Letter to America: Infant Ecology

By Christopher Schaberg

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Dear America,

Late spring is my favorite time of year in northern Michigan, on the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This is where I’m from, and where my family returns to each summer, when the school year is out and we visit grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. This year, because of a long winter and a late thaw, spring stretched into early June—just when we arrived. Everything took place about two weeks late, and I was ecstatic.

The morels pop from the ground for a handful of fleeting days, their gnomic forms standing sentinel in moss patches and angling improbably out of rocky slopes. The wild leeks reach perfection, pearlescent bulbs coaxed from the sandy dark soil. The beech and oak trees leaf out, casting the forest in a surreal verdant glow—like being in some sort of sci-fi greenhouse. Hermit thrushes trill in the upper canopies on the ridges, and invisible ruffed grouse wump wump wump their mating calls through rows of pines. Stealthy does leave their fawns curled beside logs while they forage; you have to be careful not to step on them, the fawns are so still. All these things happen in the deep hilly woods and around the meadows. In the inland lakes, pike torpedo into the shallows seeking errant minnows, bass slurp frogs off lily pads, fat bluegills circle their beds, dragonfly nymphs emerge on reed tips, loons roost near the shore, and sandhill cranes cackle and dance at the water’s edge.

It’d been a long year, with a punishing commute every weekday through fractured neighborhoods and dicey intersections, to our kids’ schools and my campus. We were ready for a more tranquil summer. Up in Michigan, things felt better. But still, it wasn’t like we could compartmentalize this relatively wild space. We know more than ever that the globe is an interconnected place, and that what happens in one region inevitably effects all others.

Morel
Photo by Christopher Schaberg.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I was inside catching up on emails while monitoring baby Vera napping in the other room. I was attuned to the drip of the rain falling from the roof onto the pine needles outside. The green out there was blinding, as if every tree, bush, and ground plant was soaking it up and immediately converting it to photosynthesizing surface area. Another afternoon, a hummingbird moth flew into view, hovering along the myrtle right outside our door—we tracked it for a languid ten minutes or so, my other two children marveling in its precision moves from bloom to bloom. Fluffy catkins from the bigtooth aspens parachuted down all around us in slow motion. A toad hopped by, with a pace and intentionality at once uncannily familiar and delightfully alien. Maybe the solitary morel I discover has more brilliance for being the only one I find that day—without even searching for it. I thought about all the smaller, more nearby things that I’d noticed over the past week or so. The fringed polygala, a charismatic pink flower peeking out from the trunk of giant maple tree, which I stumbled upon during one of my slow walks holding Vera. All these things I took in with glee, because there I was with newborn Vera in my arms. She was, unbeknownst to her, forcing me to decelerate—as my mentor Tim Morton taught us graduate students to do many years ago, in our Ecology without Nature seminar.

It wasn’t an easy decision to have a baby in this moment, when the Anthropocene looms and it’s clearer each day that human impact is putting the planet and its people in peril. Why bring another human into this world, a world that seems doomed to hurtle into mass species extinction and self-destruction? Our home city of New Orleans is sinking, and the Gulf Coast eroding at a staggering rate. One May morning shortly before Vera’s birth, a thunderstorm dumped two inches of rain in an hour, and streets throughout the city flooded; cars on our street were submerged, bags of trash and spewing garbage cans bobbed along a spontaneous current toward Lake Pontchartrain. A spring rain may sound pleasant, even purging—but in New Orleans, such a deluge brings everything to the surface, sewage and Slim Jim wrappers swirling with cypress needles and live oak leaves.

I recognize that it is with great privilege that we are able to have this double life: the gritty urban ambience of New Orleans during the school year and the idyll of northern Michigan in the summers. We’re trying not to romanticize the latter to our children, but to teach them the complex lessons of both places, and how contemporary life is shot through with urgent challenges no matter where we are. Something about having baby Vera around made it even more pressing this past summer.

Baby in Michigan woods

I’ve started to think about this mindset as “infant ecology”: the vivid, immediate lifeworld made more visible and present by living with a baby; but also a nascent form of ecological consciousness that might be taking shape with the next generation. It’s a mode of ecological thought that can meander across diverse regions and as-if discrete spaces. The figure of the newborn child is just a metaphor, really. It stands for a kind of consciousness that stays with the visceral, the nearby, the small, the smaller, even the tiny—microplastics, anyone?—while also acknowledging movement forward on a vast scale, including the humans and nonhumans who might live and thrive together in a future to come.

But infant ecology has a literal aspect, as well. Spending time with a newborn is riveting, because everything feels like a matter of life and death. Is she nursing enough? What was that raspy cough? Is she sneezing too much? What are those weird bumps? When was the last time she pooped? How can anyone survive after such a voluminous spit-up? It’s a miracle: she’s been sleeping for three hours! (Wait; is she still alive?!)

These sensations eventually wear off, replaced by the day-to-day monotony of surviving in modernity. The kids grow up, and we adapt to this life. But I wonder if a dose of infant ecology is precisely what we need right now to break out of the habits and routines of the Anthropocene. Not that we can easily erase or reverse the disastrous effects of the last century or two, exactly—but maybe we can survive this epoch if we start focusing on the small things, and acting like it really is a matter of life and death.

We like to think that the United States is relatively mature, when it comes to environmental protections and regulations. But, America, we actually need to develop an infant ecology—before it’s too late. Meanwhile Vera is growing each day, into this strange world that is simultaneously fecund and beautiful, and also teetering on the brink.

With hope for the future,

Chris

 

 

Christopher SchabergChristopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, and author of the book Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Environmental Humanities (Bloomsbury, 2019).

Read “Sinking into the Anthropocene | New Orleans Nature Writing” by Christopher Schaberg and his students, and read Anya Groner’s interview with Christopher Schaberg: The Unpredictable Zone of the Airport.
 
Header photo by Amy Johansson, courtesy Shutterstock.

 

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