On the morning of Oct. 10 I took my kayak out on Lake Harriet. I wanted to go out on one last jaunt to cap off the boating season. The air temperature was in the 50s — brisk — but it spoke to the northern Minnesotan in me. Before I climbed in the kayak, I stepped in the lake. The water, too, was cold, but I have immersed my whole body in such like this before — bracing.
An older couple sat on a bench watching me pull my full-sized, plenty heavy kayak off my car, and carry it over to the lakeshore. They watched me put on my life jacket, straddle my boat, slip my legs into the boat’s opening, settle into the seat, grab my paddle, and push off. The man called out, “Well done!” and I laughed and gave him a thumbs-up.
The sun was still rising over the trees on the eastern shore as I set out. The lake was calm. I saw a pair of pied-billed grebes right away, and then mallards and geese. The birds and I had the lake to ourselves. The guys fishing on the pier on the south side, as well as the walkers and runners doing their circuits, seemed tiny and far away. A loon flew overhead. Gulls did likewise.
After a bit I saw a loon on the water near me. It had on its winter feathers: grey head, white chin and belly, and a faint hint of the black necklace. Jets roared overhead at regular intervals. I am concerned about the plan to send large numbers of them in a narrow band over this part of the city. I don’t want the noise over our house and yard, of course, but I’m also concerned about the many miles we Minnesotans log driving north to lake country. We must use our cars less to curb our carbon emissions. How can we convince ourselves to stay here to relax if we make hanging out at our lakes unappealing?
I recently read a piece in the New York Times that said future generations serve us because they motivate our good behavior. We work hard to try to leave things in good shape for our kids and grandkids. The writer indirectly raised the question: How would we behave if we didn’t think there would be future generations? The sad answer came to me: Probably about the way we do now.
At a dinner party this summer I mentioned that I was doing political work related to climate disruption. A bright, thoughtful guy said, “Aren’t we all doomed? Isn’t it better to just ignore it?” Well, gee, I don’t think so. But we are really good at denial. If we walked around every day thinking, “One day I am going to die,” we wouldn’t get anything done or have any fun.
But I fear that our generalized denial of death has slickly transferred itself over to this huge climate problem: the death of life as we know it. It seems too hard to face. Rather than change our behavior, we pretend it won’t happen, either.
I came across an image that might help us face it. The environmentalist Nance Klehm says she is like a spider. She has eight legs, and she needs all of them on the ground in order to move forward. Her environmental work takes multiple forms, among them: writing, leading foraging tours, designing landscapes.
I put my own spin on her image. I began to think of each aspect of my life as a leg: friend, family member, writer, appreciator of the arts, churchgoer, activist, homeowner, nature-lover. I can’t live in full red alert about the climate; I’d wear myself out. But if I think of political work as just one of my legs, and make sure the other seven stay exercised as well, I can hang in there.
When I think back over the past year, I see that climate work has become central not just to my activist leg, but to the others as well. I had an energy audit done on our house, and am having more insulation put in our attic. At church I chair our climate group. In my writing, I am critical of our dependence on oil. I will soon begin teaching a new class, “Writing to Make a Difference,” on how to make political writing stronger (go to ww.loft.org for more information).
Paradoxically, rather than wear me down, bringing this concern into other aspects of my life in this way has made me stronger. That strength has been a surprise. Last fall I faced our climate mess and grieved. I didn’t know I was building the emotional foundation for long-term work, but I was.
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.