Essay | Uncertain Rot: Looking for the erotic in the decay of a changing New England climate
At his talk as part of the Climate Action Capacity (CAP) Climate Speaker series on Jan. 17, sitting in front of a group of forty or so Middlebury students, faculty, and community members, Bill McKibben dutifully reminded us that the next five years will determine the course of our lives and human history and the history of the planet.
I sat in the back row and stared Bill McKibben down, as if by holding him in my gaze as he said this I could somehow take the weight of his words into my body and bear the load of my particular human history.
For a long time, I have been interested in the kind of climate anxiety belonging to the segment of young Americans who’ve heard and talked about the end of the world for years but who still see their lives relatively unchanged. I was this high school activist who made signs and Instagram graphics and organized my class to go to Boston for the Sunrise march in Sept. 2019. Then, in the spring of my senior year, Covid restrictions more or less lifted, and I was more or less happy to just drive around with my friends, drink Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, listen to Doja Cat, and throw my blue compostable straw in the trash.
The fundamental experience of my teenage years was feeling myself in a last holdout sheltered from the strongest blows of climate change, and knowing too that this shelter came at the highest cost. Removed, ambient anxiety hung thick.
But the corner of the Northeast that I’ve grown up in, between western Massachusetts and the southern half of Vermont, is pitching over the edge. In winter, overgrowth runs rampant. December lies belly-up and damp, its decay on full display. Summer is the soaking season. Rain washes the sweetness from the watermelon and the cantaloupe. The Deerfield and Connecticut rivers become rushing mammoths of brown and take the crops with them.
When storms tore through Vermont this summer, Montpellier and White River Junction got washed out. Bridges gave way, houses collapsed into sinkholes, crops failed. People would “come into the food hub crying, actively grieving the loss of all of these things that they had sewn into the ground,” said Marlow Saucier (‘24), an environmental justice major with a concentration in food studies, who was working at ACORN this summer, a non-profit in Middlebury.
Saucier, with their short, curly mullet and silver jewelry running up their ears, sat on the white, paint chipped porch of 28 Weybridge street in mid-July. They watched water run down the hill from campus and pool in the intersection between the red, brick Twilight Hall and the big, brown house home to the Center for Careers and Internships, as cars maneuvered to try and avoid flooding their engines. Public safety kept telling students not to leave their houses on account of the thunderstorms.
Numi Moreno Calderon (‘26), an International and Global Studies major from the south pacific of Costa Rica, was here for language schools. She remembers the dorm Chateau flooding and the ground floor of the library soaked. “Everyone was like, Well, this is unusual.” In the basements of dorms, bikes and tents and bed frames were ruined. Videos circulated of a displaced bear running across Battell Beach, a campus quad.
Then, there are the second hand effects of endless rain: mosquitoes. Megan Brakeley, who manages the Knoll, the campus’ organic farm, told me about them. I talked to her in her warm, sunny office in the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest in January. She closed her eyes, tilted her head to the ceiling, furrowed her brow, and spoke about the mosquitos in July. They were so bad that people who “live for the summers here” and garden all season didn’t want to go outside.
“It was feeling like a pretty apocalyptic time to be in such an idyllic space,” Saucier said.
The hyper-presence of climate change on the Middlebury campus is a relatively new phenomenon, and not one that many students may have been made to reckon with. Research shows us that life away from the front lines of the climate crisis is a privilege afforded by how much money you have and where you live, factors influenced by race and nationality. The 2017 New York Times report put 76% of Middlebury students coming from the top 20% of wealth in the country. In 2022, 56% of Middlebury students were white, 31% were an “underrepresented minority,” and 11% were international. Those numbers are starting to even out, but it’s slow.
