sends me pictures.
Bringhurst says that in order to stay sane, we have to calibrate our minds by going into he wild. In winter months, I have to settle for ‘virtual’ hikes. Soon I will be able to drive up the Niagara Escarpment to Rattle Snake Point and do the relatively easy climb along the edge, letting the green energy of the woods bring me down to earth.
America is a miracle to me, so huge, so various, so resourceful, so adaptable, so resilient. I really never believed it could be taken down until 2016. In 2020, I knew it could. Because it could be taken down politically, economically and by disease, I lost that faith. My faith in the wild was more resilient, but government was stripping so many protections -both mine, Canadian, and American – that I finally began to get it. Just as Covid testing and Covid protection was too late and too little when it began, it was already a done-deal in mid-March 2020. Nearly 600,000 Americans have died as well as 24,000 Canadians. Before the vaccine and herd immunity can control it, the total for the two countries will be well over a million deaths. So too, our recycling, our pathetic ‘promise’ to keep temperature rise to just over 1 degree centigrade, our efforts to control global warming are doomed. The human body cannot survive a wet bulb temperature of 35 degrees celsius, (Wet bulb – bulb thermometer wrapped in wet cloth for humidity.) no matter how much water is consumed. Sure you can do it one day and maybe more with cooling stations, but not as a matter of course.
Bringhurst uses long term futures to alleviate the reader’s angst. But as my daughter is threatened by California fire, an in-law is flooded in New Jersey, my grandson lives a few blocks from the tsunami line in Culver Ciity/the Marina, the other hunkers down under the stairs in Dallas until the tornado warning lifts and even in Canada, the summer heat keeps us indoors, I have little faith in global warming measures.
The essay tells us that the myth of constant human progress cannot be supported by the wild. We are already asking too much of it and our demands are going to double in a decade. I remember being able to handle that world in the 1950s when we were a billion. Only just. Moving back to a country village 33-years ago, seemed to cool things down for me, but at the cost of a two-hour-long commute every day and fenced-off, tamed wilderness. I could hear packs howling at sunset and peepers singing in the spring, but economically, the hundred-year-old house ruined me.
The author doesn’t think we can save the world. Only the wild can possibly do that. What we can do is save our self-respect. He concludes, as MLK did, that we have a moral obligation, not only to cooperate with good, but also to resist evil and extend civil disobedience to cultural and biological issues as well as unjust laws. Invading the sanctified halls of democracy on trumped up, disproved pretexts doesn’t pass the test of justification.
If we start thinking like an ecosystem, we can go down singing.
Next a post on ‘A Ship from Delos’, an essay on the Socratic virtues as a saving grace, the second in the book.