July 2023 was the hottest July recorded on Earth. This graph shows temperatures from 1850 through 2023 compared to the 20th century average.

Long ago, before realizing I was unfit to write poetry, I set myself a project I thought might become my life’s work.

My childhood was still fresh and glistening with pain, and one of the more frightening disturbances had been the Cuban Missile Crisis, when I was 9. Burned into my memory were, and are, TV news maps of the East Coast. On the maps concentric circles radiated from the middle of Cuba. One circle reached to Miami. Another reached to Washington, D.C. The outermost circle reached Massachusetts. They represented the range of ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.

It seemed like we might be more or less safe in the Portland area. But then there was the fallout. A single particle of radioactive dust could sicken and kill you. Billions of them would blow our way if the Reds launched a nuclear strike. It was common knowledge that a worldwide nuclear war would destroy the planet. Or at least civilization.

These are heavy thoughts and feelings for a child.

When I was in college, the threat of nuclear war had not gone away. In the late 1970s, there was a lot of anti-war-based tension over President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to deploy the neutron bomb in the U.S. military arsenal. The great thing about the neutron bomb was that, compared with regular nuclear bombs, it would do minimal damage to buildings and property, while efficiently killing huge numbers of people with a special kind of radiation.

This made the world seem more insane than ever, which is a heavy feeling for an adult.


“In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty,” said a liner note on a Phil Ochs album. I decided to try to use the most beautiful form of language, poetry, to try to make a gesture that in its own way might help sand down the rough possibilities of nuclear catastrophe. This would be a long series of poems with the title Nuclear Cantos. I started writing from nowhere, which I often did in those days, and immediately discovered that although I had a bead on the feelings and thoughts of nuclear insanity, my knowledge of nuclear weapons and war was superficial at best. So I started reading about it.

The reading turned out to be the project’s downfall. Just the basic facts were excruciating. Estimates at the time were that 9.5 million people died in World War I, about 10% of them civilians, and that about 55 million died in World War II, about half of them civilians. In the Korean War, I read, up to 90% of the casualties were civilians. It was excruciating. How nuclear bombs work. Excruciating. How much damage a two-megaton bomb does compared to a 20-megaton bomb. Excruciating. What Hiroshima looked like (a flattened wasteland) after one explosion there Aug. 6, 1945. Excruciating. How the 15-kiloton explosion of Little Boy over Hiroshima was 80 times smaller than the 1.2-megaton explosion of Fat Man on Nagasaki three days later. Excruciating. A nuclear explosion’s effectiveness when detonated in the air instead of ground level. Excruciating. The explosions’ short-term and long-term effects. Excruciating.

After a while, I noticed that an atmosphere of heavy depression developed during the times I tried to work on my cantos.

A book about nuclear winter effectively ended the project. The destruction not only of people and civilization, but of the ecology of the whole planet at the hands of insanity was too horrible to hold in mind without going insane myself. “Stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace,” another poet had written during World War I. I think the remains of the Nuclear Cantos are in a box in a closet upstairs. I’m not sure.

I’m telling you this story as a way of letting you know that when the Backyard Naturalist column sometimes divagates from topics of natural beauty to the topic of threats to the environment, I am not having fun writing it. Almost no beauty is available there. It is excruciating to report, for example, that high temperature records break almost routinely now, and this July was the hottest July recorded on Earth. Or that presidential candidate Mike Pence’s plan for environmental action includes eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency and rescinding alternative energy programs. It is so ugly it can hardly be believed.

Meanwhile, the effects of overheated air and oceans are happening right before our eyes. They’ve been especially numerous and destructive this summer, and they’re going to get worse, as David Wallace-Wells in his well-researched book, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” and Bill McKibben in “Falter” both show. We are on the edge of an ecological catastrophe at least as devastating as nuclear winter, with the added trouble of not being hypothetical.


The insane thing is, we caused it and are continuing to push it along. The 2100s — even in the best-case scenarios where we suddenly halt all carbon emissions — are going to be a “century of hell” for human beings, Wallace-Wells says.

Many people who can see what climate change is going to do suffer from a psychological condition recently named “environmental melancholia” — a complex stew of feelings such as grief, anxiety, dread, remorse, helplessness, anger, depression, fear and other mental experiences sprung from the scientific near certainty that Earth cannot escape an ecological catastrophe, and that the catastrophe has been launched by us.

Mostly, it’s scientists who suffer from environmental melancholia. But others, such as journalists who make it our job to find out what’s really happening, also do. It’s painful enough for me to assemble a few notes on the environment and its politics every few months. But McKibben has surrounded himself in this research for more than 35 years; he published the first book-length warning on climate change, “The End of Nature,” in 1989. Wallace-Wells started researching environmental news as a global warming skeptic. After 20 years of combing through thousands of reports and interviews, he is now a self-described “alarmist.”

The Nuclear Cantos were supposed to be a force of beauty depicting what could happen, in hopes it wouldn’t. These naturalist columns are about a disaster that’s already underway. My grandson is going to have to find a way to live through the beginning of the worst.

I don’t know how you can have watched the news of the world’s weather this summer without extremely heavy feelings that most poetry can do nothing about.

It’s excruciating.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at naturalist1@dwildepress.net. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.

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