by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Although it may be difficult for those of you in New England to believe, spring has definitely sprung in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon had its warmest January on record, and much below average precipitation, according to NOAA’s National Climate Data Center. February also held above average temperatures in Oregon, with record high average temperatures for Washington and California. Perhaps this has to do with a combination of El Niño and the west coast’s placement in the warmer area of the Arctic Oscillation‘s negative phase undulations (while the east coast sat in its colder portion), but looking at longer-term trends in global climate, I suspect there is more to it than normal variability.
As I noticed the beginnings of buds on my trees and the emergence of early flowers in January and February, the topic of Amy Seidl‘s book Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World seemed particularly apt. Seidl wrote the book in 2009 and has since written Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming (2011). Due to my own experience of an early spring this year, I read her earlier work.
Amy Seidl is an ecologist and a professor by trade, and a mother and community member by intention. She appeared as the keynote speaker at Whole Terrain’s 2012 Communicating Science Conference, and one of her passions is communicating scientific concepts (especially around climate change) to those who don’t consider themselves scientists.
Amy Seidl is a gifted writer, deftly weaving stories of her small community, her family, and her plot of land with astute observations based on her scientific research. The title of her text is a clear nod to Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring, and Seidl quotes Carson’s work prominently. The resonance does not stop there: both Seidl and Carson study their microclimates through scientific and everyday observation, telling stories that strike at the heart of our sense of beauty, wonder, and our desire for a safe and lovely world for future generations. While Carson’s work, as a product of her time, focuses much on fear as a mechanism for inspiring cultural change regarding pesticide use, Seidl speaks in a voice more palatable for the twenty-first century: she observes and wonders, notices the beauty and the changes, queries about what is lost, acknowledges her own complicity, inspires her daughters to come alongside in care for their slice of land, and models adaptive behavior. Her work does not inspire fear, but awareness, thoughtfulness, and positive action.
Throughout this work, Seidl describes community activities that used to mark the seasons, or the change from one season to another, such as ice fishing, skating on the pond at Christmas, and gathering maple sugar in the nascent spring. These times of coming together as a community are disappearing or changing in her Vermont town as the ponds and lakes no longer freeze reliably and the optimum date for maple sugaring is more variable than it used to be. Seidl also describes her curiosity about growing plants that previously would not grow in her region, such as peaches and melons. There are benefits to global temperature increases, but she also describes the risks: symbiotically bound flora and fauna not appearing simultaneously such as pollinators and their host plants, the further spread of mosquito-borne illnesses due to increasingly beneficial insect conditions and a lack of predators at key points in their development, and the inability for some species to migrate to new areas that match their climate needs. Adaptation becomes an implicit theme, one she picked up explicitly in her more recent work. She discusses her struggle with feeling complicit with humanity’s impact on climate change if she adapts to the new conditions, but recognizes that adaptation is one of humanity’s greatest strengths — one on which we’ll need to fully capitalize if we hope to survive and thrive in coming climate conditions.
I also appreciated Seidl’s incorporation of stories of her children in this book. She attempts to teach them to appreciate the rhythms of the natural world, all the while staying flexible enough to respond to new conditions. She remains open to learning from her children, seeing the world through their wonder, encouraging them to explore, and allowing their joy to fuel her own.
Amy Seidl was gracious enough to sit down for a phone conversation with me recently. I hope you will enjoy hearing her thoughts on the writing process and explorations into changing social patterns as much as I did.
Whole Terrain: You are an excellent writer, and you are trained as an ecologist. Do you see yourself more as a writer or as a scientist?
Amy Seidl: When I wrote the book, I wrote from a scientific perspective. I was working as an ecologist at Middlebury College, and then as a sustainability scientist at the University of Vermont. Now I think of my role as a communicator. Sandra Steingraber calls herself “a scientist in the public interest,” and I’m going to own that, too. I’m choosing not to do my own original experimental work, but staying fluent in the field of climate science, teaching and writing about this body of work to people who aren’t able to be as informed about the issues. My work is more of a hybrid now, and I love it. I do miss field biology sometimes, and I may eventually return to it, but I also love language. I enjoy trying to find the language for scientific minutiae and making it more lyrical. I keep trying to probe the narrative basis of climate change, helping the reader feel comfortable so he or she can be honest about what the future might hold. My writing is not dystopic, but it is honest.
WT: What do you think we lose when historical community traditions like ice fishing, skating, and sugar tapping fade away?
