I had seen a recent picture of them in the paper, and I had heard on the radio of several sightings around Vermont, but still I was surprised on Sunday morning, as I walked across the UVM campus, to see a flock of robins playing in the wind and bouncing about on the thinly veiled ground. My teeth chattered as I headed toward the Davis Center, where the Northeast Organic Farming (NOFA) conference was gearing up for its second day, and in the single-digit air I felt my neck stiffen, my arms shiver, and my feet quicken their pace. In this winter that has been so mild, all of the sudden 9°F sends a deep cold into the bones. Then I think of the robins and wonder at their agility and speed on a day like this, when they should be at least in Massachusetts, if not further south, where food is more abundant and temperatures are warmer.
Food, though, it seems is one of the reasons some Robins stuck around: there is enough food to be found this winter, due in large part to the warmth of the season. Last week, Jane Lindholm, host of Vermont Edition on VPR, spoke with experts and callers about the effect this winter is having on Vermont. One woman called in to ask why the variety of birds at her feeder has decreased, and the answer was because there is more wild food readily available right now. Another reason we’ve seen more Robins is due to the subtle but steady climate shift. In his essay “Bear”, Craig Childs states: “Climate zones are shifting north across the globe at a rate of a few feet every several hours, and species are steadily following, sending out scouts to find fallbacks and future niches.” Though we’ve known about climate change since at least the 1980s, and though I studied it in college and have seen the graphs and charts, these physical reminders—robins and the flow of sap in early February, a tropical storm ravaging Vermont land, an autumn posing as summer—these are the things that shock me into knowing how deeply we have altered the world we depend on.
It takes a few moments for the warmth of the Davis Center to seep into my bones, softening my neck and relaxing my arms. I welcome the heat into my body, and see others streaming through the doors to find relief as well. As a species, we have adapted to cold climates through clothing and shelter, and as a society we have designed vacation packages to Oceanside resorts, where we can lay in the sun and absorb its energy. Sometimes I wonder if the American people would care more about climate change if we were going into an ice age instead.
I walk up the stairs to the fourth floor, where Wendy Johnson, a Buddhist meditation teacher, gardener, and environmentalist, is waiting to give the Key Note speech on resiliency. I take a seat in the front row, and when Wendy stands up to the podium, she looks out with clear blue eyes and says, “Gratitude. First I want to start with gratitude.” She then asks us all to stand and face east, and leads us through the four directions, grounding us in place. “It takes groundedness in to be present in this world,” she tells us. When Wendy speaks of resiliency, she speaks not only of the physical earth, but also of the necessity for we as people to slow down, to go deep into life, and to “plunge into bearing witness.”
I share this with you now, in part to bear witness to changes that may devastate the world, and in part to bear witness to the beauty of the world. Both are at hand. Robins and winter, cold and hot, harmony and discord. Like all animals, we depend on this climate, and as it shifts so does our food, our livelihoods, and our home. Let us bear witness together, share in gratitude for this world and our lives, and ground ourselves like trees into the earth.