Recent conditions on my road have made it clear that my Vermont town and my particular life experience is (like the entire human race) subject to the impact of climate change — just as we’re collectively, globally, subject to the ongoing pandemic. So while I continue to make efforts to minimize the impact of my day-to-day living on the deteriorating environment, in recent days it’s become clear that a good deal of adaptation will be needed on the dead-end dirt road I regularly rely upon to go anywhere and to return home again (via the gas-dependent vehicle that requires roads).
Spending lots of time in the woods, I’m aware of the human impact on the lives of insects and birds and mammals, along with the creatures of the pond I enjoy kayaking in. How the monarch butterfly population has been radically reduced, so much that it’s become noteworthy each time I see just one of the orange beauties (every couple of weeks, by marked contrast with the many who flew in my midst not many summers ago). After years of being rare hereabouts, moose had become more populous for some years. Now their numbers are diminished by the influx of ticks caused by climate change, the ticks bearing down on the moose herd faster than evolutionary adaptation can hope to keep pace with. On and on it goes, the creatures’ numbers diminishing before our eyes.
The heart wants ceaselessly to break.
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A human being knows that life is brief — both an individual existence and the lifespan of a given species. Our fellow animals appear not to know such things. Each occupies present-moment reality: that is all. The exquisite luna moth is unaware (and so is not equipped to lament) its fleeting lifespan, a single week. I once happened upon mating lunas. If they were experiencing pleasure, it was not diminished by awareness of their brevity. It appears to be the same for our beloved dogs and cats, for the blue whale, the bat afflicted with white-nose syndrome. Nor does the bald eagle — its numbers greatly increased — celebrate the growing health of its kind. It simply soars, defends its nest, scours the river for fish.
Our physical well-being is enhanced by a healthy environment. Our deep interior is dependent on no circumstance for well-being.
Consider the orientation of the creatures, the way it seems to be for them. They navigate and hunt, feed themselves and their young, even as they seek shelter from the recent deluge that has ravaged my dirt road. Their daily lives are in need of constant re-configuring, since the changes wrought by climate change come much faster than evolution can keep up with.
Our fellow animals adapt as necessary, as best they can in the taxing conditions. However, unlike humans, they do not appear to lament what is lost, nor do they begrudge the extra effort involved in adapting to changed living circumstances.
They don’t wonder (or fear) how much worse things are going to get.
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Might the creatures be our wise teachers, in this difficult time, and in the worsening times to come? While our physical well-being is enhanced by a healthy environment, our deep interior is dependent on no circumstance for radical well-being. For although we big-brained mammals are doubtless responsible for having so severely damaged our world that there’s no undoing the harm, we are also happily endowed with the nature of the innocent animals whose world we share.
It is possible for a person to do as our fellow creatures do (even as we make efforts not to worsen things). It’s within our means to make the necessary and possible adaptations to our living circumstances, while not being swamped by anger or fear, or crippled by guilt and paralyzing grief in the face of gathering losses and the challenge to ongoing survival. Nor do we need to blindly distance ourselves from the reality of the severe conditions coming about or our culpability in causing them.
Following the example of the moose and the dwindling honeybees, the songbirds and the salmon, we can instead apply our innate resources — including our excellent minds — to find ways to adapt, perhaps to slow the devastation. In this effort, we can use the very minds that long ago designed a gas-powered device for speedy travel, ignorant of its cost to the lovely world that sustains all life.
The less “intelligent” animals presumably don’t know what we know: that we are to blame. This blessed innocence leaves them unburdened, their considerable resources fully available to direct to new ways and places of continuing to live, where that is possible.
The challenge for us (since we do know) is this: how to hold the knowledge of our complicity without becoming poisoned by it, without distancing ourselves from reality, lapsing into denial, or turning rigid. All of it as we proceed with the task kindred to all creatures who dwell here: to seek realistic ways of carrying on, given the worsening conditions.
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Many a spiritual seeker learns to lament the mind’s ability to “live in the future,” its tendency to spin a real-seeming story about how bad things could get, given the power of such visualization to inflict unnecessary suffering. We learn to observe the way the mind’s persistent mischief interferes with the ability to be-here-now, to feel the immediacy of aliveness.
Yet our highly-evolved brains can anticipate in a way that can be of practical benefit. We see how a given condition will likely deteriorate, yielding X-Y-Z outcomes altering the landscape, thus enabling us to address complex problems. The mind is thereby able to visualize the future in a way that can truly benefit us (and our fellow earth inhabitants), in this time of needing to make rapid adaptations.
It’s wise not to “throw out the baby with the bath water,” to mistakenly suppose that the mind is exclusively devoted to the maintenance of the pain-inflicting ego: for the highly-evolved human brain is able (when not misapplied) to be of enormous benefit in the outer arena of physical existence. While exploring the misuse of the mind, in the inner life, it is crucial to make the distinction between these two possible applications of mental activity.
When a person ceases to confuse a mental picture of person-ness with reality itself, there can be the discovery of the vast benefit of the very mind that has caused so much mischief. Leaning to make this distinction is one of the real blessings of wakefulness.
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My dirt road is getting deeply rutted. Therefore my fellow local humans, whose job it is to care for the roads, will perhaps be coming up the road with big trucks, filling in the ruts with new gravel. Endowed as they are with the ability to anticipate coming episodes of heavy, protracted rain, predicted by climate scientists, the road crew will likely move to paving the road that has only ever been made of gravel. Which will mean the town’s taxes will surely go up, and so (therefore) will my rent.
I see all of this unfolding. But bitterness does not enter the picture. Nor does fear, or resistance, or protracted lament — even as I’m aware that we humans (me included, with my lifetime of gas-guzzling cars) have caused it.
Meanwhile, I live in the moment. That bird song I hear just now: I pause to take it in fully, not letting its infrequency interfere with the beauty of this song. Nor do I waste the precious moment lamenting once-upon-a-time, or anticipating the day I may no longer hear its song. This bird really is here, just now. It may not always be. What else to do but drink in its lovely music, the mind utterly still?
Every moment — whatever it may hold — is brief. It’s all we have, all we are. Ever.
Listen. Feel. Enjoy. The now is here, ever changing. Don’t let the knowledge of brevity and loss and responsibility interfere with your ability to savor the song, while it’s here: while you’re here. Pay attention, blessed attention. Live!
What besides pausing to take in the immediacy of something lovely — the view of the sunset, the ocean curling away from the shore, the scent of hay on the breeze — can better equip us to make necessary changes in our own ways of occupying this beloved planet? What better than the bodied cherishing of what is still here all around us?