A smattering of Midwestern and Northeastern American cities have posted their warmest (or one of their warmest) falls on record. But I don’t need news releases to tell me that these past few months were unseasonable.

I kept my window open at night as late as mid-October; on the 26th of that month the temperature in my corner of Connecticut reached well north of 70 degrees Fahrenheit; just after New Year’s, a forsythia bush in my parent’s backyard began to bloom. But what concerned me most was the low diurnal temperature variation—all through the fall and early winter the difference between night and day never seemed to exceed 15 degrees, which would align with one of the most well-established symptoms of a warming atmosphere.1

I could go on in this vein. Taken together, these anecdotes are nothing more than one person’s subjective experience. Admittedly, I have not performed a statistical analysis of local meteorological data. But neither am I writing a research paper. I don’t have to objectify the weather conditions of something as familiar as my lifelong home, particularly when my observations fit with what millions of other close watchers of the weather have noticed for the past half century—that something is amiss.

Throughout the unusual warmth last year, I sensed that global temperatures could be surging. It’s already well established that abrupt climate change has occurred in Earth’s past—the global temperature increased by 10 degrees Celsius in 10 years when the Younger Dryas period ended.2 Contrary to celebratory speeches from politicians, we also know that the global mean temperature is not going to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.3 My intuitive awareness of the climate is why I knew, while crossing my college campus in Upstate New York one humid fall morning in 2014, that dependably cold winters at that latitude were a thing of the past. I liked the cold, and I partly attended a college in northern New York to experience severe winters. So the realization that frigidness could no longer be assured came as a major paradigm shift. (Not long after this intuitive disclosure, researchers began confirming that the polar jet stream was becoming more erratic due to the rapidly warming Arctic.4)

A surge in climate change relates not just to temperature, but also to the oceans. By the middle of the previous decade the IPCC projected 2 feet of global SLR (sea level rise) by the end of the century, the UN predicted 3 feet for the same time period (a little less than 1 meter), while NOAA predicted an upper limit of 6.5 feet.5 Projections like these keep inching upwards as researchers better understand positive feedback loops and tipping points,6 but some climatologists still think most SLR predictions are far too low. Foremost among the contrarians is James Hansen, who surmises sea levels in 2100 will be several meters higher than what agencies are saying.7 Such large figures are not mainstream, but a number of climate scientists share similarly dire outlooks, albeit anonymously.8 We’ve even learned recently that a collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could be imminent and could lead to the swift rise in sea level that Hansen foresees.9 An acquaintance has shared with me how at an international climate change conference she asked a panel of experts if “it would be possible one day to hear a public service announcement to evacuate all coastlines because a huge Antarctic ice sheet had melted quickly.” Their response: “Yes, but….” Any response to that question other than resounding ‘no’ is concerning.

Storm-tossed shoreline (Nick Fewings, Unsplash)

The point is that there’s ample evidence that abrupt climate change will happen in most of our lifetimes. It’s not surprising then that many people—politicians as well as ordinary citizens—are in denial of surging temperatures or seas, since recognizing such a possibility opens us up to grief, and grief is unpleasant. This past October 7th, I spent an afternoon struggling with grief. The daytime and projected nighttime high temperatures were both well above the historical norm, and I felt sadness for the many specialist plant and animal species that cannot adapt to the new weather regime and will therefore go extinct. As I thought of what this wave of extinction will mean locally in southern New England—no more sugar maples, hemlocks, blazing fall foliage, or a number of endemic amphibians—I also realized I was sad for the loss of the familiar, my familiar. Familiarity is how we resonate with the landscapes we call home and end up caring about the other-than-human. And all I could do was lie in bed, rest my hands on my stomach, pay attention to the rhythm of my breathing, and allow my grief to be present; this exercise literally weighed me down and kept me in bed. 

Our difficult emotions – grief, anger, disappointment, pain – are as integral to our sense of self as our joy and hope. Holding the uncomfortable allows us to alchemize leaden feelings of dread into something that does not weigh down our energy. Alchemy has never been about turning literal lead into literal gold. It’s about internal transformation. In “The Conceit of Linearity,” the idea that we can get exhilaration out of embracing nonlinearity was never adequately connected to the undeniable truth that such upheaval is already causing grief. Here I would like to establish that making space for our heavier emotions can allow us to ride the tumult of surging planetary systems while also recognizing the devastation these discontinuities are inflicting.

I am not a master at holding the uncomfortable (if you are then you are also an expert in prayer), and I did not get out of bed on October 7th with renewed energy and enthusiasm. I happened upon that presencing exercise by chance, and I have only employed it a few times since. But other difficulties in my personal life have forced me to sit with unwelcome emotions, at least unconsciously, for many years. Which might explain why I am not paralyzed with grief whenever I face the long term realities of anthropogenic global warming. Most opinion and news pieces that take seriously Hansen’s prognostications are written in listless tones that evince the authors’ private thoughts of “We’re screwed.” But such a pessimistic mindset means that one has a narrow view of what cultural transformation looks like. In the words of Bayo Akomolafe, “an immaculate straight line was never ‘there’ to begin with…The world stretches far and wide beyond our blind spots, our analyses, and our convictions about what justice looks like.”10 The aforementioned authors probably think that change is a straight line and will come in the form of the orderly, responsive legislation envisioned by Al Gore or the grand societal awakening extolled in Melissa Etheridge’s accompanying anthem “I Need to Wake Up.” In my experience of growing comfortable with grief, though, I’ve learned that “waking up” is inherently chaotic, prolonged, and potentially violent.

The tumult and isolation of cocoons is necessary for metamorphosis. Indeed, lying in bed with my hands on my stomach, just being mindful of my breathing, made it feel like my grief and anxiety formed a claustrophobic seal. But because of this practice, which I had been unknowingly doing for years, I am able to look back at the past 3 to 4 decades of scientific revelations about atmospheric warming and the resulting lack of political action not as a waste, but as a necessary part of a prolonged process.

