The hope cycle

“He that lives upon hope will die fasting.”

-Ben Franklin

Hope-sprung

I was not raised Roman Catholic or brought up in a faith tradition of any sort. Nevertheless, one Lenten season about a decade ago I gave up something significant – for good.

What I gave up was hope, but that is not the only irony in this tale, because I hold a Catholic Archbishop responsible for the fact. It was Oscar Romero’s words, printed in the program of a Protestant church I happened to attend one Sunday all those years ago, that lodged themselves in my head and heart:

“…if you need to feel hope you are courting despair, and if you court despair you’ll stop working. So try to wean yourself from this need to have hope. Try to have faith instead, to do what you can, and stop worrying about whether or not you’re effective. Worry about what is possible for you to do, which is always greater than you imagine.”

So it is more accurate to say that I gave up chasing hope or, as that secular saint Ben Franklin would put it, living by it. Granted, the kind of hope Romero was probably talking about may be more potent stuff than the hope in which most of us trade. I gather from a friend who is a clergyman that scriptural hope was the assurance of prophesy fulfilled, and elevated to covenant status. In most branches of Christianity hope was, and still is, understood to be one of the fruits of the spirit. (This same friend was quick to point out that the “every-time-I-think-about-what-I-gave-up-I’ll-think-of-what-Jesus-did-for-me-and-be-grateful” conception of Lent does not come close to touching the true depth of the season. That version of Lent, I confess, had infected even my mostly unchurched mind. Lent is not about the individual believer, my friend told me; it’s about meaningful corporate action.)

At some level, however, hope is hope, and it can be a great bulwark against anxiety. As a fretter descended from long lines of worrywarts on both my mother’s and father’s side, I am both predisposed to and well schooled in the ancient art of anxiety. Growing up during the Cold War didn’t exactly help matters. Neither did the combination of poverty and parenthood in early adulthood or almost two decades in a rocky marriage. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve anxiety, or they chase members of the opposite sex, but I had seen how those strategies had played out in the lives of several relatives and friends. So I turned to chasing hope.

By the time I came across Romero’s words I had become a veritable hope hound, able to sniff out the faintest whiff of it in the rubble of just about any tragedy. I took pride in my ability to detect the thinnest rays of light in the deepest, gloomiest abyss. Terrorist bombing in the Middle East with dozens maimed and killed? Maybe the news footage of bloodied children screaming for their lost parents would melt the terrorists’ hearts, I’d think. Perhaps one of the bombers might even seek out the surviving victims of the attack, ask for their forgiveness and work with other bombers for reconciliation and healing.

You see how far gone I was: if there was a Pollyanna Association, I could have been its national director, or at least the president of the Wisconsin chapter of Wishful Thinkers Anonymous.

This sort of hope hunting lessened my anxiety in the short run but did not do much to address the sources of my fear, as you will have discovered if you have been similarly afflicted. If one does not limit exposure to the news, those sources are ever present. And like any medicine taken for too long or in too large a dose, hope can become a poison, leaving a body and a mind much more vulnerable to real threats. Chasing hope, as Romero says, is courting despair. Not to mention cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression.

Is there a point at which hope becomes a form of denial, too? It is easy to become so focused on the positive that you become blind to the negatives–negatives that can kill. As we’ve seen with the way Congress and many state legislatures have responded to the climate crisis, denial can become a cancer on the body politic, too.

Chase pie in the sky, and you just might die.

Chase pie in the sky and you just might die.

But there is denial and then there is denial. The denial that has sprung from the seeds of doubt that the oil and gas industry has sown in the halls of power (and fertilized with torrents of campaign cash) has grown like kudzu. This has made it nearly impossible to get meaningful climate or clean-energy legislation passed, or international agreements inked and ratified.

And then there is the kind of denial that infects ordinary and otherwise enlightened, caring people – the kind of denial that comes from chasing hope. People waiting around for hope to fill them up are people who are not pressuring the political leaders who are being brainwashed, badgered and bribed by the dirty-energy lobby on a daily basis. This kind of denial may be an even bigger drag on the movement to slow climate change than the denial spread by the oil, coal and gas profiteers.

