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We’re at the point in the spring season and spring term where we can feel summer approaching. I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite songs, “Summer Soft” by Stevie Wonder. There’s something about the song’s dense texture and Stevie’s incomparable voice that reminds me both of summer’s restless heat and the nostalgia of school ending. In the song, Stevie shares with us an evocation of summer and winter and how he feels fooled and heartbroken when they end. He references this again and again in the chorus, singing “and he’s gone” and “and she’s gone.”
Throughout human history, there has always been something supremely meaningful about the changing of seasons and diversity of climate. A centuries-old controversial philosophy called environmental determinism tries to account for changes in human sociology and differences between humans based upon differences in climate. For years and years, scholars have often spuriously tried to link climate to all sorts of human differences, unsurprisingly veering often into racist pseudoscience.
In the 11th century, Arab polymath and geographer al-Mas’udi referred to the colder climate of medieval France, stating that it made the Franks “tend towards Brutishness, being generally dull-witted, sluggish and corpulent” and that “appropriate to their icy homes, they were pale-skinned and fair-haired.” In recent centuries, figures from Thomas Jefferson to Adolf Hitler have made the same case from a white, Eurocentric perspective. Jefferson stated in Notes on the State of Virginia that “experience has shown that ours is the particular climate of America where he may be raised without degeneracy. Southwardly the heat of the sun occasions a deficiency of pasture, and northwardly the winters are too cold for the short and fine hair, the particular sensibility and constitution of that race.”
For millennia, the climate has meant life or death for many. Abnormalities in the climate can devastate crop harvests or cause unforeseen droughts and other weather catastrophes. There’s even the medically recognized seasonal affective disorder that denotes recurring bouts of depression that come with seasonal changes. It’s something we’ve paid attention to for all of time, whether we’re pondering Stonehenge’s mysterious alignment with the summer solstice, or narratives of rebirth and sexuality relating to springtime as in Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring or the copious metaphors comparing flowers blooming to feminine sexuality and beauty in cultures across the world.
Just as we look to the fruits of seasonal changes to understand ourselves, we look within to explain the seasons and climate. Is it any surprise that religions worldwide have centered certain beliefs from time immemorial around the powerful mysteries of climate and weather? It may be a tool of a deity like Zeus’ thunderbolt or a barometer of divine judgment. The logic would often follow that natural catastrophes, bad weather or struggles with crops were due to a failure to comply with the divine’s wishes. Before we understood the scientific process of refraction, who among us would not be mystified by the appearance of a rainbow? Even being taught about refraction from a young age, I still find myself enchanted, pondering the rainbow when it appears.
It’s clear that the climate provokes intensity in the human spirit. We call the time it takes to cycle through the seasons a revolution and consequently see each year as a time to begin anew with new revolutionary resolutions. It is for this reason, among many others, that I foresee climate change rattling humanity to its core. Eventually, climate change may well accelerate past the point of no return; beyond just human displacement, there will be many natural catastrophes as well.
I don’t believe in any higher power, nor would I call myself spiritual. Still, as I grow older, I feel a stronger and stronger desire to cultivate a relationship with the natural world that we are increasingly leaving in shambles. I try and find a sense of humility with the world around me from day to day and year to year. You may conceptualize a year split up between winter, spring, summer and fall like I was taught growing up. Some might distinguish between a wet season or monsoon season and a dry season. In any case, there’s gratitude to be found in asking yourself “what’s in a season?” – to ask what makes a season meaningful to you.
The warm hug of summer is right around the corner for us. Not only will we be embraced by warmer weather, but we will be set free from our educational institution. The well-endowed among us might revel in three months of an unabashed break and many of us will necessarily find full-time work so we can pay for school and invest in our futures.
I find it interesting how we might often characterize summer’s warm embrace or summer as “coming” or “arriving.” In these words, we conjure the idea that summer meets us where we are, that summer arrives at our doorstep, that summer offers us its warmth and tender hug. I ask you reading this – how might you arrive at summer? How might you hug summer?
We’ve spent thousands of years of human existence at the will of the weather, afraid we might die at nature’s whim, but as the sun increasingly sets on our ability to undo the human effects of climate change – the tides have turned. I asked how you might arrive at summer because we are past the point of even meeting summer where it is; we need to make a concerted effort to knock on climate’s door and offer our humility as humanity.
To undo something like climate change, there needs to be both an individual and collective approach. The one most of us know is the collective one. We organize, protest, donate and more with many groups like our own Sunrise Appleton chapter here around our university. Creating a grassroots sense of belonging around our climate is a beautiful thing that must continue if powerful institutions in society won’t do it for us. It’s as noble a cause as I am aware of in today’s society.
I want to turn to our individual relationships to the climate. As summer’s freedom from school is on the horizon, how will you pay personal tribute to the climate? It’s no longer a question of tribute for fear of a god or higher power but tribute for the love and melancholy of every season. I have no doubt that each season has given us something meaningful whether we know it or not, so I ask what you do now as you are unshackled by school. We enjoy summer’s beaches and warm weather, but what can you do to show not just that you enjoy summer’s presence, but that you care about summer – that you are invested in summer’s future.
As you walk through the fruits of nature this summer, you will recognize many things you’ve seen before. Leaves, branches, flowers, bugs, rays of sunshine and more will enter your brain to be recognized. It’s interesting that we recognize and rethink of things as we’ve seen them before. I encourage you not to recognize, but to discover. You might actively look through the landscape for beauty gone unnoticed or learn to better make your own garden grow and give back to a carbon cycle whose scales are at a tipping point.
Our Earth is the home summer lives in and we’ll need to band together to make sure it doesn’t fall into disrepair. While we all work on banding together, I encourage you to knock on the door to summer’s house and pay it a visit rather than waiting for summer to leave its house and come to you. If we are symbiotic with this Earth, we’ll find the fruits of this co-dependent relationship more fulfilling than the cheap thrills we find from our current parasitic one. A parasite only has so many bodies, so much biomass, so many homes to wreck before the parasite finds itself homeless too.