Coming at It Sideways

Ecologist Jerry Jenkins is working on a project that would send most reasonable people over the edge: a 9-volume atlas of Northern forests.

While his approach—an elaborate field guide that includes ecology—is fascinating and worth a nod for its ambition and integrated structure, it’s Jenkins’ practical philosophizing that captured my attention at a recent talk a the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

A researcher who spent years observing and quantifying ecological changes in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, Jenkins authored two books he assumed would change people’s behavior and attitude toward climate change: Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability, and Acid Rain in the Adirondacks: An Environmental History.

But despite the books, things seem to be getting worse. Jenkins had laid out the worst possible future scenario for the Adirondacks, yet it was business as usual. No one seemed to be listening.

ADK PanoUnable to reconcile this, he realized he either needed to become a preacher and spread the gospel of climate change, or figure out how to come at the problem sideways. Being someone who prefers the woods to the spotlight, he chose the latter.

With understated eloquence, Jenkins explained that we are only able to live as we do today because of the aggregate of all living things that came before us. Certain ecological processes moved carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestered it in a safe place. This allowed our planet’s climate to stabilize and provided us the opportunity to flourish.

Sadly, we’re returning the favor by tracking mud all over the house and helping ourselves to everything in the refrigerator. We’ve become the guest who you can’t wait to leave.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Jenkins believes humanity can become the ecological intelligence of the planet and turn things around. We have to, because we’re the only species who can.

But how? By coming at the problem sideways. Forests provide countless tangibles and intangibles. They are sources of joy and wonder and sentinels for maintaining planetary systems. And they’re a place of stillness.

ADK FieldJenkins, tapping an Eastern-inspired philosophy, discovered that in the stillness of the forest there are answers. “Stillness is the root of action,” he explained. It was because he spent time in the forest, quiet and listening, that he came to have an “oblique faith that every species and acre in a world that may be out of control is precious.”

His way of “doing by not doing,” of coming at climate change sideways, is to listen, get to know the land intimately, and share that deep understanding with us through the atlas project.

What can nature tell us about how to come at something sideways instead of head-on? It seems like it’s worth a listen.

Photos of the Adirondacks by stillwellmike on Flickr

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