An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World
by Amy Seidl
reviewed by Alison Hawthorne Deming (http://www.orionmagazine.org)
Beacon Press, 2009. $24.95, 192 pages.
HOW ARE WE TO SEE OURSELVES as characters--as actor--in the enormous story of climate change and the planet's diminishment? How do we change our role in the drama from consumer to caretaker? How are we to think and feel about our bewildering moment in natural history, when the complexity of change is occurring on a scale not observable to the plain eye? Amy Seidl's Early Spring brings complexity home to the author's garden, family, and community in northern Vermont. She moves gracefully among roles as mother, ecologist, neighbor, and thoughtful witness of the everyday. She shows us where to look to see local change in circadian rhythms of both nature and culture: the date the lilacs first bloom or robins arrive, the forestalled annual ice-fishing derby or sugaring-off celebration in maple country. To a trained eye, these changes speak volumes about how creatures, plants, and human communities are being pressed into adaptation.
Seidl writes wonderfully detailed descriptions of complicated processes, such as the "pillow and cradle" features of her local landscape, the process of caterpillar metamorphosis and the peril of Bt toxins, and how plant chemistry responds to increased ultraviolet rays. She shows the value and mechanism of sustained looking: the family journal that spans three generations of data on ice-out on Lake Damariscotta, Maine; the woman in Michigan who observed birds from her kitchen window and recorded their visits for over forty years; and the woman in Massachusetts who kept track of what she saw on daily walks for forty-two years--"when the wood ducks arrive at her pond, the first time she heard the peepers' chorus, and when the wood anemones bloomed"
These compulsive note-takers do more than add information to our overburdened hoard. They are "recording the rhythm of life" around us, Seidl writes, a rhythm that has its analogue in our consciousness. The lilacs in her backyard bloom eight to sixteen days earlier than when she was born, and by the time her daughters are her age they will bloom fourteen to twenty-eight days earlier. We are engaged in a transformation that requires new calibrations of feeling and reflection's well as policy and action.
Seidl's tutelary spirit is Rachel Carson, whose words introduce the chapters of this book. The title Early Spring suggests one of the challenges here: many people in cold climates would be darned happy to have an earlier spring. At this book's conclusion, that benign phrase will begin to have the poetic resonance and urgency of Carson's catalyzing work in Silent Spring.