After tagging the birds, the protagonist, Franny Stone, drives south to another town on Greenland’s coast, finds a bustling tavern, and looks for the fishing captain she hopes will welcome her aboard. She’s planning to follow the birds—three Arctic terns—all the way to Antarctica, where they’ll spend the southern summer. It’s the longest migration of any animal in the world.
Wait a minute. Drives south? I’m no expert in Arctic geography (though I’m no stranger either), but I’m quite sure there are no roads between Greenland’s isolated towns. Maybe Migrations’ author, Charlotte McConaghy, falls down different internet rabbit holes than I do and lacks a good fact-checker, or maybe—
Oh. It’s the near future, and climate change has rewritten the world even more drastically than in 2021. The world’s oceans have been fished dry, starving piscivorous species like the Arctic terns. Franny, the destructively adventurous spouse of a world-renowned ornithologist, thinks this might be the last globe-spanning migration they ever attempt. Halfway through the novel, the government criminalizes fishing, and Franny has to make ever more difficult sacrifices to reach the birds: first her friendships and freedom, then her life.
In a flashback, Franny and her husband visit the Mass Extinction Reserve in Scotland, where the last members of doom-bound species are studied and mourned. The reserve’s employees, Franny observes, come in “two breeds”: “The first, irritatingly optimistic. The second: outraged, and not interested in being anything else.”
The proper response to the climate crisis, of course, is something halfway between—or better, a well-discerned combination of both. Fury mixed with determination. Rage tempered with hope.
This balance is what countless climate activists call us to, from Bill McKibben to the diverse young leaders of the Sunrise Movement. Our beloved faculty liaison Debra Rienstra has a podcast and upcoming book about it. I’ve written about it myself. Death and resurrection, death and resurrection—it’s the gospel, it’s ecological history, it’s our future.
But something in me rails against that call to balance. Something in me demands to feel outraged and is not interested in being anything else. Especially on days like last Saturday, when a leaky gas pipe in the Gulf of Mexico lit the actual ocean on fire. Or the week before that, when a record-setting heat wave killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest (and now looks poised to strike again). Or the entire last eighteen months, when four million people were killed by a virus that climate change made more likely.
So all the time, really.
I’m angry all the time that oil companies spent decades lying about climate change, that governments across the political spectrum and the world refuse to respond sufficiently, and that Christians are not just complicit in but actively blameworthy for the earth’s ruin.
I’m angry that well-meaning, well-educated people take comfort in meaningless half-measures, from dimming their living room lights to electing politicians that say the right thing while doing another.
I’m angry that no one will ever be held accountable. That as croplands dry up and coastlines disappear, the largely culpable rich will escape to “climate havens” (like Michigan, perhaps?), while the largely innocent poor are forced to die or seek refuge under ever-tightening immigration laws.
I know that small steps are better than no steps, that our personal choices are not truly meaningless, and that we have to meet people where they are. I know that I’m a meat-eating, AC-loving hypocrite with an oversized soapbox.
But I don’t care. I’m tired of having to care.
I cried at the end of the novel, when Franny crests a barren Antarctic slope and finds the terns “squeaking and creaking their cries, dancing upon the air with their mates, caterwauling joyously.” Franny cries, too, for the “loveliness left behind.” She embraces her only remaining companion, the crusty fisherman Ennis Malone, and they erupt into delirious laughter as a whale surfaces amid the birds.
When my outrage refuses to crystallize into resolve, I pray that sorrow is an acceptable alternative. The kind of sorrow that rises from loss and sings of what once was and never will be again. A sorrow that can still laugh, can still embrace others, can still be transfixed by the very creatures we’re killing.
I’m not interested in anything else.
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a BA in English literature and violin performance, and he completed an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in 2020. He is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which means his plans to be in school forever are working out well. When not writing, he can be found playing violin, drinking coffee, making excruciating puns, and trying to learn Old French.
Amen to this. As Aldo Leopold said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” I love working in the environmental communication field, because I get to geek out about the Great Lakes all day. But the Great Lakes are a parade of wounds, and climate change is only going to make that worse.
Yes! This piece came at the right cycle in my emotions as well. Sorrow is all that’s left. I spent this week studying how to reduce plastic consumption in my life. I bought dryer balls, reusable paper towels, and package free laundry detergent. My husband laughed at all my efforts because he said that it won’t make any reasonable impact on the climate change. He’s right of course. Self critical attitudes towards out individual consumption is important for morality, but the amount of plastic waste from corporations swallows up our household waste. My package free laundry detergent is shipped across the country.
Not to mention outside of the waste all the game from aquiring the raw goods: deforestation, mining, and emissions. All that’s to say us my 7 day enthusiasm has turned quickly to sorrow. I feel helpless.
And that’s the tricky part: buying reusable paper towels and package-free detergent isn’t BAD. Changing our individual choices and habits can add up in meaningful ways. But it’s hard to contextualize those meaningful choices when a single day’s output from a factory can add more plastic waste to the world than we can avoid in a lifetime.
Amen indeed. I don’t think of death/resurrection as a call to balance but as a call to living in painful paradox. Here’s to outrage and grief, from one meat-eating, A/C-loving hypocrite to another.
Yeah, I’m not really criticizing anything about the death/resurrection/paradox framework. Just expressing how it /feels/ wrong to me sometimes—which is probably part of the point. 🙂
It certainly is a curious thing, balance. In some ways, it does feel wrong to choose the middle ground because that doesn’t feel like an effort to do anything. It’s a sort of cop-out from action. But I do think sorrow is an ultimately acceptable response, even if it is a bit of a sad one.
As always, well thought out pieces. I can always count on you for some added depth, levity, creativity, lyricism, and joy. Keep bringing that to your writing and music. Best wishes.