The World We’re Losing

Ecological grief captures a newly defined set of emotions, all connected to our personal relationship to the natural world.

Larissa Diakiw’s work can be found in Brick, Joyland, the Walrus and other printed and...

Recent Articles

 

A stranger paces around an unfinished shack, speaking to himself as though he is alone. He says he saw dead dolphins floating belly up in the Bayou. He had never seen anything like that, he says, he was born and raised in Louisiana, he had lived his entire life in Louisiana and now what? There were dead turtles on the shore? Dead fish? Dead birds? Tears drip from his wet eyelashes. His face is pink with pain. His hands are clenched into fists at his side.

Standing in the room with me are eight other people, a friend from Texas who gave A and me a ride from the Sonoran Desert in an old hearse—we took turns lying in the back on a mattress—and others, friends, acquaintances, strangers I can’t place. A, my partner-in-crime since childhood, is standing next to me, but we are all silent, paralyzed by this rupture in the social shell of the day, alarmed by what the stranger is saying. It is my first time in New Orleans. Everyone refers to us as the Canadians. The city is still full of the wreckage of Katrina. Five years later, each broken-down bungalow and abandoned building is a reminder of someone’s home lost. Rebuilds, restoration, blight laws, auctions, squats, gentrification all working in different ways to erase these markers of history. From the corner of the room, I watch the stranger cry. I am frozen, embarrassed, childish. Some untouchable part of me is afraid of being undone in the same way, afraid of emotional contagion, afraid of cracking, and I am not the only one. I don’t know what to do with my own hands. Do I clutch them? Put them in my pockets? Hold them behind my back? What do I say? What do I do? I feel my heart beat faster and faster. The stranger stops suddenly. He kneels down, holds his stomach and gasps for breath.

It is October 2010, just after the BP oil spill. In April, the Deepwater rig was drilling a well 35,000 feet below sea level when high-pressure methane from the well expanded, lit, and exploded the underwater piping, the rig, the platform. After the well opened, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed by the blast. It wasn’t until September 19th that it was fully sealed.

Memory is slippery. With each recall it is altered. The context you remember from colours it. The narratives you’ve told to make sense of it colour it, like a drop of food dye in a cup of water. The identity you imagine for yourself colours it. This memory is persistent. I can feel the heat on my face. I can hear the stranger describing his utopian building plans, touring us around the construction site, pointing at a wooden frame that, with drywall, would become a bedroom, and the holes where windows would be. I watch myself watching as the stranger cries. In the memory I don’t have the language or tools to understand what is happening, but now I understand that this was grief.

Ecological grief can be triggered by the loss of a species, an animal, part of a forest, a cherished place, a river, a home, future ecologies, past ecologies. The grief can be acute, anticipatory, vicarious, cumulative. It is connected to a cluster of a newly defined set of emotions: eco-anxiety, eco-panic, eco-trauma, all resulting from our personal relationship to the natural world. I think of this memory as a demarcation, a transition between a time before I understood the idea of ecological grief to a time after.

***

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds” wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac in 1945. In 2020, I read in the newspaper that it’s the 10-year anniversary of the BP oil spill. Clean-up crews skimmed the water’s surface and sprayed Corexit dispersants, but oil still coats the floor of the salt marshes. I start to read obsessively about the tar balls left behind from the spill, the pancakes of oil in the sand, the brown tides of dead sargassum, the rig workers with PTSD. I read an account of a wife struggling with her husband’s suicide attempts after working the exploded rig. I look at photographs of pelicans coated in oil. I read about Mexican fishing communities that still haven’t been compensated by the oil company. And the memory continues appearing out of nowhere, vivid but out of focus like a hologram. The stranger weeping in his shack. Part of me imagines I can repair my mistake from those years ago, when I froze in the face of his breakdown, by researching. If I can see what he saw, be equipped with information, facts, then I can honour his suffering now in a way I failed to do then.

