Columns » Bob Lancaster

Sign (pl.)



What used to be called global warming has apparently been renamed climate change. I like the new designation because there's a lot more going on out there in the way of change than just the earth's temp edging up a fraction of a degree every century or two.

Something environmentally big and spooky is happening. Hard to say exactly what's changing and how, though, because the process unfolds in its own good time, defying our notoriously short attention span. We don't know how to pay attention any more. To anything. We might try — probably won't, but might — but even if we give it our very best shot, making our most valiant attempt at staying focused, inside of 15 minutes our attention will have moseyed off, out the window and across the crick and through the next hamlet and into the gloaming, to settle butterfly-like on a different topic altogether.

Give us a pop quiz. What subject were you pondering, or discussing, or debating, or about to fight a war over back before that last roid-shrinker commercial came up on the TV? … Uhhh …

Like a contagion or a locust swarm, the in-progress climate change is not one big critter so much as it is a thousand teeniny ones, and they are changes of suggestion more than changes of revelation. And if you fix on what might be changing over here, you'll sense one yonder on the periphery that might be more important or less damnably elusive. And if you move your attention over there, another will fire up just off your shoulder back on this side.

It's like trying to catch ghosts, or snipes, or rogue electrons, with a net that has no netting.

It's hard to perceive change when you're a part of it and it's a part of you.

In this case, the surest evidence that apocalyptic change is occurring is the scientifical kind, but I don't have the patience for that, either, or the temperament, or the expertise to chase the ghost of change through penguin fat or spore-count fluctuations in ice cores. Which leaves me forensically short, with only my rube hunches and intimations, sensing change all over the great canvas but befuddled by it, and remembering with envy how Pap in perplexity used to go nosing for what he called “sign,” a plural usage.

“I'm goin' out to that pinoak flat to look for sign.”

OK, Pap, I'll stay here at the truck and work on my list of End Times climate-change “sign.” Stuff I've intuited, or chanced upon, or dreamt, or heard voices telling me about.

Including the shallower, pitiless shade that now screens the blue sky's old-time cerulean. The spectral shift to pastel in rainbeaux. The abruptness of seasonal transition, with rude springs and autumnal onsets that are more like nature in nervous breakdown. The degeneration of edible nuts. A writer for my hometown weekly posits a honeybee rapture — no people, just bees — God rounding them up and calling them home for his own purpose, and that is signage with a classical pedigree. No longer any “play” in the lightning. Wild, lost winds. Something fishy — alien and unidentifiable — about a goodly portion of the roadkill. Sores on fish. Box turtles as wired as fleas. Evolutionary character changes in turnrows, fencerows.

There's sign in the trees. How they used to hang together as forests but now only run together in gangs. Showing no pride, the great white oaks no prouder than so many punk Bradford pears. They were perky once — often gave the impression of exuberance — but now about 90 percent of them seem depressed. Ready to give it up at the first sign of blight or bugs or a piddly half-assed straight-line wind. Not at all appreciative or even interested that fools can make poems but not them.

There's sign in the birds. Just an uneducated guess, that whatever dispirited the trees also demoralized the birds. The feeder agitation of the goldfinches so different now, like the dementia that besets mice when the moon is full or cicadas when they are impelled. Crows once irascible now turned bitter, morphed from Kingfish into mobs of Archie Bunker. The jays have no spunk. Woodpeckers dour as Rotarians. When's the last time you heard a lark that didn't sound embarrassed? When did the wrens all become hospice workers?

So many days now the clouds look like they might have escaped from Marvel Comics. We'd had the same clouds since Wordsworth, since the elder Brueghel, but these surely seeped up from Pandemonium or Dis. That is certainly sign.

Rain that won't abide by any of the rain rules or traditions. Snow with a pink cast that gives you to think of gasoline. Bitter snow that runs pea-green in the melter.

Silence where the frogs sang is telltale sign. Sign of the highest order. Out here at the Old Rippy Meadow they used to barbershop Louis Jordan's greatest hits, including the incomparable “Saturday Night Fish Fry” — the frogs did, I mean — and they'd do encores even longer than there was anyone to listen. J.S. Bach harmonized and orchestrated for them. A trailer park is there now, the only amphibians long-lived toads that aging junkies have licked smooth.

All kinds of sign. Sign everywhere.

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