Editor's note, April 22, 2022: This commentary originally ran in April 2020. We're rerunning it today in honor of Earth Day. Original story follows.
A beet shoot nuzzles free of the earth in much the same way a chick presses through its soft shell, dislodging near-weightless debris with all the gentle might it can muster. Beet shoots don't emerge face first, though, as do chicks. Neither do pea shoots or arugula sprouts, for that matter. Instead, there extends from the soil a pink loop, a tiny flamingo's neck, before the head lifts gingerly and finds its bearings.
They back into the world.
I discovered this fact last week, at first with uncertainty. I watched a single shoot expose its stem in my garden and wondered if it was disoriented or deformed. But a day later, a dozen more peeked from the soil in rows like loose stitches, as it seems all beets do. Then I felt more certain of what I was observing, of its design.
We humans are slow to acclimate to new revelations. As early cases of the coronavirus emerged, it spread until undeniable consequences jarred us into action. The same progression exists for
, though fear and denial still have hold of us.
There is an alternative; something beyond death can move us to act. And when it comes to facing the threat of climate change -- a threat more dire even than the pandemic sweeping the world -- the titans of technology can play a part, but only a part. The rest will be up to us. And a simple garden and a hopeful imagination, I have found, are good places to start.
The previous resident in our house maintained a garden in the backyard, but removed all his materials, leaving a handful of gaping holes in the dirt where posts had stood. We filled in a few of these holes, but one of them we simply covered with a brick-red stepping stone. Each day, I lift the stone to find a tiny glittering cavern of slugs, worms, roly polies, centipedes and spiders.
My children press forward, holding twigs and gently prodding around the hole to inspire motion -- the retraction of a worm into the mud or the panicked scuttle of an uncovered pillbug.
Such wondrous encounters with the natural world set my imagination on course as a child, and similar ones have shaped American imaginations for centuries, from Thoreau and Whitman through Rachel Carson and Loren Eiseley, to Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry. In fact, our science writers and lyricists have cross-pollinated for generations. There's a breathlessness, for instance, to how the aging ecological journalist Charles Bowden interrupts an essay on death to exclaim, "I must tell you about this flower, Selenicereus plerantus."
Naturalists such as these fostered an intimacy with nature that we in 2020 have largely lost. Indeed, they often wrote of its erosion in their own times. Eiseley, for instance, predicted this shift in 1957: "The modern world does not lend itself to contemplation … We are used to being hurled headlong by plane and motor from one natural marvel to another, upon commercialized vacations." Sixty-three years later, his passing anxiety is our unyielding reality. Even more than our landscapes, our imaginations have been deforested.
I don't mean an indeterminable or mystical something when I use the term imagination: No, imagination is the tool we use to envision our future, individual and collective. When we think of nature primarily as a resource to be consumed, we leave little space for its flourishing in our imagined futures. And humans are frighteningly talented at making what we envision into reality.
Traipsing through forests and rock-hopping across Broad River after dry seasons are my two most vivid memories of growing up in South Carolina. They take place in general time -- the six years I spent in the Palmetto State feel to me like one long summer -- and they are the center of a larger mosaic of memory fragments: coaxing lizards' mouths open and clamping them on our ears like earrings, jumping to catch swatches of Spanish moss draped like gray-lavender snow from great tree limbs.
Guilt occasionally creeps up on me when I consider my childrens' largely suburban upbringing. Sure, we've lived in the Ozarks and Kentucky, visited caves and state parks, but it's always been an event -- never the wandering in a backyard that unfolds into forest. Crawdads will likely never snap at my childrens' curious fingers; pet garter snakes or squirrels will never share their rooms.
But simply encountering nature isn't the point. As marine biologist and famed environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote, "The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction." Through our encounters, we develop a relationship with our environment, and relationship inspires care and protection.
I cannot replicate my childhood for my children, but I can encourage a healthy relationship with nature. On a practical level, for instance, it's hard to watch tiny sprouts fight for survival and not cheerthem on. On a larger scale, it's hard to stay idle when we see theenvironment ravaged by climate change.
My wife and I rehearse our relationship with our garden aloud: a 19-cent banana can feed one of our children, its peel can infuse water with potassium and other minerals, which help fertilize our vegetables, and after a week of soaking, the peel can feed worms that create fertilizer for next season's garden. We hope for the future, when we own our home instead of renting: a modest yard of grass can be converted into wild space, creating more shelter and food for animals and increasing conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen.
It's a funny joke, but it belies the darker reality that all of our face-to-face time is facilitated by carbon-spewing machines and buildings.
It's time to look forward, to ask seriously to what extent our economy writ large can be maintained without contributing quite so enthusiastically to our planet's destruction. Though millions of Americans are out of work because of the pandemic, many companies have seen little change in their profits when shifting their workforce home. Perhaps for such companies, work-from-home structures could, should, become a new norm. Perhaps families could, should, change their travel expectations for vacations. Perhaps individuals could, should, think differently about their day-to-day gasoline and food consumption.