By now, almost everyone I know has experienced some form of ecological grief. And the more I read, the more I want to see the slow-moving coffee brown rivers where the man described the dead floating downstream. What does it look like today? There is a disturbing paradox between voyeuristic curiosity and bearing witness. I am not sure it can be resolved. In nature we imagine experiencing transcendence by being a piece of something beyond ourselves. The borders of the self turn permeable. They blur. Where do we begin? And where does wilderness end? How do we stop pretending to be bystanders to the natural? But all interactions with wilderness now are edged with equally unresolvable tragedy, seesawing between the poetic and sublime. I want to be in the Bayou again, so I can hear chirping insects in the undergrowth, smell the wet musky earth, so I might reckon with my naïve past self, so I might understand something about the relationship between human interiority and the natural world.

Stefan and I sleep in a cheap motel on a snowy Ohio highway next to an adult superstore. When I go in to ask room prices, the woman at the desk calls me sweetie, then complains that she had to work a double shift because the other girl called in sick. She was beaten up by that fucking idiot again, she says. A man in an oversized winter jacket is half-asleep on a lobby couch, watching golf. I am sorry, I say, is she ok? Oh yeah, it happens all the time, the woman says. Here’s your key, the hot tub closes at 11:30.

The phone in our room starts ringing for no reason at 4 am. We call the desk to ask why. She doesn’t know, it’s happening all over the motel. We leave the receiver off the hook so we can sleep, but the ringing feels somehow ominous.

In the morning over coffee and a bagel, while Stefan showers, I begin a handwritten list of endangered species, repeating the names of the dead like an incantation, an elegy, a spell. I start with British Columbia, where I spent half of my childhood, and then move through North America: American Badger, Basking Shark, Burrowing Owl, Chinook Salmon, Vesper Sparrow, Caribou.

In Montgomery, Alabama we stay in a room that smells like it is rotting from the inside out. The only other guest is a young student from California working for the Elizabeth Warren campaign.

Monarch Butterfly, Quillwort, Desert Nightsnake, Eulachon, Fragrant Popcornflower, Grey Whale.

The next night we camp in Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland habitat in the US, where the Atchafalaya river delta meets the Gulf of Mexico. Our tent is a thin membrane between us and the wilds. If we touch the tent wall, water will leak through. We lay with our eyes open listening to a chorus of unidentifiable nightlife singing through the velvet black. The swamp is like nowhere I have ever been. The night is alive and wet. In the morning we eat crawfish etouffee at a gas station, get lost in a forest of sycamore and bald cypress, ferns at our feet, as it rains and the delta fills. The bayous are neon green with algae. Gators swim below the still surface, dinosaurs in the deep. An egret flies by. Its wings are impossible clouds. The bird population of North America has declined 29 per cent since 1970, and I wonder when the silence will eat at this landscape of sound. I take videos of Stefan on my phone walking in the mist, camera slung over his shoulder, bleached hair, plaid jacket, just so I might hear the song of migratory waterfowl again. I’m crafting a time machine. 

*** 

In The Hidden Life of Trees, rogue German forester Peter Wohlleben writes that trees communicate through underground mycorrhizal networks. They can share water, nutrients, send distress signals, they have kin recognition and memory. Individual trees even seem to have unique personalities. Older trees, with more fungal connections, redistribute water or nutrients from their deep root systems to more shallow-rooted seedlings like a mother might. In an interview, researcher Allan Larocque suggests, “We don’t know how they communicate within their own bodies. They don’t have nervous systems, but they can still feel what’s going on, and experience something analogous to pain. When a tree is cut, it sends electrical signals like wounded human tissue.”

I like Larocque’s description because it feels surprising to think of a tree this way. Everything about a tree is so different from how we are taught to imagine an emotional being, and in trying to relate to this idea we have to wrestle with personal histories of knowledge. What is emotion? What is language? How do we feel what we feel? But there is power in attempting this radical act of undoing perception, to pick away at comfort in search of alternative ways of seeing.

Thinking of trees this way resonates with me. At six, I lived with my grandfather on the mountainside of a two-lane highway to nowhere. His house is near an old silver mining town in BC called Riondel. Fingers of logging road extend up the Rockies and Selkirks to wilderness, cathedrals of birch, hemlock, cedar, larch.

