Activists (what the hell do we do?)

Steve Wineman: My intention is not to disparage climate activists who believe it’s still possible to avert catastrophe and are putting enormous energy into that. It’s simply to put out a different perspective. Here are some of the major things I see on the ground.

Atmospheric greenhouse gases measured by carbon are now approaching 400 ppm [As of May 2015, this benchmark has already been reached – Ed.]. The uppermost safe limit that climate scientists have identified is 350 ppm. It keeps going up. And it’s not even clear that 350 ppm is safe.

Even as carbon and greenhouse gases are going: into the atmosphere, carbon sinks are shrinking. So the capacity of the earth to pull carbon back out of the atmosphere is going down.

The already-drastic climate changes we currently see are impacts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere roughly thirty years ago – around 350 ppm. Even if we reversed direction on a dime, negative impacts on climate would continue for another thirty years. This time lag, coupled with positive feedback loops, is dire.

Arctic ice is melting. White ice reflects sunlight, dark ocean water absorbs it. The more Arctic water, the more heat you’re absorbing, which furthers warming, which furthers melting, which furthers warming. Another critical feedback loop is the thawing of permafrost, which seals in huge amounts of carbon and methane – two, three times as much as the total emitted in the last hundreds of thousands of years. Permafrost melting. Scientific expeditions – the first in 2008 – are finding methane bubbling up in huge swaths of the Arctic. While methane has a much shorter lifespan than carbon, it is roughly twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas. Feedback loops, potentially far more potent than our current emissions, also keep escalating over that period of thirty years.

This summer there was record heat, record drought and massive ongoing fires. Two thirds of this country was in drought conditions with severe impacts on food production; there are ongoing issues with growing water scarcity worldwide; and record melting of Arctic sea ice – in expanse and density; record surface ice sheet melt on Greenland.Just off the chart! If the Greenland ice sheet goes, projections in the rise of sea level are twenty feet, which clearly puts us – and many coastal areas all over the world – under water. I think that’s probably enough… [laughter] …to paint the picture, at least to an understanding, of the facts on the ground.

One thing has happened in the last – I don’t know how many – decades that has reduced carbon emissions globally: the great recession at its peak in 2009. That’s it! 2010, without even a robust economic recovery, emissions went back up 10%. For all the efforts so many of us – not just in this room, this state, this country, but globally – have been putting into fighting climate change, the only thing that has actually fought climate change effectively has been the biggest economic meltdown since the great depression. The idea that we could mount a movement to contract economies globally to fight climate change has no traction anywhere.

In my essay, I contrast constructive denial with destructive denial. Constructive denial is, in the face of terrible news, a determination to fight: Nelson Mandela in prison for 27 years; people given death sentences by their doctors, who say, ‘No. That’s my reality. And I’m going to beat this.’

In the heyday of print journalism there was an article in the Boston Globe about a guy who’d been given a death sentence by his doctor, some horrible cancer. He fought it; he took every drug, was willing to face any side effect. And he beat it. I was so moved that I cut this out and put it on my wall.

People who take that attitude now to climate catastrophe say – for everything I’ve ticked off – it’s time to give up. Yes, it’s dire, maybe our chances are half of 1%, but if, as climate activists, say ‘No, it’s impossible,’ we’re putting the last nail in the coffin.

The challenge I would put out to them is! And what’s your strategy? What’s a scenario that still makes it possible? What’s a strategy that could mobilise the efforts that it would take, given the thirty-year lag, the positive feedback loops, the political climate? Help us understand how it is still possible! Constructive denial is not denial of reality. It’s a determination, given that reality, to find a way to beat it.

A few weeks after the story about the guy who beat cancer, there was a story about a woman with end-stage cancer who had made peace with death. She was getting ready to die and was just OK with it. I was so moved by article that I cut it out and put it on the wall right next to the other one. So to frame our discussion tonight: when’s the time to keep fighting, and when’s the time to realise, fighting this is not in my interest?

What makes denial destructive? First, when we lie to ourselves. In terms of climate, saying, ‘I don’t care what all these facts are, we’ve still got to do this!’ How can you fight effectively if you’re disregarding the facts on the ground?

Second, being dishonest with others: ‘We can’t tell people how it really is – they’d get so discouraged they’d just stay home.’ In 2008 when methane was found bubbling up in the Arctic, Bill McKibben put out a mass email saying, ‘The Copenhagen conference at the end of 2009 is our last chance.’ It was a total bomb. Then he put out a piece saying, ‘If we don’t turn it around by 2012, we’re gone.’ Then Keystone was our last chance. And now fighting the oil companies is our last chance. You see what I’m saying! If the target keeps moving, the story keeps changing, you begin to feel manipulated. He’s a great guy, but he’s desperate and he’s just going to say whatever will mobilise people.

0A McKibben KeystoneBill McKibben

Third, depriving people of the opportunity to grieve.

How can we figure this out? When’s the time to keep fighting and when’s the time to start grieving? And if we accept catastrophe – how should we live the rest of our lives? Not only as individuals, but as a community? Because there are a lot of ways we can go down.

