Note: This is my contribution to the April edition of the Animist Blog Carnival; this month’s theme is “Ceremony and Community”.
Back in February when I was at PantheaCon, one of the workshops I presented was on ecopsychology and its relevance to the neopagan community. There’s a good deal of overlap between the spirituality of nature-based paganism and the secularism of ecopsychology. Both focus on strengthening relationships with the world around us, particularly the nonhuman portions thereof. They each utilize the outdoors in meaning-making activities, to include personal rites of passage and other ceremonies. And both have an emphasis on a systemic view of the world, to include one’s own community (human and otherwise).
At one point I mentioned the works of Joanna Macy. An environmental activist, Buddhist, and author, Macy is considered one of the foundational writers on ecopsychology. It’s not just because she helps readers to appreciate the environment, though that’s certainly an integral part of her work. What she does that’s so unique, though, is that she actively creates spaces for people to express grief over the loss of places, species, and other natural phenomena. Through frank and gentle discussions of grief and our relationships with it, and rituals such as The Council of All Beings, she’s offered up a series of tools for us to begin opening up to feelings we may have long suppressed.
In this society we’re allowed to grieve if a person close to us or whom we admire deeply passes away and is lost to us. It’s even understandable, as far as many are concerned, to feel a deep sense of loss and sadness at the death of a pet. And few would fault us for feeling depressed after losing a job or a home. But there’s less room on a societal level to feel grief for a place that’s been taken away, or a species that has gone extinct. We might be allowed a “well, damn, that sucks” if we read about it in the paper. And perhaps we might get away with a sigh of remorse when we drive by an open field that’s being torn up for yet another suburb full of little boxes made of ticky-tacky (or big McMansions made of the same). But those who openly grieve for the loss of a place or species or river are seen as “overly sensitive hippies” at best, and perhaps mentally off beyond that. Why grieve over progress? Why, that new strip mall going in will provide badly-needed minimum wage retail jobs! And don’t cry over that butterfly that’s gone extinct; see, there are dozens more in the garden. What’s just one more gone, really? And who cares if you can’t eat the fish out of that river? That’s what the supermarket is for.
When I wrote last year about the death of the place that raised me, the complete destruction of the tiny field where I played and explored as a child, I got so much support from people here and elsewhere. I heard numerous stories from other people who had had similar experiences, who shared that grief with me in their own words. I heard the fear and worry of those whose special wild places still stood, but were threatened with development and other encroachments. For once, I felt as though I had been heard, and that there was nothing wrong with me for feeling so much loss for a bunch of cedar trees and garter snakes.
I wish I’d had that sort of support twenty years ago, the first time a wild place I’d grown to love was leveled. That time, as I got off the bus that brought me home from junior high, I saw the entire field and forest behind my home torn to pieces and a big, ugly bulldozer sitting amid splintered tree trunks and raw, open earth. I was utterly and completely devastated. I fell to pieces inside, not just because my woods were gone, but the thing that had given me so much stability as a badly bullied child had disappeared. I was re-traumatized when the only response I got was “Well, the developer in charge of the new subdivision that’s going in had her favorite woods torn down when they put the high school track in, so she knows how you feel” and “Well, that’s progress; they’re supposed to be building some nice houses in there. Maybe we’ll look at them once they’re ready to sell”. Nobody understood why I couldn’t get over that shock, and why it was such a big deal that a half an acre of weeds and trees had been torn down.
It has taken me two decades to recover from that early loss. I fell down deep into a pool of depression for much of my teens, doing my best to put on a happy face while feeling sorrow I had no words for, and no one to offers words to even if I’d had them. when I discovered paganism, I at last found people to whom nature was an important thing, but so often in abstracts and images and symbols rather than direct contact. It wasn’t really until my path took me closer and closer to the physical world, as “spirit” and “material” blended and lost their boundaries, that I finally healed the connection I had with wild, open, outdoor spaces as a child. I couldn’t have done it without the support of countless people over the years who listened and spoke and conversed–and yes, that includes you readers here on Therioshamanism.
And that’s why I feel it’s important to talk about these losses, not just with facts and figures and calls to action to protect places halfway around the world, but the more visceral, personal connections and losses thereof. We need to know that it’s okay to feel these things, and we need to know that there are others who support us and care for us in those times of need. More importantly, that support and story-sharing can help us move through that grief and sorrow. Even if we don’t engage in formal rituals, just the telling of the tale to a caring audience can be ritual enough in and of itself. Sometimes speaking or writing the words is enough to help us move through the pain, and transform ourselves in the process. Sometimes all we need to find safety in community with others is a quiet, listening presence, a safe space held by strong, gentle hands.
Thank you for sharing this. Sometimes I do not know how to handle that 200 species are extinct each day. Do I have a funeral every day? For humans who feel their direct tie to the land, it physically hurts to feel it being destroyed, bit by bit, all over the planet. I like how Macy write that people who discussed fear of a nuclear war with therapists were told they were projecting and not dealing with their own issues. Umm. nuclear war is all our issue! My therapists, even the two good ones,do not get why I cry so much about this, about how my lifestyle is murdering a planet. One who was a big apartheid activist from South Africa and lived in an eco-village said “No one is being hurt right now” and I pointed to the lights. He didn’t get it. A Buddhist one was surprised I cared about non-sentient beings. Animals he understood and if he was a real Buddhists, ghosts and demons too,but that seems to have been dropped in the Amerikkkicanization of Buddha. As a child I decided I would love plants most of all. Humans care about humans (sometimes) and animals (sometimes) and plants get no love, so I began researching their intelligence out of my love for the underdog and abandoned.
We do not even have a culture that allows ANY grief though. The 1 year in black with casseroles being dropped off – grief is exhausting and comes in waves – is replaced with the DSM5, where grief for more than 6 months is a mental illness.
I oddly do not feel anything when humans die, even old boyfriends. Roadkill I came to terms with recently that it feeds the crows and vultures. I made peace with all the death for me to eat.
But dead zones in the ocean? Shores of trash? Radiation? GMOs? I do not know how to always hold it in.
Some ecopsychology thing I read said that a group of scientists had a ceremony where Columbus landed on Hispaniola on the date he landed and grieved. They said they were so sorry. That point was a huge change that would lead to the destruction of a wilderness well managed by the native people. I thought that was amazing.
This culture removes itself from death so much, I often feel like I have to be the lone human acknowledging the losses, the horrific losses. Malidome Some speaks of how in his Dagara Tribe they know grief alone will kill a human and have very elaborate three day grief rituals everyone attended from miles around. With so much death, they happen often. People are cleaned, they do not have the weight on them.
How much grief do we have and not even know about? That is what makes me saddest of all.
We as a culture are very good at ignoring ugly things. We’re not good at approaching them, either solemnly or with cleansing (if dark) humor. Most people still get nervous at those who do dare to touch the scary things with sticks, and so there’s not that support system in place. Plus we’re so damned individualistic, focused on the me and the my and maybe the tiny nucleus, that we don’t always get a chance to develop community. So grief is largely left to the individual to deal with.