Loneliness is a word with too many divergent meanings. To be alone with others is a loneliness that turns into alienation, a loneliness that traps you inside yourself. To be alone in loss or abandonment is to be forsaken, betrayed, left behind, unwanted. There is a gentler, surface loneliness, the reminder of our perpetual aloneness in time. The kids at school called me Heidi and laughed at my pink rubber boots. I hid my sandwiches in my desk or slipped them into the garbage. The teachers were concerned that I never ate. I told them I hated the butter slathered on the bread, because I didn’t have words to describe what I felt, a war against the invading hollowness of being alone. My grandfather accepted my explanation, and although he was loving, he worked all day in his studio, napped at noon, then worked until we ate in silence watching documentaries on TV.

I would have been a very lonely child—sent away from my mom, from everything I knew, to the woods—if I didn’t have the forest to play in. After school I would walk down a moss-covered path, through the soft white pines up the mountain, to Corn-beef Creek. My grandfather and I had made a deal that if I refused to wear a bear bell, which I rejected because it made me feel like a cow, I had to make noise in order not to surprise any predators. There were cougars, lynx, black bears, supposedly grizzlies. So, I spoke or sang to the trees as I walked. I even remember them speaking back to me. Fallen cedars created bridges over the creek. Some days I sat or lay on a log in wait for deer, elk who might come to drink. I saw the trees very differently at six, seven, twelve, than I do now. I felt they knew me, and I knew them in a way that is difficult to describe. I imagined they had a collective and individual sentience. They were wiser than me, with a slow sedimenting concept of time that was comforting. In my mind it stretched past one human life into deep-time and held me in my human limits with care. This relationship eased my isolation. I wasn’t lonely when I was with them.

In the early ’90s, the pine beetle started to kill forests throughout BC and Alberta, devastating nearly 18 million hectares of forest. Although the insect is endemic, it moved into new territories. Warm winters and dry summers increased its population, and the trees couldn’t fight against the attack as normal. Beetles bore tunnels into the bark, laying eggs in the living cambium. The larvae then continued to dig deeper and deeper into the trunks, until the mountains were covered in orange patches of dead forest. At the same time, clearcutting mowed bald patches all over the province, usually hidden from highways to calm any outrage.

“The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love,” write psychologists Colin Parkes and Holly Prigerson in their book Bereavement: Study of Adult Grief in Life. “It is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend it is not so, is to put on emotional blinders, which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our lives and unprepared to help others to cope with the losses in theirs.” The first time I saw these swaths of burnt-pumpkin, dead forest, I felt a pain in my chest, though I will admit that I still hadn’t accepted or allowed myself to reveal this to others, consider it legitimate, or let myself feel it, so it became a stunted obscure pain. A pain I considered immature, juvenile, weak. This is the first time I can remember my own eco-grief. An elastic tight feeling inside my chest. I will always equate the orange colour of dead pine needles with the colour of death.

***

Stefan and I drive from Atchafalaya Basin to LaFayette. We drink beer and listen to a Cajun jam at a run-down but famous saloon. The Acadian singer sounds like his heart has been broken since he learned to walk. We try to two-step.

The next day we drive through Plaquemines Parish, the area hit hardest by the BP spill. A single ribbon of asphalt extends down the peninsula. The road is cradled by marshes, roadkill armadillos, pipelines, stilted houses, banana trees, distant rigs. Sandhill cranes and plovers fish in the ditch. Smoke curls up from who knows where. After the spill, the fishing industry was depleted, the economy devastated. Corexit dispersants used as a band-aid solution by BP to sink and scatter the oil killed marine life, producing mutations in their offspring. Some fish in Barataria Bay were later found with no eyes, or no opening for their mouths. 2 million gallons of Corexit was used in the aftermath. People living nearby who were sprayed complained of boils appearing on their skin, and seizures. Even the solution to the problem was a problem.

