A day of grief

Today has been a day of grief. There are no proper words I know of that can do justice to what has happened. If you live in the Netherlands and if you observe nature, then you realize what we have lost today. The damage that was done today won´t be apparent immediately, it will gradually reveal itself in all of its horror when we start to observe what happens around us. The Netherlands and our neighbours in Belgium have witnessed temperatures that are unprecedented in our observed temperature record. Today we reached a new temperature record of 40.7 degree Celsius, multiple locations throughout the country saw temperatures above forty degree Celsius. Our previous record before this heatwave stood at 38.6 degree and dates back to 1944, a 2.1 degree Celsius jump above the old record. What this means is that the variety of lifeforms that have inhabited our country for generations have been exposed to conditions they were not prepared for.

The loss of human life will probably reveal itself next week, when the weekly mortality figures are released. The loss of human potential will take a bit longer. Young children exposed to extreme heat suffer subtle brain damage that can be measured through reduced personal income at age 30. Children playing at a summer camp had to be hospitalized, because their brains reached temperatures of up to 42 degree. Compared to us humans, many other lifeforms are even more sensitive. Male insects exposed to extreme heat have their fertility damaged and insects exposed to consecutive heatwaves are practically sterilized. This is our second heatwave in a short period. Insects around the country have been decimated, by two consecutive droughts during the summer and now an extreme heatwave that is unprecedented in the historical record.

I live in an old house, the only reason it hasn´t been demolished yet is because one woman who rents a house here refuses to leave. You could probably cram twice as many houses in this block, thus the plan is to demolish our houses. When I first spoke to her she insisted that our town needs these houses, because of the nature here. I struggled to take this idea seriously. Here we are, in a block of houses, where a bit of gras, five trees and some rows of flowers are supposed to be seen as nature. Nature is the Amazon, it is the old growth forests of Norway, the depths of the Congo basin, but certainly not a plot in the middle of a small city, where a group of elderly retirees with a small budget once rented a house with a tiny garden.

But nonetheless, I decided to take care of my garden. There was a diversity of plants, the previous owner had taken good care of it. I did not want to grow too attached, because I was informed I could be kicked out at just about any moment.  During the last two droughts I would water the plants that seemed to be struggling. Over time, I began to realize that even this tiny humble refuge of nature has value. It happened when I was cooking food and witnessed a light outside. A hedgehog had triggered an automatic light in my garden that I use to find the door when I come home at night. For whatever reason, he sought refuge here.

I never again saw him, but I only had to see him once to realize that even this place has value in the greater scheme of things. At that point I went all in and began planting my own plants, I added Moroccan mint, Sunchokes and tropical sage, on a plot of grasland that´s officially mine but used to be mowed by the municipal government. When I came home today I saw numerous insects in my garden. I think I have counted four different species of butterfly and numerous bees, in a garden the size of a modest living room. Apparently, the insects had sought refuge there.

Biodiversity of bees is highest in cities. This is true for many types of insects, because of the application of enormous amounts of insecticides in Dutch agriculture.

 

Maybe it´s our inability to appreciate the small things in life that brought us to this point. If we genuinely understood what we had, we would not have squandered it in this manner. I remember an old pensioner who used to give excursions in my old hometown. At night in the summer he would take people out to remote abandoned mansions, to look at all the bats that flew over the water. He never had any significant formal education in nature, he was simply an enthusiast who taught himself about everything that lives around us. He was surprisingly knowledgeable. He had studied the bats for decades and explained to people that their yearly cycles have measurably shifted in response to the rapidly changing climate. Bats could now be observed in months when they would normally be hibernating.

Unfortunately, although knowledgeable and passionate, he could never turn his passion into a career. He had no degree in the subjects he had specialized in and he had a habit of getting into arguments with government organizations where he ended up being a little too impolite for their taste. Nonetheless, he had gathered a small circle of friends around him who helped him out in his endeavors, on rare occasions I gave him some advice too. He spent time arguing against the expansion of a local airport and I helped him with a letter he wrote to make his case, but the main cause that was important to him was the situation of insects in our urban environment. He insisted to the municipal government they should mow less and mow the lawns in phases, allowing insects to survive in parts of the lawn that were not being mowed during the current phase. From time to time I would see angry letters he sent out to local newspapers, lamenting the mass murder of insects he encountered on his bicycle trips around town. Back then it seemed like a hopeless waste of time to me, but these days I think I understand him better.

One of the shortcomings of human psychology is that we don´t tend to value things until they´re gone. I figured this out years ago, when I had a relationship with a girl I loved deeply. I would take a conscious effort to memorize the moments we spent together, because I realized it could not possibly last. When we broke up I took a dose of Psilocybe mushrooms large enough to make it feel as if I spent eternity elsewhere. The only other great love in my life has been nature. It has been present since I was a child, but over the years the depth of the love has grown. When I came home today I looked at all the butterflies hiding in the shade beneath the leaves of my plants and took a conscious effort to memorize them.

3 Comments

  1. In a way I am fond of hidden corners in the district I live in, especially one with some fruite trees as well as opuntiae ( indian figues) : The strategy of mowing larger grass fields in alternate portions is a very good one. .. thanks for letting me read you, ciao riccardo from Roma Italy

  2. My corner of nature is a small mother-in-law flat on a street that used to have citrus groves in Australia. We have lots of birds and not so many insects, but I have seen a spring caterpillar. Each month is warmer than last year at this time. Days of grief are highly warranted.

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