Surging sea levels and temperatures are proxies for the other transformation Spirit is asking us to undergo in the 3rd millennium. That transformation involves grief, and abrupt climate change is only one window into our despair. The real change we must manifest is uninhibited relation to our full selves, the Earth, and – by extension – the universe. Such a task is beyond any political party. All 7.9 billion of us alive today are being asked to do internal work and know our soul grounds, which necessarily include grief, anger, pain, and disappointment. When enough of us hold the uncomfortable, then we will realize that the path to the more beautiful world our hearts desire is much more convoluted and surprising than we thought. Then we will create that more beautiful world.


Undamming Plymouth

I wrote the following essay two years ago for my first AmeriCorps assignment. Since it’s concerned with the human relationship to place and still captures how I think, I want to include the piece here.

This essay is also an interesting time capsule of sorts. I composed it in February 2020, when Covid-19 was in the news but when we still thought we might just be dealing with another reprisal of H1N1. There’s some significance in the fact that this is the last piece I wrote before a rolling global emergency that’s still ongoing took hold.

Earlier this month, Eric Hutchens, a habitat restoration specialist with the NOAA Restoration Center, gave a talk at the Wildlands Trust about his work with the center’s Fish Passage Project. Initiated in the 1990s, the Fish Passage Project has aided in the modification and complete removal of several dozen dam sites along rivers in the Gulf of Maine watershed. The goal of the project is to improve fish migration to spawning grounds, downstream sediment/nutrient transfer, flooding patterns, and a host of other riverine ecological factors.

NOAA’s first major success in this regional effort took place here in Plymouth on the 1.5-mile Town Brook, which drains the freshwater Billington Sea into Cape Cod Bay. Between 1999 and 2002, NOAA and town officials navigated, as Hutchens put it, a “permitting roller coaster” in order to remove Town Brook’s Billington Street Dam. The dismantling of Billington Street Dam was the first coastal dam removal in Massachusetts, which set the stage for the partial removal/modification of the Water Street Dam and Plimoth Grist Mill. These modifications were followed by the complete removal of the Off-Billington Street Dam, Plymco Dam, and, finally, in 2019, the Holmes Playground Dam. As recently as the 2010s, these 6 dams impeded migrating diadromous fish to the point that staff and volunteers with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries resorted to scooping up stuck fish and trucking them to Billington Sea. Now for the first time in several centuries, hundreds of thousands of alewife, blueback herring, American eel, and rainbow smelt are traversing Town Brook with minimal obstruction.

Site of the former Billington Street Dam. The plaque reads “Site of the First Coastal Dam Removal in Massachusetts, September 2002.”

At one point in his presentation, Hutchens showed the audience a photograph of the top of Holmes Playground Dam, which was capped with blacktop and a sad looking basketball court. When I saw that image, I was reminded of the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi:” They paved paradise / Put up a parking lot. (Fun fact: during the dismantling process, work crews really did excavate the frame of a car from the dam’s foundation.) Last weekend, I visited the former site of Holmes Dam. Compared to the sad blacktop of yesteryear, the free-flowing Town Brook with its restored streamside habitats may as well have been paradise.

Site of the former Holmes Playground Dam.

Recent developments on Town Brook are part of a much larger cultural trend in America in which states, municipalities, the federal government, and private citizens are rethinking the fundamental wisdom of damming waterways. According to the advocacy group American Rivers, which maintains a database of dam removals going back more than a century, 1,476 dams have been dismantled in the United States in the past 30 years alone (compared to the dismantling of 246 dams nationwide between 1912 and 1989). Many of these deconstructions come down to economics. Reservoirs behind dams may silt up to the point that they aren’t producing any hydropower or drinking water. Particularly old dams (especially in the eastern US) may have outlived the purposes they were originally built for, such as powering mills. And, as Anna Lieb at Nova Science illustrates, at least one third of dams constructed in the US through the 20th century did not have any defined purpose at all. Such dams are categorized in the national inventory as providing ambiguous “recreational” services instead, and are now too expensive to maintain. (Why did these dams go up in the first place? My theory: They are emergent features of a cultural fixation on economic growth and productivity.)

Yet, as I experienced myself when I walked along Town Brook, there is something undeniably heartening when a river is allowed to return to its wilder state. To see herring swimming upstream where once there were ugly concrete blockades and stagnant pools of water, we are invited to entertain a different narrative of our relationship with nature. This new story is one in which the exigencies of beauty, joy, and ecological holism have replaced the exhausting mentality of control. I believe the economic justifications for the national spate of dam removals in the past 20-30 years are animated by an awakening, fundamentally human desire to see such beauty, joy, and human-nature interconnection return to the landscapes we inhabit. 

Here’s another fun fact: the first dam ever erected in the present-day US was built in 1640 by Puritan settlers in nearby Scituate. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that America’s Hometown should be at the vanguard of river restoration. In the past 15 years, Plymouth has also seen the dismantlement of the Robins Dike Dam on Red Brook; the Beaver Dam Brook Dam; Wellingsly Dam #3 on Wellingsly Brook; and Sawmill Pond Dam on the Eel River. Unlike the Pilgrim/Puritan story of settlement for which the Plymouth area is renowned, you don’t have to limit your exposure to the dam dismantling movement by reading books or watching reenactments. The living landscape of Plymouth is being revived right before our eyes. And all you need do to witness this spectacle is take a walk along Town Brook or any other of our recently liberated waterways. 

Upper reaches of Town Brook, undammed.

Moving on from “After the Lecture at Yale”

After the Lecture at Yale

Whether or not there are bobcats
in Southbury is up for debate.
But I will concede as we turn onto Old Farm Road
that here there are MAGA partisans
and that demagogues can woo quiet neighbors
even in the State of Steady Habits.

