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Earth Love: Getting to the Other Side of Ecological Grief

I took a deep breath, spread my fingers wide, and placed my palm directly upon the glacier. At first, the chill was pure pleasure, sheer relief—after all, we'd been hiking in mid-ninety degree heat all week.

After a few moments, of course, that pleasure gave way to a sharp and icy pain. I flinched, withdrew my hand, then perched on the rocks abutting St. Mary's Glacier in Colorado. I glanced over at my husband and sons, all engaged in snowball fighting, and it was impossible not to laugh along. How rare to have time like this, I thought, with the problems and deadlines and minutiae of life on hold as we looked, literally and figuratively, at the bigger picture.

As I basked in the sweetness, though, I could sense another kind of icy pain approaching. I shook my head against it, but it continued to creep into the middle of my consciousness:

This glacier is melting. All the glaciers are melting.

I pushed the thought away.

A Complicated Grief

In my mind’s eye, I see a domino line extending from shrinking glaciers to rising sea levels to flooding coastlines. I see that line branch off in the middle, moving simultaneously toward lost water stores and crop failures and starvation. All around, I see other lines criss-crossing toward interrelated disasters.

It's too overwhelming, the magnitude of destruction occurring across the planet. I feel frustration, anger, disbelief, as I mourn the mounting losses. On top of it all, I feel tremendous guilt for sending this onerous debt and burden into the future.

During this era of the Anthropocene, when human activity is the primary impact upon the planet and its ecosystems, there’s a term increasingly used for the complicated bundle of emotions I've described. It's called ecological grief.

And I don't want to feel it.

When I do, it disrupts my ability to function and depletes my energy to try. To go about my life, I have to close my eyes and deliberately turn away, rather than bear witness to the enormity of what is happening.

However, as news and facts and figures emerge and proliferate, as my routines and plans are increasingly affected and altered, that reality pokes at me—a constant push-pull between my attention and my unwillingness to engage.

I don't seem to know how to do both—to live my daily life while also acknowledging a looming existential crisis. I struggle to speak up and act on behalf of the environment in the face of my rising hopelessness. I wonder how to be in this world, at this time. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of an episode of a podcast called, appropriately enough, On Being.

During this interview, philosopher of ecology Joanna Macy, now in her 90s, spoke of her work as an environmental activist over decades of planetary destruction and woefully inadequate measures to address and prevent it. She has long watched as human beings, private enterprises and government institutions treat the earth as our "supply cabinet and sewer," rather than our home.

As I listened, it seemed to me that she of all people had the right to give in to her own ecological grief, and to disengage, step away, ignore, give up.

But she had a far different approach.

A Dance With Despair

Instead, Macy embraces her ecological grief—welcoming it and engaging with it. She calls it "dancing" with her negative thoughts and emotions on this subject, including the hardest one: despair. According to her, if we can simply be with our grief, simply sit and breathe through our discomfort and pain and outrage, then its energy begins to change. That grief turns to show its other side: our love for the world and our connectedness with the life around us.

By contrast, pushing ecological grief away only buries that love.

I thought back to my hike to St. Mary's Glacier. What would have happened if I'd allowed my feelings of existential dread to exist without pushing them away? What if I'd been able to inhabit my ecological grief fully? I visualized myself perched there, near the glacier and river and mountains.

Immediately, I began to regret the exercise. I felt sick, disturbed, terrified—almost unendurably so.

But after a few minutes, just as Macy promised, something shifted. Slowly, sights and sounds percolated and populated my memory—all the unprocessed details that grief had pushed away. I felt the cool mist dissipating the heat of the day. I heard the silvery tune of the river flowing underneath the glacier and into the emerald slopes before us, slopes dappled and dotted with pink heather and yellow balsamroot and scarlet gilia, with glacier lilies and alpine phlox and prairie flax, all of them seeming to call for attention—look at me, I'm here, I'm alive!

I envisioned my hand again, sinking into the ice as I touched it, and this time, I somehow sensed the massive ecosystem at work beneath—the bacterial communities feeding the land, the water cycles feeding the rivers. All around us, other people were approaching the glacier—people who valued its beauty and majesty as much as we did. I turned toward the boys laughing near me and marveled how we were part of the same intricate web encompassing every living being on the planet.

My heart still broke, but it broke in a different way, releasing my love for this precious planet into the world, making space for hope to enter and grow.

A Space Opens

During a lecture, author Brene Brown recalled how her mother instructed her to behave when there was a death in the community. Her mother told her she must always look a bereaved person in the eye, and never turn away from the suffering and pain and loss. I believe her mother was conveying the message that, if we can courageously endure our discomfort, then, eventually, our better nature—our humanity—blooms. And then, I suspect, we are naturally inspired to do the needful.

Perhaps we must look at the earth's pain in the same way—stare directly at the breakage and havoc and loss until our humanity rises and we are impelled to take action, to speak up and fight for her. According to Mirabai Starr, the author of Wild Mercy, "[w]hen we have fully faced the injustices that rage like wildfires . . . across the wildernesses of the planet, we cannot help but offer ourselves in service."

I've begun to feel, and I am trying to nurture, that same shift within myself. Instead of despairing that my actions are too small to make a change, or that the apathy of citizens and governments is insurmountable, or that the planet is too far gone to bother, I am trying simply to inhabit my love for this earth.

I know that, on some days, it will be overwhelmingly difficult to do so. News of depletion and destruction, death and displacement will be hard to witness and endure.

But I am resolving not to look away anymore, but rather, to bear the unbearable until my ecological grief turns to show its other side. I am resolving to place my palm to the earth until I feel the life throbbing there, until I feel its roots and branches within my own body, until I know in my bones: all of this is mine to cherish and protect. According to Macy, that is the sort of love that will "unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of the world."

Let's heal the world.

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