Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Earth Day 2020: A Different World

Not long before the Plague descended and changed all of our lives, perhaps forever, The Beloved Spouse and I decided to take our travel trailer, Porco Rosso, out for a dry run--training for our planned trip west in early May. We trussed up Nylah and Molly in their harness and carrier, loaded up the bed of the truck with whatever gear we hadn't already stowed in the trailer, and headed south.

The original plan was to camp at Padre Island National Seashore, stopping at a state park about halfway there, and spending two or three days on the beach. We located a park that sounded interesting and was about the right distance away; we didn't want to travel for more than three or four hours because of the beasts. But when we chose the time slot, we discovered that the National Park Service would be doing a controlled burn at the seashore for part of the time we wanted to be there, so we decided just to stay for a few days at the "interim" location: Palmetto State Park near Gonzalez--in the Austin/San Antonio area.

We dutifully applied for season park passes, made reservations (getting the last available spot in the small RV campground), and planned for three nights.  It turned out to be a terrific choice, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. What's really wonderful about the Texas parks (as opposed to the national ones) is that we could take Nylah with us on trails, which she (of course) loved.  It was early enough in the year (the end of January) that our fellow campers were mostly geezers like us, or European tourists. Things were quiet at night, and we mostly had the trails to ourselves when we went out three or four times a day for long walks.

Porco is a "bunkhouse" trailer (20 ft.) with two sleeping areas designed for kids, but which serve as play/sleep areas for Molly, and under which her own personal loo is located. We cut a cat flap that leads into a storage area where her extra-large corner litter box could be housed and where she could get away from any commotion Nylah might cause. The plan was to begin her Adventure Cat training with her new harness and leash, but we could only get her onto the steps, so that was postponed. She spent the time enjoying the view from the two bunk windows, the window over the dinette, and the one by our bed. The bed is what the RV industry calls a "queen," but which is really more like a normal full, and is a bit of a squeeze for two adults and a Very Large Dog.

Molly and Nylah waiting patiently as we pack up for home.

The weather was quite fine when we arrived at around three in the afternoon, and we took a walk as soon as we'd settled ourselves. The next day was somewhat misty and gloomy, which provided us with a more complex perspective than if it had been fair the whole time. Palmetto is almost primeval in many spots, with swamps and bogs, palmetto palms, and with Spanish moss hanging from trees in many of the microclimes. The San Marcos River winds through the park, and periodically floods the area, which is why it's a good idea not to go without checking long-term weather forecasts in advance. When we were walking along one trail, we noticed an eerie change in color on the trees at a uniform height, and then realized that it marked a fairly recent flood.

Although the flora and terrain in places suggest that dinosaurs wouldn't be inappropriate, the indigenous fauna include the usual suspects: armadillos, deer, raccoon, rabbits, and snakes. Attentive twitchers can feast their field glasses on some 240 species of birds. At one point we came upon a pair of prehistoric-looking vultures nesting in a tree next to a river path. We made it a point to take a dogless walk every evening so that we could see the deer meandering through the meadows and swampy areas without their being frightened away by our often overly enthusiastic pooch.

Pond next to the CCC water tower.

San Marcos River low-water crossing

The trip provided us with an unexpected and refreshing look at a part of Texas we hadn't visited together, even though TBS had grown up in the region and I used to backpack nearby. As a result of this experience, we immediately started making plans to visit parks a little closer to home, even after our trek west.

And then the world changed.

Celebrating Earth Day this year is fraught with all of the political, economic, and cultural ramifications of a pandemic that few people seem to understand fully, and too many seem to be unable to accept as real and really problematic. We've only been hunkered down for about six weeks, the total number of infected people is largely unknown, the means to combat the virus itself are not imminent, and this country is flying blind into the future. 

Oddly enough, the environment is faring better as we become sicker. Air pollution is down, water is cleaner in some areas, and fewer animals are dying on highways. Not coincidentally, fewer humans are being maimed and killed in automobile accidents. I'm hesitant to call this a "silver lining" because so very many people are suffering so badly. But as I think through the possibilities of long-term effects, I can't help but wonder how our modern, technological, "efficient," wasteful, cruel (to the animals whose "products" we consume, and all too often to other people), growth-obsessed, and greedy culture might change as a result of being locked down.

Might we learn to do with less stuff, eat more nutritious food from more local sources, live more kindly, drive less, find ways to live without fossil fuels, and take better care of ourselves, our children, and our neighbors?

I do not expect these questions to be answered easily or simply. But I do know that changes in our own lives, in this house, over the last three years, have made the impact of social distancing much less trying than it might have been. In the near future I'll be using this experience in my revision of More News From Nowhere, and will probably harness my website to explore some of the questions and possible answers, and collect the wisdom of others--past and present--as inspiration.

