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Encountering Beauty by Amy Brady

Encountering Beauty and the Effects of Climate Change in Acadia National Park

 

Maine has long been known for its cool summers, but in July 2018, the state suffered from the same heatwave that sizzled through most of Europe, China, and the Western United States. The heat reached Acadia National Park the same week my husband and I decided to spend two days camping there. We had come with hopes of glimpsing the wildlife I’d read about in books by writers long dead: Fannie Eckstorm’s birds, Leon Leonwood Bean’s enormous fish, Henry David Thoreau’s “uncivilized” owls. These animals had cavorted in my childhood imagination and visited me in dreams. To see them now would be like meeting old friends.

We were determined to hike as much of the park as possible despite the rising temperatures. In a flat, sandy area surrounded by tall trees, we began to unload our gear. Sweat poured down our faces and backs as we pitched our tent and rolled out our sleeping bags, which stuck to our skin in the heat. A hundred meters from camp, we found a water pump and used it to fill our glass bottles. By mid-afternoon, we had set out on a steep 1.5-mile trail to Beech Cliff, an edifice that looms over Echo Lake. The sun singed our skin, but ferns and birches and pines danced in a light breeze all around us. Everywhere was beauty.

As we climbed, I listened for the birds. I knew from our guidebooks that many of Maine’s forest birds stop singing in late summer, but this was a peak migration period for shorebirds, and Acadia — a slip of land surrounded by ocean — falls directly in their path. The books brimmed with photos of gulls and loons filling the sky and dotting the shoreline. But on the trail, I heard nothing. I squinted toward Somes Sound in the distance, hoping to see the gulls as tiny white specks in the fjard, but saw only water.

Where were the birds? The rodents? Even the bugs? As a child, I was terrified by loud noises. But here, with two hands on a boulder and my feet sinking into hot, dark peat, it was the profound silence that filled me with dread.

 

*

 

On July 25, 2018, the Portland Press Herald declared Earth’s jet stream broken —“Kinked, buckled, stuck.” The “ribbon of wind” that circles the Earth was doing “strange things,” causing wildfires in the West, deadly heat spikes in the Middle East, and record-high temperatures in Maine. Across the Atlantic, the heatwave grew to be Britain’s longest in forty-two years. Globally, at least 170 people died from the sweltering temperatures.

Statistics are harder to come by for non-human life, but Maine Public Radio reported that water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine reached historical highs, stressing the bodies and homes of both land and sea creatures.

 

*

 

“The loon is the spirit of the lake,” wrote Fannie Eckstorm in 1901’s The Bird Book. Eckstorm was born to a fur trader in Brewster, Maine in 1865. She was a nature lover from a young age. With The Bird Book, a taxonomic record of where and when to find the state’s most populous birds, Eckstorm found her distinctive voice: Observing the “fiendish” loons from a canoe on a lake in Maine’s North Woods, she described it as “a witches’ carnival in broad day.”

But more astounding than her talent for description is the sheer number of birds she witnessed. “Along the Maine coast,” she wrote, “there is usually an abundance of herring gulls in summer. The sun shining on . . . every bird so that even when two miles away you can see them filling the air like a snowstorm, rising, falling, hovering, settling, a cloud of white flakes.”

The birds’ numbers, it seems, were beyond casual computation. There could be “ten thousand” in flight, or even a “hundred thousand”—the mind simply “does not grasp the number.” As a child growing up in the landlocked state of Kansas, I’d imagined the flock as a cloud of wings, their calls sounding like laughter. Several decades later, I was struggling to grasp all that we’d lost.

 

*

 

An hour into the hike, the trail grew more vertical and less distinct from the rest of the forest floor. Vines and thick roots crossed the path, making it difficult to find our footing. The air was dense with heat; I could feel it pulsing in rhythm with my heart.

At the trail’s halfway point, we paused to catch our breaths and drink from our water bottles. The trees were still quiet — so quiet that we could hear human voices traveling up the cliff from the lake below. Then, suddenly, a bird call. A single gull appeared overhead, its belly a white flame against the blue sky. It circled above as if watching us, before disappearing from view. We waited for others to follow, but none came. Instead, more silence; more stillness. There would be no “snowstorm” of gulls that day.

I’ve always been envious of people who claim to commune with nature on a spiritual level. I’ve never felt a connection that deep, perhaps out of fear of anthropomorphizing the animals, or maybe because I’ve never fully understood what “spiritual” means. But in that moment, I felt a wave of sadness and wondered if it originated in the body of the lone gull. A fleeting connection; an empathic exchange.

 

We pressed on, but the sadness didn’t dissipate. I thought of my childhood self, delighting in pictures of water birds, and the sadness mushroomed into grief.

 

*

 

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the biggest threats to biodiversity are all human-caused:

  • Climate change
  • Habitat loss
  • The introduction of invasive species
  • Pollution
  • Overexploitation

How much loss of life is too much?

Since 1977, Herring gulls in Maine have experienced a 17 percent loss in population. Their numbers continue to decline annually by 2.3 percent, but the birds aren’t listed as threatened or endangered by any government agency. To be endangered is, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, simply to be “in danger of extinction.” Species are prioritized by the “degree or magnitude of threat” that they face, and the waiting list of candidates is long.

There was a saying in Eckstorm’s day: “As thick as the gulls at Eastport.”

But we still haven’t lost enough for them to qualify for protection.

 

*

 

In 1960, Leon Leonwood Bean—the same L. L. Bean who’d launch the successful outdoor clothing store—published My Story: The Autobiography of a Down East Merchant, a slim book teeming with photos of a boyhood spent in Maine’s wilderness.