There are many scenarios for fighting over scarce resources, warlords, roving bands of displaced people… But there are other ways that we can go into catastrophe, if we mobilise ourselves to support each other and share resources and really, to do it right.

When I became fully aware of the horror of what we were facing, my son was in his teens. For six years I was in the place of ‘We can’t let this happen.’ We had individual clusters of successes – we got the city council to recognise climate emergency and the mayor to call a climate emergency congress – we’ve done so many great things – but emissions keep going up! When that finally moved me to say, ‘It’s not going to happen,’ I thought I was going to go into a horrible depression. And I didn’t. It was the most unexpected thing. I actually felt better. And I am not a glass half-full kind of guy.

I’d been carrying this impossible burden that was lifted from my shoulders. I started grieving, which wasn’t fun, but compared to the gut-clench of ‘We’ve gotta stop this, we’ve gotta stop this, we’ve gotta stop this…’ I started finding thoughts running through my head like, ‘I don’t know what my son’s life is going to be like in thirty years, but right now he’s having a really good life.’ It focused me on making the best possible use of the present.

We’ll have a go-round focused on a simple, straightforward question: How do you feel about what’s happening to the world?

1 speaker one

I’m a scholar of the deep state – the secret state-behind-the-state made up of elements within the Pentagon, the CIA and the multinational corporate elite. In the last half-dozen years the deep state has built 15 or 20 large concentration camps in the US under FEMA’s administration.

Last year they issued the first Requests For Proposals for providing food services, supplies and all you’d need to operate a concentration camp. A law was just passed giving FEMA extraordinary powers for controlling and herding the population in the face of big, undefined disasters.

It’s my belief that the most powerful elements in the world agree completely with your remarks. And they don’t plan on sitting on their hands about it. They’re not to institute solutions that would remove their power. But they will be perfectly willing to introduce solutions such as eliminating a third of the world’s population by untraceable diseases, or doing whatever the hell they think is necessary to save their own bacon.

Among the most powerful people on the planet, there are people drawing up contingency plans – right now! – they’re going to do about this global climate collapse that they think is coming. And it appears they think it’s coming in the not-too-distant future.

2 speaker two

It’s like science fiction when I let my mind run to what could happen; all I can really think about is how to do things locally. I have a one-year-old grandson, and I’m concerned about his life. That’s why I came tonight, just to see what people’s ideas were. I absolutely agree, I’m sure it’s out of all our control, actually…

Speaker one: I don’t think it’s out of our control at all…

Speaker two<: Well, I do. And there’s one seemingly young person here; you all may be young at heart, but… So I’m also not sure what that means. We should be the first to go, shouldn’t we? Maybe we have to embrace it even more quickly to make room.

3 Leo

Leo: The essay drew me into finally seeing the thing as simply just another iteration of the problem of fruit flies in a jar. Our jar happens to be the planet, and we’ve fouled it. Well gee, what would – what should –  an animal do when it has fouled its habitat? Does it just do whatever it wants, which is what any other animal does? What’s the right evolutional thing to do to save the species? Do you even want to save the species? It raises very interesting questions, some of which are addressed in a certain way by the first speaker’s comments.

4 speaker four

Speaker four: Leo and I have these conversations at breakfast almost every day. I’m more the Mrs. Half-Full and [he’s] Mr. Half-Empty. Just in that I act very locally and feel very strongly about some of the things I’m working on in a local capacity, particularly issues of access to food.

5 Lester

Lester: When I started with Greenport several years ago I was pessimistic about the big picture, but I felt it was important to do what we could locally; and I still feel that. It makes sense to both do all those little things to make our homes efficient, and maybe to do psychological preparation, as you talked about. Yet by my nature I tend to be optimistic, nevertheless, in the face of… whatever! Because of my engineering background, I have some optimism in solutions we maybe haven’t found yet. And human beings have a real hard time with predicting what’s going to happen in the future, so that leaves me a bit of room to be optimistic, in spite of all these difficulties.

6 speaker six

Speaker six: When I think about how complex this is, if you look at all aspects… Wow! [laughs] I don’t even know where to start! It’s scary to be aware of that; to feel I will never really understand this, grasp this… I do think it’s very important to work at the local level, still. Even if I don’t think we can avoid the biggest problems to come.

7 Rosalie

Rosalie: I’m not sure there are a lot of activists who still believe we can avert catastrophe. There’s this ‘How huge will the catastrophe be?’ kind-of-thing, and a lot of the so-called mitigation efforts are related to trying to lessen the catastrophe, not deny it.

It’s extremely important that we get in touch with our feelings. I’ve been focusing on providing opportunities for people to get together to mourn and express anger and let those feelings come out in a group situation; to breath through those into coming up with action based on reality. It’s related to the Buddhist model: take in sorrows and let them pass through you. That’s a healthy way to deal with it psychologically.

Because it is going to be really hard. Yeah, this is big, and it’s coming. The US Military thinks this is the biggest threat we face!

8 Sue

Sue: I never considered myself an activist and I never thought it was going make a big difference, so I’m not that cast down. However, I think the mitigation is really important. Because if you accept it’s going to happen, or is happening, then mitigation is vital to… make it better. And who knows what might be discovered? I’ve read far-out news articles about people thinking they’re going to reverse this by putting things in the ocean to sop up the carbon and stuff like that. It’s not like I think that’s really going to do it, but it’s not like I think it absolutely won’t do it either.

