It’s mid-May and Florida’s rainy season has begun, weeks earlier than the norm of ten or even five years ago. Surly storms rolled north across the state on Friday in waves, with brilliant flashes, startling loud thunder and downpours that drenched everything. At twilight as another band of storms strolled over, the power went off — not long, maybe 45 minutes — and my wife and I sat in the dimming silence listening to the cracks and booms of tomorrow’s weather tonight. And through the night there were more waking intrusions, leaving us with that “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” feeling of a world changing so fast. Not doom, but nothing Aunt Em would recognize.
Last night the storms came again, not as loud but with the same thrashing fury of the unforgiven — an exclamation point added to the idea of normality increasingly defined by extremes.
In the pre-industrial world, last summer’s heat dome that brought Death-Valley like temperatures to temperate British Columbia, would have a been a once-in-an-8-million-year-event. It is now being described as one of the six most analmous heat waves in recorded history. Today, such events now have a one-in-a-thousand-year probability; and oonce we have reached two degrees of warming, 8-million-year events will happen once a decade.
“What used to be a very extreme event is now probably not a very extreme event but something that we expect in this warmer climate quite frequently,” says Dr. Frederike Otto, a senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at the Imperial College of London. She’s also a leading expert in the growing field of climate attribution, which tries make better sense of the climatic anomalies we’re now experiencing.
In his inaugural New York Times newsletter, David Wallace-Wells wrote recently,
A U.N. report published in April suggested that by just 2030 the world would be experiencing more than 500 major disasters each year. And the quickening frequency of what were once called “generational disasters” or “500-year storms” or even “acts of God” disorients us, too, so that it becomes hard to distinguish once-a-decade events from once-a-century ones — our disaster depth of field blurred by climate disruption. “What used to be a very extreme event is now probably not a very extreme event but something that we expect in this warmer climate quite frequently,” Dr. Otto said. “We really are in a quite different world.”
A different world: we are increasingly fooled by what we recently remember. When my wife and I first moved to this small town 25 years ago, the month of May was so hot and dry that wildfire smoke would blow on the stiff breezes of blisteringly hot afternoons. Not the May I’m looking at today, muggy, overwarm and grey with more storms approaching. A warmer atmosphere means a hotter Gulf perspiring big rainfall events in Florida with the so-called “rainy season” starting up much earlier.
It also means bigger, more menacing hurricanes. The so-called Gulf “Loop Current” is a brewer of storms, and conditions this May are like those in 2005 that sent Hurricane Katrina barreling into Louisiana and Mississippi. The Loop Current had a role in the transformation of a tropical wave that entered the Gulf in 2018 into a Category 5 Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm to brew up in the Gulf, creating the strongest maximum sustained wind speeds to make landfall in the contiguous United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Do you feel the same vertigo that I do? This early morning (as I continue to work on this week’s challenge) the darkness is archly saturated, almost cool, humming, and pregnant to bursting with full summer — in May. Why is it that the ground feels unsteady with change?
As recently as 2015, the 10-year average of global temperatures showed, according to the I.P.C.C., warming of 0.87 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average. Just five years later, it had jumped to 1.09 — 25 percent higher in half a decade.
When sociologists talk about “shifting baseline syndrome,” they mean we tend to base expectations for the future on our memory of the recent past. But just five years ago, it was exceedingly rare for more than a million acres to burn in a California wildfire season; today the record is 4.3 million acres, and in four of the past five years more than 1.5 million acres burned in the state alone. Over the past decade, extreme heat events have grown 90 times more common, compared with a baseline of frequency between 1950 and 1980.
I’m not trying to ring the climate alarm bells here; most of us can already hear them. But I do wonder what’s happening to everyday life now that the Earth in its fast lane. And what happens to the language of memory, once a smooth continued Holocene-lenght narration, devolving fast in a daily clash of Anthropocene terms formulated by Glenn Albrecht like solastalgia (yearning for lost homelands), toponesia (forgetfulness of precious places), meteroanxiety (fear of coming weather) and mermerosity (a chronic state of anxiety over the changing climate). (From Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Cornell University Press, 2019)
We’ve all seen the “hockey-stick” projections of global warming — a long swath of slow incremental change followed by an abrupt lift toward killing temperatures — we’re in the fast-uptick now of the spike, still widely disoriented and with many making themselves and the world crazy pretending it isn’t happening (the way COVID isn’t real and there’s no war in Ukraine).