Dusky Gopher Frog, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

I was curious to see the end of the line, to see the coast. Was there oil residue still or had it been completely restored? What did it look like? What did the stranger from my memory see? But the road was flooded. We didn’t even get close. Twice that happened. The road disappeared into the ocean. We would have driven directly into pools of water if we hadn’t stopped to turn around, and it was the dry season.

Sockeye Salmon, Spotted Owl, Steelhead Trout, Vancouver Island Marmot, Horned Lark.

Solastalgia is a term coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005. He defines it as the pain experienced when the environment you live in is under immediate assault. It is the loss of belonging when the place you belong to transforms around you, is altered, or no longer exists as it used to. Albrecht interviewed farmers in New South Wales, a state in eastern Australia, during the severe drought of the early 2000s, and families in the Upper Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, living next to large-scale open cut mines. On the one hand, the drought had caused the earth to dry up and crack; on the other, the smelters had caused an eternal night, blocking the sun with smoke and pollution. The change in the landscape was extreme. Albrecht noticed his questions were often answered with a latent sense of doom. The interviewees always referred back to, or referenced, their desolation, helplessness, crisis-of-self resulting from the shocking changes to their homes. So, Albrecht invented a word to name this new emotion, to articulate it. “Solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home,” he writes.

Louisiana is the first state with climate change refugees. Entire communities have been displaced by erosion. Islands have disappeared. The state is losing a football field of land every hour. Everyone knows this about their home. It is a mantra. The land is disintegrating because of the intrusion of saltwater, rising sea levels, oil and gas infrastructure, lack of replenishing sediment due to levees and water control. At least 22,000 acres of land have been sucked into the swamp. Isle de Jean Charles, an island that is home to a community of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people, is being devoured by water. They have been forced to relocate. A state restoration project promising to rebuild the land and shift state water control infrastructure in the hopes of replenishing sediment hovers in a distant bureaucratic future. In lieu of this, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw have created a powerful Tool Kit for other communities undergoing environmental and developmental pressures. By 2045, scientists estimate that 300,000 homes in the US will be lost to rising ocean water.

Western-tiger Salamander, White-Headed Woodpecker, White-bark Pine, Limber Pine, Northern Leopard Frog, Oregon Spotted Frog, Phantom Orchid.

Ashlee Consolo, Director of the Labrador Institute, studies the impact of climate change on Inuit communities in Labrador, the fastest warming area in Canada. Her research dovetails Albrecht’s in its attempt to understand this acute existential distress. After interviewing hundreds of people over the course of five years about the emotional effect of the changing environment on their lives, she concludes that profound questions of identity come with climate change. “We are people of the sea ice,” an Inuit elder tells her, “And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?” This is the question of solastalgia: Who are we when our home disappears around us? Who are the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw without Isle de Jean Charles? Or Nehiyaw communities in Alberta without the Bison? Who am I without the pines I spent my childhood with? The impact of ecological grief is different than mourning the dead. With it we mourn the future that will be changed or may not exist, the past that we can never return to. We mourn ourselves.

Red Wolf, Pygmy Racoon, Staghorn Coral, Oahu Tree Snails, Franklin’s Bumblebee, California Condor, Ozark Big Eared Bat, Canada Lynx.

On the way back up the peninsula, we stop in an interpretive center for a historical fort. The museum has a few relics on display. Descriptions of the objects, printed from a home printer and taped to the wall with scotch tape, give little information. The history seems shallow and spotty, which in museums can mean a dangerous forgetting or a hint of an apologist scaffolding. I try to read between the lines, to tell if it is a disguised confederate mausoleum, but am not sure. The fort is a five-minute drive away, but the gate is locked with rusted-out chains. One motorcycle is parked under a skeletal magnolia. Otherwise, there is no sign of anyone. Spanish moss hangs from the branches. The biker stalks about agitatedly looking for something. I watch him from a concrete ruin, the river on one side, used condoms and beer cans littered underneath.

