Finding hope on a hot planet: new book features essay by Wisconsin’s own Curt Meine

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast…”

–Alexander Pope

Hope. Not surprisingly, the word is on the minds and lips of many people these days. President Obama, who will speak in Madison tomorrow, built his campaign for the nation’s highest office on it. In these unsettling times, do you still have hope? For our country? For our world? If not, why not? Where does your hope come from? Is there a hope gene or is it an infectious thing? If hope is lost, can it be found again? Can it be sustained? If so, how?

For thousands of years human beings have relied in large measure on spring, with its light and warmth, its blooms and burblings, to boost our vitamin H levels. In a powerful essay titled “Hope’s Springs Eternal” that appears in the new book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, Curt Meine asks how we can maintain hope when spring doesn’t just warm our chilled bones, it melts the polar ice caps.

Curt and I wanted to share his essay with Climate Chronicle readers in May, but we needed to wait for permission from the book’s publishers. The book’s just now been released in hardcover. I think the delay was fortuitous, because autumn may be as appropriate a season as spring to reflect on Curt’s words. As my dictionary reminds me, autumn is not only the season between summer and winter, it is also a period of maturity verging on decline.

Because I’m usually a rather hopeful person, I’d like to stress the maturity part of that definition. And so, it seems, would Curt. In his essay he argues that if we want spring to remain a time of hope and renewal rather than concern and fear for future generations, we will have to find a replacement for the naïve hope that spring brings us — gratis — and that will likely be in shorter supply in the future. Increasingly, Curt writes, we will need to generate a mature hope out of the depths of our own hearts. Attentiveness and commitment, he says, will be the habits of a hopeful people.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

As my regular readers know, Curt’s roots in Wisconsin and Sauk County run deep and his mark on the field of conservation here and around the nation has been profound. Originally from Pennsylvania, Curt attended graduate school at the UW-Madison and worked for several years at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, just down the road from ICF, and Director of Conservation Biology and History at the Center for Humans and Nature. Curt is also the author of a biography of Aldo Leopold and Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold and Conservation.

Now Curt’s work is getting the international attention it deserves. In Moral Ground, his essay rubs shoulders with the reflections of over 70 global leaders and literary luminaries including the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Barack Obama, Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Marcus Borg, Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas Friedman.

If you live anywhere near Madison, don’t miss the chance to hear Curt read his essay at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison this Thursday, September 30th at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and part of the Wisconsin Book Festival, the theme of which this year is beliefs. Afterward, Curt and and some of the book’s other contributors will be participating in A Moral Ground Townhall Meeting: Why It’s Wrong to Wreck the World. Click here and here for more information about this event and other climate-related talks in the Madison area this week.

Meanwhile, enjoy this sneak peek at Curt’s essay. Read it slowly to more fully appreciate Curt’s masterful choice and arrangement of words, as well as their meaning.

Hope’s Springs Eternal

Curt Meine

The time of renewal has arrived again in the American Midwest. In the wetlands, migrating ducks and geese find open water, silver maples bud out, marsh marigolds explode with sun-yellow blooms, muskrats jostle for territory, chorus frogs click, and spring peepers testify to their name. In the woodlands, ephemerals appear. A month ago, sugar maples sprouted sap buckets. Now the anemones and Dutchman’s breeches and spring beauties emerge from below, and transitory warblers arrive overhead. Ferns unfurl. The invasive garlic mustard seizes the daylight and overtakes entire woodlots. In the prairies, pasque flowers launch the season, the soils and grasses dry, and human beings with drip torches and cigarette lighters and water cans train fires to restore the land’s vitality. In gardens, barnyards, fields, orchards, and pastures, we mingle again with the soil and plants and animals in the year’s opening acts of production; vegetables, greens, grains, fruit, milk, and meat will follow. In towns and cities, we shed, layer by layer, our winter pelage and torpor. We all come to that instant when we are suddenly struck by the lengthening and warming of the days—and take the moment to congratulate ourselves for making it through the months of cold and darkness.

Every spring in Wisconsin our topography recapitulates our geology. Winter gives way to spring as the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene. The ice melts back, south to north.  Snow piles persist late on the north slopes, in the deeper valleys, under the conifers. Thawing snow banks leave behind mini-moraines of sand and gravel and grit, lost gloves, beer cans, and candy wrappers. People venture forth again into the re-opened landscape, and plants and animals reclaim territory. Pools of meltwater linger in fields, holding the tractors back and the ducks on for at least a few weeks. When the water table is high, as it has been lately, and the pools stay, cattails and arrowheads sprout amazingly from the over-corned, mucky seed banks.

Maybe it was this annual recapitulation that informed the flood and origin stories of the Midwest’s native people. Maybe it inspired early naturalists and geologists to see so well the region’s glacial past and to understand the reality of geologic time and climatic change. In his fresh Wisconsin youth in the 1850s, John Muir imprinted on the region’s glaciated lands and waters, developing the imagination that later allowed him to see the way of the ice through Yosemite’s high cirques and valleys. In the 1870s, geologist T.C. Chamberlin began his field studies of the moraines of southeastern Wisconsin. This work allowed him to piece together the epic story of North America’s glacial past, to track the pulsing advances and melt-backs that shaped the lay of the land. His expertise led Chamberlin literally to define the terms of the Pleistocene. In an 1896 contribution to the Journal of Geology, he provided the first classification and names for North America’s glacial stages. Chamberlin called the most recent period the Wisconsin stage, reflecting the prominence of glacial features—moraines, boulder fields, basins, drumlins, eskers, kames, lakes, ponds, beach ridges—in his home landscape. In speculating upon the causes and effects of glaciation, Chamberlin was among the first scientists to consider the Earth as an entire, complex, dynamic system. He was also among the first to identify the critical role that long-term carbon cycling played in influencing climatic conditions.

