“Bringing It Home”
Last weekend I attended a workshop in the Berkshires. “Bring your snowshoes,” the welcome packet said. Some twenty five years ago when Chuck and I lived in the northwestern part of Connecticut we often headed north with our snowshoes for a morning of snowy hiking on the trails. I have fond memories of those adventures and tucked my bag with shoes and poles at the ready into my car. In between sessions I would get outside and explore! I was all the way to Russell on the Mass Pike before I saw any hint of snow and upon arrival in Stockbridge the scene was not much different. A couple of inches of frozen slushiness. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I wavered between “I should have guessed” and “This is so very sad.” The simple truth is that we are not seeing as much snow in these parts of the country in recent years and the temperatures don’t support it. Even though yesterday saw record lows in our area, it was just a blip on the screen – one day – and then back to fall or spring-like weather. These shifts are a common theme now.
When I asked you all to share with me your experiences of the subtle and not so subtle experiences of similar shifts you have noticed I was not disappointed – at least not by the response, although the news surely was enough to give one pause. And you bore witness to many things, each of you. Memories of fishing for brook trout as a boy in Adirondack lakes and streams, no longer a possibility due to acid rain and warming waters. The trout are gone and the trees along the shore are dying. A recent visit to Glacier National Park revealed that the glaciers are disappearing and hard to find, the Great Salt Lake is drying up. Coral reefs beneath the ocean’s surface are bleached and dying due to warming temperatures. I remember with you a childhood on the east coast with snow filled winters beginning as early as November, those puffy snowsuits that kept us warm, a January thaw, ice skates and afternoons on local ponds frozen over and beckoning us. Here in town the Police Department would certify the thickness and all you had to do was call and ask! The ice was usually ready by December. The ground was frozen hard. Last week we planted the boxwood that I bought to decorate my porch, my garlic and daffodils are poking through the cool moist soil, seemingly out of synch with the season. They just know it is warm enough to grow. I know that this is different than it used to be and I sigh.
When you live in the same place for a long time and if you are paying attention, you see the changes wrought by climate shifts. Sea levels are rising, the waters of Pleasant Bay and the Atlantic are eroding the shoreline. The ocean has carved a chunk of land off where the Chatham weather station stood on Morris Island and buildings have had to be removed. There used to be houses on North Beach dotting the view from the Chatham Lighthouse, a beach with town parking at the end of Andrew Harding’s Lane, and two rows of homes with big summer porches. All of this has disappeared in the past thirty or so years. Birds have altered their
migration patterns and bushes that normally would die back in winter seem to be thriving right on through. Our summers have become extremely hot. Change is inevitable, you said, but the speed of change has increased.
Last fall I read “The World as We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate,” a series of essays by folks from around the globe edited by Amy Brady and Tajja Isen. Stories not much unlike yours filled the pages. One in particular caught my attention because it has a Cape Cod reference. 1 It is by a woman who relocated east from Oregon and settled here with a partner whose family has been on the Cape for a while. She has always been an outdoorsy type, living close to the land in her original home and diving into exploration of our landscape upon arrival. She cautions, though, about the ticks and Lyme disease, the prevalence of these little
creatures, the extended seasons in which we encounter them. There is more carbon dioxide in our air now than there has been in three million years! On the way to a recent New Year’s polar plunge in Barnstable Harbor she notices a forsythia in bloom. The summer rains are heavier than before. The air and the moisture burgeoning the population of these disease carrying parasites. And she raised the point that so many of the authors did about how the climate is changing, yes, but more so about the personal shifts we are engaging in as a result. In the early spring they select their outdoor clothing, hang it on the clothesline and spray it down with Permethrin. Other new and disconcerting habits have settled in. She pauses now at the edge of the forest, acknowledging her vulnerability. She no longer forages for mushrooms or cascades her way down to a local kettle pond sunk in the hollow, the exploration perhaps not worth the encounter. When she and her partner go for a walk they tuck their pants into white socks, don hats to cover their heads and basically, she says, prepare for battle! Her relationship to the natural world has been altered, an immersion that once restored her and brought her solace, a thing of the past.
