World Environment Day has been observed every year since 1974. Which means we’ve known for at least 45 years that the environment needed to be taken seriously rather than taken for granted. This year, China is acting as host country with the theme of #BeatAirPollution, an appropriate choice for a country that faces some of the most extreme air pollution in the world.
World Environment Day focuses on what we, as individuals, can do. Every little bit helps. But with 9 out of 10 people in the world breathing polluted air, maybe the best thing we, as individuals, can do is grow hearts of green and demand the same of our policymakers.
Real change has to be as diverse as the environment itself. It has to break through the hard concrete of old habits, at all levels of society and across borders. And it’s something we can do, but we can’t wait for another 45 years.
Growing a Green Heart on my village road in France. Photo: PKR
If you hit up any social media platform in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, you’d have seen that the global outpouring of grief has been accompanied by an outpouring of outrage that this event, this destruction, has garnered so much more attention than (insert pet cause, from apocalyptic climate change to biodiversity loss) . Even as I grieve over the loss of one of humankind’s great constructions, this jealous husbanding of grief baffles me, especially when it comes to environmental issues.
Because climate fear and eco-grief are the big banana complaints of the moment, people demand to know what makes Notre Dame’s desolation more grief-worthy than, say, the clear-cutting of the Amazon rainforest. Or the imminent extinction of the squishily adorable vaquita porpoise. How can the Notre Dame reconstruction fund have amassed a billion dollars from wealthy and poor alike in under a day, while we allow the natural cathedrals of the world to be felled, while we fail to protect glaciers from melting, or the oceans from filling with plastic? Oh, and by the way, the big bananas we all know and love, Cavendish bananas, are also in danger of extinction due to the rampaging and as yet incurable Panama fungus. As the Extinction Rebellion is demanding to know, where is the financial and political will to rebuild those epochal ruins or halt their destruction?
It’s as if grief is a zero-sum emotion. As if when we are horrified and saddened by the loss of a great historical building, we might not have enough grief left over for a lost rainforest or the decline of the monarch butterfly. There’s resentment that a 20-million-year-old cetacean species is less worthy of attention than a human-built pile of stones erected in the last thousand years.
Well, obviously. Limited focus is in our nature. We aren’t very good at seeing beyond the horizon of our own immediate interests. Committed environmentalists and activists have their areas of expertise and action, be it on specific birds or bananas; it is only from outside those laser-focused studies and undertakings that it looks like everyone is worried about everything all the time. At the same time, from outside those bubbles, there’s no denying that while the fall of one beloved building is a tragedy, the demise of untold glaciers is a statistic.
Allowing yourself to grieve at everything threatens to become overwhelming, a rising tide of despair upon which you either need to learn to body surf, or it will consume you more quickly than Florida’s coastline. How much safer to splash in grief at one particular event, the magnificent fire-gutting of a church, than to take in the systemic collapse of current political and economic systems that might be required for the planet to survive the inferno of humanity’s touch.
The cause of the Notre Dame cathedral fire looks like an electrical short, because of course it would be something simple. Like the carpenter’s faulty spotlight, as was the case with the burning of Windsor Castle. Or the spontaneous combustion of linseed oil rags, the current theory behind what destroyed Glasgow’s iconic School of Art. What each fire had in common was an old building in need of, or undergoing, renovation. And then an avoidable but not unlikely spark. A bit of slow motion entropy that erupted into disaster.
For someone like me who has adapted to expand my grief at environmental destruction so it can also absorb the loss of a human habitat like Notre Dame (not to mention the entire medieval forest that burned within it), the process of watching ecological damage is similar to what happened when these buildings went up in smoke. Small beginnings, unwarranted nonchalance, and calamitous results.
Fossil fuel use. Resource extraction. Plastic pollution. Overfarming, overfishing, overpopulation. The slow greedy embers that cause climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution have been burning in their hidden pockets for decades, but the conflagration is only getting truly under way now. For anyone waiting for the fire department to arrive, each lost species, each lost forest, each ruined waterway, is like watching the cathedral spire tip to one side and then collapse, over and over again. How much can the environment take before its structural integrity is so compromised that we collapse along with it?
Oops. There we go again, heads underwater in the grief tsunami. Hope you took a good deep breath beforehand.
In any case, the heroic efforts of the Paris fire department saved the main structure of Notre Dame. It will be rebuilt. Considering the level of worldwide passion and financial donations, the reconstruction could even be dazzling in its speed and ability to draw people together. Not to mention the creation of hundreds of jobs. Paris, and France, have reinvented themselves more than once. The country welcomed me as a citizen. I am forever grateful for its ability to absorb ruination and re-emerge anew.