I don’t know where the neighbourhood comes in on this. It seems like a really global thing, and I just don’t know what a neighbourhood is going to do – besides come together to help each other – yes. But to do that in any circumstance; it wouldn’t just be around climate change.

9 Paul

Paul: One possibility is that there will be these positive feedback tipping points, but it’s also possible that we’ll get to a tipping point in public opinion, where it’s strong enough to cause effective political action. There’ll be a series of tactics to try and deal with this as the situation deteriorates. A lot of people are never going to give up, even when things seem irreversible. Drastic strategies! People will be working on drastic strategies, like the one you mentioned about the oceans. These could be done by a nation – China could do it – and even if other nations disagree, these solutions would still be tried. So it becomes very complicated.

But a lot of mitigation strategies are the same strategies we’d use to delay catastrophe, because that would give us more time to adapt – renewables, photovoltaics, things like that – and if done widely enough, might even avert it.

10 Sarah

Sarah: Historically I’ve been very discouraged about climate change. Your essay, Steve, made me start thinking about it in a different way. We’re building an energy efficient house out in the Berkshires; it will be net zero. And we’re getting a generator. Part of me resisted that. But when you have a well, if you don’t have electricity you have no water… except what happens to be in the pressure tank at the point when the electricity goes out. I didn’t want to have to worry about that.

We were driving around one night while electricity was out there, and only one house in the neighbourhood was lighted up – they must have a generator. I realised, if electricity went out for an extended time, if things start falling apart, we would have water… and that was something we could share. And I need to find more things like that.

11 Joanna

Joanna: For four years I focused on the coming climate change and then backed off from that; because what seems most important is to change the way people take responsibility for how things are working – the economy, the government. I don’t see much change happening in this country until we have a sort of a people’s revolution.

I’ve been working with the Green Rainbow Party. I don’t think the program our presidential candidate has, Green New Deal, is going to make a huge difference, but we also have ideas about localisation and people taking control of things themselves, delegating the government to do what they want it to do.

The thing in general is sad. But my actions no longer much relate to it.

12 Janet

Janet: We just moved and we’re really near the river. [laughter] And what can I do about that? Also I just came back from visiting my grandchild in California, who’s six. How to think about the world and the future with her in it? Is there going to be a future for her?

And not being able to talk – really – about what we’re all talking about, because I’m not sure how much the parents want to talk about things like that when they’re bringing up a little girl.

I wish our national leaders would realise they need to say something – publicly – because if they did people would mobilise. Like they did in the early seventies about the fuel shortage, when Nixon said, ‘I want everybody to carpool.’ My remembrance is that everybody tried to do that. So I bemoan the fact that hasn’t happened.

13 Ellen

Ellen: I refer to the first speaker here, about ominous schemes that are in process for troubles… national and local troubles, municipal troubles, national security taking over. Boston is advancing quickly on its adaptation studies and Cambridge has one ready for 2015. Unlesswe do the neighbourhood work, unless we are very bonded – calling it neighbourhood or just calling it enclaves of people who have a lot in common – national security will determine our future when we begin to have collapses and shortages. I don’t see our cities and towns coming up to the bat as they should.

We had a wonderful Cambridge Climate Conference that did not go anywhere. Still maybe we can have another one, now that we’ve come further along and realised limitations in how much we can change things. We have Hansen, the whole scientific community, now on board as to where we are headed. It’s still worth struggling, but that neighbourhood common group thing is absolutely going to be essential.

I recommend Norman Spinrad’s Greenhouse Summer. Talks about some of the things that have come to pass now? And it’s now not so much science fiction.

14 Bette

Bette: What we’re doing is radical in American culture, which forces us to always be upbeat. To actually be able to come out – come out! …interesting choice of words – is very liberating, because otherwise we’re forced to continually – at least I have felt forced to keep all this to myself.

In my regular life I’m not in a situation to introduce this topic to people. If there were a couple of us chatting, it’s just totally –  you don’t want to mention it! Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Bright Sided. She tears apart the American culture of happiness and denial of anything unpleasant. To actually be able to sit together and deal with something unpleasant is a good place to start – and very supportive. I hope this is the beginning of a new grasp of reality.

15 Carolyn

Carolyn: There’s this wonderful effort on the community level, Cambridgeport. What’s the bigger picture? Since the presidential candidates have not dared mention the environment, and many conservatives deny that there is a problem? How are the people in this room connected to a larger, nationwide effort? Is there even a statewide effort of groups such as this? What kind of action is going to come out of a group like this, other than just telling our feelings?

I’m a person who likes to see some kind of an action plan, measurable objectives and a progression of some kind. It needs to be in the spotlight, on a national level, in a big way.

16 Polly

Polly: I appreciate everyone who’s come and shared their vision. It’s way too scary, this topic, to think cogently by ourselves. I can’t do it. I dare to hope that with a group like this and the connections we already have, we can discover ways a growing band of people can have the safety to actually face this. Then be open to the real mitigations that can happen.