Because lawn signs don’t lie.
Neither do lengths of charming stone walls
laid in the time of charters and King George.
According to the Nobel laureate, first there was rock,
then protoplasm, then an ingenious race of hominids
milling wheat and clicking away on abaci
in a time-lapse compendium
paused just past ENIAC and ballpoint pens.
He said that slime-slicked granite deep in the Precambrian
was the first cooperative community.

But that was last night in Sterling Library,
and now I’m sketching plans at the table
between rulers and a stack of The New Yorker
as you brew chai tea, prime the nail gun,
unfurl stenciled blueprints of our barn-cum-studio
in the making. With renovations, we can sell our land
for a premium our Brooklyn friends tell us.

But it’s charming here, and the afternoon
is a pleasant exasperation of tape measures
and twine as October wind works its way
through chinks and cools our sweat.
We can paint our canvasses here 
and impress our Chicago friends
with our view of the Taconic Mountains.
Yet still my eyes linger on the “Make America Great Again” signs
down the road.

“It’s class solipsism,” our sociologist friend
tells me, and reminds me
that not everyone reads The New Yorker
or has a chance to go to graduate school.
And true, I haven’t gotten around to reading
J.D. Vance, so I still wonder.

We call it a day as the sun lowers over the valley,
and we’re strolling along the stone wall.
I’m thinking about the slime-covered rocks,
of the wriggling amoebas, the blooming lichen,
the goatherds speaking Sumerian on the banks
of the Tigris. And soon enough there are charters 
directing our ancestors to form towns and harvest
sassafras for shipment back to England.
There’s the brief blip of ENIAC, but not before Nagasaki,
and followed by Darfur and Srebrenica
along with Timothy McVeigh and the 16th Street Baptist Church.   	
And it all started with the protoplasm.

We don’t think of crossing those granite rocks,
approaching our neighbors, and getting a sense
of why exactly they’re casting their lot with
“the greatest existential threat to liberal democracy”
(according to our professor friend in Seattle).
You’re making quinoa paella for dinner,
and besides, I want to finish sketching.

I wrote this poem on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election. I think it’s still relevant to today’s news landscape. It also still captures how I feel about collective responsibility and the consequences of community atomization.

The catalog of explosive historical events in the sixth stanza might be clichéd and a bit overwrought, but that’s why I’m publishing this poem; I’m trying to exorcise my former interest in collapse. In my late teens and early twenties I was a bit of a “kollapsnik” and was fascinated by societal calamity, as epitomized in Thomas Cole’s painting Destruction in his Course of Empire series.

Thomas Cole, Destruction (1836)

What we focus on grows, so it’s no surprise that my fixation on cataclysm led to a period of suicidal depression. I’ve matured a lot since then. But the presence of poems like “After the Lecture at Yale” in my electronic archive kept that fascination smoldering; when drafts of poems like this came to mind, I’d start thinking of whether I should make revisions and spend money to submit them to literary magazines. By posting this poem and others like it, though, the tantalization of publication is eliminated since most literary magazines won’t print works that were previously published on a personal website. Then I can more fully move on to my new commitment to renewal and the Great Turning.

This is the first of several old self-authored poems I will unload here in order to create more mental space for myself (this website is as much for me as it is for you). And since pieces of writing are transmuted when they are read by an audience, perhaps these pieces will stop being mere artifacts of a gloomy stage in my life and become progressive stepping stones towards my later realization that humanity is poised on the precipice of a new era of abundance and unity.

The Conceit of Linearity

In her essay “The Reveal,” Charlotte du Cann characterizes civilizations as “fixed systems within vast non-linear systems.”1 I’d say this description is accurate. At some point the mounds of Cahokia and citadels of Mohenjo-daro crossed the line from being integral, maintained facets of living communities to being mere ruins. What happened? We in fact know that Cahokia was abandoned due to deforestation-induced flooding, political infighting, and finally a massive earthquake,2 while the (probable) salinization of crop fields around Mohenjo-daro was accompanied by shifts in the course of the Indus River plus a series of earthquakes.3 In effect, the vast nonlinear systems of climate and geology confounded the linear assumptions of continued agricultural sustenance that engender cultures to become sedentary. So the ancients of the Mississippi and Indus valleys pulled up stakes and left. 

We’ve all gotten a taste lately of what it’s like when sedentary culture’s expectation of linearity runs up against the biophysical vicissitudes of Earth. COVID-19 has scrambled global supply chains, and what began as a run on hygiene products has rippled out to shortages of computer chips, manufacturing parts, food items, and other consumer goods as factories worldwide contend with rolling waves of covid-related closures.4 The grounding of the Ever Given container ship this spring in the Suez Canal seemed to be a metaphor for the breakdown of commercial normalcy while literally deepening the supply chain morass further.5 But beyond the material realm, COVID-19 has also undermined the ecosystem of human services we in the industrial world depend on. I can’t speak for other countries, but in the US a deficit of healthcare workers6 and childcare workers7 has grown to acute levels since the pandemic began. Even celebratory fixtures of modern life like the Olympic Games have not been spared. The “Tokyo 2020” graphics at this summer’s Olympiad served as an omnipresent reminder to TV viewers that one of our most vaunted gathering of nations was also waylaid by invisible lifeforms likely unleashed by disregard for wild animals and the nonhuman realm.8

Ever Given grounded in the Suez Canal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I went deaf in my left ear at the age of 18. At the time I was already experiencing progressive hearing loss in my right ear, and I was making plans for my life that depended on me not experiencing anything as drastic as sudden hearing loss. I’ve also had to contend with other unexpected health complications. So I’m intimately familiar with the ways in which expectations of linearity become a conceit. This sustained exposure to disruption is why I don’t think the covid-related convulsions afflicting the world are temporary hiccups. Rather, they feel like dress rehearsals for the more significant discontinuities we will have to adjust to as the exponential processes of global warming ramp up. So it could be well advised to get used to disruption rather than long for a golden pre-covid era when the flows of labor, commerce, and our familiar modes of living were seemingly unimpeded.