The climate is changing, and the places we love are changing, but so, too, are our psyches. We can’t unsee what we have noticed and so we are also changed. In the pieces you sent me about your experiences I heard a range of emotions expressed, an awareness of how distressingly real this all is because of the proximity of change to our own lives. There is a pervading sense of lament at the losses we have witnessed in our lifetimes. We are disappointed and sad. And there is anger, too. We rant and rage and rightly so. Powers seemingly beyond our control hold sway over systems and processes that could halt the rapid change or ignore it and let our world fall apart. We feel helplessness and urgency and responsibility all in the same breath.
There is a hum of tension, of heightened anxiousness, that underscores our living. Let’s just take a breath there, because we are all affected no matter how close to or distant from the realities of our changing world, we may think ourselves. It is a lot to hold. Carol Hepokoski, in the anthology “Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism” says that, “My environmentalism and my Humanism are inextricably related.” The latter tells her that human life is worthy of respect and care while the former reminds her that being human is to be a part of the interdependent circle of all life, that it is counterproductive to imagine ourselves otherwise. In your thoughts you noted, too, the interconnectedness of our existence and of the connections between changing climate, population growth and increasing pollution – more than one of you has noticed the plastic littering our shores, ingested by sea life, turning up in our very bodies as a result. We are not separated from the devastation we encounter going on around us. We are part of it, wrapped up in these living breathing vessels we inhabit is both the fear and the hope for ourselves and our world.
Tonight, at sunset begins the Jewish celebration of Tu b’Shevat (the 15 th day of the month of Shevat), The New Year of the Trees, originating in the Kabbalistic tradition of the 16 th century. 2
It is a time of year when the sacred and unique connection which exists between Judaism and nature is honored. It is a time to remember the miracle of nature and our relationship to it. Tu b’Shevat is considered the beginning of the year for trees because it is the midpoint of winter in Israel: the strength of the cold becomes less, and the majority of the year’s rains have fallen, and the sap of the trees starts to rise. As a result, fruit begins to form. Similar traditions exist in the Christian celebration of Candlemas, the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc and the Chinese New Year which we have just observed. 3
Here in New England the sap is beginning to flow in the maples. The tapping season is dependent upon weather conditions and syrup production is particularly vulnerable to climate changes. Warming temperatures, changes in precipitation and freeze and thaw cycles all impact maple trees and syrup production. Climate change has resulted in fewer trees and reduced health and growth, shorter tapping seasons and decreased sap quality and quantity. The industry is adapting just like most of us. Alleviating environmental stressors is one way to stem the impacts on economies reliant on such production, and the food sources important to local indigenous people. 4 At this New Year of the Trees, we consider the lifeblood flowing close to home.
A Seder meal is often initiated on Tu b’Shevat as a part of a time of reflection on our role in the world and our partnership with the earth. Jewish Midrash teaches that “There is no plant without an angel in Heaven tending it and telling it, 'Grow!'";(Genesis Rabbah 10:7). Tu b’Sh’vat is a time for us to live as angels, to envision a paradise that we are partners in, shaping, cultivating, and guarding. A modern day interpretation of the Dayenu, a portion of the seder which translates “Would it be enough?” calls us to reflect on the following questions and ask “Would it be enough?”
Had we purchased 100% recycled paper but not reduced our paper usage…
Had we reduced our paper usage, buying products with less packaging and printing on scrap
paper but never saved electricity…
Had we saved electricity, buying energy efficient appliances and installing compact fluorescent
light bulbs but not planted a tree…
Had we planted a tree but not safeguarded our forests…
Had we safeguarded our forests, writing to Congress and asking for stricter logging restrictions
but not cleaned up our streams . . .
Had we cleaned up our streams but not cleaned up our rivers…
Had we cleaned up our rivers but not taught our children about the importance of protecting
Dayeinu? Would it be enough?
It is a call to action that binds us to a progression of behaviors for the good of our earth home. It invites into an ever-deepening relationship with the cycles of life and an awareness of the interdependent nature of our responses to what we witness all around us. None of us individually can shift the course of our changing climate, but together, collectively, as a people in touch with our environment we can turn fear into hope. May we live lives of transformation, living affirmations of new ways of being in our world. May we be blessed and blessing, both.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, February 5, 2023
1 “Leap” by Meera Subramanian in The World as We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate, Catapult 2022.
3 “The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons” by Jill Hammer, Ben Yehuda Press, 2018/5778; pp. 172-