AS: It makes us feel like something’s not right. How do we navigate this feeling of flux and departure from normal? Do we find a new normal, or get used to variability? It’s important to find a voice to express this discomfort, especially for those who have a deep connection to their landscape. I notice in myself a level of grief in my observation of the differences: acknowledging we’re going to lose, acknowledging we’re going to gain. I’m not yet sure how we’re going to “sugar out.”
In a course I teach called “Adaptation to Climate Change,” we discuss the concept of cultural evolution. It can actually proceed like biological evolution: both are under a selective force. Natural selection passes our biological traits through individual genes, while cultural evolution selects for innovation, knowledge, and ideas that suit the social and environmental setting.
In rural communities with long winters, traditions are essential to our wellbeing and healthiness, because we’re social beings who love being together. When we lose traditions, the cultural instinct is to find something else, but first we need to go through a process of grief. We no longer have that particular moment to celebrate. In the sugar maple celebration, there’s an ecstatic relief of the coming of spring. People have gone through their stores, and suddenly there’s this voluminous sugar! Kids get high on the sugar, the sun, the celebration of being together.
I’m not afraid there won’t be something to replace this tradition over time, but I am sad we’ll lose this particular rite of celebration. It’s one of the casualties, like the monarchs and polar bears. Cultural evolution will never be lost; it will always proceed. We’ll fill in something that meets our cultural and biological needs.
After grieving the loss of that tradition, we can move on to look for what we might do more of now, what we might celebrate now. If there’s not snow, we walk more. If we’re not tapping, what are we doing more of? I’m sure new celebrations will arrive. We will arrive, we will evolve. But it’s sorrowful to let go of that rich tradition.
WT: You sound ambivalent about adapting to new conditions: excited to try planting peaches or melons that wouldn’t grow in Vermont before, and maybe a little bit guilty, planting rye as an act of contrition to assuage your sense of complicity as a human benefiting from the systems that are causing climate change. What are your feelings now regarding your own adaptation and complicity?
AS: I appreciate how you framed the question. Yes, there is a certain ambivalence to entertaining the idea that there will be benefits from climate change when we see how the phenomenon is causing so much suffering in the world. That said, it forces us to put climate change in the context of both deep time and what I call deep pragmatism.
By deep time, I mean to say that changes have occurred in the planet’s evolutionary history and these changes forced life to adapt to them. Whether it was the arrival of oxygen-producing bacteria or the arrival of ice caps, life has responded through evolution.
Now we see biological evolution occurring in response to human-induced climate change. And while humans are unlikely to evolve a biological response, we will evolve cultural responses that are suited to the conditions we are living with. Our physical infrastructure will evolve to withstand violent storms, our transportation infrastructure and agriculture will respond to changing temperature and precipitation regimes, and so forth.
By deep pragmatism, I mean that individuals are responding, too. This is where home horticulture and intensely localized energy production. These can be interpreted as pragmatic responses to conditions people no longer want to be complicit in exacerbating. These actions are simultaneously evolutionary: part of evolving a culture that is now aware of our planetary effects.
So while my ambivalence is an honest one, I also see that experimentation (planting peaches in zone 3/4) and innovation are automatic responses — some might even say instinctive — of tool-making Homo sapiens.
WT: What are you working on now?
AS: I’m currently working on a couple of projects. One is a blend of social science and technology, analyzing our attempts at innovating our way through this climate change phenomenon. I’m learning about engineering, computer science, geoengineering, and how people are using these fields to amplify the carbon cycle. I’m trying to generate text that is available to a general reader so that more people can be part of this conversation.
I’m also working on a children’s book. I hope it will make the climate change conversation more accessible to kids, and I’m also hoping it will reach more urban audiences. This was a critique of Early Spring: since it’s intentionally focused on rural traditions and community building, people wondered how to build adaptive community traditions in an urban context. The kind of storytelling I do in Early Spring is really important for both children and adults so we can start to understand this big, big idea that there will be far less ice, snow, and glacial elements, changing ecosystem function, and changes to the species that make up those ecosystems. The book is grounded in ecological thinking, and addresses interactions between human beings and the natural in those new landscapes, including urban settings.
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It was an honor to speak with and learn from Amy Seidl through her book Early Spring and through this conversation. Her work appeals to our emotions and also grounds us, drawing our awareness to our own locale, encouraging small acts of activism that bring together community and world. Read it in the midst of your own early spring, wherever you are, and ponder the hints of change and adaptation the natural world is intimating to you in that place.