Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Thoreau’s Legacy

Today’s mail brought a copy of a brand-new anthology that includes my work. I tore the envelope open as as I walked away from the Post Office, eager to hold the actual book in my hands. (Mind you, I tore carefully in order to be able to reuse that envelope.) This is the fourteenth anthology which collects my writing, but it’s not the writing credit I care about. It’s the subject. Thoreau’s Legacy is about global warming, the not-so-gradual change in Earth’s climate that chills my heart as a gardener and a person who speaks to plants with respect and affection.

Thoreau'sLegacy

For too long we’ve ignored global warming and its potential to wreak havoc on this green and breathing planet, the only home our species has ever known. Thoreau’s Legacy aims to change that, using stories from ordinary people. It’s a difficult topic, perhaps becuase it is so huge and so inherently catastrophic. We tend to freeze when it comes up, like deer in the headlights. We know the car is coming, but we don’t know what to do. As Barbara Kingsolver writes in the book’s Foreword:

Twenty years ago, climate scientists first told Congress that carbon emissions were building toward a disastrous instability. Congress said, We need to think about that. Ten years later, the world’s nations wrote the Kyoto Protocol, a set of legally binding controls on our carbon emissions. The United States said, We still need to think about it. Now we watch as glaciers disappear, the lights of biodiversity go out, the oceans reverse their ancient order. A few degrees look so small on the thermometer.

Thoreau’s Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming is no policy manual, nor scientific statement; it’s a collection of brief essays and evocative images contributed by writers, landscape architects, teachers, artists, grandmothers, paralegals, religious leaders, scientists, hot-rod lovers, and just ordinary people, all testifying to their personal responses to global warming.

There’s the woman who moved to the city so she wouldn’t have to drive 40 miles to work each day; the Yakima Indian Nation Council Chair who speaks about what the health of the earth means to the health of his people; the grandmother who watches the snowpacks shrink from the Sierra Nevada.

There’s the journalist touring Walden Pond with two botanists who are using Henry David Thoreau’s handwritten notes about which plants bloomed when in the 1850s to track spring’s earlier and earlier arrival over 150 years; the mom who enlisted her kids in making calls to dozens of catalog companies to help neighbors reduce junk mail–in one day alone they canceled 85 catalogs; the photographer devoting his days to documenting coral reef bleaching.

There’s the psychotherapist who sets out to buy the car of his dreams, a new Porsche Carrera. He has always loved their power, he says, and the sound of their throaty exhaust, but he ends up purchasing a Toyota Prius instead: “I love muscle cars,” he writes, “but I… made a small sacrifice, did something to save our planet. I’m proud of me.”

Some contributions are thoughtful, some angry, some bemused, some upbeat. Each is deeply personal, and together they weave a chorus that urges us to take action–for ourselves, at the very least.

More than a thousand people submitted work; four of the sixty-seven selected hail from Colorado. (It’s interesting to note that the other Coloradoans are also writers: creative non-fiction writer and Colorado State University professor John Calderazzo, novelist and short-story writer Laura Pritchett, and award-winning environmental journalist Michelle Nijhuis, who is also a contributing editor to High Country News.) I’m honored to be included.

My contribution, “Where Have the Butterflies Gone?” tells the story of Gluttonous, our accidental house guest, the only swallowtail butterfly produced by our garden one year, an egg tricked by unusually late summer rains into hatching so that the hungry caterpillar metamorphosed into a butterfly just as the first snows fell.

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Here’s the close:

If this heartbreaking hatch of a single caterpillar, whose maturity comes too late to seed future generations, is the gift of global climate change, I grieve for us all. Because what we are losing is not just a single species but the thread of connection with the everyday wild that secures our place in nature’s community.

It is difficult to write about our deepest fears, especially when they stem from something that seems so far beyond our individual control. But it is only be speaking up and speaking out that we can confront those fears and together hope to find solutions. Our experience of Gluttonous’ brief existence affected my husband Richard and I deeply. The possibility that she might represent a loss of a species in our area spurred our decision to invest in photovoltaic panels for our roof so that we could generate our own electricity from the sun, without contributing to global warming. Living with those solar panels has made us aware of other ways to lighten our impact on the planet. That feels good, as if we’ve broken our fear-induced trance and can now scramble off the highway, searching for relative safety.

Excerpts from Thoreau’s Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming used by permission of Penguin Classics and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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