Finding stories that matter down the street
How to depict the interconnectedness of nature, flower of the week, and emergency shutdowns at a natural gas compressor station
No more whining about the passage of time for me. It’s October. This week, notes on an autumn-appropriate essay, a stunning fall flower, and on a less cheery note, a natural gas compressor station venting gas in our neck of the woods.
Morning reading recommendation: “The Fullness of a Moment”
These days, my reading is usually in 20-30 minute increments, mostly in the morning before work (also when I write this newsletter.) I’m going to try and pass on more reading recommendations tailored for that modest length of time. The start of fall has me missing family and familiar places. In most years since I was a toddler, I’d go to a state park in southeastern Missouri with my mom’s extended family for a weekend. Each family rents a cabin around a central firepit, and the weekend passes by rapidly in walks, made-up games, and sitting around the campfire eating and drinking.
Looking to reflect on those memories without getting self-indulgent, I returned to an all-time favorite essay by Jaime Green, “The Fullness of a Moment.” In the essay, Green writes about a place she has known since childhood, the Hall of New York State Environment in the American Natural History Museum. Designed in 1951 and largely unchanged since then, many of the displays are immersive dioramas of nearby ecosystems. It’s an old approach to exhibits, but as Green observes, it’s well-suited to its subject. While the rest of the museum seeks to dazzle with items from far-off lands, “here is science of the most ordinary things in the world, the science of your humble backyard.”
The exhibit’s designer, Albert Parr, was determined to have the place tell a story rather than titillate with fun facts. Rather than excite visitors with an impressive collection of fossils and artifacts from around the world, the environment hall encouraged visitors to recognize themselves as part of the natural world. Through showing different aspects of the local environment—geology, agriculture, native animals and plants—Parr hoped that people would learn not just facts about where they lived but “how to think,” how to locate themselves within the interconnectedness of nature.
One diorama in particular encourages the viewer to reckon with the beauty and strangeness of the local environment: “An October Afternoon Near Stissing Mountain” (click for image.) The other dioramas are all drawn from locations around Stissing. The tendency for a city or suburban dweller like me is to look outward for sources of wonder, to canyons and mountains thousands of miles away or at least in Vermont. Stissing Mountain was carefully chosen: “close enough to New York City to be familiar, far enough away to find the blurry border of the rural and the natural worlds.” Both as a ecologist and a writer, I’m drawn to interfaces like this one.
This isn’t a place to learn a list of local duck species, but instead something broader. “It feels like nature here, not science,” Green observes. That’s an important and mysterious distinction, the meaning of which one I often find myself pursuing. Science, perhaps, is measurement, categorization, and calculated predictions; nature is something else — the fullness of what is, a tendency, a sense that animates a place. Where science draws you outward, nature draws you inward, toward reflection on relationships and interdependencies.
It’s not easy to write about a place you’ve loved since childhood. Powerful sentiments can cloud the writer’s judgement. It’s not that sentiment should be ignored, but that the writer has to find the right chords to accompany the insistent melody whistled by powerful memories. Here, Green sets her experiences of the museum, as a child and remembering adult, against a discussion of how museums tell stories and how to get at the interconnectedness of nature through the artifice of museum exhibits. The exhibit’s flaws — its focus on the viewpoint of capital-M Man and its blunt, unapologetic portrayal of Native American removal — are presented for sober consideration. The essay doesn’t directly offer final judgement on whether the exhibit takes the right approach to its subject, but instead draws the shape of the place’s effect on her and others. The emotions the place provokes are there, but instead of the essayist telling the reader about how strong they are, the reader feels them as an in-person visitor might, through a careful description of moving through the displays.
This essay is many things I want my writing to be: it’s about the familiar, and the more elusive wonder offered by known places — how they continue to surprise and resist becoming static over time. Green pulls off a magic trick: creating an alluring narrative about a single hall in a museum, one that some people might write off as boring in person. And the essay engages experiences as a young person without being cloying or navel-gazing. Like the exhibit itself, Green takes on a deceptively difficult task and delivers.
It’s a hard place to get to. But it strikes me that at least one step towards that place is not getting into a defensive crouch about my memories. Rather than saying, “you might think this place is crummy, problematic and boring, but here’s why it’s THE BEST and why MY FEELINGS ABOUT IT WILL NEVER CHANGE,” Green makes herself and her memories a subject of history just as much as the museum itself. The emotional freight of those memories stands out all the clearer because she is able to view them as the reader might, at a certain distance.
Flower of the week: New England aster
I can’t proceed any further in fall without a nod to one of the most stunning of fall asters, New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). The name is pretty unhelpful—much like many species with “Virginia” in the name, it also occurs in the Great Plains and beyond. Showy purple aster seems more appropriate, if you compare it to how showy milkweed stands out in a lineup of milkweeds. Apparently it’s often planted in gardens outside the U.S. It has particular value as a nectar source for monarch butterflies traveling south and to native bees, as the photo suggests.
The climate crisis down the street
The Weymouth compressor station seeks to connects natural gas pipelines from mid-Atlantic states to northern New England and eastern Canada. It’s on the bank of the Town River in north Weymouth, just across from the Quincy Point and Germantown neighborhoods of Quincy. Despite sustained opposition from local residents, activists, and elected officials including both of Massachusetts’ senators, the company building it, Enbridge, has moved forward with construction and hopes to have the site fully operational in the coming months.
Earlier this month, a gasket failure forced an emergency shutdown and the venting of all the gas at the station into the air. Yesterday, there was another emergency shutdown and another unplanned release of gas. It’s unclear how much was released upward through a stack and how much went out at ground level. That’s an important difference, because releases near the ground have greater explosion risk. Keep in mind that the station isn’t even fully operational yet.
For me, there’s a lesson here about where and how ordinary people can engage with the climate crisis. National movements are absolutely crucial, but there are big moves happening right in our neighborhoods, too. Like the Mount Stissing diorama suggests, there are important stories at our doorstep. For Boston’s South Shore, the compressor station is a flashpoint for environmental justice issues and climate change rolled into one. The compressor station is near minority neighborhoods with low average incomes, in addition to historic sources of pollution nearby, making it an environmental justice community. It’s the fossil fuel industry seeking to expand capacity in a time of unprecedented ice melting. It has led to numerous heroic protests including a hunger strike by a BU professor. This all feels incredibly urgent, and also deeply frustrating that a well-organized coalition movement hasn’t been able to move the levers of power yet. We’ll keep at it.
If you’re in Massachusetts, call the governor’s office and make your opposition heard.
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Possum Notes is a weekly newsletter about wildlife and landscapes around where I live. It’s produced on occupied Massachusett and Wampanoag land.