Calderon talked to me about how she notices that wealthier students often recognize climate change as a threat to the planet but not their foreseeable future. Theo McDermott-Hughes (‘23.5), feels like just by virtue of their economic and geographical position as a middle class American from New Jersey, they’re going to be okay. For them, climate change exists more as “a moral imperative towards the rest of humanity.” Nora Brown (‘24), from eastern Massachusetts, felt insulated from the really bad natural disaster stuff for a long time. She said this year was the first time she felt that a lot less. Kamryn You Mak (‘23.5), an environmental justice major, and the founder of FIRE, critiqued the way the college environment allows climate change to exist as “a future thing to worry about. Once we get our education, we can get started.”
This is not to say that you have to have witnessed catastrophe in order to know what climate anxiety is. Anyone can Google ClimateClock and find the countdown to the day U.N. scientists gave as the last chance to keep the ocean temperature below 1.5 degrees celsius. “I lived in a perpetual state of climate anxiety and grief for two years,” Saucier said. “And it really almost killed me, to be honest. That was the cornerstone of my mental health issues, like, ‘What is the point of living in this world? It’s horrible, it’s really, really horrible, and really not hopeful.’”
Some of the distress comes from guilt. Calderon notices a particular anxiety in her friends whose homes have already been hit hard by disaster. There’s an inner conflict between the responsibility to provide for their families, especially in a future more impacted by climate change, while also knowing that the higher paying jobs are often in some ways responsible for the environmental crisis in the first place.
Statistics on those with higher paying jobs abound. The lifestyles of most middle and upper class Americans hold huge carbon footprints. There is, I think, a particular brand of climate anxiety reserved for this segment of the U.S.: those who read the U.N. reports in their air conditioned offices, drive their SUVs back to their single family homes, and worry their hands when it doesn’t snow until February; those who just buy a tomato in the industrialized world and know they’re part of the problem, but it’s the only produce available.
There’s a difference in degrees, but the quality of the anxiety is the same. The slow-burn apocalypse hisses and stirs on the edges. Not everyone is forced to look at the threads between the things they depend on and the things that kill them, but “a deadly system doesn’t have to seem like it’s targeting you directly to kill you consistently.” The spiral of consumption tightens, threads strain.
Here on campus, the trees are changing. As elm and ash succumb to their respective invasive species and diseases, brought over here on lumber from Europe, Tim Parsons, the college’s horticulturist, replaces them with the oaks and shagbark hickories native to Connecticut, where he grew up. They might be more suitable for Vermont’s warming climate.
“I’m gonna plan 10, 50 years out,” Parsons told me, sitting behind his desk in his windowless office in the service building (“cruel and unusual punishment for a landscaper,” he said. “But it’s warm, so I’m not complaining”). We talked about how we can make our physical world more resilient. In addition to planting trees suited to warmer climates, this also means making the school landscape as diverse as possible. “Less lawns, more trees, more shade.” He suggested storm water beds as a concept around the entire campus.
Megan Brakeley is thinking about adaptability at the Knoll, too. She told me about how they’re relying more on cover crops, also called green mold or living mulch, to protect the soil from wind, rain, and intense sun. She thinks they’ll really pull back on tomatoes this summer too, which are sun-loving and no good in the rain. “That’s hard to think about,” she said.
Parsons and Brakeley both know that there’s also a certain emotional resiliency that comes with having a landscape prepped for change and centered around community. Parsons is trying to get the Board of Trustees to fund more landscaping initiatives across the institution. “There is no feeling of connectivity between all the spaces. There’s no experience as you walk from here (the side of campus we were on) to Bi-Hall (the science building), it’s just a frozen hellscape.” He’s thinking about ways to create outdoor gathering spaces that we can use even when the weather is bad — pavilions, awnings, tree canopies.
Brakeley understands the Knoll as a place to stay in community and in conversation. “In these times where so much adaptation and flexibility is required, we need all the help we can get. Hearing about how other people are adapting is critical. We can’t be an island.”