Bean was ninety years old when he wrote it. In the preface, he writes that “the great outdoors is . . . a big help to keeping boys and girls out of trouble.” He goes on to dedicate the book to “the Teenagers of America.” It seems he believed that his childhood experiences would be possible to replicate for generations to come. In one photo, the author, wearing a bowtie and a white button-down, smiles proudly at the camera while holding in each hand a salmon at least eighteen inches long. They’re beautiful specimens that were probably plentiful the summer he caught them.

 

Historically, the Gulf of Maine produced 100,000 salmon adults per year. But since the late 1960s, the numbers have dwindled to 5,000 or fewer. In 2016, the Press Herald reported only 750 adults in the area. Such a steep decline in so short a time is staggering, but L. L. Bean wasn’t the problem. The drivers of species loss are so systemic that no single person can be blamed. Likewise, no single person can stop them.

Environmentalists talk often about how angry our grandchildren will be with us for what we’ve done to the planet. I’m angry now.

 

*

 

The sun was low by time we reached the peak of Beech Cliff, where the air felt cooler. We found a flat boulder on which to rest and think, the cool stone a relief against my sore and slightly sunburnt body.

 

We had time to spare before the sun set—the hike up had taken two hours, but owing to gravity, the hike down would take only thirty minutes. The coniferous forest below was a carpet of green, the distant lake a blistered sheet of glass.

What does it mean to reach a peak? The planet’s use of coal may have already peaked. Our rate of coal extraction may peak in the next thirty years; our rate of oil extraction in the next five. Global warming will reach its thermal peak when we stop emitting carbon-rich gasses into the atmosphere. No one knows for sure how great the damage will be in the interim.

We have known for so long what we’re doing to the Earth. How much loss is too much?

A rustling in the grass to my right caught my attention. The small brown face of a chipmunk peeked out and gave me a sidelong stare. Rather than empathy, this time I felt gratitude — for the animal’s life and the moment I could share it. I wondered, if I took the chipmunk’s photo, whether a viewer fifty years from now would look at it with nostalgic awe. The tiny rodent shook itself and dashed away in search of satisfying some inscrutable desire.

 

*

 

Most scientists agree that humans have fundamentally changed the way the planet works. That’s why some have proposed changing the name of our current epoch, the Holocene, to the Anthropocene, a word whose root means “human.”

 

A 2015 article in Nature proposes two start dates for this epoch. The first is the year 1610, the moment when human-driven exchanges of species across our oceans began to accelerate. The second is 1964, when a large proportion of radioactive isotopes—fallout from nuclear-weapons testing—could be found in rock layers.

Whichever date we decide upon, one thing is certain: Humans are the first species to exert planet-wide influence, and now every living creature must live with the consequences.

 

*

 

In his posthumous work The Maine Woods (1864), Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Generally speaking, the howling wilderness does not howl.” For him it scurried, whimpered, flew, flapped. Day and night, he was surrounded by a cacophony of sound, movement, and darting shadows. Such an abundance of life is hard to imagine today. It was even too riotous for Thoreau: “Some utterly uncivilized, big-throated owl,” he complained, “hooted loud and dismally in the drear and boughy wilderness.” He doesn’t specify the type of owl, but as a child I determined it was probably of the great horned variety—my research told me that the Maine woods were brimming with them. When that pointed-eared, boggle-eyed owl saw Thoreau crashing through the forest, the annoyance was probably mutual. That’s because few white people had ever travelled through those forests. From Thoreau’s point of view—despite his own presence there—this was for the best. He believed that those forests were not for human consumption, no matter how strongly we desired to make them ours:

“It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever,—to be the dwelling of man, we say,— so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. But Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific,— not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in, — no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there.”

The transcendentalist was a rhapsodist, clearly. But his passages that link nature to ethical truths read today like warnings—the first of many that would be issued by experts over the next century and a half.

We have known for so long what we’re doing to the Earth: In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius published the first report on man-made global warming. It took seventy years before scientists would conduct a series of studies that suggested that Antarctica’s ice sheets were melting and could even collapse, raising sea levels worldwide. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen gave his influential testimony before Congress that global warming is real and human-caused. It was a watershed moment, but still, few outside the scientific world seemed to take notice.

By 2015, South Pole researchers were discovering that the West Antarctic ice sheet was indeed collapsing. That same year, nearly every nation on Earth pledged to sign the Paris Agreement. It was a moment of global optimism that didn’t last long. Just two years later, President Donald Trump announced his plans to withdraw the United States from the Agreement—an announcement he made just weeks after Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Harvey created a series of humanitarian crises that are still in effect today.

How much loss is too much?

 

*

 

The horizon turned pink as the sun began to set. It was time to get moving. There would be no escaping grief, not on this hike or in other areas of life in the Anthropocene.

As we half-climbed, half-slid down the trail, I wondered how joy would be possible anywhere when the future promised unmitigated climate change, mass die-offs, and tremendous human and non-human suffering. And then I thought of the gull, the chipmunk, the human climbing beside me. To protect and value life in all its forms is a necessary pursuit, one rife with moments of deep connection, love and compassion, tenderness and delight. For a while longer at least, joy can still be found in the woods, even if accompanied by sorrow.

 

 

AMY BRADY is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and the Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books, where she writes a monthly column about climate fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, Sierra, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, the Village Voice, the Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Literature, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was a recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship.

This essay was originally published by CATAPULT.

 

 

1 Comment

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Kerrireply
February 18, 2019 at 7:05 pm

Astoundingly beautiful writing. I needed these words today; this delicate balance of grief and wonder.

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