Friday, April 03, 2015

On Thin Ice

from Jacqueline

As readers of our blog know, at heart I am a country girl. I was born and raised in the Weald of Kent, a broad swathe of land so named for the ancient forests that once covered the whole region.  Weald is from the Anglo-Saxon word wald, meaning forest.  My childhood playground was the fields, farmlands and woods that will forever mean “home” to me.  

In a way, everyone was an environmentalist where we lived, even before we knew there was such a word.  The notion of recycling was alive and well – we took our newspapers and other card/paper goods to a place where they were sent for pulping again. We took our bottles back to the store, to be returned to the bottling plants, and many kids collected tin cans to take to the scrap yard – pocket money waiting to happen!  We had a compost heap in the garden, and “waste not want not” was a mantra that every child in our community grew up with.  If you didn’t need it, it wasn’t bought for you, and people took buses to get anywhere.  And even then, when I was a child, my dad predicted how life on our planet would change.

Those long summer evenings and weekends were the time when, as a family, we would go for endless walks across the fields with the dog, and we’d talk about all manner of things, but usually about our surroundings, about the land, the apple crop this year, and how the hops were coming along.  And we would talk about the past and the future, the two coming together as my parents shared stories of their childhood and listened to ours.  

My dad predicted that our fields and woods would be at risk, that one day there would be a supermarket where the stream curved into a meander here, and a shallows there.  We feared a gas station would take the place of the Big Climbing Tree, and a restaurant where the dewpond was nestled in a wooded glade, next to the Five Acre Field, which would become a parking lot. My dad told us that, really, development had to stop somewhere, that we were killing ourselves, we humans – and he’d add that it wouldn't be the first time, either.  “We get too big for our boots, that’s the trouble,” he said.

I think of those conversations a lot now, even as there are those who deny such a thing as climate change.  And though much is written on the subject, every now and again, another voice is added to the increasingly loud, argumentative conversation, and it is a quiet voice, a voice that tells a story, that weaves the personal with the universal and it has enormous power to touch hearts that grieve for that which is being lost.  Rotten Ice, writer Gretel Ehrlich’s recent essay in Harper’s magazine has barely left my thoughts since I read it on a ‘plane last week.  For over 20 years now she has, for extended periods of time, traveled to Greenland, living with Inuit people and traveling by dog sled with local hunters.  In the essay she catalogs how their lives – lived for many years in the same self-sustaining way – have changed and will continue to change; their experience of climate change is immediate, disastrous and heartbreaking.

You can of course read the essay yourself, and I would recommend that you do. But here are a couple of the elements in Ehrlich’s story that resonated with me.  Such modern inventions as snowmobiles are banned in Qaanaaq and Siorapaluk, the two oldest and most northernmost villages in the world; instead the locals hunt using dogsleds in winter and kayaks in summer.  Everything they take from the land – be it polar bear, narwhal or seal - is used, and nothing wasted.  Hunting across ice is a crucial part of their work, and the food gathered sustains communities throughout the year – yet now, instead of nine months of good ice, there are only two.  The ice is breaking up from beneath, and glaciers are calving icebergs at an unprecedented rate. Yes, you’ve heard it all, I know, but before you peel off to check your email, imagine this picture.  The Inuit people have untold respect for their dogs, because they depend on their dogs. The dogs get fed before the people on a hunt, and they are beloved, as one loves a working dog.  Can you imagine how it must be, to hear a hunter, one of your people, someone who only knows how to hunt and provide for his family and neighbors, weeping as the shots ring out and he is taking the life of every single one of his dogs because there is no ice to hunt on, therefore no food for family or dogs, and no other option in sight?  Can you imagine the men turning their backs when one of their number breaks down and beats a dog – because he has reached the end of his tether, and despair is so closely allied to anger?  We only hurt the ones we love, so the saying goes. 

And what has that to do with all of us?  Look and listen, we’re not far behind.  The east coast knows this.  New Orleans knows this. California knows this. Britain, hit by 100mph winds this past week, knows this.

Dr. Jason Box is the somewhat controversial American professor of glaciology at the Geological Survey of Greenland and Denmark.  While other climatologists might raise voices and frown to make their point, Box gets straight to it.  “We’re f***ed,” he said in August 2014, referring to evidence of methane being released from the Arctic floor.  And maybe that’s how we need to be spoken to now, just to shock us.  People and civilizations are dying due to an industrial machine that began walking all over the planet a couple of centuries ago, urged on by the great god, Consumerism.  We cannot run and we cannot hide, wherever we are.  But even if there is no time left to change the course of climatological events, we have time to adapt.  And maybe it does come down to this – a mindfulness about how we use our planet, each and every day, and how we contribute to either its strengths or weaknesses.  Preparedness is now. The fire is already burning, we can’t put it out, yet we need to work out how we can all live with the heat and sustain our earth.

