I have been trying to pull apart the tight seams of fear and separation from nature; I have been trying my whole life. I bet many of you have too. My lonely childhood made it easy to believe in the old story of separation from nature, from myself. I became a trauma therapist to try to figure out how to undo the isolation I had to hide in as a child. I wanted to work with humans who long to belong, like me. Humans who long for belonging but feel trapped in the lonely old story; who are miles away from their own bodies; who are numb. The story of modern humanity is one that has, over time, built layers and layers of distance between our sensitive skin and nature. I feel for us. I understand it. We all do, intimately. It’s overwhelming to be close. It’s so easy to look away from the intimacy of being alive. Of being nature. Of being part of this lovely, soft and treacherous planet.
And now here we are, post summer 2021, a doozy. Not unlike the last handful of summers, falls, winters and springs, but this last summer was filled with smoke in our bodies, in our noses and lungs. Smoke from our beautiful, heat drained and exhausted forests burning down at unheard of rates. These worlds of biome, plant, animal and human communities. Communities who lost everything. Communities that loved each other and depended on each other, depended on humans to respect the laws of Nature. Unlike humans, these communities don’t feel compelled to be distant from each other; to reject and hurt each other. They only know the sense of belonging. For me that smoke spilled into my dreams. It scratched at my emotional places, trying to get me to listen.
I spent much of my time during those smoky weeks in Minneapolis worried sick about those communities of non-human beings, burning up with no clean air to breathe and no indoors to hide in. Who would grieve them when they were gone? Who would take care of their children? Would they have a chance to rebuild? I wanted to ease their suffering. Actually, I was obsessed with it. Like a mother feverishly trying to console her baby. I was panicked and frantically building little bee and butterfly watering spots and making little soft hidden places in my gardens for them to try to hide in.
I don’t think nature will let me, but I don’t ever want to forget the taste and smell of smoke. I don’t ever want to stop needing to ease Nature’s pain. My community, and who I consider people, has grown infinitely after this summer of fires. And I miss them. I know there are layers between us still—humans and nature—but I want to start tearing those layers down. I am trying to let go of my part of this larger story we have all been living, since long before I was born, or any of you reading this were born; since long before my Native Grandmother was born and hers or hers before her. I feel all of my Ancestors’ worry. How did so much happen right under my feet?
I am in the midst, like all of us, of trying to let go of this old story, the one of separation: The pioneer. The pull myself up from my own bootstraps. The lie. It’s written everywhere: On our hearts, on the water, on the land we come from, on the animals and ecosystems passing away. We’ve been living this mythology of dominance and distance from each other. It’s seeped into everything. Everyone of us, and every one of the best and the most beautiful parts of nature have been hurt by this story. We have been so driven by fear, so separated and numb from life that we’ve just let it happen. What hurts more than anything else is to be so distanced from feeling sorry and changing our actions, so numb to the grief of losing everything that nature is. So far from our own nature, from ourselves.
In therapy with humans, numbness is a powerful conduit for growth. People assume when they feel numb, they feel nothing, but I disagree. Numbness is a helpful pathway back home. It’s a place-holder and a start and a moment in time that keeps our sweet, sensitive overwhelming feelings at bay, our feelings of how beautiful and how painful it is to love and to be alive. But as a story in our modern life, numbness has become the only way. The only way to feel. To dull the pain forever like this is to lose the life that is there to grow on the other end. It ensures that the losses from the separation grow and never end, and eventually our dulled pain eats up every bit of aliveness we have. It destroys us.
I don’t think we are bad at heart. I think we are wild and compulsive and, like all things in nature, we have a place and a way of being. But we have to get a handle on this distance. We need to feel again. I think feeling bad and ashamed is a part of this story of separation. I see traumatized adults do this all of the time. The residue from the trauma of separation in their painful childhoods, their painful cultures, leads them to think this way. We have to convince ourselves that we’re bad when the sort of connection we needed as babies was impossible. We have to get in there and get some distance from the pain and separation, and so we make ourselves the villain in our story to get by, to survive. Or we have to make a fantasy of being the hero—the lone hero—and that doesn’t work either. It’s just a fantasy to get us by, like being numb gets us through the pain. And when “separation” is the larger story—the cultural story—then it’s even easier to judge ourselves as bad inside and out and act that way, too.
Some folks, like Charles Eisenstein, say things have happened for a reason. There’s some bigger plan here in leaving behind this old story we are trying to shed. I wonder what that reason could be? Maybe it’s to learn the cost of separation and the cost of covering ourselves in too much numbness in order to get by. Maybe it’s so we remember in our bones the potential we have to destroy everything we love and everything we are so that we never make it back here again. Gratefulness is the gift that arises on the other side of trauma. Gratefulness is often the feeling that makes trauma fully resolved on the other end. Not gone, or like it never happened, but it makes us feel alive again on the other side. I like to compare this gratitude to the feeling of surviving a long, hard north woods winter and that first thaw, that first peek of something green from under the snow. It’s like the earth giving you a grateful smile through the ancient ice. It gives us enough hope to keep unthawing, to keep going. We made it! Yes! Almost there.
What if this could be the start to a new story? By the skin of our teeth, we made it! So frustratingly and compulsively part of the human experience: We made a big damn mess and now we scramble to clean it up, little wild humans. I know we are flawed and scared and numb and there will be more grief and it will get harder, I am fairly certain. But at least we’ll be more alive and less numb and, for now, we made it because we are alive! Now go fall in love with any nature left and fight for her. Fret over her but don’t you dare stop there. When you walk down the city street don’t ignore nature because you feel numb and afraid. I don’t care if all you feel is numb at first. Keep trying. This is an emergency and we’re in a process. Nature is hurting and we caused the pain and if we’re fully honest, we are hurting too, and badly. It’s okay to be sorry. It is complicated but don’t hide in your isolation, don’t give up while you’re still alive. Push through it. Dance through it. Hum through it, even if you’re embarrassed. I know. I get embarrassed, too. If you can’t stop and hug that tree or caress that leaf, or say hello to that hard-working squirrel, whisper I love you and I won’t give up on us, as you walk by.
Separateness: It’s that tricky old story. But it’s okay that separateness is familiar, it’s a part of our collective memory and we are in between places and we can’t change all of this overnight. But don’t you give up and stop. We are so close to making it to a place where there is less between us and nature. We are so close to feeling again. And numbness counts as a feeling, so keep going until that fades and you start to feel that alive feeling at the bottom of your bare soul and your naked feet. You’re almost there at the end of that old story, which always means you’re at the start of a new one.