Environmental Studies

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series


Washington’s state bird is the goldfinch, but as a kid growing up there I always thought that seemed wrong. Robins you saw everywhere, especially after rain, hopping around and unspooling worms from the lawn, night crawlers long as a shoelace, but goldfinches? Practically never. They were mostly just pictures in books.


So imagine my surprise last month when I spotted a goldfinch in my Salt Lake City yard. No, two… no, three… wait, there’s another one. Four. Parent with fledglings? Boyfriend and girlfriends? I wasn’t sure. One had vivid feathers, black and yellow. The other three were more muted, with coloring less like exclamation points. I’d been reading the Friday Salt Lake Tribune (7/22/16), skimming the recap of the Republican National Convention, and was heading out to water the yard, and there they were—riding these wire-thin tensile stems that rise up out of a plant near the sidewalk, see-sawing on the ends and eating the flowers, or maybe just the bugs on the flowers, I don’t know. What I do know is they didn’t give a crap about Donald Trump.

Political Climate:

“First-ism”; trans., “isolationism.” Four days of hollering went on about this. Banning Muslims, rounding up aliens (their word, not mine; they voted it into a plank of their platform), reneging on promises to NATO allies and international trade pacts, and so on. A lot gets said about the ethical/economic sinkhole this would cause, but I don’t hear much about it being bad for the environment, and it is. The environment isn’t American, isn’t an our-side/your-side attitude. I mean, who’s going to work with us on long-term fixes if we’ve traded away good will for an unfounded claim on a baseball hat? Britain pulled a junior-varsity version of this already, and it hasn’t been good.


The day I saw those goldfinches was another in a long stretch of 100+ degrees. And there were algal blooms too, turning water into warnings, signs going up along shorelines, basically saying: STAY AWAY OR THIS WILL KILL YOU. Add air-pollution advisories, and reservoirs declining, and other examples year ’round, and we should be concerned.


Each state knows what I’m talking about. We can’t deport rising temperatures. We can’t turn our backs on the water and the air.

My House:

I’m dodging a moth while I write this, which strikes me as kind of funny. It’s drinking the condensation, I think, off the can of Rainier beside me on the table, then berzerking its way from lamp to lamp, then coming back to flap in my face, in my ear, then finally land in the crook of my elbow. It’s as graceless as those goldfinches were graceful, and I’m glad I got to see them. They aren’t commonplace in Utah, but even the worst ornithologist would never call them “aliens.” And this moth on my beer is a nuisance, yes, but I like it a lot more than Rudy Giuliani.

Political Climate:

Did you see that? Somehow it seeped in again—politics like Thought Smog—when all I wanted was to offer a link and a poem.

Old Roads, New Stories:

http://www.voiceofvashon.org/user-content/prose-poetry-purpose-carney-2. The link is to a recent interview (thank you, March Twisdale, for having me on your show: Prose, Poetry and Purpose, KVSH 101.9 FM). The poem is environmental, and it goes like this:

The Mother of the Mountains

If a mama bear gets angry, imagine the Mother of the Mountains.
Mess with Her children, She’ll dust off an avalanche;

step out of line, She’ll realign your bones.
She’s a blue-eyed beauty,

and the mountains have their Mother’s eyes: deep lakes.
Gaze into them, you’ll see their thoughts like fish—

quick schools, slow rainbows—look deeper,
and you’ll learn to dream like a stone.

What does She feed them? Rain for breakfast.
Anything else? She peels them the sun for lunch.

And at night? Big helpings of quiet,
then the Mother of the Mountains sings them to sleep with snow.

The trees are Her grandkids; She brings them birds to play with.
Whenever it’s their birthday, She gives them an owl

’cause though She’s a blue-eyed beauty, She’s still kind.
Even soft . . . even fragile. . . .

Wolves howl to Her to show their gratitude. What about you?



Rob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.

Photo of American goldfinch courtesy Pixabay.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.