Poems by M Jackson

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Folding Together

by M Jackson

From Canary Winter 2011-12

M Jackson currently braids her life around three watersheds: the vibrant Taiya River watershed of Southeast Alaska; the Clark Fork watershed of Montana, and the Nisqually River watershed that cradles her father's farm in Washington State.

          I get panic attacks.
          When my mind has had enough, my body folds. By fold, I mean, I tend to bend like a lawn chair at the waist and lock. My brain insulates itself by building minor blockades and my knees ratchet up to my chest like a draw bridge.
          I have had two fold-overs in two days, a record for my life. The first I was yelling at a friend in the swampy A.M. hours, and the second I was opening a jar of rice in the kitchen. I was warned with a twinge, a revolt of the muscles in my calves— warning enough to drop the glass jar to the top of the table before sinking to the floor. There I lay, staring out the window at the hill across town lanced with snow and winter wilt, scared and tired but sensible enough to wait this one out.


          Recently I heard two prominent environmental experts speak about climate change. Both clearly outlined the problems, issues, and facts of climate change. At the end of the lectures, each expert offered a solution. One said joy, the other, passion. Joy and passion will answer climate change.
          When pressed, the experts offered switching light bulbs as an additional solution.
          How frustrating. Every climate change-related lecture, or book, or podcast I listen to of late seems to fully elucidate the problems we face— but misses the big picture.
          In the face of the enormity of it all, the worst case scenarios we’ve heard over and over that include sea level rise, thawing permafrost, various special extinction, outbreaks of disease and famine and war, I am frustrated at being told to change my light bulbs, check my tires, adjust my thermostat, or unplug the toaster when I’m not home.
          It feels trivial.
          It is trivial.
          Climate change is massive, undulating— a complex complexity. As an active member of society, it is belittling to be told that my capabilities extend and end at a light switch. Or worse yet, as our individual lifestyles directly contribute to and exacerbate climate change: I am advised by the experts to find and follow my own joy or passion. This is bad advice. Frankly, these beacon scholars of climate change should be using their scientific soapboxes to encourage us to get off our bottoms. The last thing our society needs as a take-home message about climate change is one extolling the virtues of myopic individual joy-chasing.

          I’ve been thinking about panic a lot lately, since it seems my fold-overs are increasing in general regularity. We panic, the books tell me, as a reaction to a sudden overwhelming fear. Perhaps. But I think it’s more complex. Panic, rather, to me, is my body’s way of saying time out. The body is cinched into stasis, everything slows down, and while I’m on the floor resembling a crushed lawn-chair, my brain reboots.
           A reboot is good. After the last two fold-overs I’ve spent a great deal of time sneaking around what I think caused them. This reflection is a new start.
          Sometimes panic is an appropriate response. It gets you out of danger.
          I wonder what would happen if the whole human race panicked. Together. Right now. If all the propaganda campaigns Exxon Mobile created about climate change weren’t effective, and the science and facts were accessible and digestible. What would happen if every human being on this planet could look at one another and say that climate change is happening, that it is caused by human society’s carbon emissions, and that it is solvable through utilization of clean energy, which is entirely within our capacity and grasp. But, if we don’t move now, and I mean now, our planet will be unrecognizable to our children. Not our grandchildren, but our actual children. The next generation. What if we could say this, each of us, and as we did, panic bloomed in our stomachs and hearts?
          Would this prompt immediate action, or would we give in and fold-over?
          I’ve noticed in the midst of my fold-over, my mind resigns quickly. I try to move one of my claw-hands or stop my knee from wedging itself under the ribcage. These efforts fruit no reward. My mind pipes in and says there is nothing I can do. You are, actually, stuck here for the rest of your life. You are powerless to change, to free yourself.
          It is so much easier to give up: To say to yourself: We are not smart enough to handle this problem. We cannot act together. It is beyond us. We will remain here on the floor with our knees tucked into our ribs.