17 Adam

Adam: What’s helped me is studying anthropology and the history of civilisations and how people have reacted to their varying human conditions. We’re perfectly capable of predicting what’s coming, because the pattern is consistent. Civilisations have always collapsed. They may have felt invulnerable up to that point, full of hubris and fascination with their own power; but it’s really laws of nature that say what you can do, where, and when.

Ecological overshoot is a common human condition; cultures large and small have done it. They’ve exceeded the capacity of the world that they’re in – their habitat – to support them. Then things fall apart. It happens over and over again. It’s a predictable pattern.

We aren’t in any way any different about that. Technology is, as far as I can tell, mostly fluff. It is part of the problem. Global warming is a technological phenomenon. And we’re stuck in it.

I take comfort in knowing everybody’s been through this. Cultures have collapsed. Some have had a great time on the way, but that’s the way life on earth is. I thank my billions of forebears for paving the way; and I’m part of that family.

18 John

John: People’s inability to deal with the emotional aspects of what climate change means is an important phenomenon. In public, you bring it up and people wince – not because they deny, but because you hit a nerve. I feel a responsibility – because I have grandchildren, or just as the kind of person I am – to do as much as I can to mitigate before I die.

But… what is that, that I do? I think – I wonder and I almost believe – that emotional connections are the most powerful way we can influence people. Where there are these deep emotions, if we don’t figure out how to use them to reach others, we’re missing an opportunity. A conversation with a daughter who’s just had a child – that’s the most difficult conversation I can imagine having. With two daughters who just had children, I think about this!

There are positive ways to tap our emotions, not just simply make people give up. Part of it is the belief that useful things can be done. Resolve – that’s something we can build together. That might be comforting to people, to see that there are others who are resolved to do what they can.

The fighting we’ve thought of has been associated with anger – being mad at the oil companies, madat this person, mad at that. But there’s another aspect of fighting and that’s courage. When you’re afraid – historically and in many situations – the only way you can act is to have courage. Perhaps we can think how to cultivate courage; collectively or individually.

19 Randy

Randy: I’m 100% convinced that Steve is right about the direction things are going, in the short term. But I’m a person who tends to see the glass half-full, and I’m an engineer. Climate change is happening, things are going to get bad, but in a fluctuation way. It’s not going to go off a cliff immediately. It’s going to get bad, then a little better, then worse, then a little better.

I’m hoping the world will respond to one of the first bad things that happens; that we can switch away from these climate-intensive fuels to renewables. But it’s going to take a tragedy before people will wake up – an economic tragedy or a human tragedy. That will cause a reaction in the world.

It’s important to continue to act now, locally, to be in the vanguard for when the rest of the world is willing to follow. Which they’re not at right now.

20 Steve Wineman

Steve Wineman: [reading his essay’s epigraph]

Logic and sermons never convince.
The damp of night drives deeper into my soul.
(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so. Only what nobody denies is so. )

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Steve Wineman is a writer, retired mental health worker, and a long-time social change activist. In 2006 he co-founded GreenPort, a climate action group in the Cambridgeport neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. After distributing his essay, Crossing the Chasm: From Denial to Acceptance of Climate Catastrophe, he received numerous requests for a public discussion of the ideas in the essay. In response, GreenPort held a forum on October 16, 2012 titled ‘Climate Catastrophe: Let’s Talk About It.’ Contact: [email protected]

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Choosing Living Over Life

For Kate

Liminal Scrim

In the morning,
to the deeply resonant sound of the Vedas,
they go looking for prints.
To place their fear.

But no trace can be found.

The night before,
the sound of the wolf,
yards away,
made a tear in the liminal scrim.

Bringing them closer to Her.

The next day,
the foxes grainy bark, grates.
Later that night,
the local dogs sound like wolves.


The Owl is Nothing Without its Prey

At the moment of death I am yours.
Without my surrender your claws grasp only the yew.
Without me your hollow screech echoes through the snow blasted pine.
Claim me!
You starving, lonely, bitter huskofabird.


Where the Breath Turns

The doe lowers her head to drink at the stream,
giving only her mouth to the water.
The rest of her inhabiting the land all around.

Only sleepy humans see all of her down by the stream.

Doe and wolf already feel her in his belly.

Finding Magic in the World

Serious-minded people — rational adults — do not believe in magic… or so we are led to believe. To suggest that magic is in any sense real is often to disqualify one’s ideas from consideration. Even those who believe in burning bushes and talking snakes would likely be offended at the suggestion that what they believe in is magic. The phrase ‘magical thinking‘ is used for a variety of common logical fallacies and mistaken ways of thinking. The belief may be considered natural in children but almost pathological in adults. Belief in magic is amongst the ‘childish things‘ that we are supposed to shed. And, indeed, most do shed the belief but I suspect they do it because it is expected of them rather than through any carefully considered decision or gathering of evidence. As children the world is overflowing with magic but as adults we collectively pretend the world is more of a machine than an animal, more of an object than a subject, something to dominate rather than revere.

So am I suggesting that magic might be real? Well, I want you to keep reading and so, for moment, I’ll need to keep those cards close to the vest. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that something may be up my sleeve.

