Every trip around the sun begins in a deep chill, but this year’s has been particularly brutal. I have vivid childhood memories of cold, snowy winters, and I love a sunny, snowy day, feeling the crunch of taut snow underfoot, but even I’ve found the first few days of this winter pretty hard.
Drew Monkman calls January the month of silence and survival, when the “day-to-day struggle to eat enough to simply get through the long winter night” absorbs most animals’ entire energy and ingenuity. Humans, of course, enter into contracts that provide us with warm shelter in exchange for work; assuming we do so successfully, our exposure to the elements is minimal compared to most other species.
But extreme cold weather can easily expose the absurdity and fragility of our arrangements. Pipes freeze, furnaces sputter and faint, and the whole fabric of our society, which is premised to a large extent on our ability to externalize the burdens of natural processes, shatters like so much plastic in the snow. Cold is deeply inconvenient.
It’s likely the extremely cold winter weather we’ve seen the last two winters is actually an unexpected and ironic effect of a long-term warming trend, which has melted sea ice, destabilizing the polar vortex. Extreme cold weather definitely contributes to global warming, via the malevolent medium of the fossil fuel industry, which gives us that warm, dry indoor feeling, directly or indirectly, depending on the way we heat our homes.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed when we think about our relationship to the natural world in this way, as part of an immense, unfolding global reckoning, in which the contributions of human activity are counted in the negative column, whether in loss of biodiversity and therefore system resilience, or in the wasteful use of resources and the externalizing of non-monetary costs.
An ethic of stewardship has a much more hopeful understanding of the roles people play. Stewardship is about taking responsibility, becoming a servant to the land, not abstractly or globally, but in the immediate place in which we have agency, in the here and now. It’s about doing.
But doing can only proceed from knowing. Getting to know our own world, where the water we use comes from and goes to, where the bugs and slugs and animals that we depend on to produce food find food, what plants and soils can absorb rainfall, is crucial to understanding what we need to do to continue to live in this ecosystem, to pay our full share of the cost of living in this land.
That means paying attention to the world around us, not just to the charismatic megaflora, but to the moss and the mud, and watch how it changes from month to month. It’s not enough speak for the trees; we have to speak for, and act for, the wider environment that makes the megaflora, as well as ourselves, possible.
“We need to gain a sense of how our constructed environment connects to the natural one surrounding it, and to its history,” Alexander Wilson writes. “Only then can we be mobilized to restore nature and assure it, and ourselves, a future.”
This article is part of our series “The Four Themes,” exploring four key areas of focus that Electric City Magazine will be following throughout 2018.