“If we want to maintain a planet that looks like the one humanity has known, then we’re basically out of time.”
Dr. James E. Hansen
Former director of NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies
A couple Februaries ago, I noticed three fat robins in our crabapple tree, picking off the fermented fruit the waxwings inexplicably never came for. That was just one of several odd things I noted that winter. The waxwings usually get most of the crabs before the robins arrive. It’s usually quite a party, but almost March and no waxwings. The shriveled red raisins still beckoned all comers.
I watched a robin fly down to imbibe, then another and another, like leaves falling from the tall green ash by the driveway that had no leaves yet. I looked up and there they were, a whole community of twenty birds, huddled against the wind in the old tree’s unkempt branches. Gossiping, I suppose, like we do at our parties.
Unlike us, though, dreams of worms were in those fat kids’ eyes. They weren’t just winter-overs. They were part of the migrant horde, and they’d settle for fermented crabs and have some fun, but they were expecting the ground to thaw sooner rather than later, the worms to wriggle out of the wet, warming soil. They knew, even if we can’t quite wrap our heads around it through gossip or by other means, that spring was coming weeks earlier than it used to around here.
This past February was looking like it might have been the same, but then we got a month of snow in March. Maybe some robins perished in their miscalculation.
Like most people, I have a limited understanding of jet streams, but I also have opinions about things I have limited knowledge of. So I’ll opine and let the reader judge. It’s easier that way.
All life, I think—inculding human life—has evolved over the last few million years around the weather produced by the earth’s jet streams that have swirled around her hemispheres in quasi-predictable patterns for that same amount of time. Cold swaps with heat, wet swaps with dry, spring follows winter, et cetera. But now after a mere couple centuries of burning fossil fuels, in the blink of an biological eye, we’ve fucked it up, like jamming wads of toilet paper down a swirling bowl of shit. The jet streams are slowing down, and the weather won’t flush predictably. It’s clogged and spilling unpredictable pottie water all over the floor. We’ve been three-year-olds about whom grown-up would make excuses for. They couldn’t have possibly known any better, those grown-ups might have said, and maybe that was true once. But it's been two hundred years. We’re grown-ups now, right?
What’s the matter with our heads, then, that isn’t the matter with a robin’s? Is there something about opposable thumbs that is so basic, so atavistic that we can be so clever with our manipulating hands while blocking out the consequences of what we have done? Can we really not help but destroy ourselves and everything around us, ever wobbling toward despotism all the while? Is Democracy just an old Greek word that really means nothing?
Bigotry, I think, is what a grown-up’s misuse of the opposable thumb is called, and, like nuclear war, it is a revelation you can rely on. The dread of both will sit there unexposed, invisible til it’s stirred and forced back to the fore, floats for a while like sun specks on the skin of your eyes, temporarily annoying. Then gone just as quick, denied and forgotten even though it’s swimming right before your eyes, like a shark, or sun specks, or robins.
We’ve certainly gotten ourselves into a pickle, with this current nest of “leaders” who suggest, openly now, that Democracy is indeed just a silly, old word that should have no bearing on decisions made in air-conditioned rooms. So what to do?
I suggest you find yourself an old dictionary. I’d recommend a Funk and Wagnell’s, circa 1946. They didn’t use algorhythms to define things then. They just wrote things down the way they were, like poems, measuring out the meanings with synonyms and antonyms. There was a hope once, that by defining things as precisely as possible we could be prompted toward progress, growth, even evolution. They must have thought it would help, at any rate, to simply state the obvious and hope for the best. I'd say we were fairly innocent, but I’m not saying we were wrong. I’m hoping for the best, today and tomorrow.
In the meantime, here’s to innocence, progress and to pondering what the hell is wrong with us at the very least.
Bigotry has not the capacity.
Superstition the knowledge or discipline.
Fanatics have not the patience.
Intolerance the disposition.