Sometimes you just gotta laugh

In the immortal words of Van Morrison, sometimes we cry. I’ve written a lot about how important it is for those of us who care deeply about the natural world to express our grief over how climate change is altering our world.

But sometimes you just gotta laugh.

Mike Mossman and Lisa Hartman have long shared a passion for laughter, nature, music and each other — not necessarily in that order. The couple was recently driving to a friend’s birthday party when they started talking about the unseasonably warm weather. As musicians, Lisa and Mike are usually adapting Celtic tunes or composing new ones in that tradition for their family band, Wrannock Celtic Trio (son Angus holds down the third corner). As experienced naturalists, they have a better idea than most people what we stand to lose as climate change continues to play out in Wisconsin and the world, and they worry about that. But the holiday spirit (or maybe it was the ghost of Christmas future) gripped them that day as they drove through dairyland, and soon they found themselves mixing a generous measure of levity into their lament. Before long they had written brand new lyrics to a holiday classic.

Angus, Lisa and Mike in the land of the wrannock

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance when the two debuted their hilarious if sobering climate carol at the Baraboo Range Preservation Association‘s annual holiday party on December 14th in Baraboo, WI. I hope to have some video or audio to add soon; meanwhile, enjoy the lyrics below and feel free to share them (with credit to Mike and Lisa, of course) with your friends and family.

Wrannock takes its name from a species of wren native to the British Isles. Mike is an authority on the birds of Wisconsin and shared this with me about the wrannock’s American cousin:

Wisconsin Winter Wrens are migratory, wintering in the southern US and breeding during the summer mostly in our northwoods. Here they occur especially among the complex structures of mature and old-growth hemlock and cedar forest, living among large fallen trees, stilt-roots, rocks, pools and moss.They also breed in isolated populations in certain heavily forested sites in the Driftless Area, especially in the Baraboo Hills, where their long, gorgeous songs characterize certain stream gorges and the talus slopes around Devils Lake. The Winter Wren is one of the species whose breeding ranges we expect to retract northward with climate change; although its winter range may also shift, making it somewhat more common during its non-breeding season, when it tends to stay hidden and rarely sings.

A winter wren

Like its namesake, Wrannock Celtic Trio shares its gay and haunting music with the residents of Wisconsin and the world.

The great essayist and novelist G. K. Chesterton, who hailed from the land of the wrannock, once wrote that angels can fly because of their levity but devils fall because of their gravity. So go ahead and cry about the changing face of winter, but don’t forget to laugh, too. By doing both, we humans may just manage to retain our place between the angels and the devils. Besides, it looks like we’re all going to need a sense of humor more than ever in the years ahead.

I wish you all the coldest and snowiest holiday season possible.

Walking in a Withered Wonderland

(Wisconsin version. Sung to the tune of Walking in a Winter Wonderland,
with new words by Lisa Hartman and Mike Mossman © 2012)

Sleigh bells ring, but are you draggin’?
Don’t you wish you’d brought the wagon?
The world’s rearranged
The climate has changed
Walking in a withered wonderland

Gone away is the new bird
Here to stay is the bluebird
He sings a lament
As our lakes ferment
Walking in a withered wonderland

In the meadow we can build a mud man
And pretend that he is Parson Brown
He’ll ask “Are you married?”
We’ll say “No man,
Cuz we don’t know why we should stick around”

Later on we’ll perspire
And we won’t need a fire
Our passions are high
Or is it July?
Walking in a withered wonderland

We’ll just go out and get some mo’ booze
We won’t need our skis or snowshoes
Rubber boots, a light coat
Maybe a boat
Walking in a withered wonderland

In the meadow we can build a mud man
And pretend that he’s a circus clown
We’ll have lots of fun with Mr. Mud Man
Wondering if he’ll bake or if he’ll drown

Makin’ way for new diseases
Cuz our world never freezes
Trading hemlocks and trout
For termites and drought
Walking in a withered wonderland

With all the driving and the fracking
And the polar ice cracking
Our pact with the devil
Means a rising sea level
Walking in a withered wonderland

In the meadow we can build a big camp
With all our extra money we can host
Oklahoma people who get thirsty
And refugees escaping from the coast

When it’s drizzlin’, it’s distressin’
It should teach us a lesson
Not to live in defiance
Of nature and science
Walking in a withered wonderland

Though the weather may seem crappy
Just adjust and be happy
Swim in November
Boil sap in December
Walking in a withered wonderland

So frolic and play
Our children can pay
Walking in a withered wonderland
Walking in a withered wonderland

We’re singing our song
Dressed just in a thong
Walking in a withered wonderland

We have seen the enemy…

… and it is most definitely not us. It is true that almost all adults are responsible for the greenhouse gases that end up in the Earth’s atmosphere. As an American I am responsible for a hell of a lot more of it than the average world citizen. Bill McKibben pointed out during his stop in Madison last week as part of’s Do the Math Tour that the good ol’ US of A has put more carbon into the atmosphere than any other nation (China recently surpassed us in total yearly emissions but we still emit more on a per capita basis).

But the average Jane or Joe American would be more than happy to use energy that came from solar panels, wind turbines or other clean energy sources instead of filthy, planet wrecking oil and gas. Millions of us have invested big money in energy conservation in our homes and are driving more fuel efficient cars than we were 5 years ago. Your run-of-the-mill CEO of a fossil fuel company, on the other hand, is doing everything in his power, up to and including lining the pockets of legislators and feeding those so-called leaders “model” legislation, to make sure we use as much of his company’s death-dealing product as possible. (Can something that drives species extinction at a rate unseen since prehistoric times, and ultimately breaks the systems that have cultivated and sustained life on this planet for the last 100,000 years really be called energy?