Such changes seemed unrealistic six months ago -- and adopting them long-term will certainly reshape our economic structures -- but this crisis has at least demonstrated our capacity for change, given the proper motivation.
Perhaps the most difficult part of
is its dailiness. I'm trying and still failing to instill in myself the habit of getting up early while the soil is damp and rooting out weeds that seem to lay fresh claim to my vulnerable sprouts during the short hours I sleep.
The weeding makes me nervous, despite its necessity. Weed and sprout root systems commingle, and more than one promising turnip has been lost to the errant spade. I find myself feeling inordinately protective of the young things, in part because their recent debuts came after weeks of my disbelief that they would gestate at all.
I remind myself: Weeding catches what threatens to choke the future before it can bud.
The three worst enemies of hopeful imagination are denial, nihilism and romanticism. The first is perhaps the hardest to beat back in others -- sound models have yet to convince many people that climate change is real -- but it's easy enough to uproot in ourselves.
Even those of us who acknowledge the science behind climate change often act in ways incongruous with that knowledge. It's not surprising: Our desire, not our cognition, drives most of our behavior in life. We consumers, as much as complex industries or faceless governments, have landed humanity in its current predicament -- not by pragmatism, but by dreams. My dreams, for instance -- of children, food and a comfortable house -- have resulted in a minivan, a large canister of waste every week and an energy- and water-inefficient home. Those dreams cannot be disentangled from their environmental externalities. The question is whether we will continue to deny reality so we can maintain more pleasant dreams, or whether we will wake.
Another weed to be pulled -- and one popular with a growing community of disillusioned millennials online -- is nihilism. The incessant jokes about being in the "wrong timeline" on Reddit or the "fuck 2019/2020" trends on Twitter: these subcultures prefer the easy quip about an indifferent universe to the vulnerable reach for hope or beauty. They see our anomalousness as evidence of cosmic indifference, rather than as an immeasurable gift.
The internet's embrace of such pessimism is like the bullied child discovering self-deprecation. It's an indirect solution, doing the bully's job for them, and leaves the deeper problem unaddressed.
The most difficult weed to uproot is romanticism, though, in part because it can so closely resemble healthy and hopeful thinking. I often reminisce about racing frogs in the backyard as a child, but I rarely think of the peanut butter sandwiches my school supplied when we couldn't afford lunches, my father's frantic tapping on the Kaypro between publications or my mother's harried pleas for her children's quiet while she researched for her master's degree thesis. My parents were desperate to escape a lifestyle for which I still feel intense nostalgia.
Romanticism defangs reality. It gives us the illusion of relationship -- with memories or nature -- while still maintaining our distance from the contemporary, the actual. Such rosy feelings stand in stark contrast with nature writer Annie Dillard's work, in which she wonders in real time at a giant water bug slurping a frog's liquified insides from its skin, leaving it "formless as a pricked balloon." Similarly, when poet Wendell Berry found himself staring at a dead calf in a pasture, writing, "May all dead things lie down in me/ and be at peace, as in the ground," he was likely only a short distance from his Kentucky home.
For nature to change us, we must experience it not simply in a distant memory or on a rare trip to a manicured park, but as now and near, beautiful to behold and all its own. When ants in our backyard spontaneously sprouted wings a few weeks ago, I was just as in awe of nature as I was annoyed that I kept getting bugs in my mouth while gardening.
All of these responses -- of denial, nihilism and romanticism -- emerge from a familiar fear.
"What we fear, really fear," wrote Charles Bowden in 2009, "is not some other nation conquering our plains and mountains and deserts, no, no, what we fear is that someone or something will do to us exactly what we have done to the buffalo."
He was right, as this pandemic has demonstrated. But fear is not final.
Marilynne Robinson, in her Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead, writes (as though in direct response), "Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave -- that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm."
Without hope for a better future, how can we nurture the courage to fight for it?
The failure of my garden is not, as I expect, the fava beans or snow peas, but rather the potatoes. A month into gardening, I dig up one of the potato chunklets I planted to find it rotted. I'm not sure if the allotted corner of the garden has too much clay, or if the roots from a nearby tree interfered with the tubers' growth, but this square of soil alone is barren.
Our early responses to climate change have likewise been imperfect, dying before even taking root. But there is hope to be found in the thinkers of the past and our own visions for the future -- if we seek encounters and relationships with nature and diligently uproot the mentalities that threaten such hopeful imagination.
Of course, the way forward will look different for each of us: an income-insecure family might not be able to afford more sustainable food sources; an apartment-dweller might not have access to green space for gardening. I've been in such circumstances, and I won't presume to offer the best methods of conservation for every reader.
But for many, a simple garden in your backyard -- or even on your windowsill -- can lead, as it has for my family, to change. And small changes like composting or growing more aware of our consumptive tendencies prepare us for the larger scale changes that ought to follow.
I hope we can prepare for climate change better than we did for COVID-19. But in the meantime, I must tell you about this vegetable, Beta vulgaris, the simple beet, which like a human can back from what appears to be barren land into an uncertain future -- and thrive nonetheless.
Our new reality now that coronavirus has sent the world online