Wild City // Human/Nature

I’ve been thinking about the emotional roller coaster a nature lover like me is on these days, given all the threats to the health of the planet. I live in two very different states of mind: one is awe and a feeling of being uplifted, and the other is frustration, accompanied by being brought down.

For example, three days before Christmas my husband and I took a walk around Lake Harriet with our daughter. At the outset we saw two bald eagles, one flying right toward us. It landed in a tree not far from where we stood.

After we’d made our way around the loop and were just about to peel off from the lake, my husband saw a raccoon up in a tree. It was curled in on itself, hiding its head, and its tail hung down. It looked like a coonskin cap that had been thrown up there and had stuck. The raccoon’s thick fur, grey tipped with black, was fluffed in the wind, and gorgeous.

It buoyed our spirits to see the eagle and the raccoon so close to home. Many of the best moments of my days are shaped by sightings like these.

On the other hand, watching Congress play politics with the Keystone XL pipeline just before Christmas was disheartening and frightening. I ran into a friend the other day, and as I stood telling her about it, I found myself talking faster and faster, my voice getting higher. Then I stopped and breathed.

This pipeline would stretch from Canada to Texas, and would carry tar sands oil from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. To get at this especially toxic oil (we have yet to figure out how we’d clean up a spill) oil companies scrape off the boreal forests (which, when intact, help reduce global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide), dig large pits, extract the oil and leave behind pools of toxins.

The two main arguments in favor of the pipeline are persistent, but one of them is inflated, the other false. The number of jobs created by building the pipeline would apparently be only a few thousand, not the tens of thousands claimed; the promise of safe oil, oil coming from Canada rather than the Mideast, is unfounded. The oil would be refined in Texas, but much of it is already spoken for and would be shipped to other countries.

So the U.S. would take all the risks (pipeline breaks are expected), but get none of the benefits. The New York Times, in an editorial, has said the only shovel that should be used for this so-called shovel-ready project is the one that would bury it.

This past fall President Obama sent the project back to the State Department to be re-evaluated, a process that was to take a year or more, but in December Congress succeeded in forcing the issue by attaching it to the tax bill. The President now has to decide what to do about the pipeline by the end of February.

When the State Department held meetings along the proposed route in 2011, they asked citizens to speak to the question: Is the Keystone XL pipeline in America’s best interest?

America’s best interest? I wondered. America is a dang abstraction. What about the earth’s best interest? The earth is real. The earth would get along just fine without the United States of America, but we’d have a heck of a time existing on a dead planet. We are already struggling to live on a degraded planet.

I’ve been thinking about how to find some synthesis between nature-inspired transcendence and politically inspired despair. I came across this quote in a recent New Yorker review of the essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan. It provides perspective. In his essay collection Pulphead, Sullivan writes the following, summarizing the thoughts of a French explorer:

What’s true of us is true of nature. If we are conscious, as our species seems to have become, then nature is conscious. Nature became conscious in us, perhaps in order to observe itself. It may be holding us out and turning us around like a crab does its eyeball. Whatever the reason, that thing out there, with the black holes and the nebulae and whatnot, is conscious. One cannot look in the mirror and deny this. It experiences love and desire, or thinks it does.

I am startled to be reminded that we humans are nature, and through us nature can see itself. There are seeds of hope in this. Given that we are conscious, and we can think about how we treat Mother Earth, could we really claim to love her?

As my mother said when I was behaving badly: “Just look at yourself.”

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.