Hiking not long ago in the woods of North Carolina, I stopped to rest on a large moss-covered rock. Lying down and relaxing in the sun-splashed Appalachian wilderness, the bucolic nature sounds filtered in from the surrounding trees. After some time this sense of peace commenced to ebb, replaced by a rising panic. I started to wonder if I was experiencing a heart attack. Taking an inventory of my body, I found no signs of illness. Still, the panic continued to broaden, resembling a giant scream pulsing through my body.
Mastering the impulse to flee to the car, I continued investigating the source of the disturbance. Gradually I realized that the panic’s origin was not so much in me but all around me, as if the entire forest were gasping for air. Was some cataclysm in the offing — perhaps a Three Mile Island scenario or a quickly moving forest fire? Could it be something as yet undetectable but causing the ecology to vibrate with a dawning sense of panic?
As time passed and nothing outwardly changed, my speculation took a more universal turn: Was this the first tremor of a planetary disaster, the reverberations of a pole shift rippling through the undergrowth? Unlikely though it was, I’m aware that such black swan events are more common than we think and in fact guaranteed by the law of large numbers.
Than it occurred to me that we are indeed in the midst of such an unlikely and traumatic planetary shift, what has been called the sixth mass extinction event. While familiar with the concept of “deep ecology” in a passing manner — the pursuit in which one seeks to feel the trauma of nature due to the massive human impact upon the planet — I had thus far taken little interest in the subject beyond cocktail party conversations. And though broadly familiar with the science showing that we are experiencing a sixth mass extinction event, I hadn’t given any real appreciation to what this means for the millions of plants and animals locked in a life-or-death battle for survival.
I certainly hadn’t considered how such an extinction event might affect the background mood of a forest such as the one I was attempting to relax in.
When our dog Riku died last year, I learned that many animals undergo a human-like spectrum of panic, confusion, and desperation when fighting for their last breath of air. The will to survive is universal and it’s difficult to gauge how such a confluence of death on a global scale might affect the background vibration of places even far removed from actual scenes of disaster. When millions of animals and plants are dying at a rate not seen on the earth in 65 million years, is there any part of the ecology that will not be affected? Species are now experiencing 100 to 1,000 times the pre-1900 extinction rate. During my relaxation in the woods, the feeling of what this actually means came crashing in. From a macro perspective, the life support systems of the planet are rapidly shutting down, with ecology itself experiencing something like a death crisis.
Perhaps it is fortunate for humans, and maybe more so for men, that we are able to remain intellectually aloof from this trauma and convince ourselves of an ability to stand apart, to escape our eco-system’s fate. If my own recent experience with unintentional deep ecology is any barometer, this may not be the case for much longer. During the time that this realization roared through me, my panic began to feel accompanied by the need to take action and somehow quell the intensity of my experience.
I offered this question up as a kind of plea for instruction, and a reply came back: “Sing to your dying mother!” In all truth I am not a particularly talented singer, and definitely struggle to carry a tune without some instrumental accompaniment. Still, the instruction had not been to sing well, just to sing. Plucking up my courage I gave voice to some simple melodies.
While far from a cure, I can speak to an easing of intensity, or perhaps I was just better able to digest the intensity of the experience. Sitting in silence had been unbearable; singing made it marginally better. Given the data on how plants experience music, I cannot rule out that there may have been some therapeutic effect to the forest creatures as well. When Riku died suddenly in our home last year, choking out her last canine breaths, I instinctively felt the need to comfort her with song. Again, I can’t be sure it helped her, but I think it helped me. I too am part of the broader ecology, when I calm my own nervous system, I help calm the collective ecology. There are spill over effects to everything we do, including singing.
Reflecting on all this from the vantage point of several days removed, there is a kind of dawning conviction that while it still remains prudent to mitigate our environmental footprint through personal restraint and institutional adjustment, we are now on a collision course with the sixth mass extinction event. If it hadn’t been our species, perhaps it would have been another one or an asteroid. Regardless, it is our dubious honor to be experiencing the planet under these black swan conditions.
Irrespective of blame, we can all sing to our dying mother. In the end that may be all we can do for ourselves as well. When there is nothing left to do and death is gripping us with terrifying intensity, we can still sing.