In the Details


The Pulse and Politics of the Environment, Peace, and Justice

Bob Musil, President, Rachel Carson Council

“In nature nothing exists alone.”

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history… It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

— Rachel Carson


image of hoverfly on aster

closeup image of bee on aster

This November, my late fall asters are still blooming along with the tattered yard signs of an election year. Their bunches of small, pale blue, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers add bright color as leaves turn brown and yellow and maroon, and cascade to the ground. If I pause, stay absolutely still, and observe carefully enough, my asters suddenly come alive with bees otherwise invisible. Slow, lumbering bumble bees; gentle, tawny and gold, lightly- striped honeybees; emerald-headed sweat bees, and delta-winged, sharply-striped black and yellow ones that are actually flies (flower or hoverflies) that resemble small versions of yellow jackets. They are harmless except to aphids and other plant pests that they devour. There are also many, many miniscule bees — hovering around the blossoms like helicopters — that I can scarcely see, let alone name.

closeup image of bee

My close observation of asters — call it a fixation or fascination if you will — has allowed me to find out a number of things as I took breaks from my equally obsessive attention to this year’s critical election. First, that there is an entire universe of tiny insects — bees, flies, and bugs — that visit and depend upon a simple, not very showy set of flowers in my yard, and others like it. I notice, too, that summer is quite extended and fall quite late, by several weeks, this year.

image of galadariaimage of box turtleThere are small signs of changes in our weather, our climate, whenever I stop long enough to see what is right before me, hidden in plain view. There are a few hot pink blossoms on my azaleas. My galardia and Shasta daisies have rebloomed. And, incredibly enough, violets, those harbingers of spring, have peeked through the leaf litter in my garden.

image of flock of snow geese I have been out hiking and bird watching further afield in Eastern Shore Maryland, as well. There I move slowly, look carefully, and, sure enough, things begin to appear. Bluebirds on an electric wire, a box turtle hidden in long grass, a pair of bald eagles sitting side by side Here, too, warm weather has been extended. The fabled flocks of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans who arrive by the thousands each November from the frozen north are not here yet.

image of tundra swansNone of these observations prove that climate change is happening or that bees are declining or that my home in Bethesda is now in the same horticultural zone as Florida. But taken with the careful, close observations of others and charted and mapped over time, they do reveal shifts in phenology (changes in the arrival of the seasons), the range of birds and flowers, and, ultimately, that the climate that I grew up with is indeed changing.

The same is true for that other November phenomenon — elections. Some of my environmentalist and progressive friends were either mildly depressed or somewhat surprised that the long awaited wave of blue Democrats seemed not to have materialized. Progressive headliners like Beto O’Rourke in Texas, or Andrew Gillum in Florida, went down to defeat. Some ballot initiatives for climate change were defeated in the West. Even the capture of the House of Representatives seemed at first to be by a pretty thin margin — given the outrages of the Trump Administration and his enablers in Congress.

image of Veronica Escobar and Sylvia GarciaOnly when the hoopla and expectations of election night had passed could you begin to slow down and observe and discover the small, mostly invisible details that revealed a real change in the political climate — a serious repudiation of the politics of racist white nationalism and hate. Take Texas. The spotlight was on Beto’s agonizingly close defeat. Meanwhile, Democrats gained three Congressional seats including triumphs by Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, the first two Latinas ever sent from Texas to the House of Representatives.

image of Colin Allredimage of entirely female, African American set of seventeen county judgesTexas also saw a convincing victory by civil rights attorney Colin Allred over eight-term representative Pete Sessions, one of the most conservative members of the House. Peering deeper, one is astounded to find other little noticed results that bode well for the future of the Lone Star State. In Harris County, that includes Houston, an entirely female, African American set of seventeen county judges was swept into office by overwhelming votes.

image of Kevin ThomasIn my suburban hometown of Garden City, Long Island, a pleasant conservative State Senator Kemp Hannon, who, as a boy, used to deliver newspapers to my house, had held his seat for 28 years. He was defeated in an upset by an African American Democrat, Kevin Thomas, tipping the New York State Senate to the Democrats, who also gained three seats in Congress. New York now has an entirely Democratic government at every level that can pass serious environmental legislation.

image of Joe Neguseimage of Jared PolisThe 2018 election, when looked at closely, also produced the most diverse set of victorious candidates ever. Colorado elected the nation’s first openly gay governor, Democrat Jared Polis, as well as its first African American member of Congress, Democrat Joe Neguse, whose parents emigrated from war-torn Eritrea.

image of Ilhar Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaibimage of Sharice DavidThe new House of Representatives will also have its first two female Muslim Congresswomen, Ilhar Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Democrats. Joining them will be the nation’s first female Native Americans elected to Congress, Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice David of Kansas. David will also be the first LGBT candidate ever elected in the state of Kansas.

As with little noticed details observed in nature, the results from the 2018 election need to be looked at slowly, carefully, and closely in addition to the big, bright, more readily identifiable races and personalities highlighted by the media on election night. The victory by progressives of all kinds this November was wider and deeper than first reported or understood. This single set of results does not necessarily demonstrate that the United States is moving toward a more open, inclusive, progressive, and environmentally friendly electorate and government. But, like global climate change, that’s where the evidence is pointing.