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Dorothy FortenberryOctober 27, 2021

This starts with children’s books because this starts with children. Or, really, because it ends with them.

If you start reading the book Betsy-Tacy, by Maud Hart Lovelace, on the night before your daughter’s fifth birthday, and you read one chapter per night, then you will read the chapter where Betsy turns 5, “Betsy’s Birthday Party,” on the same day that your daughter turns five.

I figured this out with my older daughter and did the same with my younger, in 2016 and then again in 2020.

Betsy-Tacy is the first book in a series of 10 books about a fictional town called Deep Valley, Minn. The series starts in 1897 and covers the first decade and a half of the 20th century. The world portrayed is idyllic in some ways—hot chocolate and homemade cakes and ice-skating on frozen lakes—but not free of problems.

Tacy, Betsy’s best friend and neighbor, loses her baby sister to an infection for which there is no medicine. The Syrian refugees who have settled in town are treated cruelly by some. Betsy and Tacy and their friend Tib are punished by their parents for imitating beggars, which implies that somewhere, perhaps beyond the outlines of the downtown drawn in the book, people are living in poverty.

There are also, of course, the contemporaneous horrors of the 19th and early 20th century, which go undiscussed in the book’s pages: The crowded and unsafe conditions in factories. The racial violence and terrorism of Redemption. The process by which Minnesota itself became “empty” for settlement.

Any book can be only what it is, and these books are the story of an economically comfortable, basically happy white girl with extraordinary ambition and perhaps unearned confidence. And any reader can find only whatever resonances she can with a protagonist.

One of the pleasures of reading these books is discussing what has changed. Imagine riding in a carriage pulled by a horse! Imagine not having indoor plumbing! But the deeper pleasures are to be found in what stays the same: Playing with friends. Imagining futures. Crushes and dances and acting in plays and worrying you have disappointed someone you love. Bluebirds and lilacs. Asters and goldenrods.

Reading the Betsy-Tacy books and knowing that they end in 1917 and that two world wars and an influenza pandemic are waiting for our young heroes as they emerge into adulthood casts a shadow over the events of their childhood, rendering each passing moment sweeter and sharper.

Not all these boys and girls, you realize, will make it.

You do not tell your daughters this, though, as you read them. They are, after all, bedtime stories.

•••

I have always loved the liturgical calendar. And the regular calendar. All calendars, basically. I use the dividing markers of seasons to help sort through my own various moods.

On church time, Advent and Lent are waiting seasons. Christmas and Easter are party seasons. Green is ordinary time because, ordinarily, things are green.

I use the dividing markers of seasons to help sort through my own various moods.

On regular time, fall is for organization, winter is for inwardness, spring for hope, and summer for abandon.

When I first moved to Southern California from the East Coast, I felt deeply ill at ease because the weather every day was the same. Was I really going to have to spend an entire year in my indolent summer mood? That is a lot of indolence.

In September, I yearned to get serious, but how could I buy a planner when it was 80 degrees and sunny? In January, I wanted to hunker down and avoid everyone and read books that made me cry and eat soups. But, again, it was 80 degrees and sunny.

At the time, I thought this was merely my intense emotional response to a cross-country move.

What I did not know then was that I moved to California in the middle of a drought. One that would then be followed by another drought, the longest in California’s history.

The weather was not supposed to be so hot and so dry.

My disorientation at the lack of change was everyone’s disorientation.

None of us knew how to feel.

•••

The climate is changing. It is a fact, and it has been a fact for years and years and there are a small but very important handful of people who spent large amounts of money and time rendering this fact a “controversy” and “in dispute,” and the reward for their tireless efforts is that we have spent the last 30 years not fixing a problem known to be a problem since I was a child.

Lots of people have said lots of things about climate change. People have discussed the science and the charts and the oceans and their acidification and the polar bears and coral reefs and residents of the small islands that are now being submerged. People, especially our Holy Father, have discussed the unfairness of the fact that those who have done the least to cause the problems are currently suffering and will continue to suffer the most.

Nature also happens to be, along with art and religion and children, the only possible hedge we have against our own mortality.

All of it is true, but what I would like to discuss tonight is this dislocation. Being in something and feeling somehow off because the very thing—the weather itself—that used to tell you when and therefore how you were no longer functions as it has for millennia.

Seasons, sun, rain, wind. These patterns are what we have; they draw us out of ourselves and connect us to others. They make us smaller and bigger than we feel, but maybe as small and big as we really are.

What else does that? Well, the only other things I really care about: art and church and children.

Nature also happens to be, along with art and religion and children, the only possible hedge we have against our own mortality. We will not last forever, but we—at least I—harbor hope that people who know me might remember me, especially when they participate in cyclical traditions. Ash Wednesday. Spring rain. Las Posadas. Mountain snowfall.

Mess with nature and you do not just mess with people who are living now and will live in the future, you also mess with the past and our connection to it.

When you grow up learning to ice skate on a frozen pond in Minnesota because your grandfather who grew up ice skating on a frozen pond in Minnesota taught you, and you continue to ice skate on that pond after your grandfather’s death, then in some ways your grandfather continues to live on. And, conversely, when the pond becomes too warm in the winter months to develop a solid crust of ice, if it freezes but just barely and is unsafe, then, in some ways, your grandfather dies again.

