Walt Whitman, Time Travel, and Climate Change

I have been reflecting on queer responses to climate change including exploring the past to learn from our ancestors like Whitman in the 19th Century and LGBTQ activists in the late 20th Century.
In writing to my friend Liz, a fellow queer Quaker, who lives in the heat of Florida much of the year, I outlined some of the considerations I make when considering LGBTQ/Queer responses to global climate change.
  • For me it is important to bring in humor. Comedy is the very opposite of what people expect for such a serious topic. LGBTQ people have such a rich history of campy humor, satire, and farce which helps us dig into serious issues and confront the public with reality.


  • Shifting the focus from individual actions and behavioral change to instead focus on collective action that leads to systems change is another component I also consider. This is not a new thought of course, but for many people in North America the take-away they have gotten from mainstream environmental messages is that we need to be better consumers–change our lightbulbs, buy eco-products, reduce, reuse, recycle. Yes, this is important to do, but in addressing climate change, a bolder and bigger responses is necessary. 


  • I seek to change climate talk and move it away from distant issues that do not motivate people, like the plight of polar bears. Instead I bring climate change closer to home and look how it affects coffee, LGBTQ homelessness, and pets
  • Finally, imagining the future—not a dystopian or utopian one—but instead a realistic, sustainable, stable, world where people treat each other with fairness and dignity is something worth envisioning. So many focus on  gloom and doom when it comes to climate change; being able to envision a pragmatic successful outcome is downright queer.
Nearly 120 years ago Whitman wrote a stunning poem about taking the ferry across NY’s East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan right after dawn. In addition to taking in the people, the physical experience of the quick trip, and the nature that cannot be hidden even in a major city, Whitman does something extraordinary. He travels to the future to write about you and me, individuals in living crowds, folks in his future who also take a ferry ride. He connects to us over time and space.
Having recently taken a three hour ferry ride in the Westfjords of Iceland with my husband, Glen, I am shocked at how similar the experience is to what Whitman describes. Even the detail of marveling over the sight and flight of a seagull gets recreated.
This ability to imagine others in the future is an essential part of the work that I do.
Here is an excerpt of Walt Whitman’s poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.3
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water,
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,

You can read the whole poem at Poetry Foundation.

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