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How Do You Explain Climate Change to a Magnolia Tree?

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16468983000_38438d8bd9_k-860x484.jpgHappy New Year, WU Community, and prepare yourselves for another journey through the metaphors for writing I find through living my life.

During the early days of COVID quarantine, it seems we all picked up at least one Weird Hobby. Weird Hobbies could include, but were not limited to: sourdough breadmaking, flower pressing, making origami cranes, needlepoint, cross stitching, basket weaving, making dollhouse miniatures, paper quilling, historical sewing, bookbinding, playing the keytar, becoming extremely good at niche board games, kombucha brewing, and so on.

While I did find my perfect no-knead bread recipe, I also started watching Alexis Nikole Nelson, known as The Black Forager on Instagram and Tiktok. Nelson is dedicated to educating people about the historical importance of foraging, particularly for Black Americans, and shares recipes and tips for foraging safely and sustainably.

She also lives in the midwestern U.S., which is close enough to my own state that many of her foraged recipes used ingredients that could be found in my own suburban backyard.

One of those recipes, sugared magnolia blossoms, caught my eye due to the large number of pink magnolia trees on my street. Surely I could grab a few, I thought, without harming the trees or the local pollinators (and without tipping off the neighbors that someone was stealing their blossoms).

Spring had already passed by the time I discovered The Black Forager, so I patiently waited for the next year to arrive.

Then in February, we had a warm snap, and the trees quickly budded.

And then a day or two later, an overnight frost killed them all right before they could bloom.

These magnolia trees bloom just once a year; I wouldn’t see the buds again until yet another year had passed. I was disappointed, though not devastated; all I’d lost was a small new hobby, not a main source of nourishment.

It was hard, though, watching the trees bud knowing that it was only February, and that barring some extreme strangeness we would drop below freezing again before winter ended. Obviously, there was nothing I could do, especially once the process had begun—it’s not that I could explain to the magnolia trees that these were unnatural fluctuations in weather patterns caused by manmade climate change (or rather, I could, but they wouldn’t listen).

It’s a rather helpless feeling to stand under the reach of the tree limbs and watch something grow that you know will die before it gets to fully bloom.

The Vulnerability of Blooming

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about vulnerability. Part of this is due to the fact that I’ve just begun working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with a fellow writer. For those of you who don’t know, The Artist’s Way is a twelve-week course designed to help creatives of all types to work through the main causes of artistic blocks in order to fully connect with their free, playful inner artist.

Part of what I’ve been working through is related to fear and shame: fear of how others will react to my words, fear of vulnerability, fear of others judging me for what or how I write, shame relating to thinking that I deserve to take up space that could be taken up by other, better writers. This fear has been keeping me back from finishing the handful of works I’ve started over the last two years; I’ll get to where the ends are in sight and suddenly lose all interest in the project, or suddenly no longer see any merit in the project whatsoever and abandon it.

This self-sabotage is an unconscious attempt to protect myself: I can’t be judged if I never finish the work!

Or to bring the metaphor back around (you know how I love metaphors): I fear beginning to bloom only to discover that I’ve been tricked, and that a hard frost is on the horizon (in this case the hard frost is a metaphor for people judging me)(work with me, all right).

This isn’t an advice essay, because I don’t really have any advice. I haven’t figured out the answers. But if you’re also struggling with finishing projects or self-sabotage, I’m here in the mess with you.

One thing I learned from the magnolias is that what happens after you begin to bloom is outside of your control. The magnolias are preprogrammed to bloom when the weather begins to warm, and there is no way to reverse the process. Unlike with writing, where we can procrastinate or rewrite, the magnolias have no such reverse option. Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book Free Play, writes about compulsive rewriting—not normal editing, but the kind of rewriting where you’re incapable of moving on without finding the “perfect” turn of phrase or plot beat, the kind where you are never pleased with what you produce so you keep going back again and again and again, trying new words and new plots and new characters—as a sort of addiction that is caused by fear the same way that procrastination is: if you’re never finished with the work, always trying to make it better, then you never have to let it loose into the world in its imperfect glory to be judged.

But maybe I can learn from the magnolias. What am I doing by this never ending rewriting except stifling my blooms?

And if the hard frost comes after I’ve already begun (and remember, the hard frost is a metaphor for whatever it is I’m afraid of), the good news is I am not a magnolia, and neither I nor my work will die as a result. Even the magnolia, when frozen, still lives to see another year unhurt: it’s an evergreen, after all. The blooms will return next year.

Similarly, I’d wanted to use those magnolia blossoms to make a fun little treat for myself. When the frost came, I became unable to make that attempt. And when we shrink back at the first touch of frost, we’re denying others the benefit of our work. The magnolia didn’t mean to deny me, of course, but that again is where we’re different: we can work with intention. Nor did the magnolia know that I was waiting for it to bloom so I could sugar its petals. Like the magnolia, I will never know who is waiting for my words—I may never know, and even readers are unlikely to know in advance—but by allowing myself to be tripped up by the fruitless pursuit of perfection and fear of vulnerability, I am denying both prospective readers and myself of the fruits of my work.

Growing Your Own Mycelium

But Kelsey, you may say, it’s sad that the magnolia was tricked by climate change into blooming early. Yes, it is sad. Climate change is sad. It’s hard to see major changes like climate change as wholes; much easier is seeing the individual effects it has on things like magnolia trees and the insects that smash into your car’s grill (or don’t). Wouldn’t it be grand if climate change was treated with the urgency of the existential threat that it is? Here is the last bit of my metaphor:

In the West, with its worship of individualism, we are taught that our individual actions will all add up to massive change. So we recycle our newspapers and aluminum cans, we shop for clothes and thrift stores, we bring our canvas bags to the grocery store, we buy hybrids or electric cars. Are those good things? Certainly. Are they making a dent in the race toward 1.5 degrees Celsius? Nope.

I couldn’t talk to the magnolia tree to tell it about climate change. The only way to prevent this sort of thing from happening to the magnolias is massive, organized action on a global scale. Writers, like the magnolias (and the polar bears, and the honeybees, and the manatees, and the Joshua trees, and the beaches, and so on), should have a support system. People will never stop being critical; there is no such thing as a perfect piece of art; but having people around you will lessen the sting.

Did you have a Weird Quarantine Hobby? Are there other small signs of climate change that you’ve noticed where you live? How do you manage feelings of vulnerability around your writing?

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