Of course, like everything these days, it’s difficult to say how the land will change as it bears the brunt of the warming climate. Parsons works closely with the grounds crew. “When you manage a facility this size,” he says, “you like predictability.” When it’s going to snow, they call in the snow crew, when it’s going to be icy, they put rock salt down. “Now, it’s a crapshoot. We just don’t know what the storms bring.” All that snow could turn to rain and wash the rock salt down to Otter Creek.
On farms, even failsafe crops like garlic and leeks are dying. “Crop failure is a part of life,” Brakeley said. But as the season becomes more uncertain, she’s trying to have fewer variables with the things she can control, leaving the Knoll open “to the variability that’s coming that we can’t predict.”
Even Parsons’ experiment with the oaks and shagbark hickories is a bit of a shot in the dark.
“It’s new,” he levels with me. There hasn’t been enough time to do research on it yet. “I just throw spaghetti at the wall and hope something sticks.”
May we all barrel into uncertainty with so much gusto. I asked Saucier how they imagine their life ten years from now. After sharing a laugh over the absurdity that our grandparents had bought “starter homes,” Saucier said, “I think this knowing of the nonlinearity of our lives is really liberating in some ways. I don’t have to conceptualize my five year plan, ‘cause who the fuck knows. It really feels ridiculous to me to be like, oh in ten years, I’m gonna be living here, doing this thing. Cause probably not, so like, what’s the point in thinking about that. I would much rather be like, ‘What nourishes me as a human being and how am I moving in pursuit of that?’ And doing whatever that takes and having that take me wherever it does.”
Brakeley wants work at the Knoll to remind people that they do have agency, “you see that written in the soil. And we just have to stay present in that… Am I gonna spend my days dreading the future and seeing it as a hopeless place that we’ve already destroyed? Or trying to stay in relationship to things that I can see and have active responses with? The land is our greatest teacher in those ways.”
This January, Brakeley’s been watching the leaf buds on the forsythia and lilacs at her house swell. The crocus greens are starting to poke up. She’s like “it’s the wrong time, friends! Get out of here!” At the Knoll, though, they aren’t farming for a profit and there’s some flexibility. Brakeley said they get the privilege to follow through on things and see how they end up. “Things will grow. We can select for and make choices to foster the things that are growing. There’s hope there.”
In “Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde frames the erotic as meaning inhabiting the world and our lives with a fullness of feeling. This truth of the erotic, she argues, has been suppressed within us, because it can “give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world (59).” The erotic is so powerful because when we embrace it, when we inhabit feelings deeply, when we let the world affect us, when we let ourselves be touched and let the feeling of that touch grow inside of us, we find that we can settle for nothing less.
Lorde emphasizes the root of the word erotic, which comes from the Greek word eros. She writes that eros is “the personification of love in all its aspects — born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony (54).” There is something in the crux between chaos and the erotic. The chaos of this moment forces us to turn toward the erotic, to look inward to the certainties that lie there, the truth of good feeling, of being in relation to the earth even and especially as we both change.
A legacy of Black, feminist thinkers have taken up Lorde’s writing on the erotic and applied it to radical imagination and organizing, Adrienne Maree Brown being one of them. “What you pay attention to grows (1),” she writes, as the ninth core principle of Emergent Strategy. The internal realities we pay attention to extend outward. When we focus on what is in accordance with our great-life-force, with the power of our erotic, we turn our world toward that too.
I want to let uncertainty guide me, let it turn me inward. How do we plan what crops to seed when we don’t know if the season will bring drought or flood? How do we plan ten, fifty years out for a future we can’t imagine? Unknowns loom at every turn. But here we are, planting trees, layering our beds with clover and rye. Something grows.
There are lessons to be learned about loving a world whose future is so uncertain, loving it despite its uncertainty, because of it, its fragility and adaptability.
