Hell on earth
My maternal grandmother had 10 children that we know of. Giving birth at least ten times is something most women living today can’t imagine. We also can’t imagine living, as she did as a small child, in a rough coal mining camp at the start of coal extraction in Southern West Virginia— the closest I can imagine to what that might have been like must be something like Deadwood: no law so anything goes. Anything goes is not a pretty place or way to live, especially for a young girl.
The way we deal with our collective pasts often leads us to embellish, to make the lives of our ancestors out to be more like ours rather than always teetering on the edge of starvation, or toward the devastating death of someone from something completely beyond our control like an infection caused by a barnyard scratch, or falling to conscription to a war on foreign soil.
We imagine our forebearers lived as we do: air-conditioned, full-bellied, vaccinated, antibacterial, flushable, disposable, fresh-scented, with microwavable food ready to eat in five minutes, where anything we don’t want, we can just toss in the garbage. But, after having travelled to the coal camp in West Virginia by wagon from Wilkes County, NC during the economic depression of the mid-1880s, then, after experiencing how rough those coal camps were, after five years my grandmother’s family uprooted again, landing as sharecroppers (tobacco, milk, hogs) in the nearby coal-less mountains. I do know their past had had to have been awfully rough if they picked sharecropping as a preferable future.
Where my grandmother lived in Southwest Virginia, the cold weather set in a little after Halloween, and it stayed cold to damn near Easter. As a small child, in this same set of mountains, I recall being too eager to put on shorts to go egg-hunting…or on my way to church, goose-pimpled in my Easter dress. This grandmother died when I was very young, but my paternal grandmother, after my coalmining grandfather died when my father was a teenager, she married again, and this time around picked a very solid, quiet man who did well for himself in the cow-calf business aka growing beef cattle for sale.
Mainly due to family dramas predating my birth, my paternal grandmother and I were never close. Few of the things she said have stuck with me. But one year, some twenty or so years ago, I was living in New York City. The winter the previous year there had been brutal. All the five winters I had lived there had been harsh. Then that one February, I found myself in McCarren Park, in Williamsburg, in a hoodie, out kicking a soccer ball against a fence just to get out in the fresh air for a while. The previous two years, in order to adjust to the cold and snow happening as we approached April, I had convinced myself that this was now life: always and forever icy, cold, difficult, wrapped up, slick, easy to fall and break something. But then here I was, in the middle of a February, outside working up a sweat.
Some time that spring, I travelled down to the Virginia mountains to see my grandmother…and we fell into discussing what had always seemed a safe and polite topic of genteel company: the weather.
My farmer wife grandmother, by then bent from osteoporosis, a tiny 77 year-old woman with soft, wavy gray hair that ended below her ears, she sat straight up, her face in disbelief, and announced to me, “You know, this year the ground didn’t freeze.” She searched my face for a reaction. I told her I had indeed played soccer outside in New York City that February. As Southerners often do, she reasserted her exclamation, changing up the phrasing, to emphasize to me her claim’s extraordinariness, “In my whole life, I have never known the ground not to freeze in the winter.”
Little did I know those words from my unassuming grandmother would come back, echo in me, as the first visceral signals of much bigger, global problems.
You see, after that, every year the winters were different. For me up North, and for her in those Southern mountains, most days and most of the time it was bone-chilling and snowy as it had always been. Then you’d get that day, or that stretch of weather that would cause the fruit trees to blossom early. Then the snow would return, and kill off the potential fruit crop.
In 2012, a year after my husband and I moved from a city to the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina, where he had farmed most of the 1990s and early 2000s, he showed me the latest Farmer’s Almanac: the planting zones had changed as the USDA had finally updated the growing zones to reflect reality: farmers noticing at least a 5 degree Fahrenheit warming in their Zones. Now, he said, he’d noted this change in the weather already years before as he was out in it every day. As a kid in the North Carolina Piedmont, his childhood, too, had been snowier, but now here it was: where we lived in was officially warmer, and, I thought of my grandmother.
