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The Peace of Wild Things Arrives
After Grief, May 1, 2022
I wake in an impatient flurry most every morning this week. I am eager for the arrival of that one morning when, here, deep in the woods where spring’s arrival lags behind the world of cars and streets — the daffodils and white violets and yellow coltsfoot finally bloom and the tiny red buds on the trees turn to fists. But until yesterday it is gray, cold, rainy and the wind blows so hard the firs and the white pine sway violently back and forth like they’d been overtaken by furies, the ancient goddesses of vengeance. The daffodil blossoms stay wrapped in their green sheets, happy to be unborn. Only a pair of yellow-rumped warblers newly arrived at the feeders offer a promise of transformation.
My impatience, I confess, reader, doesn’t confine itself to my staring defiantly at the daffodils. All week I pester my friends at the late end of 70 with the question from last week’s blog: what does it mean to you to be at the end of your life at the same time as life on the planet is faced with extinction? How does this affect your evaluation of how you have lived your life, of what responsibility you have now towards life? How does it affect the choices you are making now about how to live your life? What kind of responsibility do you think we old people have to life that comes after us?
Count yourself, reader, as one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to endure my hammering at you like a hungry hairy woodpecker determined to release a few juicy bugs from a not yet ready to open tree cavity.
The people I so ardently pester with these questions are gracious enough not to stab me with a rusty knife and leave me bleeding on the sidewalk. Instead, they politely tell me in one way or another that those questions are too big, that they are trying instead to figure out how to stay connected to life’s joys despite the waning of mobility or the pain of bad knees, or the loss of eyesight. Another friend says she’s always seen mankind as greedy and selfish and isn’t at all surprised that we’d ended up where we are now and doesn’t see it as that much different from other crisis faced by people at the end of wars and famines.
Though I want all week to clobber everyone around me with my feelings of urgency and drag them all over to my world, I am aware I have to stop imposing my ambition on them. Isn’t that what got us into trouble in the first place? Instead, I once again scour the internet for articles on aging and the climate crisis. There are a lot of articles about the depression and anxiety that young people are experiencing as a result of the crisis. But, again, I find almost nothing on the mental health of old people: all I come up with are articles about the effects of climate change on the physical health of old people (which isn’t good: particularly if you are poor or if you live in places that get very hot or have high levels of smoke or pollution).
The one academic paper I read, sourced for me by a Third Act colleague, a gerontologist trained in psychiatry and neurology and fond of dressing up as a tree to tell the story of interconnection, is from 2011. Titled, Aging, Climate Change and Legacy Thinking, the authors suggest more research on the topic of how to engage elders in climate change activism and make a case for appealing to their self-interest around the legacy they are leaving behind. But that was 12 years ago. I don’t think that research ever happened.
Late in the week, a large white envelope arrives in the mail. Inside is a card with a picture of a buffalo grazing under a rippled yellow-blue sky. And inside the card: a letter, a letter of consolation which is also a gift of the writer, an offering of her own grief and love for the dying, burning, suffering life on the planet. She and I have circled each other’s lives for many years, though we’ve never had the opportunity to become friends. She has been reading this blog for a while now and it was the Earth Day blog of last week which provoked her to send this beautiful letter, this salve for my grief and bewilderment about how to go forward, how to reconstruct a life lived in harmony with the needs of life on the planet. Here’s an excerpt from her letter:
“Sometimes as I am walking, I say to this beautiful, beautiful planet, I say “I love you. I’m sorry.” I say it over and over and over again. Because I am very sorry. And I fret for my children and grandchildren and for your children and grandchildren. Because, Kathleen, we fucked up. Big time….I know your despair lies just under the surface. You probably don’t have a wood drake nest anywhere near you, either, but I hope that you have a place where you can walk and tell this precious planet that you love her. And that you’re sorry.”
And here is the wood drake nestled inside the poem she included in her letter:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.
There are many grief filled stories out this week: the research, published in Science that warns that failing to reduce fossil fuel emissions will set Earth’s oceans on track for a mass extinction within the next 300 years; the record breaking heat waves in India and Pakistan where the temperatures were forecast to break 120 degrees and decimate the wheat crop. But the story that has stayed with me all week is the well-researched and deeply moving story put out by the New York Times titled, How American's love of beef is helping destroy the Amazon.
“In the Amazon, first the forest is raised, then the cattle are moved in. If the Amazon is to die it will be beef that kills it and America will be an accomplice.”
The bovine was seen as a crucial ally in taming — and then claiming — the wildest of terrain. A relatively small number of the animals can range across large expanses of land. Their grazing keeps the jungle from regenerating. And their meat provides both sustenance and income.
In 2021 Brazil dominated the global export market for beef which reached its highest peak ever in that year, shipping over 2 million tons of beef.
And, reader, guess which country is the leading buyer of Brazilian beef?
The USA bought more than 320 million pounds of Brazilian beef last year — and is on pace to purchase nearly twice as much this year. The biggest supplier is the beef behemoth JBS, whose fleet of brands stock some of America’s major retail chains and businesses: Kroger, Goya Foods, Albertsons (the parent company of Safeway, Jewel-Osco and Vons).
Maybe it was the dedicated, caring, expert research the journalists did on this story, maybe it was the wood drake and the day-blind stars, or the kind letter of consolation and solidarity from my six-degrees-of-separation reader. Maybe it was because I said sorry to the sugar maple trees that must move North or to the Little River distorted in her journey by the culvert on our road, or maybe it was the sun that finally came out, the wind that died, the daffodil that bloomed.
Whatever it was, I can tell you that today I feel less despair, less grief. Today I am grateful to have been given a chance to do right by the biosphere I live in. If all this hadn’t come to a dangerous tipping point so quickly I might have died without knowing all the harm my lifestyle led to…but mostly I wouldn’t have had a chance to make it right, to step into a new beginning, learn new ways to live everyday, new ways that will lead, I believe, to more kindness, more laughter, more consciousness of my connections to the grace of the world, the day-blind stars.
I am dreaming a no mow lawn filled with butterflies, a little pond dug into the backyard populated with frogs, firepit evenings with story-telling and laughter (and more stars), a garden bed with sweet cherry tomatoes and a gray green sage plant, local food from local farmers at the FreeportCAN Freeport Farmers Market all summer, a local chicken in the pot…and a chance to tell everyone about the wicked meat from Krogers.
And today, 5 cubic yards of fresh, black dirt delivered in a burly black dump truck with the words Freedom Farm printed in white on the driver’s door. I am free to go forward with curiosity and wonder about how this new story of a conscious regenerative life, nurtured by connection and mindfulness, will sprout, grow and flourish.