Priya Sudhakaran Nair (‘24), an Environmental Justice major born in India and raised in Lesotho, is one of Saucier’s best friends. I thought they were dating. “Common mistake,” Saucier said, laughing. “Priya is probably the person that I’ve loved the most in my life. We’ll just get into these super huge conversations about systems of oppression and how everything is wrong and how everything is broken.” It’s a really special kind of love, founded on a shared grief, and then a shared joy to say “Oh, but I love you and I want you to have a world to live in.”
Nair and Saucier talk a lot about how we’re a generation of goodbyes. “We’re just gonna have to say goodbye to things forever, and like, they’re not going to come back. And what do we do with that?”
When Bill McKibben tells us that our actions over the next five years will determine the quality of our lives, this is what we hear: that our love of the world will be predicated on loss, fostered among loss, and as one grows so will the other.
“For me,” Saucier says, “grief is not something that stops. We will be grieving for the rest of our lives.”
I was home this summer in western Massachusetts, working on a farm. My coworkers and I cut open and ate cantaloupes on the back of the truck. Basking in the sun, with juice dripping down my chest, I felt a bit like a demigod. But the orange flesh tasted more like water left out too long.
Some things did not lose their potency, though. I had this person I loved, who’d grown up in the same towns that I had. As rain fell and hillsides eroded, he could not be desaturated, the shape of him could not be changed. He held the entirety of our home in his muscles. The mountains of his shoulders were the same ones that held the mountains of our valley. I could trace the river from the top of his head to his feet.
I could love him and lose him like I could love and lose the land.
This winter break, when I was home, I drove with a couple friends up to our friend Sage’s house, who lives thirty minutes into the hilltowns. The roads wind through the woods for miles between these remote, high ground towns, bending against the curves of the rivers, clinging to the sides of the mountains. A lot of them closed this summer—rocks, dirt, and branches from the mountain tumbling down, water falling and pooling and eventually crumbling the concrete. Now, months later, we looked out the window and still saw places where the guard rail fell off and hadn’t been replaced yet.
It was foggy that night. It was so foggy and we drove so slow that it took us nearly an hour to get to Sage’s. This, we realized, is a new touchstone of New England December. “Everything gets unknown,” my friend Fiona said, who was driving. “It’s so creepy. Like everything’s obscured. It becomes somewhere else.” The water-cycle’s gone nonlinear. There’s no straight path from rain to groundwater to river to mist to cloud to rain. It floats back and forth in a confused haze and Fiona can’t see anything out the windshield of her Kia Soul.
Sometime before midnight that night, we all went on a walk down the road at Sage’s house. The fog was settling over the fields on either side, gathering up in the distant hills, lurking in the shadows of the woods. Overgrown, green-gray grasses slumped on top of overgrown, dead, golden grasses. It all turned ghostly and lumpy in the dark.
This is the new color of winter, and it’s sort of beautiful too:
The dead, golden fields, the overgrown, green mounds of plants that were supposed to die back two months ago, that just keep spilling over themselves, unable to save their energy for spring. It’s grotesque and it’s also the world, wild and quiet and no more than what it is, teaching us the lesson that it’s okay to just be what we are, to show up however we need to show up. I’m floored at how it can still be beautiful.
The next night, my birthday, I went on a walk with my friend whose body I’ve let hold the entirety of our home. I told him what I thought about this new winter, whose colors are golden and green and gray instead of white and he said this thing about decay. “It’s all on display, now, you know? We have to look at it, we have to witness it.”
On another night, in Middlebury, at the end of January, I talked to him on the phone. Snow had finally fallen and accumulated for real and I walked through it in my clogs, doing loops down the roads around my house. He talked about how decay turns nouns into verbs; the essential elements of something come undone. Loving something as it decays means loving it in its moment of change, in its moment of being undone. Winter decay sits belly up to the foggy air. I try to love us for our fragility, our changeability. I try to turn inward, to the truth of my body in each moment. There is a feeling of my hands in the dirt right now. There is the feeling of my hands in someone else’s right now. I focus on the life I touch, I give it breath.