This cognitive shift towards an expectation of further upheaval does not have to be prep for some sort of atavistic low-tech future. In conversation I’ve been referring to my experience of these years of cultural and personal transition as a ride, as in “I’m riding the tumult.” Only lately have I noticed how this choice of verb aligns my subjective experience with how a surfer regards the ocean. Surfers paddle towards one of the most recognizably nonlinear manifestations of nature—an ocean wave—with relatively little assurance that they will emerge unscathed. Yet if they do catch a swell and ride it in full, they can get exhilaration out of the process and find that, once the water has calmed, they are better for the experience. 

It all comes down to perception, which is an exercise of free will. Choosing to “ride” tumult does not deny instances of devastation or mass casualty (we are in the middle of a pandemic after all). But while the media goes into histrionics about the disintegration of normal and many people further broadcast this narrative of fear by demonizing something as trivial as a face mask, the rest of us can choose to transmute something frightening into a learning experience. When a critical mass of people turns the unknown into an opportunity for growth, then we are laying the groundwork for that longed-for societal metamorphosis process. 

The disintegration of predictability—our conceit of linearity—is not the end of the world. It’s the end of the world as we know it, where our institutions are okay with proceeding with business as usual while atmospheric carbon dioxide rises to its highest level in 3 million years9 and we careen further into the planet’s sixth mass extinction. Unlike the people of Cahokia or Mohenjo-daro, we know where environmental despoliation and political dysfunction is taking us. So treating our paradigm’s loss of predictability as a learning opportunity is a matter of societal survival. If we do in fact turn the current global tremors to our advatage, we may look back on these years as the invitation to the more beautiful world we ended up creating.

“Disappointment” in the Garden

In February I left my AmeriCorps assignment at the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) in Providence, Rhode Island. Healthwise, too much was deflecting my attention from professional pursuits. So I am now officially unemployed and living again with my family in Connecticut. 

Considering how much expectation I exuded about my new work in the essay “In Search of Querencia,” my return to Connecticut could be seen as disappointing. Indeed, I was disappointed whenever I was drawn away from the SCLT office for medical reasons, or when I noticed how my body was protesting in ways it never had against agricultural labor. By the close of 2020, I could see my break with Providence coming, and that was frustrating.

But when the break did come and I had time to reflect, I wasn’t let down, full stop. I began to see the tyranny of my expectations and how they were keeping me from imagining any sort of narrative beyond that of linear ascent. It turns out a likelier scenario to ascent is failure. Though not as glamorous as instant success, falling short of one’s goals can inform and enrich the larger journey.

In her book Active Hope, Joanna Macy addresses the phenomenon of failure:

Why might failure and frustration be necessary parts of the journey? Because if we stick only with what we know how to do, what we’re comfortable with and confident about, we limit ourselves to the old, familiar ways rather than developing new capacities…The good news about frustration and failure is they show that we have dared to step outside our comfort zones and to rise to a challenge that stretches us. What we’re doing here is reframing frustration and failure in a way that encourages us to persist rather than to give up.”[1]

According to conventional wisdom, I shouldn’t have signed up for an AmeriCorps position titled “sustainable agriculture coordinator”—my health history should have induced me to stay on the sidelines. But I did try my hand at novel, challenging work for several months deep within a pandemic. I must thank the staff at SCLT for extending that opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and experiment with new capacities. Furthermore, I achieved the goals I set forth in “In Search of Querencia:” I did meet key figures who pointed me further, just in a roundabout way I was too vain to consider a year ago.

Now I have time to experiment with the meditation methods, shamanic techniques, and somatic modalities I have absorbed over the past several years. But these practices don’t always yield noticeable progress. When they do, the forward momentum often feels too slow. So the path I am on can be interminable when what I really want is a quantum leap to a new state. Yet Joanna Macy goes on to address interminability, which, like failure, may yield delayed but even greater gratification:

Consider what happens to a bottle of water when it is left in the freezer. As it cools down, there is a steady, continuous change in its temperature. The water won’t change much in appearance until it begins to get near the critical threshold of its freezing point. Then, as it passes this, an extraordinary process happens. Tiny crystals form, and when they do, other crystals form around those crystals, until there is a mass movement of crystallization in the water that rapidly changes state from liquid to solid. This is discontinuous change. 

With discontinuous change, a threshold is crossed where rather than just more of the same happening, something different occurs. There’s a jump to a new level, an opening to a new set of possibilities. We might think it impossible that a small amount of water could crack something as hard as glass, but as the ice expands, it breaks the bottle.[2]

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, my attention has been repeatedly drawn to exponential—discontinuous—processes in nature that bring about phase shifts. So I know my guides are urging forbearance as I repeat my qigong and fourfold breath routines each day, indoors. I may have been expelled from the garden for now, but I’m being asked to trust the process. Like the tree that grows heavy with buds for a month before leafing out, or the bottle of cooling water Joanna Macy writes of, I have to trust that I too can undergo a phase shift.

Discontinuous change and phase shifts are the things of cocoons—metamorphosis. Most of us are familiar with the general concept of how a caterpillar will form a chrysalis then emerge weeks later transfigured into a butterfly. Less well known is how the caterpillar resists change. As it dissolves in its own digestive acids, the immune system of the cocooned pupa will attack the imaginal cells that are trying to transform it. In turn, a nascent imago will fall again and again into the soup of its former self. But this seemingly counterproductive immune response serves to strengthen the imaginal cells so that they can finally give rise to a winged, visually stunning creature.[3}

Photo courtesy of Walter del Aguila on Unplash

The way in which repeated failure is necessary for a butterfly pupa to undergo the discontinuous change of metamorphosis is instructive not just for myself, but for society at large. Cell biologist Bruce Lipton and political philosopher Steve Bhaerman, co-authors of a book titled Spontaneous Evolution, propose that the metamorphosis process can be a model for cultural evolution. They write that the immature stages of complex adaptive systems in biology are marked by excessive competition and auto-cannibalism. But existential crisis—such as a pupa running out of food—can engender evolutionary leaps towards maturity and cooperation[4]. In this manner, we can regard the countercultural and protest movements of the past 60 years not as aberrations or duds, but as pulses of a burgeoning energy that had yet to encounter an existential crisis that could catalyze enduring evolutionary change.