Much like asking if God exists, the answer hinges almost entirely on the definitions being employed. He or she who defines the terms will surely win the debate. A world full of magic may look identical to a world completely void of magic if interlocutors are employing the term in radically different ways. Likewise, even the most zealous of atheists may happily concede that gods exist provided certain definitions. The assertion that ‘there is no god’ is often made within the context of traditional Western theism; stepping outside that context toward a radically different understanding of what is meant by ‘god’ makes for a significantly different conversation and different possibilities.

Returning to magic, consider the following dialogue from Richard Linklater’s recent film Boyhood:

Mason: Dad, there’s no, like, real magic in the world, right?
Father: What do you mean?
M: You know, like elves and stuff… people just made that stuff up.
F: Well, I don’t know, what makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like a whale, you know what I mean? What if I were to tell you a story about how underneath the ocean was this giant sea mammal that used sonar and sang songs… and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car and you could crawl through the arteries? I mean you’d think that was pretty magical, right?

The confusion is created by incorporating the idea of the supernatural into the very definition of magic. Many standard dictionary definitions will include the idea of the supernatural but this is not helpful; indeed, it’s a trap. It means that if something is part of the natural world that it is not, as a matter of definition, magical. We already know (or assume) that there is no magic in nature. So, for example, we know whales aren’t magical because we can go out and observe them or convert them into oil for lamps. Magic is supposed to be more elusive.

Anselm argued one need only to adequately understand the concept of God in order to know, with certainty, that He exists. For Anselm, God was ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’. To trace the consequences of this definition meant that God necessarily exists. If you are thinking of a being that is perfect in every way but lacks existence then you not thinking about God; you are not thinking about ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’. Anselm thought that to exist would certainly be greater than to not exist.

And yet Anselm’s Ontological Argument is not very convincing and is widely considered to be inadequate. The generally identified flaw was initially provided by Kant who pointed out that existence is not appropriately described as a characteristic or a perfection.

We ought not incorporate existence or (non-existence) into our definitions.

Returning to the natural world, Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass writes:

‘The very facts of the world are a poem. Light is turned to sugar. Salamanders find their way to ancestral ponds following magnetic lines radiating from the earth. The saliva of grazing buffalo causes the grass to grow taller. Tobacco seeds germinate when they smell smoke. Microbes in industrial waste can destroy mercury. Aren’t these stories we should all know?’ (Kimmerer 345)

While not explicitly about magic, Kimmerer breaks down the wall that many of us have erected in our minds that divides poems from facts. The former are often treated as fluffy and frivolous while the latter are regarded as solid, dependable, and gathered through the hard work of trained professionals. We entertain ourselves with poems and build spaceships with facts. But the divide is artificial and the characterisations of what can be found on each side nothing but stereotypes and superstitions serving to convince us that the divide makes sense, that it needs to be there, that something must be one or the other and not both.

So who is really guilty of the sleight-of-hand when answering this question about magic? No one and everyone.

Whether there is magic in the world is, on a certain level, purely a matter of definition. For most of my life I have defined magic out of existence. It is only in recent years that I have been finding it everywhere as a ubiquitous part of everyday life: as mundane and as exciting as the air.

The Oldest Tree in New York

There is a small park in lower Manhattan that is fenced off to the public. Through the wire fence one can make out a rectangle of unkempt vegetation — trees, grasses and bushes thriving among rocks and stones. The lot measures 25 by 40 feet and is an artwork called ‘Time Landscape’ by Alan Sonfist. Inaugurated in 1978, the work represents what the island of Manhattan might have looked like before it was settled by the Europeans in the 1500s

There is nothing spectacular about the trees and plants growing here; what is remarkable is the extent to which this miniature landscape contrasts with the world on the outside of the fence — the urban setting of New York where most traces of woodlands, marshes and groves have all but disappeared. Like a cabinet display in a museum, the piece evokes a certain nostalgia; and as I grapple to define exactly what I pine for in the past, I am overwhelmed by the more immediate sensation of standing in the middle of a vast monument; a monument in constant flux to celebrate the ceaseless toil of human hands putting one brick on top of another in efforts to shape to our desire the lands we settle.

I demote my feeling of nostalgia to the rank of artificial sensation — since, in my limited experience, no woodland ever covered this part of lower Manhattan. What I can (and do) feel nostalgic about is rather a certain café a few blocks down and the printing facility I used to patronise across the street, both gone in the 20 years since I lived here. There is a sister concept to nostalgia, a neologism coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, called solastalgia. The term is defined as ‘the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment’. (Wikipedia,, accessed on Jan 8th 2015). Reluctant to apply a decidedly anthropocentric concept to a tree, I still get curious to what extent, if any, one would be able to sense a certain solastalgia in the vicinity of a tree that has had the opportunity to witness the radical transformation of New York over the centuries.