When you grow up eating lobster rolls with your aunts and cousins at the beach, then even after they are gone, you can share lobster rolls with your nieces and nephews, except if the ocean gets too warm and the lobsters all leave and then you cannot.

I should be honest with you. I did not grow up reading the Betsy-Tacy books. My mother tried in vain to get me to read them because she had enjoyed them as a child; and I, as usual when nudged by my mother, rebelled and decided to read anything but. Except that, after I had kids, for some reason, I relented. Tired, maybe, of reading children’s books whose endings I knew by heart, I turned to Betsy-Tacy for a welcome dose of surprise.

If you worry about what we have become and what we are doing to each other, you should be concerned about climate change.

The books were, of course, great. And they quickly vaulted over Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden to become my kids’ favorites. And a link has been created across generations.

The pleasures are what changes. The pleasures are also what stays the same. Books cannot, to my knowledge, melt like ice on ponds, but if the ice on the ponds in the books no longer behaves like it once did, that is its own form of loss. It is one more time your grandfather dies.

Not my grandfathers, to be clear. Neither of them grew up anywhere cold enough for ice skating. But someone’s grandfather, somewhere.

In other, better, words, to quote from “Laudato si’”:

Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.

The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves.

•••

So, if you are a person, like me, who values at all what is traditional, who is invested with some sense of reverence for the unchanging, if you look at certain aspects of modern life with horror, then I will submit to you that climate change is the most important thing that you could possibly care about.

If you are concerned by what you see as a disposable culture of mindless consumption and de-humanized sexuality, you should be concerned about climate change.

My opinions do not particularly matter because climate change is going to render all these other arguments preposterous.

If the pace of modern life feels frenetic and unmoored, if the tone of discussion feels unforgiving and opportunistic, if you worry about what we have become and what we are doing to each other, you should be concerned about climate change.

If you are worried about income inequality and social stratification, and the retreat of a hyper-elite class into literal rocket ships facing away from our collective problems, you should be concerned about climate change.

Climate change will not improve any of the negative aspects of our modern existence and, indeed, by messing with the natural world, it will take away the few remaining ways we have of resisting the frantic whine of self-absorbed, techno-capitalistic excess.

A lot of energy is spent these days on negotiating questions of innovation and tradition within the church. I have my opinions—you will have to ask me directly, but I will tell you—about the Latin Mass or clerical celibacy or women priests or gay marriage or anything else. But my opinions do not particularly matter because climate change is going to render all these other arguments preposterous.

Nothing will change the church more profoundly than the color green ceasing to be ordinary.

When ocean and wind patterns are shifting, when what we have named the “permafrost” has burst into flames, I have a hard time worrying about anything else being too disruptive to our established patterns of doing things.

Or, to put it a blunter way, nothing will change the church more profoundly than the color green ceasing to be ordinary.

•••

Maud Hart Lovelace wrote Betsy-Tacy in 1940, when she was a few years older than I am now.

By that point, Deep Valley, or, to call it by its real name, Mankato, had survived flappers and the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. Then the Dust Bowl years hit Minnesota hard. Any families that made it through the teens and ’20s would have found record-breaking heat and dryness waiting for them on the other side. The native grasses that had once held the topsoil in had been removed to turn the land into farmland. So when the crops died, the wind swept the loose dirt up in black clouds and sent families on the move to somewhere more hospitable.

Today, as the seasons are rapidly changing, Minnesota is marketing itself as a climate refuge. The city of Duluth runs advertisements extolling the fact that as the rest of the United States warms, Minnesota’s once extremely cold weather will become pleasantly temperate. And the famed thousand lakes can provide fresh water as the rest of our aquifers dry up.

Much as I like these books, I do not particularly want to live in Minnesota. What I want, and I do not know if I will get it, but I want it very much, is for my children to—if they were to grow up to write a book about their own childhoods, like Maud Hart Lovelace did—be able to see the landscape they currently live in reflected in some form outside their windows in 2050, should they choose to return home for inspiration.

I know Southern California cannot stay frozen in time, nor should it. There will be new buildings, new people, new foods and languages and some unforeseeable form of sidewalk scooters. I am not really asking for a pause on anything but the weather. It is still probably too much to ask.

Even if the average global temperature stopped climbing today, this would not be the climate of the 20th century; that change already has occurred.

And even if I got it, even if the average global temperature stopped climbing today, this would not be the climate of the 20th century; that change already has occurred.

My children are used to the lack of rain and the presence of forest fires. The relentless heat and sunshine do not strike them as unusual, and historically average rainy seasons register as monsoons. They even have “smoke days,” the California equivalent of a snow day, at elementary school.

But they know Monarch butterflies and Joshua Trees. They eat fresh salmon in the summers. They watch bees on our basil.

Still. For now.

And I watch them watching the bees, feeling sometimes like I do about the doomed young men dancing away in Deep Valley’s gymnasium in 1916.

I can see what is coming. You cannot.

I hope it does not get here. I want more for you. For all of us.

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