and saddening, but there may be an additional truth here, in the
shadows of our understanding.
For most of the time the various species of Homo have lived on
this Earth, climatic change has been the order. The brief stability
we’ve called the Holocene has been a geologic oddball, although
it’s been within this period that Homo sapiens has domesticated
the world, from corn to cows to combustion engines, and that
we’ve reproduced so successfully as to colonize the planet. Change
often takes the form of that nineteenth-century geologic theory,
catastrophism, in which rupture shakes the sleeping landscape
from its bed and leaves the dream of uniformitarianism—slow,
elegantly steady alterations to the landscape’s features—scattered
across the uplifted hillside. But what happens in the aftermath is
still change: adaptation or extinction.
Rick Potts, of the National Museum of Natural History, seems
cautiously optimistic about the coming decades under climate
change. Discussing what he calls “the evolution of adaptability”—
that is, what circumstances led to Homo sapiens’ development of
enormous ?exibility, our astonishing adaptability that allowed the
species to spread across all continents except Antarctica, and
make them home—he notes that periods of rapid climate change
throughout the past few million years tend to coincide with some
of our ancestors’ major evolutionary changes: upright posture,
tool use, migration out of Africa itself.
To call what may befall us “change” will be no comfort to the
people whose villages or cities are destroyed by ?ood or rising seas,
nor to those who die from malaria or drought or famine. It will not
lessen the despair should the grimmest predictions come to pass
and stark extinction shroud each hilltop. And my comments
should not be construed as neoconservative denial of the data, nor
smug assurance that in our technological cleverness we’ll invent
our way free of our own responsibility, build an exclusive little ark,
say, in which we’ll ?oat above the sea change of our own making.
But perhaps it can be useful to understand the changes from
a di=erent philosophical or psychological perspective: this is the
resurgence of the sublime and its honest shiver of fear, not its
disappearance from our lives. It’s a return to an even older past,
one in which abrupt, disruptive change trumps stasis. None of
today’s cultures are shaped by that world, but it is the one in
which our bodies and brains evolved. We don’t have any idea,
yet, what will be demanded of us or how we’ll respond. But it’s
worth remembering that the current world—modernity—is not
the only one our kind has thrived in.
We may have come full circle. Even now we’re standing at the
threshold of our own, or our next, beginnings. a
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The pine clings to the cliff side, angles
seaward above the waves, its exposed roots
attended by flowering weeds. Those fingers
will someday lose their grip. This is clear
to any one of us. And I believe the tree, too,
knows its long life will be cut short and
doesn’t care. Why would it? Who among us
wouldn’t give a year or more to lean against
the wind and gaze down into the void? And
doesn’t this dark desire to fall exist in every heart?
I remember my first fast car ride at midnight,
stoplights streaking by, rings of fire on that beach
where I first dipped my tongue into the wet
salty cave of the beloved’s mouth, the fury
with which I took the other’s flesh inside me,
the hard pits of the first fruit I chewed and sucked.
Now, in my calm backyard, I watch clouds
tear themselves apart around the stars,
listen to the possum’s claws rake and rasp
against the trashcan’s metal sides, inhale
the blossoming cherry growing up over
the shed’s flat roof. She drops her petals there
to make a carpet of snow. Even this far from
the ocean she knows what is possible, yet
is content to stand here, burrowing
into the clay earth, feeder roots worming
through hair-thin holes in the rusted
underground pipes. Even so, her lithe arms
sway in the night breeze and a few
of her bright petals settle onto the black pond.
They float only a moment before the moon-colored carp finds them with his hairy ancient lips,
and one by one, carries them down.