A pandemic, economic stagnation, ecological collapse, and shambolic politics, all shadowed by exponential global warming. These entropic seeds of cataclysm most definitely constitute a polycrisis that demands a rapid shift in human conduct. Proclamations from politicians to the contrary, normal as we knew it is not being restored (nor should it—the old normal was killing us). The pandemic hasn’t ended, climate disruption is now a fact of life, the buried rage of centuries is animating ever-more vitriolic public debate. I am still being urged deeper into the cocoon, and most of us are also being impelled to continue going inwards. When we are embraced by darkness, we may feel not just disappointment, but downright grief. The old normal may have been suicidal, but it is natural to grieve a way of life one was comfortable with.

So I must circle back to the conclusion I drew more than a year ago—that we are encased, waiting for the active ingredient that will bring about our own phase shifts. For many of us, that catalyst will be grief, which is an emotion the old normal never let us explore deeply. But when we allow ourselves to feel the wound, we can expand our wings and discover that, in the words of Wendell Berry, “the dark, too, blooms and sings.”[5]


[1] Macy, Joanna, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012), 189.

[2] Ibid., 189-90.

[3] Pinchbeck, Daniel, How Soon is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation. (London: Watkins Publishing, 2017), 179-80.

[4] Ibid., 180.

[5] Berry, Wendell, “To Know the Dark” in Terrapin: Poems by Wendell Berry. (United States: Counterpoint).

The Language We Use

We are at war. Certainly in a healthcare war. We are not fighting an army, nor are we fighting another nation. But the enemy is here – invisible, elusive, it progresses. It thus requires a call to arms.”[1]

President Emmanuel Macron delivered those words to the French people in March of 2020, when the novel coronavirus was beginning its exponential spread in Europe and North America. Macron’s use of military memes to characterize COVID-19 has become standard for politicians and public health officials to the point that it is hard to think of the COVID-19 pandemic as anything other than a battle. Less than a year after Mr. Macron issued his warrior cry, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party trumpeted that it had “defeated Covid under the able, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.”[2] Not to be outdone, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proclaimed in a May public address about his state’s loosening of virus restrictions that “New York is coming back, and it’s a testament to the strength and grit of New Yorkers who banded together, stayed tough, and fought as one to defeat this COVID beast.”[3]

As a global society, we are only just past the nadir of the millenia-long Age of Separation, so this bellicosity isn’t surprising. Those of us brought up in the industrial mainstream are conditioned by the foundational myths of our culture to relate to the nonhuman world around us by identifying an exterior enemy and declaring all-out war on our target. Usually, this initial antagonism begets more violence. Think of how fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides are sprayed on industrial crop fields. Inevitably, succeeding generations of pests evolve new defenses against the onslaught, and like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, chemists in turn must develop still deadlier biocides to keep up. In the United States at least, all one must do is examine the abysmal failures of the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Poverty,” and the “War on Terror” to find further evidence of our war mentality’s shortcomings.

It just so happens that a linguistic shift away from antagonism over the past 4 years has been pivotal in my own healing process. As with cancer, many neurofibromatosis patients refer to their medical predicament as a fight and their diagnosis as the enemy. By the time I turned 22, however, I was tired of combat and ready for a different approach. So I began entertaining the concept that my diagnosis wasn’t something to be fought at all but perhaps contained wisdom that needed to be integrated. I would find out that such a belief is axiomatic in many indigenous ontologies. These marginalized worldviews hold that illnesses are the result of an imbalance in the group—be it a family, a town, a nation, or the global whole—and thus have their own spirits. This deeper, more considered approach to illness has opened new potential storylines as I try to disentangle myself from the labyrinth of sickness. One such narrative is that my higher self chose to be born with a chronic medical condition in order to understand wetiko—the mind virus of separation—and to assimilate the karma of my progenitors (at least one of my ancestors, for instance, was directly involved in the early genocide of American Indians). However such an explanation might sound to you, the idea that there’s intentionality wrapped up in my medical condition gives me agency and a path forward. One step I can take now towards healing is to break the intergenerational cycle of violence by repudiating the language of violence.

So, what of COVID-19’s spirit? If COVID-19 is the product of an imbalance, then anthropogenic global warming and its constellation of related crises is the pandemic’s likeliest root cause. The respiratory failure and fever associated with COVID-19 do bear a sinister correspondence to the pollution and ever-more-intense wildfires and heatwaves being inflicted on the planet. It then follows that humanity’s response to COVID-19 could determine our response to the systemic ecological crises that threaten to erase all our achievements. 

A friend of mine told me last summer that she had a dream in which COVID-19 appeared to her first as a feral cat, then as a reptilian monster, and finally as an impoverished peasant woman. The peasant woman my friend described reminds me of the archetype of the crone, who often appears in mythic stories as a teacher come to redress her children’s ways. Now that COVID-19 is nearly endemic, we as a global society can at least accept the unavoidable challenges of a novel coronavirus and commit ourselves to learn whatever lessons COVID-19 might teach. Ultimately, though, my friend’s dream gets to the core of the material world’s plasticity. Since collective storytelling determines the behavior of the subatomic particles that comprise our reality, a collective COVID-19 story framed around warfare means we may have to contend with an enraged animal or a Godzilla figure instead of a well-meaning teacher. Furthermore, COVID-19 could mirror back our bellicose language by behaving like a true wartime enemy. It could “gather intel” about our defenses then ambush us again and again. Currently the Delta variant is sustaining COVID-19’s rapaciousness, and health officials are issuing warnings about the Lambda variant as well. Eighteen months since COVID-19 entered the collective consciousness and world leaders began declaring war, it’s questionable whether we’ve defeated anything. Again, war begets more war.