This climate business was not Global Warming or climate change, but climate extremes. It is soft, pliable, tillable ground in the Southwest Virginia mountains in the middle of February.
It is more hurricanes and harder ones, more tornadoes, more fires, more floods, more tsunamis, more earthquakes, more lake effects, more ocean rise, more and harder heat, more ocean and lake dead zones, more devastating cold. And, as farmers, my husband and I (as did my grandmother in 1995) see this up close and personal — for example, in a place as difficult to grow in as Greenland, the shift has already been toward two more weeks of growing now available.
However, you can’t just go and plant the kinds of seeds you have always planted. The breeds of cattle you have now won’t work anymore into the future: your livestock has to be able to survive extreme temperatures. What we did before no longer works, and any of the growers we know who pay attention, who have half a brain, know that what was already, is now how it will be.
This year (2018) the hottest recorded temperature was 126 degrees Fahrenheit in the Mojave. A few years ago, I worked in Saudi Arabia, where it was routinely 110 degrees Fahrenheit at our compound next to the Red Sea, outside Jeddah. Riding to and from the city, I was surprised to see food production there, but like most of the rest of life, everything was indoors, powered by gas electric plants to keep everything and everyone icy cool. The only animals I saw outside: stray desert dogs, camels, and now and again, a few goats.
In that kind of unbearable heat that goes on and on for months, you can’t grow much. Most folks don’t know why the Midwestern US has such great soil, why it produces most of our grains: snow, with its nitrogen, is poor man’s fertilizer, and the cold there, gives the ground and plants a rest, so that they may burst forth in spring and summer with immense vitality and vigor.
In heat and climate extremes that go on and on, there is only one story left for humans. For any of us, most places, regardless of background or community: all the babies die.
Let me run that down for you.
At the current rate, after the recent tipping point, most of the US South is slated to be too hot to live in, to grow in…..
It seems highly unlikely we will throw the brakes on this, so here is the march of what human babies will die of. Most babies of every kind will die, but for the sake of illustration, I’ll stick with our species here.
Hurricanes will get larger and more massive and people will flee with their babies. Droughts will strike, crops will fail, and the ground will turn to dust. The remaining farmers will need to flee. The heat and wet will reinvigorate old diseases and offer ideal conditions to mutate news ones: people will get sick, and babies will die first. As more pressure gets put on the Southern US coasts from ocean rise, violent storms, flooding, disease — these people will come inland, but there won’t be a place for them — no infrastructure, no jobs, not enough food or water; they will die in shanty towns, many from disease. Within my son’s lifetime, if he stays in North Carolina and manages to live long enough and doesn’t die prematurely from the items I just listed, much of everywhere South of Pennsylvania (including the Southern Mountains like the most of the Appalachians, all of the Blue Ridge, the Brushies, the Smokies) will be too hot to grow anything. The things we consider normal now — electricity at the outlet, water bursting from our tap, ready to eat or cook food delivered magically to our stores, diapers, wipes, formula, baby food, bottles, where is that all going to come from, and, if it arrives anywhere, how will anyone who needs it get access, afford it? By then, air conditioning will be unavailable, so the heat will be unbearable, that is if the radiation from nuclear reactors hit by storms or in emergency decommission hadn’t poisoned everything and everyone there first. Crime will be rampant. Most infrastructure will have crumbled, leaving people quickly overheated and starving. Forget about escaping this if you are elderly or immobile or pregnant — and even if you could go, by then, who is welcoming you? Not the people in the climate milder Northern United States, certainly not the Canadians. So, where would you, your children, your grandchildren (if they haven’t all already died) go?
Take this scenario I just described, adjust for location, pick anywhere south of the 40th parallel, and hit repeat. For example, substitute tornadoes for hurricanes, where appropriate. Up the drought. Increase the fires. Up the ante on nuclear fallout.
