because in times like these / to have you listen at all / it’s necessary to talk about trees
Scientists working to restore the Florida Reef Tract have discovered by accident that breaking coral into small pieces encourages it to regenerate twenty-five times more quickly than larger sections, which hardly grow at all. The separated polyps, motivated to heal, soon spread and merge with their neighbors. There is hope, then, in this fracturing, although it relies on reunification. Adrienne Rich once said that poetry is “liberative language, connecting the fragments within us, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves,” and whether or not that’s true, I’ve found that her work does have something to tell us about the fragmented individual and the collective whole—not just historically, but in the context of today’s muted urgencies, within the mutual ruin of the Anthropocene.
I am thinking particularly of her 1991 poem from Dark Fields of the Republic, “In Those Years,” which despite its original context I’ve always read as a reflection of our climate disaster, through the window of the phrase “personal weather.”
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I
As Liz Yorke notes in Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body, there’s no denying that this poem exists within the context of Rich’s work in civil rights, social justice, and feminism, especially with its echoes of the phrase “the personal is political.” In that context the lost “meaning of we” may refer specifically to feminism fracturing into its intersectional parts, a shift which some activists and theorists experienced at the time as a kind of disintegration of the movement as a whole. The emphasis on the personal appeared to contribute to this loss, as suggested by bell hooks, who said:
The ability to see and describe one’s own reality is a significant step in the long process of self-recovery; but it is only a beginning. When women internalized the idea that describing their own woe was synonymous with developing a critical political consciousness, the progress of feminist movement was stalled.
Even if valid in some sense, this reading of this poem feels dated, not to mention cynical in its implications. For one, that “we” was historically a hegemonic one, which obscured significant differences. And it feels like a slap in the face if Rich really is describing the emergence of personal narratives as “silly, ironic, terrible.” bell hooks puts the matter a bit differently: “Personal experiences are important to feminist movement but they cannot take the place of theory.” Theory, she insists, is key to collective action.
Admittedly, there is a plethora of pointless personal essays online, but from what I can tell, more and more people do aim to connect their specific personal experiences to systemic oppressions and privileges, and our cultural moment in that regard does not seem silly or ironic. I’d argue that sometimes we’re fairly successful in hearing each other’s perspectives while we stand on the shore of social media saying, “I.” And we’ve established the value, certainly, of bearing witness to our own experiences (even as we learn to shy away from the appropriation of other’s stories — which is a whole discussion unto itself, especially for poets and fiction writers).
One plausible reading of this poem, then, reveals the connections and contrasts between the identity politics of the early nineties and those of today. But there are other readings available too, taking into account that we do seem to live in a heyday of American individualism, where neoliberalism is the default, the overriding logic of daily life and political theory. “We were trying to live a personal life,” said Rich; maybe this is part of what she meant. In this case a broken piece does not heal toward reintegration with a whole. Individualism is more like habitat fragmentation, wherein a divided forest or field loses species, and the remaining populations diminish, less resilient to further change. What remains of each of us is weaker, “reduced.” Yorke calls this the “self-protective I,” which explores itself “without a knowledge of the you,” and “takes no account of the dialogic and relational interdependency of humanity.” In this we forget to listen; we are in a fog.
These readings of Rich’s poem reflect back to us that our understanding of identity politics has evolved but that a critique of society’s individualism perhaps feels fresh as ever. If it were not for the second stanza, perhaps this could remain the status quo. But this poem is a warning, an affront to complacency, that speaks not only to a historical situation but to our own environmentally disastrous times.
When I read the phrase “personal weather” I can’t help but imagine a cartoon character with a little storm cloud following her around. We are used to considering weather like this, as a reflection of our inner moods, and writers have long encouraged this tendency with smiling suns and sorrowful rains. More insidiously, weather has at times been connected to God’s will, such that disasters are sinners’ just deserts — and it is not unheard of even now for people to blame residents for their area’s misfortune. Research has shown that people do have trouble grasping the sheer scale of climate change (while others, of course, downright refuse to do so). It takes effort for any of us to think not only of weather but of climate; not only of the immediate, physical raindrops and sunbeams but of temperature trends, far-off floods, and so on. It doesn’t help matters that the weather, according to some reports, has actually become more pleasant in general for many people in the U.S. Some studies suggest that winters have become warmer while summers haven’t become significantly hotter — they will, later, but by then it will be too late. “In those years, people will say…”
Of course, the data can be interpreted somewhat differently. Just weeks ago, not very far from where I live, Baton Rouge experienced a once-in-a-thousand-years storm, which inflicted mercifully few deaths but a staggering amount of damage on people who mostly had no flood insurance. Similar storms have become as much as doubly more likely to occur. And no longer is it precisely true that you can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change. Baton Rouge is one of the first weather events to be analyzed using sophisticated computer modeling that can now compare the pre- and post-Industrialization probabilities of such disasters, which means that our personal weather can be directly connected to the bigger picture. Climate changes, those “dark birds of history,” are already cutting through the fog, “headed somewhere else,” that is, ambivalent to our survival.
The idea of the Anthropocene is that the mass of us have left an indelible mark on Earth, which implies that only collective action can save us from total self-destruction. Rich’s poem serves as a provocation, a space, for thinking about how and why to connect identity politics to this crucial “climate moment.” In her 2014 book, This Changes Everything, climate journalist Naomi Klein quotes Occupy Wall Street organizer Yotam Marom, who calls the environmental crisis a “challenge and opportunity for all of our movements.” She explains that this broader umbrella, uniting a multiplicity of causes, doesn’t override any individual cause but rather exposes their “existential urgency.” We must, she says, be “continually drawing connections among these seemingly disparate struggles — asserting, for instance, that the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapors of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy.”
The current Dakota pipeline protest is the largest gathering of Native American tribes in over one hundred years. They gather to protest a pipeline that is part of a long, specific history of racial violence and disenfranchisement, and I hope it reinforces that struggle, but does not erase it, to say that the broader message of the protest is essentially that disaster, when it comes, won’t necessarily discriminate. A poisoned river affects all who drink from it. As Dave Archambault II, leader of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, wrote in the New York Times, “We need the public to see that in standing up for our rights, we do so on behalf of millions of Americans who will be affected by this pipeline.”
As Klein points out, environmental movements are deeply indebted to indigenous peoples, who have long known that individuals are not isolated from one another, and that the idea of a self-protective “I” ignores the truth of how ecosystems function. The danger of ignoring this truth pervades Rich’s poem, which can be read as anticipating the idea of a climate moment, such that the idea of a “we,” if it can be recovered, should or could be for the purposes demanded by environmental realities. Of course, there is endless theoretical work to be done here, by those more knowledgeable than me. And I’m not sure, as Rich suggests, that poetry can do that work. All I can suggest — with my poet’s logic — is that in healing, the parts grow back together; that is the only way the reef will survive.
When the storms hit Baton Rouge, New Orleans mobilized to help without a second thought, sending supplies and caravans of volunteers. It easily could have been our city’s disaster — so easily, in fact, that it was clearly our responsibility to help, if we could. One Saturday in August, I joined a crew, and we proceeded to dismantle a ranch house in one of many affected suburbs, taking crowbars to moldy drywall so that the interior could be rebuilt. While we literally carried the house out of the door and dumped it onto the curb, the owner seemed surprisingly calm. I mentioned this to another volunteer, and she just nodded toward the woman, who stood by the water cooler with a few neighbors, all of them shaking their heads, now and then laughing. “It happened to all of them,” she said. And she was right; that was the difference. They were in it together.