          Last weekend I walked into our pastures with my dad to check on a cow. She had isolated herself from the herd and was tucked down in a grassy bowl. It’s calving season at the farm, so we went to see if we had a new calf.
          Walking the pastures with my dad is akin to walking into sanctuary. I’ve been walking these spaces with him my entire life, and as we walk a comet tail of memories and friends and family trails us in spectral form. I find spiritual peace in the damp turf, in the foggy cedar bogs that line the fences, in the company of my father.
          My dad speaks in low tones of this year’s rotation strategy, of which pastures the cows appear to favor this season, of where he saw the elk the evening before. We sink down in the mud by the gate and he tells me about the new drainage system he’d like to put in place, one with a bobble sump-pump up by the main barn. In two, maybe three years, he thinks, he could have most of the run-off redirected so it doesn’t gather in this low spot by the gate.
          My dad has three-to-six months of life left. He knows this, and I know this. He isn’t in denial, though he appears to have found peace with inescapable reality.
          And so we walk out into the pasture. Dad talks about the cows, about the registered brand he is filing with the state. We approach the downed cow and she lurches to her feet, revealing the little black calf beside her. The placenta hasn’t passed yet, and the calf’s hooves are still white. It is minutes old.
          What I know is this:
          If I focus on the pending death of my father, I will miss the life he has now, and the life he has lived’ and the moments, hours, days we share right now, like this one. If I focus on the event, it defines him, his life. My father is more than his death. Death is the details, but my father is everything else.
          There is so much more than the details directly within eyesight.
          My father could turn inward, become so burdened by the knowledge of his death that he stops living. Every loss requires choice. He could turn away from us, his family, his farm, his cows; he could give in and up.
          If we turn away from each other in the face of climate change, from our communities and our nations and our world, we will lose it all in individual acts of shortsightedness. If we focus just on light bulbs, or on singular individual action, or a pending death, we’re not going to ever be able to fully address the challenge before us.
          Why must we look at climate change as the Apocalypse? This is too narrow, too limiting. If we look at climate change and see only the dark arm of God, only Mordor, only the guilt and blame and corporate greed: we give ourselves to the details and fold-over into the darkness.

          Auden Schendler, sustainability director for Aspen Skiing Company, writes that “climate change offers us something immensely valuable and difficult to find in the modern world: the opportunity to participate in a movement that, in its vastness of scope, can fulfill the universal need for a sense of meaning in our lives.”
          Schendler inspires me.
          I am not immobilized. Rather, I am inspired and empowered by this challenge. There is so much we have the capacity to do that is beyond light bulbs. Our biggest assets today are our feet and mouths and minds. Individuals, in concert with the rest of humanity, can drive, instigate, and push for change. Bill McKibben famously said, “By all means, go screw in that efficient light bulb, but then, go screw in a new senator.”
          Humanity should be having a fold-over, a panic attack, now. We have so little time left. We should be inspired by the examples of Tunsia and Egypt. Mass protests led to extreme social overhaul in eighteen days. Organized on Facebook and YouTube.
          How do we do this here? We mass and protest and demand action of our government. Those with the loudest voices, those scientists and writers, philosophers and artists, speak up. Keep doing what you’re doing, talking about this planet, our environment, climate change. But while you’re up there at the pulpit, while you’re talking about ice sheets and floods and radiative forcing and carbon caps and joys and passions, start talking about what we can do together and how we can do it. Stir us up, impassion us with the gloat of possibility. Challenge us to imagine harder, to get organized, to demand, to use Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google, our mouths and minds and feet.
          Tell us that what we do as a nation matters, that we are capable, that our only limitation is the breadth of our imagination. Demand that we wake up and walk out, that we meet at this place at this time, that as a society we protest, demand, and hold out until it happens. Because it will.

          My dad has requested flowers for spring. When we walked back up the pasture from the newborn calf, he talked about the flowers he loves.

          And so this is what I do.
          I order online pounds and pounds of sunflowers, Indian Blankets and Teddy Bears, Black Oils and Mexican Reds. I order Bachelor Buttons, Chrysanthemums, Dahlias, Alyssum, Marigolds, flowers and more flowers.
          When they arrive nestled tiny in paper packets, I will plant them in beds of sandy soil and nurture them to adulthood. I will do this because it is doubtful my dad will see this spring, and if he does, what he must see is color and flowers. Before he meets the Author of All Things, he must be surrounded by the flowers of his life. And I order seeds online and go to the kitchen to make rice but instead fold over under the weight of this. And when it is through, and I stand up, I walk back into the living room of my apartment, sit down at my desk, and order more seeds. Cornflowers and Calendulas and Larkspur. For my dad. For spring.

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