A simple hack to caretaking in the Anthropocene
As many of you know, right after we moved into our new house, the ginormous pepper tree in the yard toppled over in a wind storm. Trying to secure some future shade, I’ve planted all sorts of trees—avocado, palm, olive, bay. I dug holes for ornamental ones I’d seen thriving in my neighborhood, hearty drought tolerant ones, fruit trees. I trucked in new soil, hugged the trees with compost, I even talked to them in my most nurturing mom voice.
[This is me begging the soil to comply as I dug a hole in the clay dirt]
But none of them survived.
My neighbor, a gay Republican horticulturalist, told me that pepper trees are so toxic that they taint the ground so no other plants can thrive. Like other colonist bullies—eucalyptus, Douglas Fir—a pepper tree wants to be the Earth’s one and only. He recommended I do like him: insert turf in the yard and call it a day.
But I’m not looking for a monoculture, and I am definitely not trying to install fake grass, despite my kids begging me to construct a soccer pitch.
In fact, UCSC evolutionary biologist John Thompson says the key to the survival of humans is species diversity. In a recent conversation, he told me to examine all the species my day-to-day existence depends upon—from the materials that fuel my iPhone to my car, the lettuce wilting in the fridge, my Free People sweater scored at the thrift shop, the ingredients of my house, the pages of the books I inhale, the vitamin C in my supplements, the rubber on my dancing shoes. He then said our work as humans is to assist these species to thrive.
He says that if humans can figure out how to create a life-saving vaccine in less than a year, we can manipulate our environment enough to support all the species that help us survive.
After we spoke this week via Zoom, I spent the afternoon observing the dirt patch I call a yard. Multiple times that day a flock of sparrows descended onto the Earth for a dirt bath, then flittered to the edges of my raised bed to hunt. A couple hummingbirds clicked at the nectar in the flowering shrub. A long-tailed lizard hid in the zucchini. A couple crows cawed just east of my grape vine. The bougainvillea mailed pink leaves with the breeze. A few springs of grass shot up in groups near the wisteria sprig. Watching all this unfold, that gripping feeling in my gut loosened just a bit.
What if the wind knocking down that unsustainable invasive tree was a gift to this land I’m lucky enough to steward? What if, like this depleted soil needs time to regenerate, I need this too?
Caring for the caretakers
A recent study out of Finland claims that parents in the Anthropocene need to be cared for ourselves. This applies not just to people caring for young humans. This applies to people stewarding plots of land, the elderly, their communities, their homes and pets. We are bombarded with stories of an ailing planet, yarns that seed despair, impotence, terror, overwhelm, and paralysis. And so many of us feel the only way to deal is to ignore it, or gloss it over, or busy our lives so intensely so there’s no time to look.
But what if we tended to these emotions rather than trying to ignore them? What if, like I am learning to do in my garden, we apply Worden’s model of grief to accept what’s here, work through our emotions, adjust our reality and reinvest energy to meet this moment?
I’ve begun to think about myself like my backyard. Something toxic has been growing. And for years now, taking action has helped me battle this invasive species. Yet, what I didn’t realize is that what’s rooted underground can devastate me again and again.
Maybe it’s time I accepted that true regeneration takes time. Maybe I won’t see this yard ever thrive. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t nourish the soil so it can.
A new way forward
This new year I’m trying something different. I’m offering you some tangible tools (and wise words from people way smarter than me) to regenerate. I will continue to present easy actions when they don’t add to your overwhelm; I will continue to share solutions from the incredible people I’ve met out in the world. But I will also offer you monthly writing prompts to meet this moment, regenerate yourselves and help you grow the capacity to be the person you need to be in this planetary moment.
Writing your way to regeneration
As many of you know, I teach writing at UCSC and UCLA. In my first lesson, I tell my students to welcome vomit drafts into their lives. This first unedited draft is a a way to overcome your inner editor and just get comfortable with writing something that never has to be good.
This month, I dare you to get yourself a notebook and write at least a page a day about your feelings toward our climate crisis. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t show this to anyone. Just let it go, get it out, allow in what you press away.
Next month, we’ll start to nurture these feelings, but first we must accept that they are here.
What I’m reading
Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is a surprisingly charming book about our climate crisis that leaves you feeling, dare I say, hopeful. I’ve also been slowly savoring Barry Lopez’s Horizon a collection of tales from the farthest reaches of the planet that honors explores exploration in all its flavors. Oh, and every morning it’s such a joy for me to wake up and read a poem by Wendell Berry
Friends, I hope the holiday season brings you some time to to enjoy the people you love, nourish yourself with joyful things and get plenty of rest. We’ve got work to do next year—looking forward to doing it together.