Sink or swim

Like hope, the climate crisis is not as simple as it sometimes seems. The greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere through our smokestacks and tailpipes get most of the attention, but scientists have been telling us all along that emissions are only part of the story. Just as important is how human activity has altered the oceans, forests and grasslands which have, for millions of years before the Industrial Revolution, pulled carbon from the atmosphere in sufficient amounts to keep our climate moderate, enabling humanity to evolve, flourish and, well, alter that climate. In short, it’s about sinks as well as spigots. In a forest, most of the carbon is sequestered above the ground in trees. Increasingly in our warming world, those trees burn and rapidly release their carbon stores back into the atmosphere. But in grasslands most carbon is pumped by grasses and forbs back into the ground where fire can’t touch it. There it tends to stay, in the roots, rhizomes and soil… unless the land is tilled up…

…or the herds of grazing ruminants, which have stimulated, fertilized and kept grasslands open since time immemorial, are removed.

Stay with me, because here’s where hope comes back into the picture. A couple of weeks ago I saw a presentation by my old friend, TED. I have learned many things from TED. Extremely intelligent, provocative and concise, TED has never failed to edify me. A bit two-dimensional, but a solid friend nonetheless. The subject of TED’s talk that day? Greening the desert and reversing climate change — naturally.

Despite my love and respect for TED, I didn’t expect much. Remember, I’d stopped chasing the hope train years ago. Not only that, but I had spent the last four years studying climate change – staring climatological Armageddon in the face. That, let me tell you, is enough to drain the hope out of the stoutest of hearts. But by the time the talk was over, I was, well, almost giddy with hope.

Allan Savory’s TED talk is well worth watching here, but to keep things rolling I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest condensed version:

Grasslands cover about two-thirds of the landmass of the planet. Taking large herds of grazing animals (and thus their predators) off these grasslands, and subsequent tillage, has led to widespread desertification on every continent except Antarctica. Desertification turns efficient carbon sinks into carbon bombs because desiccated vegetation burns, and exposed soils easily blow away. In African national parks and other places where grazing animals have been brought back to grasslands, however, desertification has been reversed with astonishing speed. Therefore there is good reason to believe that restoring grasslands through the management of large herds of grazing animals – together with steep emission reductions – will cause CO₂ concentrations in the atmosphere to begin to fall, reversing the dramatic upward trend of the last century or so. For those of you more technically minded, this other talk from TED breaks down the math, and some of the forces that drive the numbers, quite well.

Partly because I long ago traded my shiny Pollyanna pin for the tattered knapsack of an activist, and partly because I was brought up to believe that a thing that sounds too good to be true probably is not, I checked with several friends who have spent their adult lives in the field of conservation, to see if my hope in the work that Allan Savory and others are doing is merited. These are careful, skeptical people steeped in the scientific method and the rigors of academic research. There are a few caveats, they told me, but agreed that there is real reason to hope that grassland preservation could turn the tide in the climate crisis.

That shook me. I wondered: Did this spring’s relatively late (er, more normal) arrival have me jonesing for a hit of hope like some long-sober alcoholic who feels a mighty thirst coming on when annoying in-laws overstay their welcome? Or does humanity really stand a reasonable chance of reversing climate change and avoiding many of its catastrophic consequences without resorting to risky and exorbitantly expensive technical fixes?

