Early September is a good time of year to catch a blue-winged olive mayfly hatch on mountain streams in northern Vermont, so I set my work aside and drive to a trailhead near Stowe. There I leave my car and hike the dirt road beyond the gate for a mile before bushwhacking down to the mouth of Cotton Brook, fly rod in hand. I have done well fishing this stream in years past, catching wild trout along with rainbows during long, dreamy afternoons. With mild temps and a partly cloudy sky, I’m excited about the day’s prospects.
Before even reaching the brook, I sense that something isn’t right. I leap over a rivulet winding through the woods that shouldn’t be here. A few moments later, I step onto a carpet of silt and loose rock where Cotton Brook should be. I scramble over an immense pile of branches and uprooted trees only to find a shallow, cloudy stream snaking through mud. Without thinking, I cast my fly onto the water several times before reeling in my line. I know better. I know there’s a mudslide somewhere ahead and that no fish will rise until I get above it. I’ve been in this situation before.
While walking upstream I am surprised by the extent of the damage to the brook and the sheer volume of debris. The slide must be a big one. It can’t be too much farther ahead. But I keep walking, dodging piles of dead wood. Most of the stream’s rocky structure has disappeared beneath tons of displaced soil. I walk for fifteen minutes, twenty, and more going nearly a mile upstream. Then I see it: a huge gash in the side of the mountain, ten acres at least. The brook cuts through a moonscape full of rocks both large and small. Its banks are completely denuded several hundred feet up both sides. In thirty-five years of stream walking, I’ve never seen anything like this. Stunned by it, all I can do is stare.
Oh sure, I’ve seen plenty of mudslides in the mountains. It’s a natural phenomenon. But I’ve noticed during the past decade or so that they are increasing in frequency and intensity. Long ago I took a course in geomorphology so I understand the mechanics of mudslides. Big rainstorms drop heavy loads. Blocks of soil detach from the bedrock once they have been saturated with enough water. Why so many big weather events in recent years? The answer is obvious to anyone who doesn’t have his or her head in the sand. After thousands of years of relatively calm conditions, the climate of the entire planet is changing. But climate change is an abstract concept that’s easy to deny — easy, that is, until it’s in your face.
While staring at the scar in the earth before me, I think about my grandchildren, the following generations, and the kind of world they will inhabit. I think about all those born in this century. Some of them are angry that previous generations like mine have done so little to address climate change. Look at the mess we are leaving them. Will my great, great grandchildren be able to go out and catch wild trout in the mountains as I have? Not likely.
What will it be like for future generations to live without nature? As Bill McKibben pointed out in his book The End of Nature, climate change isn’t the end of the world. “The rain will still fall and the sun shine, though differently than before,” he wrote. When he warned us thirty years ago about the end of nature, he wasn’t predicting the apocalypse. What he meant was the end of “a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it.” In other words, it will be the end of nature as we have known it, as humankind has experienced it for the past ten thousand years.
McKibben’s book was an environmental rallying cry: act now before it’s too late. Like the thousands of other books written by thousands of other concerned environmentalists, his rallying cry seems to have landed on deaf ears. The carbon emissions that our fossil fuels kick into the planet’s atmosphere have only increased since we first became aware of global warming half a century ago. Denial is a powerful force. Like the fable of the frog in a pot of water that is slowly being heated to boiling, humankind hasn’t leapt to safety. How much easier it is to keep things as they are instead of taking drastic measures.
Much has been done to advance clean energy, no doubt, and that will ultimately release us from the stranglehold of fossil fuels. But we are not getting ahead of the greenhouse effect. Collectively speaking, we have not yet attacked this problem with the kind of urgency it demands. The political will simply isn’t there, or at least it hasn’t been until recently.
In 2014, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared with 95% certainty that global warming is being caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses and related human activities. As a consequence, 196 nations signed The Paris Agreement the following year, vowing to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Since 1880, the planet has already warmed nearly one full degree. Science tells us that a two-degree change in the overall temperature of the planet was all it took to change its climate in the distant past, during events that led to mass extinctions. Already the polar ice caps are melting. It appears that humankind has taken this existential threat right to the brink. Some scientists say it might already be too late.
There is a strong possibility that our great, great grandchildren will have to live without nature however it may be defined. But living without nature isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s not just a matter of staying in town and foregoing the occasional pleasure trip to the countryside. We need the climate to be relatively stable in order to grow food. Hydroponics on a scale large enough to feed eight billion people is simply not an option. We also need clean air to breathe, and clean water to drink. As those sojourned in the International Space Station know all too well, without vital supplies from Earth there is no being separated from nature for months on end. More to the point, we are a part of nature. Oh sure, we can shut ourselves off from the natural world, living completely indoors, and don space suits whenever we go for a walk outside. But what will be lost in the process? After a thousand years of living like this, would it still make sense to call us human?
No matter what humankind does, nature will persist. It is remarkably resilient. Five major extinction events have taken place during Earth’s history, along with dozens of lesser ones. Most of these extinction events, if not all, were caused by climate change. Each time the natural world took a major hit then bounced back. The Great Dying took place 250 million years ago, in what is also known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event, long before the dinosaurs came and went. Scientists estimate that 96% of all species perished at that time. But nature bounced back. It took only ten million years for it to do so. Unfortunately, that’s not a time frame that works for us.
Torrential downpours, raging wildfires, powerful hurricanes, intense heat waves, greater droughts, and a rising sea level as the ice caps melt — all this is unfolding before us today. Climate change is taking place right now, and it is a very big problem. We have to get it under control. But, as the naturalist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring,“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance.” There is only so much that we can do, especially this late in the game. The time for preventing climate change has passed. Now we are into damage control. All we can do at this point is figure out how to live with the consequences of past inaction, and somehow minimize the impact of climate change before things really get out of hand.
Above the mudslide, the brook clears out and a trout immediately rises to my fly. I fish for while, but my heart isn’t into it. All I want to do is assure myself that the ecosystem beyond the mudslide is still intact. After doing that, I quit the stream. During the long walk back to my car, I pass a couple signs along the dirt road telling folks to stay away. The slopes are still unstable and another mudslide is likely. During the drive home, I wonder how long it’ll take Cotton Brook to recover, if it recovers at all.
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world — the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness,” John Muir wrote in the late 19th century. That notion seems quaint to me now. Muir’s words ring hollow considering what we’ve done to the planet during the past 150 years. There is nothing in this world we haven’t tainted. All the same, we can make up for past sins against nature by rising to the challenge of climate change for the sake of those not yet born. God willing, if work real hard together, we might still be able to turn things around. There is no telling with absolute certainty what the future holds. It might still be possible to find a way to live with nature, before nature decides to go on without us.
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