New York’s oldest tree is a tulip poplar in the easternmost part of Queens, some 18 miles from Sonfist’s art work. The Queens Giant, or Alley Pond Giant as it is also called, is a 133-foot-tall poplar with an estimated age of 450 years. The tree would have been a sapling when the Dutch first arrived, and is likely the oldest living thing in New York. It sits in a sunken grove within definite earshot of two major highways — the six-lane LIE and Cross Island Parkway. The top of the tree is reportedly visible to motorists travelling west on the LIE. Since the passing of time when measured in decades and centuries tends to enter the realm of the abstract, I decide to ride my bike from Houston and West Broadway to Alley Pond Park in Queens, to get a lay of this land once dominated by groves of beech, cedars, cherry trees and witch hazel.

There is also a notion of pilgrimage at play. I want the hours on the bike in order to prepare myself and take a series of consecutive deep breaths – and get realigned for this meeting with a representative of time measured out in centuries. Tree-time is sequential and ongoing; a flow which in so many ways differs from the pulse of this city with its fierce devotion to the opportune moment; to that which is Flash! Fresh! and to the kairos of existence. (Brief note on realigning my spirit while driving or on a bike: it has been a much-coveted idea of mine to go on a road trip when faced with an emotional dilemma to sort things out… turns out I can’t think of much else than driving when I am on the road. Taking a walk works better.)

At the outset of this project, I had an idea to explore ideas of resilience and sustainability against a backdrop of ancient trees. My premise was this: if a tree had managed to survive for extended periods of time, surely there must be something in the immediate environment that still works; something beyond soil and climate conditions. I wanted to see the context, to get a feel for the site of the tree itself and establish some kind of idea of what that something might be. The idea to designate certain areas as off-limits to human settlement, exploitation and harvesting is by no means a modern-day invention, but it turns out that most trees that have been identified as extremely old reside within the confnes of man-made compounds. The vast spectrum of parks and wildlife sanctuaries provide distinctively varied on-site conditions for old trees. One common denominator is the question of continued resilience and health in an age of rapidly escalating environmental upheaval.

A tree within the confines of a city park may enjoy a slightly lower degree of legislative protection than does a tree in a national park. To the layman visitor, however, this is a moot point. It is clear from the moment you step into the park from the street that whatever grows here cannot be cut down and brought home for decoration or firewood. But human impact can affect a tree by sheer proximity, and I was curious how a NYC park would compare to the home of Old Tjikko, a 10,000-year old spruce on a desolate mountaintop in Sweden I visited earlier this year. On the face of it, Old Tjikko would seem the more vulnerable of the two, as it probably would take all of two minutes to chop it down with a handsaw.

However, the combination of growing in a remote location and a consensus (on part of Park officials, scientists and local guides) to keep the tree’s exact location on a need-to-know basis is working to its advantage. So far, this relative secrecy has provided enough of a deterrent for random acts of vandalism. The Queens Giant, on the other hand, is reachable by NYC transit system and appears as an icon on my smartphone’s map when I type in the name of the park. There is even an informational plaque on the fence surrounding it. (Or at least there was when I looked online. When I got to the actual site, the plaque had been removed – much in the spirit of a city where everything that is not hot-riveted to something inordinately big and heavy eventually will be pried loose and carried off.).

A little while ago, I gave a brief outline of the what’s and why’s of my work to an acquaintance. He asked me to what extent I would factor in elements of chance, randomness — and by extension, sheer luck, if that term can be applied to the survival of an individual tree. I replied that my work had no immediate scientific pretensions and that elements of luck and randomness were allowed the same dignity as soil conditions, climate specifics and human interference. Aferwards, I found reason to re-examine this stance: true, I am not a scientist, and neither equipped nor qualifed to discuss soil conditions in depth; on the other hand, my choice to visit a specific tree owes more to instinct than chance, and being a visual artist, I am somewhat biased in my processing of information. I think what he was getting at was this: how do we know that this is the oldest tree in New York? How do we know that the 10,000-year old spruce in Sweden is the oldest tree on that mountaintop? How do we know that there might not still be trees, plants and even animals that by far surpass the longevities that we currently have on record?

The answer is, of course, we don’t, and indeed there might be. Which is an idea I fnd rather comforting. I would much rather think of the world as a place not-yet-wholly-explored than a finite rendering readily available at the touch of my keypad. The flip side of my devotion to grey zones is how my feelings about climate change and environmental issues fall into a similar, but more sinister category of information that leaves much to the imagination. The discourse on climate change is a realm where the map has become largely illegible and redundant, with white patches overlapping areas of infnite complexity. I sometimes wish for an instantly googlable route through this territory, only to realise that what I really need is a level of acceptance of the situation at hand. My work with old trees helps me gain a slightly more sober perspective on the present, with all its need for attention to concepts of sustainability and resilience over longer periods of time.

Riding a bike from the centre to the outskirts of a large urban area such as New York is an exhausting experience. There is a constant barrage of sensory stimuli and information to be processed in order to stay in lane, to get where one is going and to avoid getting run over. In other words, much like riding a bike in any larger city. (Bike lanes were a pretty much unheard-of concept when I first moved to NYC in the late ’80s. Today, there is a rather well-developed network of bike paths that crisscross Manhattan; a network that slowly dissolves the further one gets from the island.) The shift from high-density Manhattan to the lower buildings and capita per square-foot neighborhoods in Brooklyn takes place roughly midway across the blue Manhattan Bridge.