Most of us also see the weird parallel between global heating and technological innovation, the hockey stick of a fast-heating climate superimposed by the ghostly “reality” of innovations that have brought us so many mindless online pleasures to the detriment of personhood, civility, natural connection and a common basis of reality in truth. From Prometheus to the steam engine, not much of note, and then everything almost all at once.
(Note: algorhythms made Amazon the dominant retailer, but who can say their billion incremental improvements were advances in any true sense?)
Who are these shadow twins, separated at birth but living out the same fate?
And what are we to make of it, loving this Earth, sharing Her bounties, praising her wealth in our poems? How do we factor in these early storms, frightening heat events, disturbed-to-destroyed ecosystems and lingering nightmares not dispelled by the dawn’s light? The world is increasingly fragile; political systems are dark; healthcare sucks; inflation and recession loom. The conflict in Ukraine grinds amid the rubble and ruin of its farmland and forests, straying toward massive cyberattacks and nuclear conflict. Hunger stalks with emptying eyes.
This is our 21st century, home sweet savage home, and we must remain awake and vigilant for the things changing so rapidly all around us, like a massive summer storm summoned up on a hotter day than any in recent memory.
“Within our own lifetimes,” Wells writes, “we may find ourselves living on a planet warmed beyond a level scientists long characterized as ‘catastrophic,’ though well below the level casually described as ‘apocalyptic.’ The question is: how?” He continues,
How do we imagine our future, how do we expect to live in it, what do we count as success and what as failure in a world beset by ecological disarray and all the human messiness that shakes out from that?
For me there a fundamental reckoning is called for, personally and collectively: If human mastery is a peril the Earth cannot afford and we value our continued existence on this planet, then we had better find systematic ways to reject human mastery. Let’s banish controls heedless of consequence and re-calibrate our fear of the unknown as faith in humility. Fossil-fuel dependence is an addiction, digital mind’s an abomination: From those starting points we may eventually gestate something in the human spirit that will reverse the hockey stock before life is finished on Earth As they say with the Tao, to and fro goes the way — even, perhaps, with the perverse Tao of our maddening reality.
That Tao, I suspect, is our how.
For this challenge, write about the everyday extreme.
One yay for this reverse-engineering goes out today to Australians who voted out the conservative government of Scott Morrison and their gross reluctance to deal with climate change.
Another for reminders of who we are and where we live from our earth-poets. Here are a few poems for keeping one’s sight on the Way.
COME INTO ANIMAL PRESENCE
Come into animal presence
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.
What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.
—in Poetry, Vol. 96 No. 1, January 1960
SAYINGS FROM THE NORTHERN ICE
It is people at the edge who say
things at the edge: winter is toward knowing.
Sled runners before they meet have long talk apart.
There is a pup in every litter the wolves will have.
A knife that falls points at an enemy.
Rocks in the wind know their place: down low.
Over your shoulder is God; the dying deer sees Him.
At the mouth of the long sack we fall in forever
storms brighten the spikes of the stars.
Wind that buried bear skulls north of here
and beats moth wings for help outside the door
is bringing bear skull wisdom, but do not ask the skull
too large a question till summer.
Something too dark was held in that strong bone.
Better to end with a lucky saying:
Sled runners cannot decide to join or to part.
When they decide, it is a bad day.
— from West of Your City (1960)
BECOMING A FOREST
Not to feel the grasses brush my knees, as if wading
for the first time into the ocean, but a different prayer—
this was after declaring, These trees are my bones,
and I could feel myself loosed from tendons, muscles,
and sinew, a skeleton knocking, as a chime
against nothing, and in my marrow
the blood of sap, the rungs of pinecones,
and myself, inside myself, telling me this—
to make an alphabet of stammering, a song
of a cry, to be anything buzzing with blood
or wings, anything alive, including grief, because
isn’t that—I asked the trees, my bones’ forest
framing me—what my long ago dead dreamed,
tossed in their short allowance of night?
— The Adroit Journal; anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2020