Looking south over the Badger property. Photo by Steven S. Meyer

Looking south over the Badger property. Photo by Steven S. Meyer

But here is where this story gets really interesting, because a rare opportunity now exists to restore a large chunk of former grassland right in my own backyard. Almost 7,500 acres of once-pristine prairie and oak savannah just a few miles from my home await a decision by the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board on whether or not conservation will be given top priority in its future, or whether other values will take precedence. As some regular readers know, the site was once part of the great Sauk Prairie before European settlers arrived on the scene. Most of the land was tilled up for row crops, but farm animals were pastured on some of it, too. Then in 1942 the U.S. Government removed the farmers and built the sprawling Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Plowshares were turned into swords, but the country emerged victorious from World War II. The plant continued to churn out rocket propellant and gunpowder on and off for five more decades, finally closing for good in 1997. Although much work remains to be done, the Army has removed over 1,400 buildings, and much of the chemical contamination has been cleaned up or stabilized. Just as important, a broad coalition of private, tribal and government groups with a stake in the future of the property began a painstaking process at that time to work out, through consensus, a vision for the future of the Badger lands. That process culminated, in 2001, in the Badger Reuse Plan, a document calling for holistic management of the property and stressing conservation, low-impact recreational uses, education and sustainable agriculture.

The ecological significance of the property cannot be overstated, lying as it does at the terminus of the last glacial advance, between the Wisconsin River and the Baraboo Hills. Those hills hold the largest remaining stand of mature hardwood forest in the state. Badger bumps up against Devil’s Lake State Park, which is nestled in those hills, and contains remnants of nine natural plant communities including dry prairie and oak savanna. That’s important when you consider that less than 1 percent of pre-settlement prairie remains in Wisconsin; even less oak savanna survives.

Now add to that the potential climate significance of the Badger lands.

It is easy to hyperbolize, but I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the Badger lands and other grasslands like it are of at least the same magnitude of importance to the struggle to reverse global warming as the Badger Army Ammunition Plant was to defeating Hitler and the Axis powers in the 1940s. One thing is for sure: there is far more at stake today. In order to pass on a habitable planet to future generations, we are going to need to learn, quickly, how to sequester as much carbon as we can so that CO₂ in the atmosphere drops back below the 350 parts per million that our best climate scientists say is the safe upper limit. Conservation, agriculture and science will have to synergize like they’ve never synergized before, and places where that can happen are going to be of the utmost importance. In the Badger lands, all those components already exist.

The Ho-Chunk Nation was one of the parties that helped craft the reuse plan, and the tribe agreed to assume ownership of about a third of the land inside the fence. Although the formal transfer of acreage has been delayed for legal reasons, the Ho-Chunk early on announced their intention to bring bison back to their portion of the property. Bison and other ruminants like elk were once native to the area and could again help to restore the grasslands at Badger (several prairie remnants discovered on the property are being coaxed back to life by volunteers trained and organized by the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance). The USDA Dairy Forage Research Center has had custody of almost 2,000 acres of the Badger property since 2004, so grazing cows are likely to remain a common sight on parts of that parcel for a long time. Meanwhile, other researchers have been experimenting with another ruminant animal, goats, to control invasive plants and shrubs.

Bison could someday return to help restore the Sauk Prairie

Many of the people who worked to craft the Badger Reuse Plan have long been excited about the potential for the former Badger lands to serve, at minimum, as a research and demonstration site for integrating ecological restoration and agriculture. Thanks to their work, an amazing opportunity exists to transform a property upon which the tools of war were manufactured and tested into a proving ground of a much different sort.

But all the potential of the Badger lands, including its climate calming potential, will not be realized if the Badger Reuse Plan is not honored by the DNR. Restoration of a large part of the former Sauk Prairie to something resembling its former glory will not happen if the Badger Reuse Plan is not honored. Powerful interest groups based far from Sauk County have recently been advocating for recreational uses on the property that run counter to the Badger Reuse Plan: shooting and rocket ranges, ATV trails, paintball parks and the like. To the alarm of many who worked tirelessly for years to craft the reuse plan, key DNR officials have been publicly promoting such higher-impact uses, despite the fact that DNR funds, and the DNR secretary at the time, helped to craft the reuse plan.

Even if the values of the reuse plan are honored, rebuilding the soils of that grassland will be more difficult than busting the thick virgin sod was for the first European settlers in the area. But much of the most grueling work has already been done. A comprehensive plan exists, demolition of the wartime infrastructure is nearly complete, 175 acres of prairie have been planted and cleanup continues. If we harmonize with the forces of nature, the rest is doable. But all of it depends on a conservation future for the property.

