In trying to bring the enormity of climate change into focus, I look to the garden. It’s spring as I write this, as colorful and glorious a spring as I remember, and while delighting in the specifics, I cannot bear in mind the looming threats of climate change. They feel abstract and huge, and although The Enormity portends catastrophe, it has no immediate impact on my today. Along with most people in the U.S., I do not doubt that climate change will harm us, but I cannot make it real. Yet while I cannot ask myself to rally, and help solve this issue, I can learn how to pay attention.
I start by thinking back to my college days in Painesville, Ohio, some 50 years ago. Occasionally, a friend and I treated ourselves to dinner at the inn, and one time its waiter—ancient, long-faced and solicitous—said in the saddest voice ever, “There is no perch. There are no more perch in Lake Erie.” How we laughed as he slipped from the dining room to fetch us warm buns and salads. Why, then, we wondered, were perch still on the menu?
Lake Erie was declared dead in 1969, the result of billions of gallons of untreated industrial and agricultural wastes and human sewage dumped daily from Cleveland and Detroit and from 120 lesser cities. The lake was dying of suffocation. That same year brought the burning of the Cuyahoga River, and we would joke about that, too, albeit uneasily. Images of a burning river emptying into a sewage-choked lake provoked outrage, and the great advances of the early 1970s—the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts—were set in motion. I had begun, not yet quite to realize, but to observe that things in my industrial corner of Cleveland, Ohio, were slightly off.
When does observation become realization? Even prior to my moments of the perch and of the burning river was The Steel. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where my 1950s childhood unfolded, there was a silly-sounding thing called polyps which everyone shared. In all moist body parts, polyps democratically gathered. Emissions from Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces explained the polyp population, the ubiquity of plugged sinuses and hacking coughs. Black particulates, like miniscule shrapnel, advanced upon the laundry that hung outside on warm, spring days.
But the Steel was god, and panacea.
Our steel made the New York City skyline. It built Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden, the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, the Chrysler Building, the Waldorf Astoria, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Hoover Dam, the U.S. Congress’ Rayburn Building, and the Supreme Court. Bethlehem Steel was the second-largest steel producer in the country, and one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world. I am a child of steel.
I was born in 1948, and I first traveled to Europe with my parents in 1955. My father, then the president of the International Welding Society, was helping to rebuild Europe along with engineers and scientists from many parts of the world. But on that trip, I encountered pollution for the first time. The towns in Belgium and Holland were treasured for cobblestone streets crisscrossed by canals, but they stank. Mattresses and garbage and the carcasses of fish and rodents floated on brackish water between ancient parapets. Warned of the stench, hotel guests were urged to book rooms not overlooking the canals. These impressions cast a slight pall over that first trip to Europe, so recently over the war, although barely over the devastation.
The conditions—polyps and pollution—began to require a pause. Why were progress and profit the heroes of the story, and not the woundedness of nature? Could not consequence be factored into the narrative? Even the argument in defense of nature, posed today—that clean air and water are human rights—suggests our remove from nature. Would a deer consider access to the sparkling stream her right? When you have to instill right into the sentence, it is already too late. It suggests that we’ve taken ourselves out of nature in order to have a right to consume it.
Looking back on my Bethlehem childhood, I’m curious, both about the resignation to polyps and pollution, but also about what was known. What quantity of particulates was released by the five blast furnaces across the river? Beyond the polyps, what impact did such air have on the dwellers in our valley?
The question that grabs my attention is one of when—when do the warnings that peek through the familiar leap out of the frame? And where am I in the picture?
Seattle, a proudly green city, routinely incorporates climate change concerns in its discussions about growth management. Thirty-year projections of the changes to our climate posit torrential downpours as the new norm, along with subsequent flooding, landslides, hurricane-force winds, and increased avalanching. That rings a familiar bell, but an odd and differently alarming scenario is also projected: surges in population from climate change refugees who will relocate to our comparatively benign region. As the globe warms, the Pacific Northwest will be relatively protected from the scourges of extreme weather. Seattle’s infrastructure cannot even now catch up with the needs of our burgeoning population. How will the city prepare?
The Earth’s warming is a scientific, data-driven phenomenon, and again, what does this have to do with me? I am not inclined to march, to join, to rally. Though it feels that direct political action is acclaimed as the most powerfully effective way to engage with these issues, I require a jolt of a more personal nature. The giant golden spruce that did not request its meeting with the chain saw. The magisterial black-maned lion that did not ask to be shot with both crossbow and rifle before being skinned and beheaded. I am a complete pushover for innocence and beauty.
Another very small example of this affinity: A few springs ago, I watched two baby squirrels navigate their entrance into the larger world of tree and sky. They were tiny and perfect, and completely open to the baffling All around them. But I also recognized the courage required to negotiate their way out of their nest high up in the hollow of a snag and down the stout trunk toward the relative safety of the branch below them. It took time and patience for the mother to teach them their claw work and clinging, and ease them toward the perilous descent, head first. One caught on faster than the other. The more timid baby darted in and out of the entry, and it took much maternal chatter to persuade the baby to stay outside and keep trying. I assumed that the lessons progressed accordingly, and that the collection of pests in my garden was happily augmented.
Then in late summer, when plant life withered and crisped, I came across the flattened body of a baby squirrel. I remembered that early spring morning when the baby—tentative, exposed to the challenges of her climbing, leaping life—was given her first lesson. I assumed it to be that baby squirrel. Perhaps it wasn’t, but the wave of sadness that came over me when I discovered the small, desiccated body was disproportionate both to the size and the import of the creature. She had been, mere months ago, so willing in her innocence, and perfection and beauty, and this is how I connect with human-caused climate change: It is my sorrow at the loss of innocence and beauty.
The notion to connect The Enormity with beauty first came to my attention through film. I found myself moved and mobilized by Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, a stunning documentary about James Balog’s multi-year photographic project, recording the melting of the great ice sheets and glaciers across the Arctic due to climate change. His is a beauty-forward approach, so to speak; a record of the catastrophic changes through images of harrowing beauty. Years are packed into seconds as ancient mountains crumble and melt. The images convince; we need no further polemic.
I look to the garden again, and think of the arrival of migration species—the swallows, the grosbeaks, thrushes, among many more. When will the butterflies come? What have I put in the garden to attract them? Nothing that I know of. I reach for the catalog, recently come, and see buddleia—“‘Little Angel,’ Butterfly Bush and Pollinator attractor”—on page 74. Ah. The Enormity recedes in the vibrancy and variety within the catalog pages. The order is placed. A small step is taken.
A practicing Buddhist for over 30 years, Hollis Giammatteo has sought experiences that challenge her practice, from teaching writing to working with the elderly. She co-founded, managed, and wrote plays for The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia and for Rhode Island Feminist Theater. Hollis has published in a variety of magazines, and her memoir, The Shelf Life of Ashes, was published in 2016 by She Writes Press. Visit her website at hollisgiammatteo.com
Many local organizations are addressing climate change. Actions run the gamut from monitoring ecological projects to mounting protests. A brief list:
Washington Native Plant Society (wnps.org)
The Nature Conservancy (nature.org)