In the meantime, please wear your masks in public, go out only when necessary, live as lightly on the Earth as possible, and try to effect meaningful, long-term economic change by reflecting on the impact your actions will have on the future of your children. And please remember the health-care workers and first-responders who stand to suffer for the actions of people who really do think their haircut is more important than somebody else's life.

We would love to go back to Palmetto, but even though Texas governor Greg Abbott has reopened the parks (for day use, anyway), we won't. If one single person who maintains the trails, cleans the restrooms, or manages the headquarters contracts this virus and dies, it's our fault for not believing the science.

I wish I could wish everyone a happy Earth Day, but I'll settle for wishing you all a thoughtful one. May we all be in a better place in a year's time.

Addendum: On second thought, watch this, all the way through. If we truly are all in this together, we just need to change. Radically. Now.

Image notes: These were all taken with my antique iPhone 7.  Although there are few real "sky shots" included, do please link over to Skywatch Friday for photos from all around the Earth.

Monday, April 13, 2020

A Hard Way To Go

John Prine at Yellowstone National Park in 2016

Just give me one thing
that I can hold on to
To believe in this livin'
is just a hard way to go
--John Prine
Angel From Montgomery

These days, as advancing decrepitude has begun to affect my hearing, I don't listen to much music any more. I also get "ear worms" that keep me awake at night, so try not to listen to anything with a lingering chorus, or a tune that won't go away. But the other day I started thinking about some of the folks who informed my youth--Steve Goodman, Joan Baez, Neil Young, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine. 

Some of their songs came wafting back into my consciousness, especially as the consequences of our current government's lack of scientific understanding has cost thousands of lives. I often wonder how the many folks who aren't as well insulated or comfortably ensconced as we are can even get by, and last week while this stuff was going through my mind, something else drifted in: John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery", and its haunting chorus. [Note: The Washington Post's article on this song includes Prine's performance for Austin City Limits.]

I had just read about his death from the COVID19 virus, and had spent most of the day teary-eyed and submerged in memories of my twenties and thirties and all the music that provided a score for my life at the time. And even though "Angel" was really about an old woman in a bad marriage, I had seen it as a sort of anthem for young women who wanted to avoid ending up like that. But this week the lines quoted above seem to resonate with different circumstances in these times.

While I was reading the Times obit, I found Margaret Renkl's opinion piece, "John Prine: American Oracle", written 1918, just after she had attended a concert in Nashville. She closes the essay with this recognition:
At the Ryman on Oct. 5, the night when Mitch McConnell announced he had the votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, the songwriter who once called the United States on its dirty little war in Vietnam made an allusion to the controversy when he introduced “Angel From Montgomery.” Dedicating the song to all the women in the audience, he said, “It’s a sad, sad day when women can’t be believed.” This country has never needed John Prine more.

I have spent the better part of half my life in Texas, which can't make up its mind whether to be a part of the south, or a part of the midwest. Or even the southwest. Its politics are problematic at best, unless one lives in the few (but growing in influence) enclaves where being a Democrat doesn't mark one with some sort of devilry. Most of my remaining friends live in the true south: Asheville, North Carolina; Nashville; Floyd, Virginia--and what we have in common is our left-leaning politics and hot, humid, tornado-prone weather. We're all hunkered down in our living spaces in areas ambivalent about the pandemic and thus likely to jump on the chance to "reopen the economy" long before it's really safe to do so. So it's hard to know how we'll fare in the end. We're all about John Prine's age (73), so we fall into the high-risk category, like he did.

In the decade or so I've been writing this blog, I've tried to be as politically neutral as I could--especially since many of my early readers were students with ambivalent politics and whom I didn't want to chase away before they had a chance to learn how to think critically about issues that were only just becoming important to them. But now these former students are out in the real world, trying to negotiate their young careers in perilous times. So I think it's important to remind them of what they stand to lose if politics-as-usual (or at least as "usual" since 2016) continues to mix with the realities of plague and pestilence.

In hopes of raising some consciousnesses, I'm closing this post with a link from a Medium article by Julio Vincent Gambuto, "Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting."* This is the most articulate description of our present situation I've come across, and the most convincingly dire warning I've seen on the alternatives that await us. It's a reminder that while I can spend time on my half acre enjoying the clean air and reduced noise, our relentlessly greed- and comfort-oriented political economy in the U.S. can easily resurge with a vengeance. As Gambuto points out, we have a chance to rethink our collective future once the worst is really over. But as rationally challenged as our current president is, as problematic as his presidency has been, and as increasingly malevolent as he seems to be, he could still be re-elected.

And then we'd have little at all to hold onto, and no John Prine to chronicle our despair.

*Medium has graciously made this article available without charge to non-subscribers.
Image Credit: Prine was a headliner at Yellowstone National Park's celebration "Evening at the Arch" on August 25, 2015. Via Wikimedia Commons.