“Spring will be a little late this year,” as the old Frank Loesser song goes. In the center of Vermont, the Champlain valley to be specific, where I spend my days gazing out of a window onto the fields and mountains, the old snow has turned gray and lies in isolated mounds like volcanic islands among the shimmers of newly thawed ground. But the signs are, that the cold arctic storms will keep blowing down on us out of Canada and hold off spring until late April. Right now it is about thirty degrees, just warm enough in the bright sunlight to make you think that things are stirring. I don’t hear the birds, though. And the old women in town wear thick sweaters and boots as they trudge into Sully’s restaurant for lunch. It is, as far as old timers here are concerned, the worst winter in memory.
The cause of our delayed spring is the warped orbit of the jet stream, which now hangs off the shoulders of the earth like a lopsided necklace. We get the cold air that used to be reserved for Canada and Nova Scotia. And now the West coast gets the blasts of early summer heat liberated by the wandering path of the Humboldt Current. The sea lions off the California coast are experiencing much warmer waters, requiring the mothers of new pups to go out further to sea to find food. The pups are washing ashore half-starved, where teams of emergency workers are gathering them up and nursing them back to life. The warm weather brings with it the fourth year of drought for California, and with it a billion-dollar proposal by Governor Jerry Brown to seek new water resources for agricultural and the state’s mega cities.
The latest bit of the arctic ice shelf has broken off and is melting rapidly, threatening to raise the sea level around the world by as much as nine feet. All the low-lying cities along America’s Atlantic coast will have to barricade themselves from dissolving beaches and sea walls, or let their shore fronts go under. That option is not open for New York or Boston’s seafront where much of the population is crowded into apartments and condos, and where business is concentrated. They’ll have to build something or face the greatest danger in their histories.
One could go on and on. Cyclone Pam rolled over the tiny Pacific Ocean state of Vanuatu like some vast 180-mile per hour wood chipper, grinding every shelter into splinters in its way. The Philippines is routinely squashed by other cyclones, which are becoming more numerous each year. No nation is more luckless than Bangladesh, which rebuilds itself after every catastrophe only to be leveled by a new one a few years later.
This is the price we’re paying for the Industrial Revolution, a three-hundred year orgy of greed, rapacity, and drunken self-indulgence in which the earth was stripped bare of major forests, and the wildernesses were looted, many animals driven into extinction, and the seas and the skies polluted beyond repair. Some are saying the damage is permanent, and that we hardly know what the future will bring now that we have weakened the planet’s ability to function.
Our savagery knew no bounds; nothing was sacred or worth preserving if it meant a fortune lay hidden under its green canopy. There is so much extraction of oil and gas in the U.S. that giant sinkholes appear regularly, swallowing cars and houses while crowds gather to look on dumbly. What is there to say? The pumps that keep New Orleans afloat on its swampy substrate are beginning to choke on the rising waters; there’s a growing void under the city, and the land is sagging into it. In a hundred years it’s difficult to imagine there will even be a New Orleans left on the surface.
Looking out at the snow now is a little like returning to Paris after the 1920s, as F. Scott Fitzgerald remembers it in “Babylon Revisited,” a place that was magical if you were drunk most of the time, and night was your only dimension. Sobered up, the city looks meager, the damage done to oneself, to a marriage, to a child were breathtaking. How could so much callous destruction have gone on, his protagonist wonders now, an older, sadder, used up version of his former self. My snow, the old dirty tufts of it in the gray yard, is a kind of handkerchief dropped there by a flirtatious ghost, a spirit of some bygone time when we still lived in the grip of nature, not above it.
We lived the promise of the Enlightenment and used our reason, or that part of reason that Max Horkheimer called “instrumental reason,” the kind of thinking that serves the self, and nothing else. Logic can either illuminate the human condition or obscure it by a devouring self-interest. No one is spared the lesson of our failed rationality; the errors that crept into John Locke’s dismissal of imagination at the eve of industrialization slowly multiplied until black rain in London was almost considered normal, give or take a few outbreaks of tuberculosis and early mortality for all. When William Blake called the new factories along the Thames “dark Satanic mills,” he was warning his readers, but no one was reading him. No one is reading him now in Beijing as the fog thickens and becomes impenetrable in the Chinese capital. People walk those streets with masks on; in Tokyo, people pay to breathe clean air in oxygen bars. Some Mercedes sedans are equipped with expensive air filters to keep the rich from breathing their own pollution.
My wife tells me there are shoots under the library window on the east side of the house. The morning sun heats that part of the ground enough to inspire a few bulbs to send up shoots. I’m glad; I will go out to inspect these little favors in a moment. But the west side of the house, where the garage is, lies in deep frost, ice that hasn’t thawed since late October. The fire wood I bought a few months back that was dumped in the shade of the yard is stuck together; I’m burning the old wood, some of it rotten, rather than take a sledge to the frozen logs. Spring will come, but only after adjustments are made in the upper atmosphere, where an unhealthy sky struggles to keep to its old patterns. We don’t blame the past or our ancestors for lording it over nature back then, for lighting their cigars with broken dreams and covenants, with the natural wisdom that was destroyed by imperialism’s iron grip. We are the children of that terrible warfare waged against the will of nature. Now we are reduced to hoping things will get better one day.
The lords of Wall Street and Silicon Valley own the great heap of used up potentials and wander their palaces in silk gowns and monogrammed slippers, sipping on a rare Burgundy or Bordeaux. They don’t suspect that the warming Atlantic will one day stop the Gulf Stream that waters those vineyards and gives them the grape they pay handsomely for. The fresh vegetables from California will be scrawnier if the drought continues, and many say it will, for years or even decades. What casts its shadow in those luxurious tiled halls is an illusion of comfort and safety created by the very wealth that started this long siege against the world.