Everything's gone to chaos

Wake up and breathe in the smell of an unusually early spring

GRAFTON — I never met “Chaos John,” but I feel like I knew him well.

I knew him through the stories of my friend Maria Catell, who had lived next door to him throughout her childhood. He was a considerate neighbor, always greeting Maria and her siblings with a cheery hello and offering help to her family when needed.

John also had a streak of gloom and doom that surfaced every time anything went awry, which, according to him, was most of the time.

When his cows broke through the fence and wandered down the road, John set off after them, shaking his head and muttering, “Everything's gone to chaos.”

He muttered those same words when his tractor failed to start on a cold winter's day, when his dog trotted home from a ramble reeking of skunk, when he hung his clothes on the line and it rained an hour later.

When he discussed politics with Maria's parents, it was his constant refrain.

Chaos John said that when politicians walked, their feet didn't connect with the ground, and that was why they couldn't be trusted to solve the problems of real life.

“All dressed up in them fancy suits and shiny shoes,” he'd grumble. “All they want is to stay in power and clobber the other team, like they're playing football instead of running the country.”

“Everything's gone to chaos.”

It became part of the Catell family lexicon. Long after Chaos John was dead and buried, he was fondly remembered and frequently quoted.

* * *

During the eerie heat wave in March, just as another balmy morning dawns, I'm lingering by the fence watching the horses buck and rear and whirl and twirl like yearlings.

After this acrobatic display, they gallop off, racing three laps around the field, the sound of their hooves muffled by the soft, damp ground. Then they stop and stand like statues, ears forward, nostrils flaring, heads raised to sniff the air.

Reconnaissance completed, they drop their heads to graze on green shoots of grass.

It's the warmth and the scent of snow melt and damp earth rising up that has them so full of the joys.

In his novella A Strange and Sublime Address, Amit Chaudhuri describes this scent as “the most natural and unpretentious fragrance.” Unpretentious and powerful, it activates a rise of chi and spirit in humans and all other animals.

Like many fragrances, it also induces memory, evocative as silent music.

Maybe that's why I'm remembering Chaos John; imagining him standing at the fence beside me in his bib overalls and flannel shirt; drawing on his pipe and muttering, “Everything's gone to chaos.”

* * *

Usually when spring arrives, I'm as celebratory as the horses. Free from the constraints of long underwear, layers of down, fleece, and wool, and my Sorel boots (good to 40 below), I turn cartwheels, crank up the boom box, and dance with my pitchfork.

Now, I wonder if Vermonters will ever again need boots good to 40 below. I'm haunted by the voice of Chaos John. My body and mind are not aligned.

Friends and neighbors are feeling the same misalignment. ”Weird weather,” they say.

We're all feeling anxious about this intimation of spring, the lack of snow in a winter that appears to have gone too soon, and the fate of our wondrous, hospitable home, the planet Earth.

My father used to tell me that anxiety could be an instinctual signal that something was out of balance and needed to be recognized and corrected.

* * *

Everywhere I've ever lived, the weather was capricious, yet still provided familiar rhythms.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, I lived in farm country and worked outside six mornings a week. The ground usually froze hard in December. We could expect a few days of thaw in late January. The peas got planted on or around Saint Patrick's Day. At the end of April, we stashed our long underwear in the cedar chest, and we pulled it out again in November.

In the mid-'70s, the rhythms began to change.

I remember the first time my husband and I picked ticks off our dogs in February. We sat on our porch, and the dogs sat patiently next to us as we performed that loathsome duty, not usually required until April or May.

“This is weird,” my husband said.

“It isn't right,” I said, as I dropped another tick into the old coffee can filled with gasoline.

Our snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils were already sprouting. In subsequent winters, early blooming became the norm, and the dogs had no respite from ticks.

* * *

Today, in Washington D.C., the cherry blossoms are blooming early. Too many senators and congressmen are still asleep. Soon they'll rise from their beds. They'll still be sleeping when they arrive at the Capitol building, and they'll be talking in their sleep as they bluster and fume and proclaim that climate-change science is a hoax perpetrated by “liberals.”

Presumably, they will apply this label not only to “tree-hugging, granola-crunching” Vermonters but also to evangelical Christian environmentalists who are actively engaged in taking care of “God's creation.”

Polar ice caps are melting. Ocean temperatures are rising, and water levels, too. Many species of animals and birds are on the verge of extinction. More “extreme weather events” are predicted, but it's not our fault, so “drill, baby, drill” and while we're at it, let's lop the tops off some more mountains, too. We can't afford to protect the environment.

Horses and all animals, domesticated and wild, stop and sniff the wind. Then they know where to go and what to do next.

Maybe these legislators are too busy collecting corporate campaign contributions to employ their animal senses. Forget waking up and smelling the coffee and the roses.

Wake up and breathe in that “most natural fragrance.” It has something to say to everyone, including President Obama. His efforts on behalf of the environment have been lackluster, at best.

* * *

I propose the introduction of a bill called the “No Legislator Left Behind Act.”

It will mandate that prior to running for office, prospective candidates will leave their homes every morning and report to an outdoor classroom where rigorous studies in environmental science will be held.

They'll take field trips at home and abroad, traveling to Bangladesh, the Seychelles, the Maldives, and other developing countries where the impacts of climate change are plainly visible; where government leaders are making substantial efforts to reduce carbon footprints and prepare for the future.

In the Republic of the Seychelles, they'll meet with President James Michel, who will repeat what he said last year in Melbourne, Australia, when he was a guest of that government.

“There is no ideology involved in the survival of people.”

The students' minds will light up in a collective epiphanic blaze.

Upon presentation of dissertations outlining cogent and stringent policies to reduce carbon emissions, create sustainable communities, and leave this world a better place than we found it, candidates will graduate and be deemed fit to run for office.

If elected, they will implement policies that support the earth and all its inhabitants. They will be called “realists,” and be respected as exemplary leaders.

Maybe then we will have the right to tout our American “exceptionalism,” and Chaos John will rest in peace.

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