Most of us would be happy if our energy came from the sun and wind.

Would it not be more accurate to call fossil fuels anti-energy?) Big Oil and Big Gas have rigged the political, economic and infrastructural systems of our country to ensure that their product is the cheapest and most widespread fuel available (when you don’t count the ecological and societal costs, which now rise exponentially by the year). Even if we all drove Cadillac Escalades everywhere we went and owned as many homes as Mitt Romney, the industry would still be exponentially more responsible for climate change than the rest of us.

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What matters over mind

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

-Blaise Pascal

“Home is where the heart is.”

-traditional proverb


Two weeks ago today, I went home. Not really, but it felt like it. I spent two full days at the Aldo Leopold Foundation (ALF) in northern Sauk County, about a mile from the one-time home away from home of the great conservationist and his family, and the birthplace of the modern land ethic. I was there with about two dozen other individuals from around the country to take part in the Land Ethic Leader program. It was two days of observation, reflection and action designed to enable “community leaders across the country to create opportunities for rich and productive dialogue about humanity’s relationships to land, making room to meet people where they stand and building upon our common ground in conversation rather than in argument.”

It is impossible to say whether the people, the place or the program contributed more to the feeling of homecoming I felt, and it does not really matter. It was one of many feelings my time there elicited from me.

It is feelings that I find myself thinking about most as the memories and lessons of those two days percolate. But then, I went there in part to test my hypothesis that the environmental movement is sorely lacking more tears.

Sure, some of us weep when oil poisons the ocean and fouls beaches, when another mountain gets decapitated for coal, or a favorite grove of trees is cut down to make way for yet another strip mall or cluster of McMansions. It is my strong belief, however, that not enough of us “let it out” when we receive such news.

Sandhill cranes near Spring Green, WI

Old Aldo can hardly be blamed for that. In fact, the book for which he is best known, A Sand County Almanac, is shot through with his feelings. One of the essays from that book that we read and discussed at length at the ALF was “Axe-in-Hand,” a delightful ramble in which Leopold muses about trees on his property and the feelings they engendered in him one brisk autumn day. Leopold’s emotions match the diversity and color of the foliage on the trees he names. And they’re not all “positive” emotions.

“The pine will live for a century, the birch for half of that; do I fear my signature will fade? My neighbors have planted no pines but all have many birches; am I snobbish about having a woodlot of distinction? The pine stays green all winter, the birch punches the clock in October; do I favor the tree that, like myself, braves the winter wind? The pine will shelter a grouse but the birch will feed him; do I consider bed more important than board? The pine will ultimately bring ten dollars a thousand, the birch two dollars; have I an eye on the bank? All of these possible reasons for my bias seem to carry some weight, but none of them carries very much.”

How many emotions can you find represented in that paragraph? I count at least seven. Few of the feelings Leopold expresses here flatter him, but most of us know that we harbor similar feelings for or about parts of the natural world with which we are familiar. Pride, greed, fear, selfishness, jealousy…

Later on in the essay, Leopold admits that his spirit soars with the tamaracks because they grow so lustily. He confesses that nostalgia makes him more disposed to like bittersweet than he might otherwise (his father favored the plant). But this is all denouement following Leopold’s climax, delivered with all the feeling of a teenager in the throes of a crush.

“The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.”

It is not the only place in Leopold’s work where he goes all emo on us. His writing is rife with love. With compassion, with humility, with hope. But most of all with love. “Thinking Like a Mountain” springs to mind, where Leopold’s empathy and remorse saturate the prose.

The full-throated endorsement, even celebration of, the full and vibrant aurora of human emotion is one of the things I find so refreshing about Leopold’s writing. In part, that is because it is so unexpected from a man of science (and reason, presumably). Or from a man of his era—his was the age of pragmatism and progress, after all. Or from a man of his age. Heck, just a man, period.

Even today, many men are uncomfortable expressing emotion, believing such outpourings a hallmark of weakness. Unless of course anger is the emotion in question; that emotion serves as a sort of catch-all for many of us men, and one that is still socially acceptable. The emotion that anger most often seems to mask is fear. But even glee is sometimes given an angry cast; think of the celebratory violence that sometimes follows major sporting events. Most other emotions are seen as wishy-washy, touchy-feely, hard to quantify and unpredictable. Okay to express in a song, perhaps, but not to your buddies or girlfriend unless you want to be thought to reside somewhere south of the masculine-feminine line.

Although women seem more comfortable in the realm of emotion, there are few who have not been made to feel ashamed of their feelings, or who have tried to make their emotions subservient to reason while navigating the corporate and academic worlds so long dominated by men.

Perhaps Leopold’s life-long passion for hunting headed off some of the criticism he might otherwise have received for his explicit references to feelings. One might naturally hesitate to call a man holding a gun a sissy.

Fortunately, a few men today are bravely calling for more emotion to catalyze the kind of action we need to meet the environmental crises of our time. Paul Kingsnorth, the author of another essay our group of budding Land Ethic leaders read and discussed, argues in “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” that he became an environmentalist because of a strong emotional reaction to the “other-than-human world.” Those feelings, he writes, became a series of thoughts which matured into a conviction to do what he could to speak for those wild places and the creatures that lived in them.

Notice the progression: experience –> feeling –> thought –> conviction –> action.

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