As of this writing, COVID-19 has officially killed a little over 4.1 million people, but the real toll is likely much higher.[4] By all accounts, emergency rooms in regions hit hard by the pandemic have at various points resembled war zones, and medical workers there have been forced to make decisions usually relegated to battlefields. In the face of such devastation, it can be tempting to reason that it is irresponsible to regard COVID-19 as anything less than an enemy that must be exterminated. But COVID-19’s wide reach is a direct result of governmental ineptitude plus an institutional unwillingness to put a brake on economic growth (there was hardly a murmur of calling off Milan Fashion Week 2020, even when it was known that the virus was established in northern Italy).

Perhaps you are unconvinced by my spiritual appeals. But there are more prosaic reasons why the language of war should be avoided when referring to COVID-19. A letter to the editor from a doctor published in the New York Times in the early days of the pandemic has his to say:

“Military rhetoric in this and other articles is clouding the public’s understanding of what it is like to work in a hospital right now. Medical staff are not soldiers ‘fighting a war,’ and we are not ‘in the trenches’ or ‘on the front lines.’ We did not sign up for this; unlike the military, medicine is not a career for which we ever expected to die.

“Medical staff are being forced to work in extremely unsafe conditions. Furthermore, the burden of care often falls on the lowest-ranked workers. Resident physicians, for example, work 80 hours a week with one day off. Opportunities for residents are scarce outside of hospitals, so we cling to our jobs to avoid ruin.

“Medical workers have already died in the United States, and more deaths are coming. We will be called ‘heroes’ to hide the truth: we were killed on dangerous job sites.”[5]


In Search of Querencia

In August I moved from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Providence, Rhode Island, where I am working for a year as an AmeriCorps service member with a community agriculture organization. The move feels propitious. I’ve been longing for awhile to be involved long-term in agriculture, and living in a place called Providence seems like an unsubtle message from the universe about where I’m heading. At a time when so many people are home- and job-insecure, I can hardly complain about this new turn in my life.

But as I’ve settled into a new city, I’ve reflected on the progress I’ve made in the past few years, and something is still missing. In September of last year, when I moved to Massachusetts for my first AmeriCorps assignment, I was living on my own for the first time in my life (college doesn’t count). The first month of being solitary was tough; I was badly yearning for the familiarity of Darien, where I had grown up in the same house and where my parents still live. This time around, I’m not yearning for that home, though. I spent enough time in Darien this spring during the COVID lockdowns to know that it’s not in my spiritual or energetic interests to stay in the nest. Now, I’m yearning for a new home, a place where my personal life, professional work, and the physical landscape will feed into each other and where I will be anchored by enduring social relationships and, eventually, new familial bonds.

What I really desire is querencia. In Spain, where the term originates, a querencia is a spot in a bullring where a wounded bull retreats to renew his strength. Querencia is now used in the Spanish speaking world to connote a home-place where one feels safe and protected. In The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez draws attention to this latter meaning of the word to discuss the modern problem of cultural placelessness:

“It is unfortunate that the word is compromised in this way [by the violence of bullfighting], for the idea itself is quite beautiful – a place in which we know exactly who we are. The place from which we speak our deepest beliefs. Querencia conveys more than “hearth.” And it carries this sense of being challenged – in the case of a bullfight, by something lethal, which one may want no part of.

“I would like to take this word querencia beyond its ordinary meaning and suggest that it applies to our challenge in the modern world, that our search for a querencia is both a response to threat and a desire to find out who we are. And the discovery of a querencia, I believe, hinges on the perfection of a sense of place.

“Bullfight, Suerte de Varas” by Francisco de Goya (1824)

Lopez goes on to venture that discovering a querencia involves being cognizant of the inviolate relationship between a culture and the physical land it occupies. But for the majority of us in North America, this sort of acknowledgement leads back to the undeniable truth of European conquest and imposition. I for one grew up on traditional Lenape and Wappinger territory. Now I am a settler on Narragansett land. And because of the practices of the industrial culture I was born into, much of the land I’m familiar with will be submerged by the Atlantic possibly within my lifetime, while Southern New England’s sugar maples and hemlocks will recede to the Laurentian Shield or die out completely.

What then? If anthropogenic climate change will wipe away much of the familiar characteristics we associate with home, what hope have we of rediscovering any sense of querencia? The way I see it, querencia is always waiting for rediscovery, regardless of exterior changes. The plant and animal species around us may shift along with climate regimes. But what won’t shift is our human capacity to open our hearts to the nonhuman even in the midst of heartbreak and find a new sense of belonging, one that’s based on proposition instead of imposition. Generations of settlers have started over in the same way as they’ve relocated due to war, economics, religion, or climate stress, and they’ve always carried the vital stories with them. We’ll all have to make this leap of faith too if we want to create a future world worth living in, one where we’re not consumed with regret and self-recrimination.

I don’t feel like Rhode Island will be my new querencia. I may meet key people who will point the direction in my ongoing journey. But ultimately, I feel like my final destination – my longed-for home-place where I can firmly face the challenges of my life – is elsewhere. I intend to document in this online space my search for querencia and where the journey takes me. For now, though, I am making myself as comfortable as possible in the Ocean State.

We Are Not a Virus

I am walking with a companion through the woods. Up ahead, a golden, glowing orb is blowing through the trees like paper caught in the wind. I understand the orb to be what I most desire in life right now: complete physical, mental, and emotional healing. My companion, an older male, gestures to the orb and says, “If you want it, you must ask the trees, the birds, and the wind for help.”

At this point in our walk, we approach a diminutive ash tree that looks like it’s infested with the emerald ash borer. Despite its sickly appearance, I approach it and do as my companion told me. “Ash tree,” I say. “Please help me heal.”