Grounds for Hope

I began this post talking about hope and some of the pitfalls inherent in chasing after it. But of course hope in itself is not a bad thing, just as greenhouse gases are not in themselves malignant or benign. Without those gases Earth would almost certainly be a lifeless frozen planet resembling one of the moons of Saturn. Likewise without any hope we would all be frozen, too, metaphorically speaking, with little ability to live and nurture life. But like carbon, hope cycles. To sequester it in ourselves and to keep it in balance we need to focus at least as much on the sinks as the spigots. Our hope needs to be grounded, sometimes quite literally.

As Oscar Romero’s words imply, engagement is the way to stop the hope-despair-denial feedback cycle. Or, if you prefer in this Easter season, faithfulness is. Do what you can where you can and stop worrying about whether you will be successful. Plant the seeds you have regardless of whether you think they are likely to germinate and bear fruit that will then feed you and give you hope. You may just find yourself nourished in ways you would never dream of. “What is possible for you to do is always greater than you imagine.”

The great irony, of course, is that hope often comes when you stop hunting it and start acting as if you already have it. That is not to say it is always easy, or risk free; Romero himself was assassinated while walking his talk, and the same fate has met several high-profile leaders like him, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. More than a few of their followers suffered terribly, too. But look what they accomplished, without resorting to violence, by remaining faithful to their visions and exercising a little faith.

Jumping off the hamster wheel of hope does open a person up to the possibility of heartbreak, and heartbreak can sometimes lead to despair. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Not if you remember that heartbreak, too, is part of a natural cycle, one with immense power to change things for the better.

This paradoxical dynamic has played out in my own life. Since I gave up chasing pie-in-the-sky hope and started focusing more on engaging on the ground where I can and how I can, I have found myself getting tangled up with the good people of the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance. They put me much more closely in touch with the Badger lands. I have also since deepened my relationships with other conservationists and activists, all of whom have accelerated my learning exponentially. And through my social networks I’ve been exposed to a plethora of resources (yes, including TED talks), which have enhanced what those folks and my time on the land have taught me. Some of what I have learned has caused me to despair, at times, but I have been able to keep that despair from paralyzing me by remaining engaged and grounded.

Here is one concrete thing you can do right now to ground your own hope: Sign this petition calling on the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board to develop a management plan for the Badger lands that coheres with the values of the Badger Reuse Plan. If you live in southern Wisconsin, you might also want to get involved with the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance. They can put you to work on this amazing property this very spring. They will also be more than happy to take your money. Rest assured they will put it to good use.

I can’t guarantee any of this will make you feel more hopeful – that might take much more grounding – but I would not be surprised if it did.

Happy spring. Happy Easter.

 

Looking north toward the Baraboo Hills from the Badger property. Photo by Steven S. Meyer

Looking north toward the Baraboo Hills from the Badger property. Photo by Steven S. Meyer

 

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Thanks so much Rick. This is not only beautiful, but inspiring.

  2. An illuminating essay, Rick, and I appreciate the clarity with which you handle some fine distinctions. As usual, I admire your “word architecture.” And thanks for bringing the land use petition to my attention.

  3. Thank you for the heart-felt essay Rick. I signed the petition as I have been a supporter of Safe Ground Water Around Badger for some years now and believe this is THE best use of the land. Thank you!

  4. Wonderful. Thanks, Rick!

  5. Thank you for this beautifully written post. It is often difficult to see how individuals can tackle large issues like climate change but as you note, we have a rare opportunity here in Southern Wisconsin to do just that by restoring the contaminated Badger land back to the prairie and grasslands of Sauk Prairie. With so many supporting the reuse plan by signing the petition to the WDNR I do feel hopeful that we the people will have some influence on Badger’s future.

  6. Thank you, Kathi. And thanks for all you do.