The Daily

for 8 December 2022

Green in December fills the graveyard.
     — folklore quoted in the Hedge Witch Book of Days
     Mandy Mitchell (Weiser Books, 2014)

The Winter Sleep Moon is past full and now waning. At my latitude, we’ve hit the earliest sunsets of the year, 4:11pm. It’s dark by the time I leave work. One of my first tasks when getting home is plugging in the holiday lights, so my brain is tricked into thinking that it’s not night and therefore not yet time to sleep. I’m pretty sure my body wishes it could just sleep through the whole fifteen hours of darkness. I am certainly not very productive at this time of year. I find myself just staring at the pretty lights and thinking not one thing. Or just forgetting what it was that I was doing, even when I’m standing at the sink with the water running… for example.

And don’t get me started on the germs that my less than competent immune system is trying to evict at the end of every work day. I sell quite a lot of cold medicine. We have a permanent pile of it right by the cash registers. Which seriously begs the question of basic workplace safety, in my opinion. There are no barriers between the cashiers and the NyQuil-swilling kids.

But at least it’s not too cold right now… though folklore doesn’t look too kindly on a green December as you can see from the quote above. Statistically, I’m not sure this is true, but it feels right all the same. When it’s warm and wet in the weeks leading to the winter solstice, enough for grass to stay green, then after the solstice, winter doubles down on cold and snow. Or just cold. Of course, we’re far beyond the ability to forecast weather based on statistics. The past is no predictor these days. But I think it still will be true that a green December will have adverse health effects. At least in the high latitude places.

For one thing any wintering crops will try to keep growing if temperatures remain well above freezing. If the plants get too big, they will starve in the weeks of low sunlight; and then if it does turn cold in January, they stand a higher chance of succumbing to frost, especially if there is no insulating snow. So the graveyards may not be filled in the immediate winter months, but hunger will set in when winter crops fail. This is compounded when root cellars and grain silos also doesn’t get cold enough to safely store the autumn harvest. Warm and wet early winters are really good for growing mold and turning all your stored carrots into sprouts. And then there’s one other difficulty with a green December — the bugs. Not the beneficials, mind you, all the flower-feeders are hibernating or basking in warmer climes. It’s the flies and ticks and mosquitoes. And the last two are serious health threats these days, even as far north as Boston. (Not here… yet… though we do have West Nile and Lyme disease.)

So maybe folklore will still hold true on this one. A green December will remain generally bad for your health. Which is unfortunate because Decembers might be green most years as we head deeper into climate chaos. But it’s not at all likely that the weather in January — in my part of the world, at least — will be mild for many decades to come. Thanks to the weakening polar vortex, January will increasingly feel the influx of winter-chilled polar air. I think we’ll start to see a pattern of green before the solstice while the jet stream is still near its summer position, far enough north to keep the polar vortex from sagging all over the south. Then there will be an abrupt shift to deep cold and likely fairly dry weather. I wouldn’t print almanacs with that prognosis, but don’t be surprised if that turns out to be the case.

Everything in this world blooms, grows, and returns to its roots.
Returning to one's roots means becoming united with nature...
     — Lao-Tzu (in Tolstoy's Calendar of Wisdom for 7 December)

A Natural History of the Future
Rob Dunn
Basic Books, 2021

To a first approximation, life on this planet is microbial. Small beings make up most kinds of life (those “kingdom” divisions turn out to be woefully inadequate). They comprise nearly all the species. They have the widest distribution, living in every part of this planetary body and on and in most bodies within this planet, likely even in the many parts we haven’t yet been able to map. They are nearly all the volume of living organisms and nearly all the mass. They predate all other life forms by billions of years. They will live on long after we’re all gone.

Rob Dunn makes this all perfectly clear. Compared to microbes, humans hardly even exist. So when you feel depressed about the state of the world and its future prospects, just remember: humans are not the center of that story. Humans are barely a footnote.

Dunn’s A Natural History of the Future is a work of perspective. He uses his encyclopedic knowledge of ways of being alive to show where this planet is now and what future is likely to flow from these present conditions. If you think that humans are destroying the world or that we have made a hellish Anthropocene, then Dunn’s book will be a much-needed step back from the mirror so that you can see the whole picture better. Yes, we are having devastating effects on those beings we find most appealing. The creatures with eyes and faces, those we can relate to best, are falling prey to our folly. But life? Nope. All those beings that we love enough to name are, like us, barely of note in the vast web of life.