When will the fort be open? I ask the woman behind the counter. It’s always locked up except for re-enactments, she explains. I ask her if the land has changed a lot in the last ten years, if she remembers the BP spill. She tells us she lives in New Orleans. The owner isn’t around, he would know more about the spill, and the land. But she has a lot to say about Katrina, she says. Her neighbors heard them blow up the levy. Nothing else sounds like that. She speaks with her eyes in a language of intimate conspiratorial gesture, looking at us wisely after hinting at the unspoken, leading us through unfinished sentences with a raised eyebrow, a coquettish turn of the head, a laugh. Her name is Val. You can say what you want, some people don’t believe us, some do, but we have ears, she says, we understand what’s happening. She tumbles through her stories without questions. She wants to tell us. She wants us to listen. Her family was split up afterwards. One son went to New York and was having a rough go. One son was never the same after the Superdome. A lot of people were never the same. How could you be the same?

***

A group of Berkeley academics and doctors looking at the emotional bonds between humans and nature in the 1980s coined the term ecopsychology. Traditionally other therapies work on healing or understanding relationships between people, families, partners, the self, whereas ecopsychology tries to heal relationships between people and nature. It posits a synergy between humans and the earth, where the needs or rights of the planet are inextricably linked to the needs and rights of humans. Patients are treated outside in natural environments, and work towards sustainability. In more contemporary circles this might mean a patient is prescribed a walk in the park for 20 minutes a day. But earlier advocates of ecopsychology insist on reciprocity. It doesn’t mean just sitting on a bench under your favorite oak, it means somehow caring for that oak in return, maybe watering it, fertilizing it, defending it from removal, planting seedlings. This mutual care can help with healing. “In a culture of gratitude,” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi biologist, writes on gift economies: “Everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you.” Reciprocity builds bonds. A network of bonds is a community. We think about this in our intimate relationships with each other, but less so in our relationship with nature. This “moral covenant” of reciprocity, as Kimmerer describes it, could be crucial to managing our grief.

In his work on the role of mental health providers confronting emotional distress due to the climate crisis, Daniel Rosenbaum writes that it’s a problem if clinicians and therapists approach psychological distress as a dysfunctional response that the sufferer must fix. He reminds us that hurt is a normal reaction to loss. “Pain and upset in response to painful and upsetting situations may be both perfectly normative and a sign of healthy mature emotional functioning.” Pathologizing eco-grief implies that it is not healthy to feel a strong emotional response to the climate crisis, but how can we not feel something? Rosenbaum calls on fellow mental health providers to “reject notions of individual’s brokenness, and honor people’s grief or pain for the world as a healthy response to an abnormal situation.” So, then, it is for us to name and normalize what we feel in response to the abnormal situations we are in. Naming is a powerful step in grief work. To name is to acknowledge. To name is to accept that loss is real.

A common treatment therapists recommend for eco-grief is mindfulness, the meditative practice of being present to yourself in the moment without judgement. Emotions are inevitable. Resisting or burying or denying them can push them into dormancy. The idea is that a meditative approach can allow people to feel with resilience and unknot the ropework of repression without being flooded into despair. Once you feel, you can begin to integrate the loss, mourning is possible. But how are we supposed to mourn the environment? Some psychologists stress the uniqueness of grief: because each individual grieves differently, finding a personal way to grieve is important. Other strategies for grief work, including psychedelic assisted therapy, using psilocybin as an adjunct to psychotherapy, or daily microdosing to improve the physical or depressive impacts of grief, rearticulating mourning rituals, both public and private and lamentation, are all having a renaissance.

The DSM does not provide diagnostics for an ill or afflicted society. Because climate change disproportionately affects the vulnerable, social determinants of health need to be looked at and issues of poverty, racism reckoned with. But without some deep structural shifts these therapies can only go so far. North American society places the responsibility of mental health on the individual, but how can a person heal or be well while living in a social structure with a fundamentally exploitative infrastructure that doesn’t support basic wellbeing?