So, up on top and body-surfing the grief wave again, we can look to the rebuilding of an ancient cathedral as an inspiration to what we can do when we decide to rebuild on a vast scale. Picture the passion swirling around Notre Dame, and imagine that applied to reforestation, or ocean clean-up. Imagine the sense of achievement. Imagine the jobs. Most of all, imagine this cathedral of a planet surviving and us along with it. There are thousands of children out on the street every Friday, doing just this.
Inclusive grief, active grief, all-embracing grief is the first step towards not waiting for someone else to do the work. When it comes to the cathedral of the world in which flames bursting forth and fire is visible through the windows, we are the people raising the alarm. Grieve, and then be the heroic fire fighters. Grieve, and then be the intrepid investigators, the innovative architects. Grieve, and then take action as the determined carpenters and workers.
Let us be all that, instead of being helpless mourners, choking on grief and angry that others aren’t grieving enough.
After two weeks of warm spring weather, blossoms everywhere, bees buzzing…it snowed. A lot. The balmy temperatures plummeted, and I wondered what would happen to the plants and creatures that had emerged from winter.
It took a day or so for the snow to melt, and then I went out for a walk. It was cold, there was a brisk wind, hawks and woodpeckers hovered and swooped. No butterflies yet, but there were a few intrepid troopers, warming themselves on the path.
Readers, feel free to correct me, but I think this angry animal is a kind of rove beetle. Specifically, because of its elegant scorpion pose, I think it might be Ocypus olens, a Devil’s coach horse beetle. In any case, that’s a metal rock star name for a fearsome beetle, so I’ll take it.
This one didn’t get as huffy when I approached, but shone in emerald iridescence beneath the late afternoon sun. I think it’s a kind of tiger beetle, but which kind?
The bird feeders in the garden were all but empty, considering the abundance of food available. But once everything was covered in white again, I refilled and watched the dozens of winter visitors return.
It’s not that we’ve never had late snowfalls before in our region of eastern France. They’re rare, but we have them. What’s been strange this year is how very early the weather turned warm, and how far along spring had progressed before the snow fell. I don’t know what this cold snap will mean for flowers and insects that were developing weeks ahead of the usual season.
Then a day after heavy snowfall, spring was back with a vengeance. Branches that had been bowed by the wet snow were straightening, and buds burst forth again. Still waiting for the bees to return, though.
I found a poster hanging in a small local bistro just over the border in Switzerland, one of my favorite places to eat for lunch. It’s a vintage poster for a French seed nursery in eastern France – but it’s also an historical document of an agricultural calamity.
Poster for American grape vine stock in Switzerland, Photo: PKR
At first glance, it shows a young, robust 19th century woman among grapevines on the southern end of Geneva but on the French side of the border.. But what it is really showing is the effects of the great agricultural, economic and culinary calamity known as the French Wine Blight. Actually, the blight affected all of Europe and the UK, and was apparently due to the introduction of a non-native wine louse, Grape phylloxera into the regions.
The phylloxera is a complex little piece of work, with a life cycle encompassing 18 stages in 5 main phases. Very difficult to eradicate, and indeed, there is still no known method to completely rid Europe and the UK of the pest. It arrived in the late 1850s, and wiped out an estimated 60-90% of European vineyards over the next couple of decades. One of the challenges was that it took ten years for those studying the problem to be able to locate its origin, namely, the phylloxera that took so many forms.
Nothing seemed to work against the pest, until the hybridization technique of grafting European grape varieties on to rootstock imported from the United States was discovered. And thus began the task of reconstituting the wine industry – a process documented in part by the poster I saw in Switzerland. No surprise that this poster was here – Geneva is surrounded by vineyards.
I posted recently that the old and very fruitful Muscadet grapevine located in our garden has been one of the few unaffected by a locally occurring pest. We don’t know why, except that we never bring in outside stock, we don’t handle other plants, and our garden is walled.
In Europe, there were a few tiny vineyards that remained unaffected by the wine blight. No one knows why. They still produce extremely rare vintages of wine made from pre-blight, ungrafted stock. One of them is a Bollinger Champagne, the Vieilles Vignes Françaises. Another is a port wine in Spain, and a third is a Sangiovese grape in Montalcino, Italy.
Did I mention why rootstock from the United States was the preferred import for grafting?
It’s because phylloxera itself is a North American import, brought to the UK and then Europe on hardy American rootstock for planting by horticultural enthusiasts. The American rootstock was, of course, unaffected because it was resistant against the phylloxera. I’ve heard American wine buffs proudly claim that the US saved the French wine industry, but it seems a bit of a stretch since it was our own little pest that ruined it in the first place.
It’s a remarkable example of the triumph of non-native species within an entire growing sector.
The great Mothervine, oldest grape vine in the United States Located in Roanoke, North Caroline