The work of Chamberlin and other early earth scientists pulled back the curtain on Earth’s environmental past, revealing its incredible panoply of climatic change. Older stories of creation, change, and human origins took on new meaning. In the process, we took a bite out of Eden’s apple, gained self-awareness, came to new understandings of our earthly reality. But in the bargain we also lost the pure innocence of spring and the easiness of hope.

Once upon a time, we knew nothing about carbon dioxide and methane concentrations, Milankovich cycles and paleoclimates, albedo effects and thermohaline circulation. We could appreciate the spring for what we experienced it to be:  the annual return of warmth and light and life. The hope we found in the spring could be wildly and wonderfully ungrounded—effortless, irrational, even unrealistic. We could simply feel the season’s sensations and processes: anticipation, energy, promise, revival, rebirth, renewal.

Then we gained critical understanding of the seasons. We came to know the return of spring as a contingent phenomenon, an expression of complex and interacting natural forces changing ceaselessly over space and through time. We grew to understand how the creatures of the air and land and sea responded to such changes. How, as the continental glaciers melted back over the millennia, species’ ranges expanded and shrank, populations rose and fell, migration routes stretched out, anatomies adapted, life cycles shifted, ecological relationships reordered themselves. And how, toward the end of the Pleistocene, human beings began walking out of Africa.

Then we gained critical understanding of our contribution to a changing spring. How we came out of the ice ages with new ways to both exploit and symbolize the living world around us, intensifying our relationships within it and our impacts upon it. How we built human civilization over twelve post-glacial millennia by drawing upon the energy-rich carbon held in the soils, forests, coal beds, oil and natural gas fields, using it to fuel our agricultural, Neolithic, industrial, and information revolutions. How through systematic exploitation of those pools of energy we changed the land, with consequences both intended and unintended. How those consequences included the further build-up of greenhouse gases, the scrambling of ecosystems, the altering of soils and hydrologies and chemistries, and the diminishing of biological diversity at accelerated rates and expanded scales.  How we changed ourselves and our human communities in the process.  We now track the oncoming spring not just as an astronomical or meteorological phenomenon, but as in part a cultural phenomenon. Through phenological studies, we chronicle changes in the timing of frosts and thaws, bloomings and callings, migrations and hatchings—but now we calculate degrees of human influence on those changes.

At the beginning of this century, scientists coined a new term—the Anthropocene—to distinguish the current geologic era of unprecedented human impacts on the Earth, its systems, and its other life forms. As our actions as Homo sapiens have changed the spring, so have they changed the very geography and phenology of hope. How can one hope when spring now signifies such drastic change—when it does not just warm our chilled bodies, but liquefies the polar ice sheets?  How can one hope when facing an increasingly uncertain future?

And so, in the Anthropocene, hope too becomes an increasingly human artifact.  From time immemorial hope has been a joyful human response to geological, orbital, and environmental flux.  Now hope must become more and more a human creation. In a spring that is several degrees more humanized, we cannot just rely on the earth’s circling of the sun to provide us with a free supply of hope. We will need to do more than just gather the wild expectations and aspirations that arise spontaneously from the earth and sun. We will need to cultivate it, to make it. We will need to generate hope out of the human heart, expanding the circle of our concern and compassion.

We confront a great challenge and a daunting obligation: to ensure that, for future generations, spring remains a season of hope and renewal rather than concern and fear. To do so we will need to ground hope, redefine it, put it to work. In its innocent, pre-Anthropocene incarnation, hope was (in Emily Dickinson’s timeless rendering) a thing with feathers that perched in the soul and flew on its own. In its newly sobered form, hope must become a thing of encouragement, attentiveness, and mindfulness; of competence and commitment; of confidence in our ability to perform wisely and well as human beings. If our naive hope has flown off, our mature hope must gain the self-assurance of the spring migrant, ever alert to change yet able and determined to wing its way onward. We are bound now to renew the experience of renewal itself.

From the book Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (c 2010). Reprinted courtesy of Trinity University Press.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for such a beautiful, thoughtful overview.

    Hope has been an interesting emotion for me. After large personal losses in my life, I came to places where I had little or none. Interestingly, in retrospect, I see that hope was returned to me by degrees, corresponding with my time in nature. Not time in churches, or even conversation, as much as time outdoors. Now hope for the future seems naiive to me without some changes in my behaviors. I want to ensure that my grandchildren will have the pleasure of enjoying this earth as teacher and healer too. I am hoping that enouth of us will harken to Curt and other teachers, and do what we can to lessen our impact on the environment. I believe that this is the only way we can truly earn the emotion of hope for the future.

  2. Hope has been an interesting emotion for me, too, Cindy. I’ve become somewhat ambivalent about hope in recent years. Like you and others, I find that my stores of hope rise after spending time in the natural world. But I no longer go hunting hope the way I once did. I used to believe hope was essential to a rich, meaningful life. Now I wonder if it’s not the other way around.

    One of my favorite hope quotes is from Oscar Romero. He said that we shouldn’t pursue hope. Sort of an odd thing for a Catholic priest who worked with the poorest of the poor to say, right? But that wasn’t all he said. He said that instead of chasing hope, we should try to be faithful. I’m not Catholic, but I take what Romero said to mean that we should be faithful to whatever our highest values are.

    I think that might be partly what Curt means when he writes that we should put hope to work.