The moment those words are out of my mouth, a rapid sequence of events ensues. The ash widens and shoots upwards to the sky to the point where it is one of the tallest trees in the forest. Its trunk and foliage is framed by a blazing fire, but not the fire of destruction; in front of me is the fire of creation and vitality. Next, the golden orb is caught in the updraft of the fire until it is held aloft above the ash tree, motionless. Two small birds appear out of thin air, and I understand them to be the spirit of the wind. They catch the golden orb in their talons and start circling towards the ground, right to where I was standing. 

I had that dream in early May of this year, when the Northeastern US was descending the first, destructive surge of COVID-19 in this country. So sickness was on many peoples’ minds. Discussions were also cropping up online and in the news media about how the relative helplessness of human immune systems in the face of the novel coronavirus mirrors the violence being visited upon nature in the form of habitat destruction, overexploitation, and pollution. You’ve probably heard the meme by now: humans are a virus on the planet, and COVID is an antibody. Proponents of such an idea point to the  images of clearer skies and frolicking wildlife in locked down regions as proof: “See? Earth is so much healthier without humans!”

I disagree. The proposition that humans are uniquely suited for annihilation is born of the same anthropocentrism that, in a different spirit, would suggest we are god-anointed masters of the planet. Not only is human erasure from nature philosophically questionable, though. It’s also historically myopic. In many parts of the world, natural ecosystems have coevolved with human land use. Large swaths of North America, for instance, were periodically burned by indigenous Americans prior to European settlement. For America’s first people, these fires improved hunting, foraging, and horticultural conditions. For the nonhuman environment, periodic burns created mosaics of varied natural community types that incubated a diverse range of specialist plant and animal species. In southeastern Massachusetts, the entire coastal pine barrens ecoregion evolved to be fire dependent; according to early Pilgrim settlers, the indigenous Wampanoag people set fire to alternating portions of the landscape twice per year. In the absence of this human intervention, generalist, overgrown oak forests are replacing the pine barrens at the expense of rare species like the barrens buckmoth and the grasshopper sparrow

My dream seemed to suggest that this hands-off approach to the landscape won’t work. Humans and nonhuman nature need each other to thrive, and intentional burning is just one way that we have achieved the end of mutual health. Large-scale burning no longer takes place in southeastern Massachusetts. There are, however, a number of ecological restoration projects in the area, and I visited several to see for myself how a cultural presence in the landscape is beneficial.

My first visit was to the Coonamessett River. The Connamessett is fed by coldwater springs and runs less than five miles through the heart of Falmouth on Cape Cod. The river used to be a rich spawning ground for eels, herring, and brook trout. Since the 18th century, dam construction to power mills has blocked many of these native fish from their spawning sites. Impoundments for cranberry farming have also created obstacles for migrating fish, while the obstruction of the river’s flow by both mills and impoundments raised water temperatures beyond what many native fish could tolerate. Since 2015, the Town of Falmouth has been working with conservation organizations to restore the Coonamessett River to its original state. So far, a cranberry bog has been converted to a naturalized wetland, wet meadows have been planted along the Coonamessett’s banks, several of the dams that used to impede the river’s flow have been removed, and improved fish ladders have been installed on dams that cannot be dismantled.

When I walked a portion of the Coonamessett Greenway Heritage Trail in July, I had never seen the Coonamessett River before, so I did not know what it looked like when it was clogged with cranberry bogs and mills. But the Coonamessett I did see resembled an actual river, and that is important. There was the swift-flowing main channel meandering through wet meadows where spotted knapweed was in bloom. I walked above the fish ladders where water descended from so-named Pond 14. I didn’t doubt that, if I were at the same ladder in a different season, I’d see migrating fish. 

Upgraded fish ladder

I’ve pondered before about how the proliferation of ecological restoration projects may indicate an emerging cultural desire to see the landscapes we inhabit be restored to wilder, more organic states – in Falmouth alone there is also the Quashnet River Restoration and the Child’s River Restoration. Whatever their latent cultural origins, these restoration endeavors point to the often-overlooked fact that restoration of natural habitats usually involves human intervention to some degree. Many people think that when we passively let things “go back to nature,” all will be well. Passive ecological restoration sometimes does work. Too often, though, when we abandon disturbed landscapes, they become colonized by invasive plants and noxious weeds at the expense of regionally particular species. Or they may only support generalist wildlife (deer, rabbits) instead of endemic specialists. When human-altered environments include earth modifications like dams or dikes, letting things “go back to nature” can be an excuse for not cleaning up after ourselves.  

Just west of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary (which itself is a restoration project), the Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration has partnered with the Town of Plymouth to restore the wetlands of Foothill Preserve, which have been degraded by cranberry farming. Foothills Preserve also encompasses springs that form the headwaters of West Beaver Dam Brook. When I drove by the Preserve after my visit to the Coonamessett River, I was met by the sight of construction vehicles and earth-moving machines that were temporarily idled in their task of removing dikes and dams formerly used for cranberry farming. If it takes a dozen-odd backhoes and bulldozers to undo the modifications of agriculture, then it’s questionable whether the headwaters of the West Beaver Dam Brook would ever be able to recover on their own. 

Foothills Preserve

Thus, I am forced to circle back to the message of my dream – by “presencing” ourselves in the landscape, we benefit our own health while nonhuman nature is revitalized too. But we don’t need to focus solely on the mechanics of ecosystem regeneration in order to understand the necessity of human presence in the landscape. You can come to similar conclusions on your own, in your individual wanderings outdoors.

Not long after my trip to Falmouth, I returned to a juniper woodland in Ellisville Habor State Park in Plymouth, which I explored in October of last year and where I first felt at home in Massachusetts. In reality, the area is a savanna of pitch pines, scrub oaks, and red cedars marooned between the salt marshes of Ellisville Harbor and the strand of Cape Cod Bay. My time in Plymouth was coming to a close, and I wanted to wander in the location that first made me feel like I belonged in the Bay State. This time around, the vegetation was more dense; there was more poison ivy and greenbrier between the cedar and pitch pine trees. But I still felt at ease. After a sweaty hike through upland oak forests and a tramp through overheated sand, my heart rate and breathing slowed down when I was back amidst the sandy patch of evergreen trees. And when I sat down beneath a red cedar to catch my breath, I didn’t just relax: I felt welcomed. I sensed that I mattered to this place. By making myself present to a part of the landscape that I loved, I was reciprocating nature’s abundant nourishment, and in that manor I was facilitating a small degree of ecological recovery.

