Priya can relate to what a friend told her in regard to ecology. He had said, “I used to worry for my grandchildren, now I worry for us too.”
This morning, like most mornings of my increasingly long life, I’m privileged to actually wake up, put feet on the ground and rise to a new day. I venture out to sniff the air and get the measure of the world beyond the cozy confines of our home. My eyes tear up immediately and start stinging, my throat tightens and my lungs sputter.
Another day where the mountains are utterly obliterated and the sea is murky. The air is filled with the particulate matter of ash from the 600 fires burning in B.C. The beauty of this particular place is now obscured and the perils of our new world climate order are in full evidence.
It has been an exceedingly dry summer with no rain at all and temperatures that belie the temperate reputation of these northern coasts. They say it is ‘the new normal’. I suspect it is in fact the new world, and we have very little idea as to what normal is. In such a time of flux, we may not see a stable ‘normal’ again in our lifetime, or even in many generations to come.
On the one hand, it is harder to comprehend all the environmental stresses at play in this blessed place because it is so utterly beautiful, so relatively untouched, still so relatively pure and undeveloped, yet because of this, the changes are all the more obvious. The ground is not covered by concrete. The skies are not obscured by skyscrapers and the forests are not yet parks, every change is seen and felt since there are so few distractions to the natural world.
Five summers ago, we walked down to our closest and favorite beach, four adults, four dogs, the tide was out and we wandered out leisurely, romping in the receded low tide waters. We bemoaned and grieved the starfish who had mysteriously disappeared from one year to the next, I mean gone!
A bacteria that proliferated in the warmer oceans was thought to be responsible for this massive die-off. My friend made a comment, lightly as if to the ocean itself, that sat heavily on my heart, because I had so wished it to be untrue but suspected it was indeed accurate. He said, “I used to worry for my grandchildren, now I worry for us too.” And while the starfish with their colorful five-pointed arms of hope are slowly returning, they are few.
We thought it was a few decades out, that it would be gradual, preventable, slow-able, but it is here, now. We are in the midst of massive ecological change and I suspect that the earth as we have known her, is forever altered. There are words for it, that thing that’s hard to pinpoint, but is simmering in many corners of our conscious and unconscious lives. Ecological Grief or Solastaligia. It is defined as, “the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”
The question that follows me around like my upset puppy, unnerved by the perceived danger from the smoke, is how are we to live in relation to it all? The rising tides, the smoky summers that go on and on or never start at all, the droughts, the floods, the mudslides, the heavy rains. Wherever you live right now on the planet, you will have your own version of this new and unpredictable reality. Maybe you will also have your own version of how to live the wonder and gift of this life, knowing it will end, and how to breathe in the glory of this planet knowing that it too is cycling in it’s own orbit impervious to the plight of her endangered creatures and fauna. Or is she?
There are those who refuse to engage in this conversation, those who collapse from a feeling of helplessness, those who are happy to dance on the deck even as the ship is sinking, there are those who offset their fears in right and meaningful action. There are those who say, be here now! But for me, the ‘here’ if it’s to be real and not a frozen frame, includes all time. It includes all that has gone before, it includes the possibilities of all that might arise in the future, even though we do not know the shape, size, color or timing.
Do we fight, deny, collapse, accept, lean in, grieve, simply enjoy, or all of the above at different times?
We have of course changed some things in the way we actually live ourselves. YES to all the usual feel goods: composting, re-cycling, cycling from time to time, buying local, switching off the lights, conscious investing, somewhat conscious consuming, limited airplane travel, supporting the agencies who do great environmental work. It feels good but still somewhat puny in relation to the issues at hand.
The fact that all this is occurring in the last quadrant of my life, both adds poignancy and rolls the inquiry into a larger one about change itself and about death itself. How I am to be in relation to my one “wild and precious life” (see Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day) that is ticking down, on this one exquisite and complex planet that is laboring, and to changes that I have little power to influence, is really the point of my inquiry.
The one sphere of consistent influence that I do have, is how I relate to it all. There are good and bad days as there are with terminal patients. I fully realize I’m not positioned to affect outside forces but I can regulate my internal states, usually with some mixed cocktail of doing some action in the world, usually at a very local level, albeit small, as well as regulating my fear generally, both towards the unknown and continuing to build my (underdeveloped) capacity to bear witness.
When I’m particularly confused, I take refuge in a quote by a wise Rabbi of old, (whose name has utterly escaped me) who said something to the effect of… ‘when the world is spinning out of control, the best thing you can do is hold your center’… Not easy as the suffering around us escalates.
After some yearning and saving, we took a three-week paddle down the Grand Canyon, some years ago. And grand it indeed was. Beyond what the mind could really comprehend. It was the first time I got a real whiff of geological time, through a phenomenon called ‘The Great Unconformity’, whereby ½ billion years could slip between the strata of rock and be represented by an absence spanning a mere few inches.
It felt so comforting to reference our true place in geological time, a nano-second, mere specks of dust, to realize anew how infinite the scale, how teeny weeny the grain of any individual. Many species have come and gone, and so it would not be too great a leap to imagine earth continuing on her merry route towards repair, to imagine a planet without us pesky lot mucking things up with our big brains that are not yet broad enough to see and honor the interconnectivity of all things.
So here’s the odd thing. I find none of the above depressing. Often heartbreaking, sometimes very scary and usually quite confusing. But not depressing.
Maybe most of my confusion comes from the juxtaposition of all that I have written above, conjunct with the predominate goodness and compelling nature of each day. What an amazing gift it is to be alive each and every confusing and compelling day, maybe even more so because nothing is assured in relation to it’s longevity, or mine. I do strongly suspect that the better part of wisdom is a deepening capacity to live with paradoxical reality without needing to have it all tied into one neat package.
This poem is part four of a larger poem called Homage from of Bone and Breath. It is both a love poem and an Elegy.
Music by James Weinberg, Beads of Illusion.
by W.S. Merwin
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
not the fruit
the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted
I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time
with the sun already
and the water
touching its roots
in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing
one by one
over its leaves
First published on Priya’s blog on September 12, 2018
Priya Huffman – author of ‘The Territory of Home’ and of ‘Bone and Breath’. priyahuffman.com
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