I’ve been meaning to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction for some time now and I finally picked it up on discount a few weeks ago while holiday shopping. I’m not sure how I would have responded to its content during other periods of my life. Much of it is beautifully and thoughtfully written—but it is bleak. After all, it traces the various mass extinctions that have happened over the past billions of years and patterns (or lack thereof) of earth catastrophes that have caused these extinctions. It’s not that I’m squeamish about the bleak, but confronting such dire and inescapable realities sometimes has a way of setting off my anxiety. Given that I’ve spent the last couple months in a kind of post-election mourning state, unsure about my standing and my direction, I was surprised by how comforting this book about cataclysmic change has been.
I am just now in the chapters about the Anthropocene—this current epoch in which humankind is unalterably affecting the Earth, acting as the primary agent to the endangering and extinction of several species. The chapter I’m reading right now is dealing with the coral reefs and the likely obliteration of these rich ecosystems by the end of this century. The reality is that man is hastening the death of the planet as we know it. Although these kinds of catastrophic changes seem to be part and parcel of the earth’s very long history, what is curious (though not surprising) is that humanity is making the planet inhospitable for itself.
The 2017 election has caused an unfamiliar numbness in me. It’s not that I no longer feel hope, but much of my processing and reflection has been shrouded by fears of what a Trump presidency promises, and my brain and my heart seem to be girding themselves for the coming months and years. I am concerned for the planet and its inhabitants. I am concerned for our rights—which include air, water, plant, habitat—that could be eroded or simply decimated when Trump takes office (too, I am keeping in mind that these basic rights have been withheld from many for some time). Reading Kolbert’s book has the effect of making me feel how very short life is and how very small I am, while simultaneously demonstrating the undeniable centrality of humanity in affecting so many aspects of life on this planet. She talks about this paradoxical feeling herself when she is visiting places where nature seems too big and too awe-inspiring to grasp; yet she witnesses in these places undeniable evidence of manmade consequence. If the current course of climate change is irreversible or if its slowing is increasingly becoming impossible, then how or where to hope?
It’s useful to think of the earth as destined for cataclysm, whether by man or meteor, because then hope can reside in nothing but the present and perhaps the immediate future (and when thinking in terms of epochs, that immediacy isn’t so quick to come). As much as I have been feeling numb, I have been feeling a corresponding well of creative enthusiasm building inside of me that is linked to this hope in the present. It’s an odd notion as we usually situate hope’s outcome as something ahead of us rather than something next to us or with us. As I consider what my creative and political directions will be in the coming year, I take with me a powerful and hopeful numbness and a determination to persist.
My art this past year has largely revolved around whale and ocean conservancy. I see that interest becoming more focalized moving into 2017 and as I gear up for the residency in the Arctic this fall. Having stepped away from full-time teaching for the next year, I will have time not only to work on my art, but also to submerse myself in my surroundings (be they near or far) and nurture friendships and community in ways that I hope will grow my work. I plan to devote myself to projects that highlight small, quiet, and slow movements and sounds. I am looking forward to seeing what comes next in all aspects of my life. I want to grow my brain and make room in my heart.
I have some exciting projects already in the works for the coming months that will do some good in realizing these hopes. Stay tuned for updates. With love—