Here’s to spotty brown leaves: making meaning in a changing climate

I went for a walk with my son today. We do this almost every day. It’s a gorgeous day, sunny and unseasonably warm. The leaves are changing and falling. Some of the trees—enough to be quite noticeable—aren’t changing their usual fiery colors. The maples in our yard have gone yellow with brown spots. They say it’s all the rain we had this summer.

I am fascinated and disturbed by the new normal of leaf spots and altered foliage, of abundant mushrooms in our yard. I can’t help but wonder if this is the new normal, if it will get worse, and if autumn will ever be the way I remember it.

These days, I think a lot about how things aren’t what they “used to be.” The seasons are weird and less like the ones I remember just 15 or 20 years ago. Did I dream that all the maple leaves used to turn neon orange and red? That it would often, but not always, snow a little before Christmas? That the maple sap would flow on time in February and March, copiously? That I’d be unpacking my sweaters by mid-September?

What is the essence of a season? If it’s changed so much since we first formed our ideas about it, is it still the same thing? Is it just a feeling? A word? A set of images and sensations?

A pumpkin spice latte?

“Sweatah weathah?”

If the leaves turn brown and spotted, we can always hoist up a swag of fake orange leaves around the doorframe and stick a plastic pumpkin on the porch. (Do people do that in places without fall foliage? I honestly don’t know). What would we be clinging to then? What are we clinging to now?

Are the squirrels also unsettled by all of this?

Pondering these things tickles a small, dusty part of my memory that formed during the one philosophy class I took in college. I vaguely recall the philosophical concept of “ding an sich,” or, “the thing in itself.” Or maybe I’m thinking of the Ship of Theseus, a thought experiment about the identity of a ship as all of its parts are replaced over time. Is it still the same ship?

Or maybe it was something about Jungian archetypes, or that book on hyperreality by Umberto Eco. I didn’t major in philosophy. All I can do is name-drop and pretend it all sank in.

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something there—a shared feeling of unease and confusion about what our environment used to be like, and where it might be heading. The newly-created term “climate anxiety” doesn’t quite seem to capture it. “Solastalgia” sounds a little deeper and more academic, describing “emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change.”

Maybe we need a doctor to treat us. A doctor of philosophy.

When I look at social media, I see a lot of these perfect images of a season, of a place and time. But when I step outside, I feel something different. Imperfect. The joy of a 75F day in October, for the 8th consecutive day, accompanied by an eerie feeling of wrongness and impending doom. The sight of orange-soda-colored leaves next to brown and yellow spotted ones. Confused shrubs blooming again.

And so many f***ing mushrooms.

We can’t look away from our changing environment, from failing ecosystems and species extinctions—at least not all the time. It’s not easy to do, but I’m trying to see the beauty of the imperfect things in our changing climate and seasons. To cherish the things we still have, the ones we might save, and the ones that have already become something else. I try not to give in to despair because, if people like me give up, then what happens to those with less privilege and power? I keep pricking myself with the pin of action. “Wake up. You can be sad sometimes, but remember that you can do something.”

Back on my walk, I pick up a brown, spotty leaf and stick it on top of the stroller. Then, a red one with blackish splotches. A curled up dry one. Mottled yellow and orange ones. Torn and ratty ones. It feels a little forced and cheesy at first, like something you’re instructed to do in a little hardcover book about self-care and being happy. But I start to feel a little affection toward my odd leaves. Maybe a little protective.

“Perfect” leaves are nice, but if I can’t love the spotty ones, then I might have a hard time loving myself, or the world as it is, right? And if I’m going to help change things—to save as much as possible of what is good and healthy in the world, I have to start exactly where I am, accepting what is. So here’s to spotty brown leaves, my mediocre (at best) grasp of philosophy, and trying to finding a little peace and joy in an uncertain, imperfect, and changing world.

RESOURCES AND ACTION

For those interested, here are a few great resources and places to donate:

https://www.allwecansave.earth/

https://www.ienearth.org/

https://climatejusticealliance.org/

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