By Alyssa Matanin, Chesapeake Conservation Corp Intern
As a child, I took the natural world around me for granted. On one hand, I gave it more attention than the average adult because of its newness and novelty- I was filled with wonder at the leaves changing color and the snow falling so heavily that I could (dangerously) jump off the roof of my friend’s rancher. On the other hand, however, I never noticed the impermanence of the seasons. I didn’t recognize that an autumn walk up my hometown block flush with hues of orange and red in 2016 might be the last time I saw the street again in that way, as years of strange weather occurrences could lead to many of the trees simply skipping that step altogether, forever forgetting the vibrancy its canopy once offered for all the years of my childhood. But I didn’t know at the time to cherish the season’s small changes – for they would soon slip away and become foreign to me – I only knew to enjoy them as they appeared.
When I visited Iceland in October 2019, my guide, a life-long resident of Iceland, discussed how he has watched as glacial lakes expand and glaciers recede, this pattern culminating in 2014 with the first “death” of an Icelandic glacier, Okjökull, due to climate change. It is predicted that all of Iceland’s glaciers will melt within the next 200 years; a sobering thought for anyone who has admired the splendor of Iceland and its glaciers. My heart aches for those in Iceland who must watch as these familiar bits of their local ecosystem slip away, and I often stopped to reflect on the sites I was seeing, as I knew that when I return, it may not be the same Iceland I came to love last October.
The plaque pictured, placed in April of 2019 at the location of Okjökull, reads in English and Icelandic “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it”. The plaque also lists the CO2 level in the atmosphere at that time, at 415 ppm, which is already over 100 ppm above the average CO2 levels we have on record in the last 800 thousand years before present. Our current yearly global average for 2019 is 411 ppm.
Unfortunately, the effects of this rise in CO2 levels are expected to continue to be seen, even if we were to stop emitting excess CO2 today, for anywhere between 100-300 years into the future depending on the model, due to the nature and speed in which global cycles function.
So, what then, is my point in telling you all of these things? With the onset of climate change becoming ever-the-more noticeable with regular record-setting temperature highs and abnormal and severe cloudbursts, I recognize that I should cherish the little things I enjoy in nature more, as I know now that they will certainly not always be a given. I hope to invite our readers to practice mindfulness in a similar way in order to truly appreciate what our mother has given us today and to track how we are changing her landscapes as we move forward. I think all of us in our postmodern, technology-filled, information- stressed lives deserve to take time to notice nature a little more. And she deserves the recognition. In order to guide our readers into mindfulness of nature, I want to point out a past culture of natural mindfulness, found in Japan.
Japan, as much of the “western” world, currently runs on the western Gregorian calendar; however, that has not always been the case. In fact, one of Japan’s ancient calendars was organized based off of seasons, and more specifically, changes in nature. Influenced heavily by the traditional Chinese Almanac, the year was split into 24 major divisions, called sekki, and then further divided into three parts in each sekki, coming together to create 72 microseasons, called ko. Each microseason has a poetic name to help describe exactly what is going on during these 5-day periods, with names like Silkworms start feasting on mulberry leaves, Rotten grass becomes fireflies, and Light rains sometimes fall. As you are reading this, Japan may be entering the season of Beneath the snow the wheat sprouts (January 1st – 4th), The water dropwort flourishes (January 5th – 9th), The spring water holds warmth (January 10th – 14th), or The pheasant first calls (January 15th – 19th).
To catch the changes in your environment every 5 or so days requires a sort of mindfulness that is rarely given unless you spend most days outdoors. Even as someone who works outdoors, I can get bogged down in the task-finishing mode and forget to take some time to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings at ACLT.
There are many ways to learn about and keep track of these microseasons, as there are calendars that follow the ko seasons, and an app that notifies you of the new season every few days (named appropriately, 72 Seasons). These methods offer insight as to what the microseasons in Japan are at the time, which is well worth it for noting the poetic simplicity of each season as it comes, but I think that we all could build our own 72 seasons if we take the time to do it.
Once a week, enter the natural world around you with intentionality, note the changes you see as the days pass, and mark them down in a planner, on your phone, or on the calendar. Go a step further and keep a journal, perhaps including photos of where your mindful moments happen. Jellyfish engulf the bay. Mist sits low in the valley. Monarchs migrate overhead. Ginkgo seeds begin their descent.
Find the things in your world that change in 5 days. Slowly, over the year, you will catch yourself noticing the little things in nature, and maybe have a keepsake to look back upon when the year has come and gone. Commit to a new year’s resolution that will improve your mental health and help you keep track of the health of the planet.
Every day, we experience something unique in nature, and every year, those experiences are bound to change. By noting the small things, we can not only find time to center ourselves and reflect, but also remind ourselves of how the planet ebbs and flows, and of how, if we do not take care, those small things may fall out of our sight.