The unusual weather extremes over the past year have fortunately begun to focus the minds of more people on climatic and environmental change.
Many of us need a meaningful point of reference before we can commit to fighting something which may seem very abstract and not connected to our lives. Before we can recognize such major changes we first have to relate to where we are now – our own surroundings or local environment. I have been thinking about how we, as individuals, recognize change and what exactly do we each define as our “environment.”
There are many definitions of that word but basically it includes “the air, water, and land in or on which people, animals, and plants live: both the natural biological and physical world that surrounds us and the conditions that we live or work in and the way that they influence how we feel or how effectively you can work”. (Cambridge English Dictionary)
For city dwellers, the environment is a very different experience than for those who live in small towns, rural areas, near huge farms, industrial areas, ocean-side resorts or in working ports or fishing towns. Whether we realize it or not we all have a baseline of information about our surroundings. We all have personal landmarks that let us know we are “home.” These include not only the man-made environment but especially the “natural environment.”
Floods, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, snowfall and such major natural events impact our human-made environment in dramatic ways. These changes or events are easily defined because their major damage or destruction impacts our lives immediately. They may often be predicted, which can give us a chance to prepare. With money and often great effort, their destructive effects can often be mitigated or at least rebuilt. Change to the natural environment can be much more subtle, gradual and lasting. The major problem lies in getting people to recognize that change is happening and understand its impact on our lives both now and in the future, and how we may be causing it to happen.
Modern life has many distractions that get in the way of observing the natural world around us. One of the saddest things I have seen is a small toddler being taken for a ride in a stroller by an adult talking on a cellphone. Who is having more fun? This is missing a great teaching and bonding experience with that child who is so ready to learn about all the sights and sound around them.
A climate of fear about the natural world, “bugs,” air quality and general concern for “personal safety”, has restricted outdoor play for many children. In some areas, children are not encouraged to go outside to play in ways that are not organized and supervised, such as on sports teams or in designated playgrounds, taking away the opportunity for children to develop a special relationship with the natural world. All of these factors, combined with the pace and demands of modern life and lack of basic environmental knowledge, distract many people from realizing that change in our natural environment is happening unless it happens to inconvenience them.
The environment for many of us is a small scale relationship with living things we see in our own gardens if we have them, perhaps on a daily walk /jog in a neighborhood or park, or passing a vacant lot or even a parking lot. Sometimes even cracks in walls or pavements will host plants for a time. For those who notice living things, especially plants that are mostly immobile, these are small, sometimes subconscious, landmarks and calendars.
For suburban commuters and rural dwellers, these signs are more noticeable if we take time to look. A tree we see each day may look different: more dead branches, maybe ash borers or tent caterpillars at work! It’s only a tree but when we notice more of the same it should ring our warning bells. To see these signs we have to be aware and looking out at the world. In his interesting and foreshadowing poem written in 1929, British poet, Frank Lucas, highlights some of the environmental damage we have wrought in the 20th century and an interesting reflection on the power of the natural environment. Here are the first two verses:
Build your houses, build your houses, build your towns,
Fell the woodland, to a gutter turn the brook,
Pave the meadows, pave the meadows, pave the downs,
Plant your bricks and mortar where the grasses shook,
The wind-swept grasses shook.
Build, build your Babels black against the sky -
But mark yon small green blade, your stones between,
The single spy
Of that uncounted host you have outcast;
For with their tiny pennons waving green
They shall storm your streets at last…
Frank L. Lucas (1929)
In this time of more urgency about a warming climate, many people seem to be moving further from contact with the natural world, only encountering it under very controlled and artificial conditions such as vacation resorts. Even in less structured surroundings we may develop a certain familiarity with a place where we feel comfortable and think we know well but, as some swimmers off Cape Cod found this summer, other species may also be enjoying the warming Atlantic waters and the bounty of food. Changing water temperature leading to changes in the food chain brought many more seals to that area followed by their delighted predators, sharks. This is a dramatic example that easily illustrates just how interconnected all life is and how we ignore these changes at our peril.
The destiny of this planet is to change. We cannot stop change from happening. Only by understanding that we are part of a living system which changes through time and that our lives and actions contribute to the speed of change, can we help to slow that rate and give all living things a chance to adapt.