From that point on, I navigate a string of environments that alternate between the residential, the commercial, the light industrial and the sacred: From the civic centres of Downtown Brooklyn, to the quaint residential streets of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, onwards across the lethally contaminated Gowanus Canal (on the shores of which a newly erected Whole Foods megastore resides, with revolving solar panels and wind turbines galore); uphill to affluent Prospect Park, where I get lost on the park’s meandering bike paths, out in the street again in Prospect/Lefferts Gardens where I take a wrong turn and get my directions confused all the way into south Flatlands. I double back up to Brownsville where a commercial strip is a-swinging to the most unexpected twang of Texas country and western, and continue along the perimeter of the cemeteries of Cypress Hills, with its endless rows of anonymous white crosses that parade across green lawns until they come to a stop at clusters of ornate monuments and crypts in granite and stone. Finally, in need of a rest and a place to eat, I stop under the elevated subway tracks on Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven.

I want to bring a cake to the tree, thinking that it would be nice to designate this day as the tree’s birthday, thus in a way formalising my visit. I arranged an impromptu birthday celebration of-site for Old Tjikko earlier this fall, in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition with works that featured the tree. The guests at the opening sang to the tree, and a local baker generously provided a blueberry marzipan and cream cake for the celebration, much to the enjoyment of the participants. I am thinking that a locally made cake would be appropriate for this occasion, and look around for a bakery. There is one right by the subway entrance, and a sign on the window assures me of the establishment’s local credentials: ‘Anyone wearing a ski mask or hoodie on these premises will be considered trespassing’. Seems reasonable enough, as I have just read another sign posted at the cemetery a few blocks down the road that informed me I was not allowed to bring a handgun (or any other firearm) into the dead folks’ resting place. I end up getting a square piece of cake that looks like tiramisu topped with maroon and yellow fruit. It is perfect: colourful, eclectic and easy to transport in a tidy styrofoam container.

The last couple of miles bring me into areas of increasingly suburban character. The borough of Queens is about to merge into the extensive sprawl of Long Island. There is a sudden proliferation of well-manicured gardens with glimpses of heavily trafficked freeways through carefully trimmed hedges. Old men on their front lawns raking up leaves in neat piles. Perfectly aligned recycling containers. A yellow school bus stops to let off students at a Catholic school. A few blocks further on another school bus caters to an Orthodox Jewish community. I have lost count of the churches, tabernacles, synagogues and mosques that I have seen along the way. The majority of them have a well-kept outer appearance and bear witness to active congregations that make up an important part of the motley fabric that is New York. The sacred is thriving next to the profane.

I leave my bike chained to a railing along an overpass. Below, the incessant flow of cars and trucks on the Long Island Expressway. The descent into the grove where the tree grows takes a mere five minutes, and although the roar of the traffic is somewhat muted by the lush vegetation in this remote corner of the park, it is still present enough to erase any notion of a place enjoying special protection. There is absolutely nothing sacred about this place. The few pieces of litter along the pathway above the grove show signs of age and wear; this part of the park is obviously a less often frequented area. Alley Pond was designated a city park in 1929, in response to the rapid growth and development of the city. The giant poplar fell within the park’s boundaries with a few feet to spare; perhaps owing more to luck than careful planning. As I make my way down through dense thickets of thorny bushes and tangled-up creepers, I keep looking for the right tree. A broken chain-link fence surrounding a massive trunk indicates the end of my journey; as I look up and skyward, I can just about make out the outline of the tree’s crown, shooting up improbably high from its base at the bottom of this bowl.

For a moment, the sound of cars and trucks seems to subside. I unpack my bags and get up close to the foot of the tree, holding out the cake in a gesture of offering. I take a bite of the ridiculously sweet pastry myself, and start singing Happy Birthday in English to the tree. I realise how incomprehensible this intrinsically human custom must be to a tree, but it gives me a sense of being here, in the presence of a 450-year old poplar, however indiferent the tree might be to my offering. In order not to seem rude and wholly ignorant of what a tree might need or want, I decide to conclude the ritual by taking a pee on the trunk, thinking that it’s the least I can do on a hot October day like this.

I sit down on a stump of rotten wood near the tree. Colourful little mushrooms thrive on the decomposing matter; a
colony of ants nearby makes their own highways across the terrain. I fail to imagine the racket of the wildlife at home here in the grove some 400 years ago, but I can vividly depict the succession of conflicts and flags that have since swayed through these lands. The tree has outlived every single person buried in the cemeteries I passed on my way here. It has been witness to change and transformation on a local scale over centuries, and has surely come to feel the effects of the shift in climate on a global scale.

Owing to good fortune, circumstance and the inherent capacity for longevity of the Liriodendron tulipifera species, the Queens Giant seems to be doing quite well. No hint of remorse, depression or weakening of the spirit; the massive trunk looks securely anchored in the soil by its log- size roots; high above the majestic crown funnels light down to the darker reaches. The sum of events, human interference and climate conditions that have come to pass for centuries here must have been largely benefcial to the tree. As I get up and brush of pieces of damp organic matter from the seat of my pants, I decide to come back to the tree on my next visit to the city. This time I will bring my 13-year old kid here, whose age prevents any deeper forays into the realms of nostalgia and/or solastalgia, but whose perspective on the city he lives in could benefit from a cordial visit to a 450-year old denizen of the Big Apple.

