Recently driving across Pennsylvania I was listening to an NPR program on global warming. The reporter was interviewing Texas mayors and evangelical ministers who are currently working to address the problem. Evidently Texas is the most polluted and polluting area of the country. I was amused at the way one minister described his involvement in the issue. “When I first heard about global warming back in the 70s,” he said, “I was against it.” Meaning, as he explained, he didn’t believe in it. I wondered if he, being a Southern minister, was also against evolution. Again meaning he didn’t believe in the idea of it.
What else in the natural world, I wondered, could we be “against”? Could we say, “I’m against hurricanes,” or forest fires, or meteor showers, or sunsets? Driving through Pennsylvania that day I thought, “I’m against freezing drizzle.” But what do we mean when we say we’re against something in nature? Do we mean it’s the enemy? I have a friend who won’t walk her dog in the woods here anymore because she’s afraid of Lyme’s disease. But she obviously believes in it. I haven’t asked her if she’s against it.
What do we believe about nature, and about what’s happening to nature? Is nature becoming the enemy?
Global warming is making nature a bit frightening to many people. Here in the Northeast from Pennsylvania to New England, we witnessed one of the slowest autumns on record. We were wondering which would come first: the leaf-fall or the first snowfall. We’ve seen the photos of polar bears sitting on chunks of ice looking forlornly down into the water. We’ve heard about islands in the South Pacific that could disappear. We’ve watched hungry people in drought-stricken Africa wandering around aimlessly.
Should we get mad? And at what?
I’m thinking of Shakespeare’s King Lear in Act III railing against the storm on the heath, accompanied by his Fool and the Earl of Kent who says, “Things that love night/Love not such nights as these; the wrathful skies/Gallow the very wanderers of the dark,/And make them keep their caves.” Then he adds, “Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,/Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never/Remember to have heard. Man’s nature cannot carry/Th’ affliction nor the fear.” Lear got mad at all this. He embodied the “affliction and the fear.”
In our own madness we are tempted to rail against global warming, deer ticks, forest fires, freezing drizzle. And what good will it do?
In Scotland there is an old woman called the Cailleach Beera who is sometimes referred to as the Queen of Winter. But since she often appears frightening and mean-spirited, some call her the Hag of Winter. She has sisters who are Wind-Hags and sons who are Fomorians, those forces that disrupt the world and bring chaos and destruction. Naturally Beera and her crew are interested in keeping the “roaring wind and rain” of winter in the land as long as possible. It’s what she likes. She is the kind of female character found in many Celtic tales who seeks shelter or companionship from young men, all of whom reject her because she is hideous or frightening, except one, often the youngest. He kisses her and in some tales makes love to her. And then she turns into a younger and beautiful woman. Sometimes. Sometimes not. But either way, she sees to it that the young man is rewarded and blessed. She is Sovereignty, the Goddess of the Land.
There’s a truth in these tales that we must love Mother Nature even in her fierce aspects, even in the seasons that make us want to keep our caves. But she is also the caves. It isn’t like global warming is only occurring in a few places, as the current and temporary President of the United States (also from Texas) once put it. Global warming means it’s happening everywhere. That’s what global means. And so where will we be able to find caves in which to hide in safety?
My friend Gabriel in Minnesota loves night, and all things dark and scary. She taught me to love the howling wolf who wakes me from sleep. There are a lot wolves out there, howling right now. A lot of people are waking up from their sleep. Will they fear or love the night, the dawn, the day after tomorrow? Is it possible to do both, as the young heroes of the old wisdom tales show us?
To give the Texas minister his due, almost everyone today is talking about being in the fight against global warming. So the preposition has some meaning, after all.
As for now, I’m still against freezing drizzle. So there.