I grew up in a midwestern American suburb, with neat rows of houses each on their own patch of tidy lawn. It was still a fairly young housing development, perhaps twenty years old. The trees of the neighbourhood were beyond the sapling stage but not yet grown to their full height or strength. Ornamental bushes and beds of flowering plants decorated the edges of front porches and backyard decks. Residential streets and long driveways crisscrossed the groundscape, establishing car traffic as the dominant species in this constructed environment.
Yet some of the most emotive memories from my childhood are connected to the natural world which insisted on existing beside and around the self-contained boxes of suburban housing:
sitting on the front porch in a heavy, pressing air watching the spring sky turn the deep grey-green of tornado weather; weird fingery flashes of lightening scratching along the cloudscape, punctuated by groans of thunder, rumbling and grumbling in sometimes alarming closeness overhead. Rain breaking through the salty tang of sulphurised air, pouring steadily down in a loud beating cadence, driving all the earthworms from the dirt out onto the slick wet black of the tarred driveway
deepening dusk on warm summer evenings, a long lingering at the threshold of darkness, and the sudden magical smears of fireflies’ golden light, appearing and disappearing in a slow blinking dance
bright yellow blobs of dandelions scattered across the grass, on a fresh summer morning, with the sun reaching its way upward behind the houses opposite
moody grey overcast autumn sky, lost in its own thoughts, and leaves turning red gold brown, dropping into crisp rustling layers and skittery scattering across the pavement
waking up to the first frost, a crisp white icing sugar coating each stiff blade of grass and each dried up, gnarled up, long gone autumn leaf – and then, weeks later, the first snowfall, thick feathery flakes drifting down in slow motion and gathering like feathers into sparkly soft contours over bushes and rails.
tulips appearing, from nothing to something, steadily green and then surprising bright pink and deep red with yellow streaks
grey squirrel leap-jumping across the lawn and scurrying up a tree, bushy tail a fluffy curl
robin landing with a thump by the kitchen window, beady black eyes peering around, taking off again in a startled flapping rush
white papery moth beating against the wire mesh of the window screen, creepy tiny rustlings of summertime night-time
Despite the best efforts of suburban town planners to build over and tame the midwestern landscape, the natural world persisted. Green weeds pushed through cracks in the pavement. Spiders explored bathrooms. Black ants invaded kitchen cupboards. Changing seasons demanded attention and the grass – oh the grass. The grass never stopped. It needed to be mowed again and again and again – my brothers’ weekly chore.
I am reminiscing for a reason. My relationship to the natural world sat uneasily beside the more pervasive lessons of my childhood, which involved bug spray and cellophane wrapping. Twentieth century American post-war suburban life gave me interstate highways and shopping malls and a two car garage. McDonalds and Wendys and KFC. Oreos and Cheerios and Cheetos and Doritos. Pacman and Walkman and synthetic clothing in neon pink and green. The culture of my upbringing worshipped the artificial, the mechanical and digital, the automotive, the commercial, the televised and the mass produced. Nature was just a messy nuisance.
Those memories of mine were collected despite, not because, and in truth I know very little about the natural environment. The names and characteristics of all but the most obvious of flora, the habits and habitats of all but the most common of fauna – I know so relatively nothing of who they all are and what they’re all like. In a wilderness challenge, I would die quickly. Foraging, protection from predators, weather patterns and terrain? Sorry, but no. No idea.
That leads me finally to the point of this post, which is to ask: how have I been prepared for the spectre of climate change? How does the average mind of modern civilisation grasp the information that is coming at us about global warming, and all the evidence we have marking the gruelling degradation of our natural ecosystems? Psychology is so commonly associated with human culture, human relationships – but what of our relationships with the natural world? What of my intense internal dialogue with those mesmerising stormclouds as I sat watching the sky from our front porch, what of my tentative, curious friendship with the worms on our rain-drenched driveway? What of my far more intimate relationships with my collection of factory-made cuddly toys, my menagerie of small plastic animals and my beloved Merlin with its battery-operated blinks and bleeps? How have I been set up, for the predicament I face as part of the human community?
Do you ever wonder the same? What are your own experiences and ideas at this unique, bewildering and many would say terrifying juncture of civilisation? Can we humans ever be forgiven for the damage and even extinction we have caused to so many other species and ecosystems in this world? Can we create a human culture that harmonises with the natural world, rather than destroying it? Can we clean up the mess we have made? Will we even survive?
These questions and others inspire the next issue of Unpsychology magazine. My friend Steve Thorp, founder and editor of Unpsychology, has invited me to co-edit this upcoming issue which takes as its theme Climate Minds. You can read the brief and the call for submissions here.
Please consider contributing to this issue, or circulating the invitation throughout your own networks. The deadline is 30 September 2017.
Allow your imagination to soar. Remember those moments of your childhood, when the natural world bewitched you. Consider how you fit into this remarkable web of life. Share your thoughts, your fears, your hopes. And above all, trust your heart, which remembers so vividly the joyful fresh air of a summer morning, lawn mowers rumbling in the distance, and those damned inevitable dandelions smiling up at you.