September 26, 2023

TEBBUTT | Decline and Fall: How to Enjoy One Despite the Other

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In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” 

Baba Dioum, 1968.

Something unusual happened this weekend, right here in New York: On Saturday, September 23rd, after a summer that will be remembered for its fiery red skies, creeping heatwaves and sudden deluges, the autumnal equinox drifted in without incident.

Ithaca’s skies were draped in seasonable gray; the temperature hovered at 54.8°F (12.6°C), well within the 30-year average. A light rain dappled the earth as students wistfully remembered sunny mornings past.

That’s not to say there wasn’t any fanfare; autumn’s liveries are the richest of any season. The red maples (Acer rubrum) in Baker Court swapped green guises for their true vermilion. Up on North Campus, something moved in the canopy of Palmer Woods. With black-and-white body and head of glorious yellow Technicolor, a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) foraged for bugs and berries among the leaves. Every fall, this little traveler rides the north-westerly winds from Canada to Mexico to wait out the snow. Watching all of this unfold like clockwork, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all is right with the world; that the system works.

Here is the part you’ve been waiting for, and that you likely know by rote: Thanks to the continued actions of certain sectors of human society, we’re still on course to bring about the sixth mass extinction, exceed our 1.5°C warming target, and push six of nine planetary boundaries even further beyond breaking point. By all of these counts, the system is pretty much broken.

Yet there is so much that is working in order to bring that little 10 g (0.35 oz) bird up and down across the North American continent, and to turn those leaves from green to gold more or less on cue. From the timing of leaf-out to the hatching of caterpillar eggs, a myriad of complex systems intertwine to guide the migrations of more than 4,000 bird species worldwide. While there is no denying the many-headed threats facing our wildlife and ecosystems, their resilience is something to admire.

Working in a crisis discipline like conservation, it is my job to fixate on everything that is going wrong with the world (yes —– I am marvelous fun at parties) . “Sobering” doesn’t quite capture the anxiety, tears and hopelessness that can attend daily contemplation of the multiple, intersecting ways that our earth system is in decline. But if we’re talking about sustainability, then neither the despair of Troy’s Cassandra nor the naïveté of Candide’s Dr. Pangloss make for a long-term plan.[1]

While we ring our hands, renege on climate commitments and put oil bosses at the head of our climate negotiations, the natural world is busy moving forward. From maple trees to right whales, species are shifting their patterns and behaviors to adapt to climate change, with varying degrees of success. There is increasing recognition of nature’s resilience and propensity for change; the emphasis on preservation and stability in David Attenborough’s first Our Planet series notably shifted to focus on change and movement in this year’s installment.

Finding the right level of concern and optimism around the great environmental challenges of our time remains an ongoing struggle for me and many others. On one hand, I agree with recent assertions that “we should be on a war footing” with regard to the climate. On the other, New York’s roads show plainly the fate of animals that freeze, awe-struck, in the way of approaching threats.

Evidently, we must not deceive ourselves as to the extent of the 21st century’s environmental crises. Nonetheless, I am certain that the foundation to any solution is the cultivation of love, respect and awareness for our local environments. Indigenous scholars Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer and Dr. Gregory Cajete argue that we can only understand the world through engaging our “mind, body, emotion and spirit.” Like Kimmerer, I find so much that is moving and restorative in stepping away from the graphs and numbers to be out amid the goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and  aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae): “September fields[…] ] embroidered with drifts of golden yellow and pools of deepest purple.” 

This fall, I urge you to go out and savor the Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, whether by marveling at the Fall migration, celebrating next weekend’s Apple Harvest Festival, or attending Dr Kimmerer’s can’t-miss talk on Indigenous Knowledge For Land Care. To protect what we love and vice versa, we must remember to marvel at the incredible world that continues to vibrate in constant flux around us:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

-from Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

[1] SPOILER ALERT: Cassandra shares the tragic fate of her beloved homeland, while Pangloss suffers syphilis and imprisonment, among other things.

Charlie Tebbutt is a third year PhD candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His fortnightly column Rêveries is a collection of musings that wander from the hill, over the Atlantic and out to the beautiful planet that we all share. He can be reached at [email protected].

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