Yes, I know it’s an old chestnut and we’ve heard it before – ditch the SUV, recycle the green waste, conserve water, lower the carbon footprint. And then there’s the other argument: “Why should I conserve – look at China!”  But you know, collectively, we’re like sulky kids being nagged to clean our rooms, aren’t we? “Yeah, I’ll do it in a minute …” or “But Billy doesn’t have to clean his room!”  Then we go out to play, and the mess is still there.

Ehrlich closes her essay with this.  “We have to stop pretending that there is a way back to the lush, comfortable interglacial paradise we left behind so hurriedly in the twentieth century.  There are no rules for living on this planet, only consequences.”

The Big Climbing Tree came down in the hurricane of 1987 – the devastating winds that were, arguably, Britain’s climate change wake-up call.  There was never a supermarket built in its place, and there is no gas station where the stream meanders, or any sort of building, because the land is privately owned and the current guardians have fenced off acres and acres of wood and meadow, so even the ancient footpaths can be walked no longer.  Part of me thinks that isn’t such a bad thing. The Five Acre Field is growing back into forest – probably for the first time since the Middle Ages – and the old stiles will break down and mulch into the earth, as we all will in time.  My dad predicted that, eventually, the human race would destroy itself with its unstoppable destructive hubris.  We would laugh at him. “Oh Dad, there you go again.”


  1. Jackie, your essay resonated with me. I remember as a child in the 1970s, the milkman delivered milk and we put out empty glass bottles in a milk crate for him to use again.

    1. from Jacqueline: I remember the milkman too. Some places are better than others when it comes to respect for the environment - I hate the amount of construction in places like London and Toronto right now - the developers are having their way. But it's no good looking at what others are doing or not doing - we have to do what we can ourselves. Mind you, given the water situation in California, I think we'll all become water police and so we should be. There are always people who think that because they have money and power, they don't have to play the game - or because "no one else is doing it!" Our natural resources are gifts and should be treated as such.

  2. This was in the sf Bay Area . I was reminded of this while watching call the midwife on Sunday evening. Your analogy about China and us being like sulky kids being nagged to clean our rooms was right on target. I try very hard to recexxx. Recycle. And conserve water even if it looks like no one else is. We xxx. I agree with your Dad. Ironically, I thought that England was better at taking care of the environment than the US since many old buildings are still there and the us has a tendency to tear down old buildings and build, build, build.

    Have you read Al Gore"'s Earth in Blaxxx. Sorry. Earth in Balance ? And Silent Spring by Rachel Carson?

    I noticed a difference between Rome, Italy with lots of cars and Copenhagen ., Denmark with more bikes than cardxxx cars. In Rome, I had a migraine for the first time in my life. In Copenhagen , no headaches and I felt great!

    Sorry aboyxx about the typos. I'm writing this from my iPad and they will not let me correct the typos.

    Hope you recover in time to visit your Mom in England.

    Happy Easter.

  3. james o. born4/03/2015 9:47 AM

    Great post, Jackie. As a native Floridian I've seen my playground turn into condos. There are too many people and nature will correct it.

  4. from Jacqueline: As the saying goes, Jim - Mother Nature Bats Last. And she's already swinging the bat. Have a great weekend, Jim.

  5. Thank you for this Jackie, I do recall you being horrified at the building that is going on in Toronto....all in the name of progress!! Buildings that are only a few decades old being torn down. We do win sometimes. There was a plan to demolish the Princess of Wales theatre built in the 90s to make way for museum, condo etc. An outcry of protest and City stopped this. I live in a small bungalow, built in the 40s, one of the few left on the street. As they go on the market, developers buy up to build monstrous homes selling for over $1M. This when politicians are saying more affordable housing is needed and keeping elderly in own homes. Not taken into account is the pollution from all this construction which has now been on-going for last ten years. Sorry Jackie, did not mean to take over your blog with my rant.
    Thank your for sharing, I will definitely be reading the essay. rbb

    1. from Jacqueline: And there you have it - the pollution from construction, the intense water waste. It really does all have to stop now - and those mega-homes, well, not many are energy efficient!

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  7. Ebb ironically th ar xxx. There ar xx are vacant houses that could be fixed up for people to live in. That will solve the housing crisis I hope. I learned of this in the new xx news a few weeks ago.

    1. from Jacqueline: Yes there are many older homes that can be "repurposed" as the saying goes - not a major makeover, just a bit of work to bring them back. But as more people begin the long walk to more northern climes - or in boats, or planes or whatever means of travel they can - so pressure will built in the northern hemisphere; we're squashing into a corner to avoid the fire.

  8. Excellent post, Jacqueline.

    I posted this, page on FB because I was getting questions about the last picture you posted here (bird with plastics) which I posted on FB.

    Again, excellent post and thanks.