(As a side note: from a geologist’s perspective, humans are even more insignificant. We will be largely invisible to any future that cares to look. Our entire existence will amount to less than a few inches of deposited rock over less than a sixth of the planet’s surface, much of which will erode away because we live in terrestrial settings that don’t tend to preserve rock layers for very long. Calling this the Anthropocene is pure delusional hubris. There may be some truly nasty chemical signatures to those few preserved inches, but this is not an era… We’re more like the comet that smashed into the Yucatan.)

Now, where are we going? That’s another question and one that requires proper understanding for how life works. Dunn breaks down the laws of life, using clear examples and a good deal of gentle humor. (OK, some not so gentle… but then, humans…) He tells us “… these laws of the living world and our place in it offer a vision for what is and is not possible with regard to the natural history of the future and our place in it.” Our penchant for control is particularly problematic when paired with incomplete understanding. We think we know what we’re controlling, what we’re doing. We are seldom right. And yet we seldom correct course even when it becomes manifestly clear that we’re making a disaster — principally for ourselves. Dunn urges restraint on this controlling mania. He says, “If we aren’t careful, the species that evolve alongside us will all be dangerous, the garden of malevolent forms engendered by our attempts at control.” And then he continues with this poetical observation, “Medusa turned all those who looked at her into stone; we turn those species we touch with our weapons into our near-immortal enemies.”

But “[t]he future need not unfold this way” if we abide by the laws of life. If we learn how these organisms that rule this planet work and evolve, we can adapt ourselves and our living spaces to them. We can work with them. This goes for all other life forms, but most particularly those that reproduce prodigiously and very quickly relative to human time-lines. And we need to be especially aware of those beings that prey on us. Not to kill them, because we can’t. We can’t eradicate something that can adapt rapidly to any weapon we invent. No, we need to learn to make friends with the enemies of our enemies. Because that is how life works. Life cooperates. Life works together.

And when we get too depressed by the obvious devastation we’re causing, Dunn gives us this darkly hopeful parable from the evolutionary biologist, Sean Nee. In addressing an auditorium of extinction experts, Nee pointed out that “all the worst things that we can imagine doing to Earth — nuclear war, climate change, massive pollution, habitat loss, and all the rest — may affect multicellular species like us but are unlikely to lead to the extinction of most major lineages on the evolutionary tree” [emphasis mine]. In fact, with our dubious help, many of the more unusual life-forms will find new ways and places to thrive.

I’m sure I’m not alone in not feeling particularly happy about that thought. But that is because I am not in that future. Nor anyone like me. And that lack of a face I recognize is what is making me unhappy. If I step away from the mirror and consider the future dispassionately, life is going to continue pretty much the same. There will be a few fewer beings with feet and eyes. There may be no naked bipedal control freaks. There may be many regions with not much for a being of our size to see. But the majority of life will continue just as it is today — because we are not in that majority.

Now, as Dunn says, we don’t have to continue to make these disasters for ourselves and for the living creatures we most love. We can learn from biology, from those tiny living beings in particular, and we can do better. We can live with and through other species, not over other species. We can return to our roots. We came from this place and knew where we belonged in the order of things for hundreds of thousands of years. We’ve only suffered from the effects of being what Dave Pollard callshomo cogitatus, the species that churns things over in its brains, fruitlessly trying to make sense of them” for a few thousand years, and only really made a mess of things in the few hundred years since we decided to place ourselves on top of the world (or not of this world at all, in some circles). This is less than an eye-blink even for a species as young as humans. We could remember ourselves and how to be living beings. And then maybe our lifespan on this planet won’t be a rarely preserved inch or two in the geologic record. Now, I doubt there will ever be an Anthropocene, but maybe we could do this dance of life long enough to understand it better.

Or if not… well, then… it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of life.

On either path, or really any path, Dunn’s book is an invaluable guide. I’m adding A Natural History of the Future to the required reading list in the curriculum of life.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

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