“If we do not grieve what we miss, we will not praise what we love.” — Martin Prechtel
I have grieved the loss of my parents, my cat, first marriage, and a job. Many of us have experienced bereavement-like grief that erupts from such events. We are less familiar with grief emerging from growing awareness of changes around us that incur many individually small losses.
I have experienced pangs of transitional grief from changes that we humans have wrought on our natural world when I:
· noticed native trees in our parks inexorably succumbing to non-native invasive vines;
· realized how deep blue the sky is when economic activities are shut down;
· recalled that songbirds and butterflies were more diverse when I was growing up.
Given the cumulative enormity of ecological and climate disruption, it is understandable to avoid experiencing grief around what our species has done to the planet, for fear of becoming overwhelmed. But the risk of avoidance is that we become chronically numb, anxious or depressed. As with the loss of a loved one, we need to feel the pain of loss in order to transition to healing.
As a personal story, my love for the natural world emerged around 6th grade, when I lived in suburban Chicago. An introverted adolescent, I looked for opportunities to temporarily escape a sometimes tempestuous family life. I would slip out of the house around 6:00 am, and drop into a different world a couple blocks away — a remnant patch of native prairie squeezed into a narrow strip along a commuter rail line. Crouching low and surrounded by milkweed, and goldenrod, I listened to red-winged blackbirds, watched swooping swallows, and studied webs of golden orb spiders. Immersed in this throbbing world, I felt peaceful and safe.
Those early forays into a fragment of wildness touched me deeply. Over the years, however, I let my sense of connection to the natural world become squeezed into the corners of my psyche, even though my career focused on environmental policy issues. I don’t know if that cramped prairie remnant still exists, but I grieve the gradual loss of my connection with wildness. That evolutionary legacy runs deep — for 99% of homo sapiens’ existence, we would have considered ourselves wildlife.
Despite (or perhaps because of) my career focus, I have recently concluded that top-down solutions to climate and ecological disruption, however well-meaning, will not succeed by themselves. Collectively, our society has been unable or unwilling to stop ecological disruption. With all the advances in scientific understanding and policy solutions since my career began, key climate and biodiversity trajectories have been negative.
To fundamentally shift these trajectories may require a bottoms up transformation of human consciousness in which we re-awaken our love for the natural world and relax our need to control it. Acknowledging that many of us are currently grieving loss related to the pandemic, economic shutdown, and racial injustice, we can still begin healing the rupture between ourselves and the natural world. As a start, we might invite ourselves to reflect on the following questions:
· What do we love about being alive on our precious planet Earth?
· Was there some natural place, however modest, that held magic for us as a child?
· When we imagine being in this place, what do we feel and how do our bodies respond?
Such reflections may help us to re-connect with our love for the Earth, and to grieve for having been separated from that love.