See, like I said, all the babies — all the babies die.
Your children. My children. Your grandchildren. Your neighbors and your family.
Everyone in your school. Everyone at your job and everyone at your church. No one is Rambo-ing their way out of this…and even if some perfectly trained military type gung-ho guy can — is he taking all the rest of us with him?
So, just so you really get it, hell is right here. Right now. Within our short grasps. We are sealing the deal on hell on earth.
Hell is happening right here, in seemingly immutable electric grids, power plants, the invisible streams powering those lights we turn on, the omnipresent whir of electric hum and highway swish. In massive, expansive factory agriculture and the run run run of our single pod vehicle splurging us from here to the end of the block.
Hell is us in masses not purging outdated useless technical, political, economic, agricultural, energy systems… hell is the path to ruin ever shorter.
Hell is teeming forests’ desiccation, dictators denuding the trees of life.
And, all the little babies, all of them, of everything and everyone, shrivel, thirst, hunger, waste, die.
Hell is seeds flying in the wind with no moist ground to take root. Hell is searing, scorching, planet-denying; the earth never resting as it needs.
Hell is the earth we have created to live in convenience. Hell is ever. Again.
As we roast the middle of the planet two score parallels above and below the equator, where life began and where most of it lives, the earth heaves, tosses, torches.
In response, we piddle. Piddle-pat. Wring our hands about not liking this or that, these or those, because our preacher told us not to, or because our religious text said so, yet as we fry the earth, the babies of everyone and everything die. Or at least most of them, of us, without access to Northern Europe and Canada, or to the South, Patagonia and New Zealand. Roughly, 4 million babies are born just in the United States now every year, and about 250 born every minute worldwide for about 131,400,000. The largest portion of these births is already in the Global South; where my husband and I farm in the Southern Appalachian foothills is slated to reach a 100 days over 90 Fahrenheit by 2094, when our son is 80.
My grandmother had ten children and worked most of her life as a sharecropper. Until recently that seemed like the roughest thing I could imagine in and for my family. But now we have slated and sealed 100 days over 90 Fahrenheit for my darling, super, wonderful little boy, and, yours.
To keep myself from losing my mind with anxiety over his future, I joke to our son, alligators! Sweetie, with a yearly average of 68 Fahrenheit, you’ll have alligators here in the Appalachians!
In this overheated world, the rich soils my husband and I have been restoring after cotton and tobacco gutted them….they turn to dust. A colleague of mine, an environmental historian, pointed out to me that the red clay of the Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont and foothills was man-made, the end result of two hundred + years of monoculture tobacco and cotton production. My husband and I know this — as we look at the red clay “soil” where we live — this could not have been what was here upon contact. This was created. A whole region’s worth of geology and ecology was shifted. We know this happens. We live the back-breaking work it takes to make the soil right again.
Like in the human-created Dust Bowl and the high salt content in lands in or closer to the Fertile Crescent created by overgrazing and deforestation, with climate extremes dust and desert take the places of once abundant fertility.
It is only now that I understand that my grandmother maybe said to me the most important thing anyone has every said: in all her then 77 years, the ground had always frozen — and then there was that year when the tipping point came.
The look on her face exclaimed: we are all sliding, rolling, gaining speed, falling to fiery hell from that high Virginia mountain.
As for me, as for us left (she passed in 1999, a few years after her observation) our only hope remains rallying every force — spiritual, personal, political, social, identity, capital, creative, technical, both individual and collective— and devote ourselves to stopping this hell already underway, underfoot.
We are well and long past time for squabbles, nitpicking, expecting perfection or purity and perfect alignment from those with whom we share this dire affinity to pull the brake on the hell-fire speed at which this apocalyptic doom approaches.
Do something. Please, please, grab the people next to you, and do something. Simply, if not for any other reason, before ALL, the, little, babies, die.