We will bring cookies and milk.

Why No Folk Musicians Vote Tory

A fair amount of my life is spent in pub sessions, playing old tunes, badly, on whistles. Not one of the musicians could ever vote Tory.

This, on the face of it, is rather strange. For many of them are conservative. That’s why they’re in the pub rather than watching Simon Cowell’s flashing bridgework. They tend to pay their taxes, and be faithful to their spouses, and wear tweed waistcoats, and go to drink cherry brandy with the foxhunters on Boxing Day.

I’m not making a cheap point about the tawdriness of the modern Conservative Party: about its abandonment of real conservatism and the alienation of its old constituencies. There’s something more interesting going on.

It’s true that folk music is the music of the folk, rather than the bosses; the shepherds, rather than the gentlemen farmers. Yet for every song celebrating mass trespass, or condemning the bloated manager who waters the workers’ beer, there’s one lauding the chivalric exploits of a mediaeval toff, or cheering on the hounds as they close on a stag, or telling the tale of a young soldier who bled obediently for the Empire, or being otherwise chauvinistically English in a way that would delight the smallest-minded Little Englander. The songs bemoan the ills of feudalism, but rarely question the rightness of feudalism itself. In the English folk canon the rich man is in his castle, the poor man is at his gate, and God, who has made them high and lowly, and who unquestionably wears tweed himself and can blast pheasants effortlessly out of the sky, has ordered their estate.

So the songs themselves neither express nor shape the politics of the musicians. The politics are in the way that folk music happens.

Someone nervously starts a tune. Everyone else stops chatting and listens. Gradually they join in, until that initial tentative scraping becomes a rapidly evolving organism, with characteristics that have never before existed in the entire history of the universe, and which will never exist again: an organism woven from counterpoint; an organism whose DNA is deference and mutuality; Primadonnas make it die. The brave scraper who started it always has control, however exuberantly divergent from the original line the tune has become. She’ll lift her leg or wave her flute to stop it.

No one who has been part of this ecstatic co-dependence could ever believe the libertarian lie, whose primary axiom is that we’re all atomistic entities, like billiard balls. The free market says that we are self-made, and that our thriving consists in Self-making. Ask a free-marketeer who he is. He’ll not pause. It’s a simple question. There’s nothing fuzzy about his shape. Its frontiers are the crisp contours of his suit. He is, simply, John Smith, courtesy of John Smith and a helluva lot of hard work and risk-taking, and you can do a money-laundering check to confirm that if you like. There’ll be no mention of any other people. He owes nothing to anybody. He’s a self-birthing wonder who came from nowhere, wiped his own bottom from birth, and has no dependents since dependency is culpable. No one will weep when he dies, and nor should they.

John Smith is absurd because, although his claims are common, and form the basis of the most influential political and economic policy, no one – no one – is actually the way that John Smith says he is. He had parents and a genetic inheritance shared overwhelmingly with flatworms. He had nappies, spoon-feeding, neural plasticity and, in the early hours of the morning in that Canary Wharf penthouse, ontological vertigo. He’ll die and be eaten. John Smith is absurd because he’s a biological impossibility. He’s in desperate danger because prophecies are self-fulfilling. If you say repeatedly that you’re X, and X doesn’t exist, you eventually become X, and evaporate.

Who’s Charles Foster? I’ve no idea – other than that he’s a misty, craven, derivative, chimerical creature whose position can only be described in terms of the nexus of relationships in which he exists and of which he consists. He’s the cousin of Jurassic shrews. He gave very little help at his own birth. He can only write anything at all if the children are fighting around him. He comes from Yorkshire and Somerset and Ireland via everywhere else. Too many of his molecules, despite his best efforts, regularly come from China and Thailand, and he fears loneliness like death – which indeed it is. In short, he is ordinary, and he exists.

The fact that this is the way that humans are is the fact acknowledged and addressed in the pub. It’s unlikely to be congenial to the non-existent John Smith. It’s too messy. Who owns the tune? The person who started it? But she’ll make no claim. She wouldn’t have started it if there weren’t anyone else there. The person who plays it for the first time, and for whom it becomes a foundational joy? And who is playing it? The only answer is: an organism, just as real as a coral reef, which exists only for the purposes and the duration of that tune, and whose characteristics are determined by the tune, the age of the beer, the diddly-dees of the bad whistler in the corner, the draft under the door, and the swirling lusts and jealousies.

Folk music works because it acknowledges that there are no real boundaries between people – or at least that the boundaries are thrillingly porous; that I’m defined entirely by my relationships. In the case of folk music, those relationships are not just with the other fiddlers or squeeze-boxers or mandolinists or singers; they’re with the land that’s being sung about and is being sung back to life, and with the dead whose tunes these were. A folk session is an advaitic séance with beer. And that’s simply too interesting to be Tory. Or, for that matter, Labour, Lib Dem, or anything else with a rosette.

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.