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Wild Law and New Year's Primroses

There Is No Way Back
© P. Monaghan. All rights reserved.

On the radio, an old friend's voice
chokes with anger and grief.
At the Stony Island intersection
I am stuck, gridlocked in place.

Stalled in traffic uselessly
weeping I listen to the news.
The light turns yellow, red
again; a sudden cry of horns.

Salmon in the tide pool, whales
beside the boat: memories flood me.
The traffic surges forward,
each car spuming its exhaust.

Now the announcer decries
the otters' oil-soaked coats.
I speed home along the freeway
surrounded by the names of animals.

I have fished the Sound, watching
slow fog fall on the blue shore.
— Someone passes me, too fast.
I brake as I approach the exit.

Anchored over the crabpots
I have watched the day-moon rise.
A red sun sets now over
the Halsted Street bridge.

I want this to be easier. I want
to forget that oil fueled our boat.
I want to hate the vivid city
as a kind of expiation.

But I've burned trees as fuel.
I have boiled crabs alive.
My trapper friends kill for luxury.
Gardeners rub their hands with Vaseline.

There is no way now to be innocent,
no way for it not to be night and
each of us unprepared to pilot
through these rocky narrows.

And there is no way back. There is no
part of the world that is not part
of the world. There is not one of us
who was not on the bridge that night.

The energy-saving program I've been documenting in these pages moves steadily forward, and I will report at Beltane on the installation of the new hot water system. But this season I feel compelled to stop to consider why I'm doing this and to wonder whether it is too little and too late.

At the new year, my friend Richard wrote from Boston that his primroses were blooming in record-breaking heat. Here in the Midwest, it didn't feel like winter. There was one big snow — weather only seems to come in the "big" size these days — but since then it's been warm and mostly dry. My trees are confused. In front of my house, the Japanese quince is putting out tiny light-green leaves. Nearby, a star magnolia's furry buds threaten to open into the short January days.

I planted these trees more than a decade ago. I remember the magnolia's first year, when the 17-year-cicadas hatched and I netted the tiny tree against their voracious jaws. I remember how stunned I was the first time the quince bloomed, its lavish crepe-paper orange blossoms crowding its branches. These are not anonymous beltline trees; they are beloved living individuals. And I fear they are in danger.

About ten years ago, at a lecture at the University of Alaska's Center for the Study of Global Climate Change, I first understood the impact of human-produced greenhouse gasses on earth's climate. The chart showed the world's temperature as fairly steady until the industrial revolution; then an inexorable rise began. The line headed straight up toward the year 2000, where the chart ended. I asked what would happen after that. No one knew, the scientist told us, but it didn't look good.

And it hasn't been. Floods on the Danube, Hurricane Katrina, firestorms in the west, balmy Midwestern winters. The snows of Kilimanjaro evaporating. Polar bears drowning as they attempt to swim between increasingly distant ice floes. Bears in Spain not hibernating in the unbroken heat; bears in Wisconsin waking up in January, hungry and months too early for emerging food, so that people have been warned to keep small dogs inside. The great Colorado aspen forests dying from drought. And the new graph of climate change shows more problems ahead.

Last month, the nation's gardening zones were all adjusted upwards. Without moving, I am suddenly in a much milder arboreal zone… and so are the trees. Meanwhile, people around me don't seem to care. At lunch the other day, the waitress said, "Isn't this weather terrific?" A clerk in a store said, "This is great, I don't care if it ever snows again." On television, broadcasters grin as they report another week of record-breaking warmth. I find myself speechless at such moments. Does no one notice the confusion of the trees?

Not long after leaving Alaska in the late '80s, I was driving home through Chicago traffic. On the radio came the stupefying news of the Exxon Valdez disaster. An old friend of mine was on air; as he spoke, I could conjure up his fishing boat, the big old sturdy "Sea Hawk" docked in the near end of Valdez harbor. Stuck in traffic, I could hear the pain in Ray Cesarini's voice as he described the scenes of devastation.

There I was, 5,000 miles from home, burning oil by the instant as I sat in my car at one stoplight after another. The poem I wrote that night still captures my feeling of unwitting guilt. It was not only drunken Captain Hazelwood who brought disaster to the beautiful clear waters off Valdez. It was me, too, and all the people around me, living the lives of addicts, unwilling or unable to change.

My friend Barbara, an addictions counselor, says that addictions are substances and activities that keep us from feeling. By that definition, I have lived most of my life as an oil addict. My pleasant oil-supported lifestyle kept me from recognizing silences where now-extinct species once sang. It kept me from hearing the screams of ancient oaks uprooted by relentless storms.

I do not entirely blame myself. My life is not structured in a way that makes conservation easy. I work at a campus several miles distant from the nearest mass transit station; when I sat on a committee that helped make policy for suburban campuses, I urged consideration of transit issues but was voted down. I am expected to attend meetings on other campuses as well, most of which are similarly inaccessible by public transit. Much of my life is controlled by decisions in which I had no say. And I'm not perfect in those areas where I do have control: I forget something at the grocery store and decide I really need it for that week's recipe plan, so I drive back to get it. I feel guilty when I do things like that, but then I go ahead and do them.

Here is where hopelessness can easily set in. Dante said that hell's entrance was marked with the words, "Abandon hope, all ye that enter here." Hope is necessary for human action. My own imperfections and feelings of guilt, combined with my awareness of huge problems beyond my control, sap my energy for change. Why should I worry over my hot-water system if we've so thoroughly screwed up the world that it doesn't matter? Why don't I just crack open a bottle of really good wine flown across the international date line and ignore the sense that I'm in a horror movie whose background music is growing steadily more ominous?

I haven't reached the really hopeless stage yet, however. I still believe, though without any real scientific basis, that we can save this beautiful world from the consequences of several centuries of unchecked "progress." I believe, again without proof, that many small actions taken by many people can turn this ship around. So when small proofs come, they are gifts.

The day after I found my quince burgeoning, I learned about the new concept of "wild law." In 2006, a small town in Pennsylvania passed a law that gives the earth standing as a legal entity, as a "person" with rights. We already have a lot of intangible, fictitious persons making decisions upheld by the courts; these fictions are called "corporations," usually, although "towns" and "cities" are also non-persons who have more legal rights than tangible rivers and glaciers. But in 2003, the environmental activist Cormac Cullinan argued for a new legal approach in an unfortunately hard-to-find book called Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. He offers a vision of a more just world, where the rights of the Mississippi are as important as the rights of Monsanto, the rights of Denali as important as those of Dow Chemical.

In South Africa, a lawyer who could be making a fortune covering up corporate misdeeds used his brilliance to think of a way to let the wounded planet speak for itself. In Pennsylvania, citizens used that idea to keep corporations from despoiling their region. In the Midwest, I am writing about these ideas and you, somewhere in the world, are reading them. Perhaps if enough of us talk about ways of changing our society and our lives, we can affect the pattern of that frightening graph of global warming.

At least, we can open our ears and our hearts to the pained messages that the plants and animals are giving us. If fear does not motivate us to change, perhaps love of our home planet will. Small actions, apparently inconsequential in themselves, have cumulative impact when many people do them. And small actions in our own lives build our courage to take larger ones. We have started putting twist-ties in a designated section of a kitchen drawer, the better to have them available for recycling-friendly wrapping. Each time I put a twist-tie there, I am enacting a ritual that reminds me of the value of every action that I take. Each time I pass my quince tree now, I will be reminded of the need to save it and other earthly neighbors, near and far, treasured and unknown.

Graphics Credits

  • quince buds, © Pat Monaghan. All rights reserved.
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