Will we share the same dismal fate as glaciers and forests?

Two recent books look at the parallels between human, ecological and societal illness.

 

In Requiem for America’s Best Idea, former park ranger Michael J. Yochim takes us on a tour of some of this country’s most iconic national parks, from Washington’s Olympic, to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Montana’s Glacier and California’s Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. Along the way, he addresses the drastic impacts of climate change on their ecosystems, while regaling us with engrossing facts about the complex life they harbor, noting, for example, that a certain kind of lichen is found only on 400-year-old trees in Olympic’s rainforests. Interwoven with Yochim’s natural history is the chronicle of his own body’s breakdown in the wake of his diagnosis with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The book, Yochim’s fourth, succeeds at drawing a parallel between his illness and the crisis facing our planet, but it’s a somber success. Yochim’s death from ALS just months prior to his memoir’s publication underscores its urgent message: that the regenerative pleasures we draw from these parks may soon fall victim to our destructive impulses, cutting us off from these places, just as ALS eventually exiled Yochim from the trails and rivers he loved so dearly.

The thoughtful distillation of Yochim’s 22 years of work with the National Park Service, Requiem excels in detecting likely gaps in our environmental awareness. Many readers will be well acquainted with the better-known and more dramatic consequences of climate change — rising temperatures, ever larger forest fires, mega-droughts and vanishing icecaps — but Yochim takes care to dive into its less frequently discussed aspects, such as the effects of global warming on vegetation patterns. Yochim’s advice: Enjoy these parks (and their greenery) while you can. Citing a study commissioned by the Park Service, he tells us that, by this century’s close, more than half of the West’s present vegetation will have become incompatible with its environment and will vanish entirely.

It’s impossible to read this book without feeling the cold shadow of the author’s absence. In the book’s foreword, William R. Lowry, who stepped in to complete the manuscript following his friend’s death in February 2020, writes that “within a couple of years, Mike, the man who led so many others on hikes into the most remote part of the country, couldn’t even stand on his own.” The book could bring solace to those experiencing debilitating illness and convince some readers of the many connections between human and ecological health. Yet it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that Requiem is also a subtle indictment of our collective apathy. In the book’s early passages, Yochim describes the moment when he first noticed something was wrong with him. He went in for a checkup, only to have the neurologist prescribe him antidepressants: “Much like ignoring the signs that the climate is changing … the neurologist chose again to ignore the indications that my body was actually in the early stages of something big, perhaps life changing.” Although the blend of Yochim’s personal and planetary narratives is almost seamless, they differ in one important aspect. “As much as my affliction is of unknown origin,” he writes, “the other is very much self-inflicted.”

Capitol Reef, Utah, 2014.
David Benjamin Sherry

“How is my cancer forged in the crucible of my race?”

Another recent book, Fred D’Aguiar’s Year of Plagues: A 2020 Memoir, shares a conceptual kinship with Requiem, investigating the connection between personal and societal health by tackling three altogether different plagues: the COVID-19 pandemic, the author’s prostate cancer, and institutional racism in America, viewed largely through the events surrounding George Floyd’s murder. In this powerful work of nonfiction, the British-Guyanese poet and novelist, now based in Los Angeles, parts the curtain to reveal something resembling a private diary. We follow D’Aguiar as he collects information about his illness and its symptoms and describes his experience under the surgeon’s knife, all while drawing connections between his situation and the civil unrest around him. In the third chapter, “Is this what dying looks like?” he ponders: “How is my cancer forged in the crucible of my race?” Then he proceeds to show how institutional racism leads directly to higher death rates among non-white cancer patients, later adding: “Just as I wonder if the personal always disrupts the bigger picture, I see that I am attuned to big events whose arc return our world to the dark days of slavery and Jim Crow. My cancer is not only my worry. My cancer runs this society as well.”

In their own unique ways, both authors remind us how stories of personal suffering can teach us a great deal about our place in the world, and how little we understand that place. The times we live in call for this style of nonfiction, impassioned cris de coeur that can stir us out of our anodyne lockdown realities, and both Requiem for America’s Best Idea and Year of Plagues deliver on that promise.   

André Naffis-Sahely’s new collection of poems, High Desert, will appear in August. He is the author of The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin, 2017) and the editor of The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature (Pushkin Press, 2020). 

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