***

On one of our last nights in Louisiana we watch a marching band perform in New Orleans. Halfway home we stop for a drink in the French Quarter, order a round of beers and find a small table to crowd around. A girl with thin hair and heavy blush approaches us. She is beautiful the way teenagers can be beautiful, like deer wandering along the side of a highway at night. She talks to Stefan. He charms her with a sequin patch of a flower he sewed to his jean jacket and his glittering eyes. I lean against the wall, watching the ebb and flow of nightlife in the bar. Then the man she is with turns to me. He speaks with an alarming intensity, telling me how much he hates himself, over and over again, a vicious loop, the mind trapped in repetition. I think it was naïve for me to not have seen what was coming. I try to comfort him, as the roiling alcohol from the night simmers in my blood. I’m sorry that you feel so bad, I say. Maybe you should see someone you can talk to, I think that can help, a therapist? He tells me he has seen psychologists for years but nothing could help. He hates himself, he hates himself, did I want to know why? He can’t tell me, he says. I pause. I understand the power of confession, would it absolve him to confess? I don’t want to absolve anyone, especially not knowing what he’s about to say. Would it ease the pain to be shared? I figure he’s cheated on his wife.

It can’t be that bad, I say. He looks all the way through me. Because of what he had done in Iraq, he says. I feel everything leak out of me. I shot a child in the head. The teenager is monologuing beside me, her hands whirling in the air. I look more carefully at the stranger. He is wearing a crew neck sweater and pre-distressed jeans, hair tightly cropped, clean shaven. He looks like a soldier. No one can hear him besides me. My translator was my best friend, he says, and you know what they did to him and his wife after I left? I excuse myself and go outside.  

Here it was again, prismatic grief, wounds opening onto wounds. Experts have tried to reimagine grief as non-linear. They suggest that the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, may repeat or switch in order. There is no clear final outcome or end to grief, pain may return in new forms forever. One loss bears the burden and residue of another. A new wound digs into older wounds.

In an article for the Intercept, journalist Murtaza Hussein looked at the impact of industrialized militaries on climate change. Citing a report published by Brown University, “Costs of War,” Hussein writes that the US military is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide aside from entire nations, and that if it was a nation, it would be the 55th largest emitter. Beyond its shocking carbon footprint, the direct environmental impact goes much deeper. Afghanistan, after 19 years of ongoing conflict, has suffered extensive deforestation. In Iraq, burn pits and toxic munitions, such as uranium depleted bullets, have caused severe environmental damage, while also leading to high rates of cancer in cities like Fallujah. The country suffers from increasing dust storms, desertification, drought, salinization, all a result of climate change. War is an industry that contributes to environmental destruction, exacerbated by the bottomless violence of racism, colonialism, and anti-poor systems. For so many, home has become a battleground for resource extraction, and, as a result, collateral damage. Trying to understand eco-grief is a puzzle, so many griefs today are entangled, and unexpectedly pass through the same place.

 ***

At home, March brings the pandemic. I hide out at a friend’s farm watching twilight turn the fields of dead grass a lavender-grey. I can’t stop thinking about the soldier and the stranger from my memory. They begin to become one person.

White-headed Woodpecker, Vancouver Island Marmot, Western-tiger Salamander, Whitebark Pine.

After dinner, I share a beer with my farmer friends. We discuss what to do, who will get groceries, protocol, masks, what we need, hand sanitizer. Their five-year-old daughter runs around shirtless with pale sweatpants singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. This is the first but not the last time I hear this song. She circles the kitchen like a helicopter. “The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside” she sings. Her voice gets louder and higher pitched near the climax, “conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know, well now they know, let it go, let it go…” Noticing our grocery list, she stops, looks up at us with imploring brown eyes. Daddy, can I get straws tomorrow at the store? We exchange glances. Straws are no good, love, we don’t use them anymore. Why? She asks.

Orca, Ocelot, Jaguar, Woodland Caribou, Whooping Crane.

He finds the video on YouTube, the three of us hover over his phone watching as two doctors in a motorboat try to safely remove a plastic straw from a tortoise’s nose. It has lodged all the way up its nasal cavity, with the white tip protruding only a few centimeters. For some reason the creature, with its scaled prehistoric beak and sad poetic eyes, does not struggle. It submits. The doctors cut the straw in half, and the tortoise starts to bleed. They debate whether to leave the straw. If it is lodged in the brain, they could do more damage by removing it then leaving it in. I wonder if it’s ok to show this to a five-year-old, but it’s too late. When the straw is finally pulled out, I feel dizzy like I have lost blood. The animal cowers in a corner of the boat, the video cuts, and we are back in the kitchen, in the panicked spring of 2020. Grief again. Maybe grief is the syntax for living. She looks at us with questions but says nothing. What is there to say?

