A writer’s path is paved with the flagstones of their unread essays. Years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Soil and Myself” for the collection Irish Spirit (Wolfhound, 2001). I was attempting there to come to grips with my youthful loss of religious faith and my growing enchantment with the earth as a source of inspiration and solace. This spiritual crisis occurred in the early eighties, an era when the dimensions of our global environmental problems were becoming apparent. I fell in love with a damaged world.
My turning to nature was a physical one to be sure, but my late teen years were also a time of reverie inspired by those Irish writers that cared about both people and wild landscapes: Liam O’Flaherty, W.B. Yeats, and Lady Gregory, for example, and by all the earthy shenanigans recorded in the Irish mythological cycles. An apposite ratio of nature hikes and of literary contemplation provided me a foundation for optimistic living.
“Soil and Myself” was published, the world turned, and I moved along as writers are wont to do. Several years later, I got a letter from a reader—perhaps the essay's only one—who remarked on how the piece had moved her. She was getting on, she wrote, and was latterly attempting to draw consolation from the same sources I had. As a codicil, she noted that she had elected not to have children because of her worry about nuclear armageddon. Why bring a child into this damned world? She concluded wistfully that had she had a child that child would be my age now. By the time I got that letter I had survived nearly four decades without facing down any real calamities.
This small but arresting exchange came to mind on encountering several discussions that assume a bleak environmental future. For example, a recent Onion headline quips dolefully “Sighing, Resigned Climate Scientists Say to Just Enjoy Next 20 Years As Much As You Can.” Less drolly, the “Climate Change and Life Events” app allows users map their future against projections of future global temperatures. The future will not look like the past. The New York Times reports on some couples’ deliberations about their reproductive future in the light of such realities: “No Children Because Of Climate Change? Some People Are Considering It” (New York Times, Feb 5, 2018). A new generation considers the prospects of raising children in perilous times. Unlike nuclear annihilation, which, so far, has failed to materialize, the bombs of climate change, so to speak, have already left their bunkers, though there is some uncertainty about their yield. Facing an uncertain environmental future, and occupying a planet that horrifyingly may be unable to sustain its burgeoning human population, determining to have, or not have, a child is a fraught decision.