The Song of Hope (AUK New Authors Book 16)
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Without wolves to prey upon them, we have learned, deer populations explode. The soil of hillsides left without well-rooted vegetation, in stormy weather, erode quickly downhill. In a spiraling irony, no hope remains for humanity when we destroy nature to achieve hope. Out of the wider expanse, game and other wildlife sometimes visit the oasis fed by and feeding its community of life. By planting small plots of crops and fruit trees along stream banks, helping to prevent them from eroding, the people also attract a diversity of birds seeking refuge from arid surroundings.
How encompassing should be the reach of our wants? How gentle? What form should—indeed must—twenty-first century hope take for thriving life to grow and endure?
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Act I: John Burroughs, the most famous farmer-nature writer in America between and , though his readership dropped off precipitously after his death in And the Wandering Albatross. Water courses through all organic nature—plants and animals, including humans.
We carry ourselves as in a phial. The Barred Owl—how often do we think of her as fluid? Our bodies, too, if not by wolves, may be ravaged to death by mere droplets of some microbes—and we pour out of our vials into the soil and perhaps rise up as a gooseberry. Not only from dust to dust, but from watery body to watery body, the forces of life flow on from day to day and age to age, physically connecting all beings. Life is a river. Rain has meanings beyond the physical, Burroughs again observes. It is as necessary to the human mind as to the soil, the vegetation, the birds, the wolves, and the trees.
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But rain is wet and people are not fish, after all. Even John Burroughs owned an umbrella and failed entirely to relish nights spent in the woods under a downpour. West went to sleep in his cellar in Boston and awakened years later to a world he hardly recognized—a world vastly better, he believed.
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In consequence of the falling rain, which according to his nineteenth-century experience would make the roads muddy and sloppy, West assumed that his host family would change their plans to go out for dinner. Indeed, in this imagined world people are in control of themselves and of nature. In this world people did not rely on the natural ebb and flow of rain, but on their own human-created system of managing, gathering, and churning elements of nature into food, radios, and velvet.
It seems fairly unlikely, though, that hermit thrushes, winter wrens, or Eagles could thrive in his landscape.
More likely, for example, is that flocks of starlings might be present—if not poisoned to death as pests the treatment often given them in real life today. Starlings forage for food on the ground, probing with their muscular beaks for insects, earthworms, and small seeds. They also love staple grains, such as wheat sprouts and cattle feed. Starlings are most at home where ground vegetation is short and not too thick, which is why the bird thrives in pastures, lawns, parks, golf courses, and single-crop agricultural expanses.
Nothing remains that is not mixed with us. One day, now more than 20 years ago, McKibben was walking along a river near his home in the Adirondacks. He stopped to change his socks by a waterfall. As he did so he realized that in altering the climate, humans also had altered the water flowing into this cascade.
As a further consequence, that water now had a different and lesser meaning. It now contains more carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases, than it has in the past , years. These changes in the atmosphere have already led to more than a 1 degree-F rise in global average annual temperatures. It is such rises in temperature that, in turn, have caused changes in rainfall—more extreme weather, more droughts and more floods. And once that water is in the atmosphere, it will come down, which in moist areas like Vermont [where McKibben lives] means increased deluge and flood.
Peterborough, Canada recently experienced two year flood events in 3 years. There has been a change, in fact, in the relationship of the past with the future. It is increasingly difficult to determine when, where, or even if we should sow and harvest. North American soybean growers may see increased yields due to climate change in the coming decades, but they will need to accurately adjust planting dates to reduce the risk of late season heat stress.
Now that season is drawn out, beginning before and lingering long after this formerly reliable signal of nature. Now her community suffers from flooding, eroding shorelines, and dried out riverbeds. Bear witness, then, McKibben urges. The Albatrosses are a family of seabirds—with wing spans up to 12 feet, the largest of any bird. The birds sometimes follow ships at sea to take advantage of the air currents they help generate and to feed on scraps of garbage.
The Albatross is a global citizen and as such is particularly vulnerable to all of the forces of change humans have brought about. To humans, the value of Albatrosses has a complex and ancient history. Like so many things, the significance of Albatrosses and whether or not we care about their vulnerability depends on how we look at them—in what we trust and what we expectantly desire—in, that is, what we hope:.
For sailors stuck in the doldrums, trusting in fate and desiring a harbor, an Albatross gliding across the sky, might be hailed as the messenger of rising winds, which finally float the sails. For a ship caught in a storm, the same Albatross may be despised as a harbinger of tossing, ship-wrecking waters. For nineteenth and twentieth-century businessmen and ladies—trusting in money and desiring luxury—Albatrosses meant money in the bank or turning heads on the street.
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Hundreds of thousands were killed for these ends. In more recent decades, to those with faith in violent power and desiring control, Albatrosses have meant nothing or nothing but trouble. As military bases expanded into the Pacific, Albatrosses collided with antennae and airplanes or were killed as pests.
Hundreds of thousands more have been caught by fishermen in lines and fishing nets accidentally, drowning to death as by-catch. Many die with plastic forks, toy wheels, and toothbrushes in their guts, which they have picked up accidentally in the middle of the ocean while feeding near its surface.
Meanwhile, rising sea levels due to climate change are inundating Albatross nesting islands, contributing to the likelihood of their extinction. For others, with Burroughs-and-McKibben-like hope, Albatrosses are interconnected members of the watery world of life and have value, quite simply, because they are Albatrosses. The way we act depends on the form of our hope.
Our form of hope depends on how we view ourselves in relation to what is not us, to what is beyond us. It depends on the stories we tell. Maturity requires us to admit that there are some things that we have done that can never be made right again no matter how much we might wish otherwise. A father and a son—two of the few human survivors of an Earth-charring catastrophe—are traveling together across a leafless, birdless, lifeless landscape made all the more dreadful by small bands of roving cannibals.
The pair heads downhill from the Appalachians to the sea. He wished them godspeed till they were gone.
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He never heard them again. He thought if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory. The names of birds. Things to eat.
Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? We lose meaning. And always, it seems, all is wet and muddy. No smoke. Of course you can. I know. The planet should be given a new name, as McKibben suggests in Eaarth. An umbrella, indeed an entire Bellamy-esque, globe-encompassing roof, could not provide shelter enough from the stark reality that there was nothing left along the road to sustain life, human or otherwise.
The novel begins and ends in a shroud of mystery—with wet rocks, light in the darkness, old dreams, breath, love, a father and a child. The fire? It was always there. I can see it. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time. Once there were golden toads and ivory-billed woodpeckers. In truth, we must acknowledge this, but we must, at the same time, never give up on life: the well-spring of real hope and its enduring promise.
Bacon, Francis. Francis Bacon: The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press, , Specter, Michael. Rosenthal, Elisabeth. Ceballos, G. See also Bates, S. Log out of ReadCube.
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