***

Thinking about utopia in A History of My Brief Body, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes that joy is a revolutionary act for Indigenous people who are constantly fighting against the settler state to stay alive. “Freedom is itself a poetics,” he writes “in that it seeks to re-schematize time, space, and feeling in the direction of a future driven by an ethic of care, a relational practice of joy-making that is all ours to enact.” He writes this to and for Indigenous people. Joy has a different meaning in a context where it is policed by white culture, where the legacy of residential schools, police brutality, incarceration, forced starvation, climate change, and dispossession of land leave people marked with trauma and poverty, but I can’t find another statement that more concisely speaks to what I am trying to understand about ecological grief.

Part of me cringes at optimism, at the word hope, which is fraught with history. Isn’t hope a balm without a strategy? Hope is not an act. Hope is not a tactic. Hope is a fantasy for people who are not afforded agency. Hope is the expectation that nothing can change in the here and now. It is a deferral to another place, another time, a future speculation, a heaven, a hereafter. I was afraid I might have to return to the idea of hope in this conclusion. It felt like a stain I didn’t know what to do with, but an essay about grief can’t be concluded without some refuge, some attempt at solace, some attempt at hope? I hear the word offered constantly as an antidote. In the news journalists conclude interviews with questions about hope, do you have hope? How does hope influence you? Is there any hope? I feel guilty for writing this paragraph. Railing against hope seems so cruel, because what else is there? But I think there is a lot for non-Indigenous people to learn from Belcourt’s statement. Care can be a radical act, a temporal act, a healing act. Care is a protective attentiveness to the future. Care is active, reciprocal. Joy, like care, is also an act of love, to celebrate, to feel delight, wonder, euphoria. If we only grieve what we love, let us also actively love what we love, while we still can.

***

This morning the sky is all rough-hewn clouds, like matted hair, feral, unkempt. Summer tightens its jaws. I watch the street from my porch. A neighbor in a mask asks for a tomato from the garden. A child passes with a balloon. My grandfather texts me a photo of Kootenay lake. The water is silver. Waves reflect light in rivulets of liquid mercury. He compares it to a photo from a few days before where the ferry is near invisible, cloaked in smoke from the wildfires. He says he doesn’t go outside anymore, except sometimes in the morning with a special mask to filter the particulates. I think of the charcoal forest, everything burnt an ink-black, ravaged. A pain in my chest rises to my throat like a hand. Is this what the stranger in New Orleans felt? I think of a stand of cedars near my grandfather’s vegetable garden, the perfume of the needles, the red peppermint puzzle pieces in the bark. I drink my coffee too fast. Claustrophobia is setting in. I need to run away to a place where I am unknown, I write in my notebook, so I can be more myself, not controlled by other people’s ideas of who I am. The clouds twist and contort until they turn to waves cresting in the sky. My mom texts to say the animals are acting weird. Birds are flying in circles or hiding. What is home? A photo on Instagram of an inferno peaking over the summit of a blue mountain. I cross out what I have written in my notebook, as if anything makes sense anymore. How can I be more myself in a place that doesn’t know me?

Atlantic Salmon, Atlantic Walrus, Blue Walleye, Caribou, Deepwater Cisco, Eelgrass Limpet, Great Auk, Kiyi, Macoun’s shining moss, Whitefish, Passenger Pigeon, Sea Mink, Striped Bass.

Next

‘Silence We Inherit and Carry With Us’: An Interview with Eva Stachniak
The author of The School of Mirrors on sexual violence, the history of midwifery, and opening up archival silences. 

Previous

‘It Did Away With the Entire Juvenile Justice System’: An Interview with Kathleen Hale
The author of Slenderman on deinstitutionalization, early onset schizophrenia, and “crimes of the century.”