Walking Out the Door
Stories of Loss
It took three strong men a little over three hours to disassemble the shape of a life — to carry remnants of that younger life out the front door and into a cavernous truck. While I was packing up, wrapping chipped porcelain cups in crumpled newspapers and folding treasured quilts, it was not my story of leaving that was in the foreground of my mind, but rather the story of the now one million people of Ukraine fleeing their homes, taking with them only what they could fit into a wheeled suitcase and an overladen backpack. And too, when we turned the key in the door for the last time and looked out at the bay, black rocks backlit by the setting sun, seagulls rising like white lanterns, and drove back to Freeport, I thought about the Ukrainians who have no home to go to, and whose home they may never see again.
There are trickles of grief and rivulets of grief. There are streams and rivers of grief. At one time or another we are all connected through our bodies to the flow of grief. Images of loss have flowed through my body this week, rising into the light and falling into darkness, opening me to broader stories of loss and conquest, infusing me with empathy and a sense of connection to the people who lived and are living these stories.
The field beside the Downeast house whose deed we will sign over to another family tomorrow, runs down to the ocean and is populated at one edge with a stand of old spruce, under which lies ten or so toppled gravestones. The story is told around here that members of the Passamaquoddy tribe are buried there. Only a tiny sliver of time before I lived on this point of land, it was, for hundreds of years, the summer campground of the Passamaquoddy, who, unlike us, didn’t “own” land, didn’t have deeds to the land, instead shared it with the tribe. When Europeans came to this country, we used the fact that Native Americans didn’t own land or “subdue the earth” as evidence that they were a faulty subspecies of humankind who weren’t intelligent enough to use the land in accordance with God’s plan, and so, the tribes were soon dispossessed of all their land, with no amount of violence spared in God’s name.
Here is a letter I found from a Rev. Samuel Stoddard, titled, An Answer to Some Cases of Conscience Respecting the Country, Boston, 1722. Maine was part of Massachusetts then.
“THERE was some part of the Land that was not purchased, neither was there need that it should ⎯ it was vacuum domicilium; 4 and so might be possessed by virtue of GOD’s grant to Mankind, Gen. I:28. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. The Indians made no use of it, but for Hunting. By GOD’s first Grant Men were to subdue the Earth. When Abraham came into the Land of Canaan, he made use of vacant Land as he pleased: so did Isaac and Jacob.
THO’ we gave but a small Price for what we bought, we gave them their demands. We came to their Market and gave them their price, and, indeed, it was worth but little. And had it continued in their hands, it would have been of little value. It is our dwelling on it and our Improvements that have made it to be of worth.
What terrible grief an old Passamaquoddy woman like me must have felt when the land she’d summered on for seventy-seven summers, whose blackberries she harvested in late summer, whose cod fish she dried, whose sunrises and sunsets were like friends to her — was no longer permitted to her. Unlike me, she had no money in her pocket to console her loss, no rights to any other land.
It has taken me a long time to waken to this terrible truth about Columbus’ “discovery” of America, about our “settlement” of the “new world,” but somehow this small rivulet of grief about selling the Addison property has brought me closer to the historical grief behind my ownership of those four acres. Would it be a wild leap to ask how different our policy of Manifest Destiny was from Putin’s belief that Ukraine belongs to the old Russia and it is his noble duty to restore Ukraine to its rightful place in the order of things, at any cost?
Grief points us towards what we love and fear losing and mobilizes us to save what can be saved. Our grief about what’s happening to the Ukrainians has mobilized the Western world to come to their defense and thousands of people from all over Europe are offering housing and food and jobs. Governments have shut off airspace and international banking. (It isn’t lost on me that these refugees from Ukraine who look like us, elicit more empathy than refugees from Afghanistan or Iraq or Angola).
But I fear cutting off Russia’s main export, 60% of which is oil or natural gas, will empower countries like the United States to ship our natural gas to Europe to replace Russian gas, to build more pipelines and drill for more oil and gas to supply Europe. I fear it will become patriotic again to drill baby drill, setting us even further back in our effort to convert to renewables and keep GHG emission to 1.5 Celsius by 2030.
Which of course brings me back to the river of grief about the ecosystems we have already lost or are on the brink of losing. The indefatigable Bill McKibben has come up with a brilliant idea which he hopes President Biden will consider. In his substack blog of last week, titled, “Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom”, McKibben wrote:
President Biden should immediately invoke the Defense Production Act to get American manufacturers to start producing electric heat pumps in quantity, so we can ship them to Europe where they can be installed in time to dramatically lessen Putin’s power. The most recent estimates from Europe I’ve seen is that the current electric grid could handle fifty million heat pumps.
How clumsy would it be to end this essay about war and the loss of home with something as hard and metallic and mechanical as a heat pump? Can we make heat pumps be a sign of our love for the saltmarshes and forests we are about to lose with any more degrees of global warming? Can the heat pump show our love for the families fleeing Putin in what is now being referred to as WW3?