This mode of healing only makes sense if one understands that “the environment” is not an inert substrate, absent of its own desires and intentions. When we do jettison the Cartesian concept of nature as unfeeling and nonliving, the truism reveals itself that every organism has its place in the landscape, including humans. At its root, I believe that most of the environmental degradation we see in our world today is the result of us removing ourselves from the landscape and thinking we can transcend material nature. But when we return to Earth, we come home and make the ecological picture whole again.

I don’t think we can truly heal the planet unless each one of us does the internal work of interrogating our relationships with place. Similarly, I don’t think that a frenzy of ecological restoration projects on their own will have a lasting effect unless the architects and the citizen beneficiaries of these projects thoroughly transform their mechanistic Industrial Age mindset to one of holism and ecology. And somewhere in there, we have to let ourselves feel welcomed by other-than-human nature: the trees, the birds, and the wind. Only then can we give love back and restore the places we call home just as I restored the ash tree to health in my dream.

Ellisville Harbor State Park

One Landscape, Multiple Stories: Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Southeastern Massachusetts

Driving west on Herring Pond Road in the Cedarville section of Plymouth, Massachusetts, it may seem improbable that the landscape of two-story homes and boat ramps out the window constitutes anything other than suburban America. But this stretch of South Plymouth roadway also sits atop the ancient homeland of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, which is one of the core tribes of the Wampanoag Nation. In July, Melissa Ferretti, the tribal chairwoman, gave me a tour of this patch of New England Indian Country.

Melissa showed me the tribe’s historic meeting house, built circa 1850, which is partially rented out to a Baptist church. We then went to Elmer Raymond Park, which sits at the heart of the tribe’s historic lands and beyond which is the Dina Path, a burial ground which was only recently returned to the tribe by the Town of Plymouth. 

Meetinghouse on Herring Pond Road
Dina Path beyond Elmer Raymond baseball field.

Finally, we paid a visit to the the tribe’s other burial ground, right next to Herring Pond. In addition to being a cemetery and a place of mourning, however, Melissa explained to me that her community has used the site for social functions and for gathering wild herbs, and that she even looked forward to coming to the burial ground while growing up.

Contrary to centuries of Euro-American romanticization, people of Native ancestry aren’t inherently “closer to nature” by virtue of their blood quantum. However, there is no single story of how human cultures relate to the landscapes they inhabit. The globalized industrial perspective of viewing the natural environment through a reductionist Cartesian lens – that is, as an inert substrate that is discrete from humanity – is only one narrative among many. Most indigenous communities in the world today have retained the pre-industrial conception of the human realm as being enmeshed within a planetary ecological whole. It is no surprise, then, that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is found in indigenous territory, or that American Indian tribes are at the vanguard of adopting climate change resiliency and adaptation plans

Globalized society needs narratives in which human culture is bound to a larger and deeper ecological continuum; where cemeteries can also be places of celebration and sustenance, or where sacred lands can lie just beyond a baseball diamond. The maelstrom of environmental crises that define the 21st century is the product of the mechanistic mindset of human separation from nature. Inculcating a sense of identity that is rooted in the organic palimpsest of living things that composes each landscape serves as an antidote to the story of separation. 

In addition to the Herring Pond Tribe, southeastern Massachusetts’s Wampanoag presence is comprised of the Assonet Band of the Wampanoag Nation, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). All of these communities have persisted despite their traditional lands being ground zero for the American nation-state, and with them they have kept alive their particular stories of how they as people are consanguineous with the other-than-human world.

This regional ferment of indigenous continuity (and renewal) is why I reached out to the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe and tried to infuse my former employer’s ecosystem conservation work with the insights of Native people. In addition, I was in dialogue with the  Indigenous Resources Collaborative (IRC) – a group of Wampanoag and non-Native educators. Hopefully, a sustained synergy will emerge where my former employer, the IRC, and the Herring Pond Tribe will assist each other in environmental and educational endeavors. 

It is not my place to force these collaborations into being, though. As a non-Native outsider, I can’t put indigenous groups on a pedestal and demand guidance from them (“Be our saviors!”). Instead, the Wampanoag relationships I pursued unfolded organically as I learned more about my organizational partners, and vice versa. Goals such as shifting the dominant narrative and recognizing indigenous input may be admirable. The more I’ve learned about the persistence of the indigenous worldview amidst the “One Story” of Industrial Age separation, the more I fantasize about the sorts of fruits that partnerships between traditional and nontraditional players can yield. But it’s ultimately up to America’s first people whether they want to engage the rest of us.

In a Heath Hen, Everything

Recently at work, I helped construct a list of every known plant and animal species that has been lost from the landscape of Massachusetts. Some of the species on the list, like the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and Appalachian tiger beetle (Cicindela ancocisconensis)  have only been extirpated, meaning they can still be found elsewhere in the world. Other species, like the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius) are fully extinct. All told, 46 known species have been lost from Massachusetts in historical times, most of them in the past two centuries.

But quantitive data such as the number of species that have gone extinct in a given area is inadequate. Raw numbers obscure the singular gravity of what it really means to lose an entire lineage of organisms. The world is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with thousands of species disappearing every year. Exact estimates vary widely (one of the larger figures comes from the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, which pegs the annual number of species going extinct as exceeding 50,000). Holding in our minds the singular gravity of a lost bird or flowering plant, rather than a list, is perhaps the only way we can comprehend the rolling tragedy of shrinking biodiversity.   

In order to understand the ”singular gravity” of a lost species, I trekked to Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area in the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod. Frances A. Crane WMA encompasses one of the largest sandplain grasslands that is managed for conservation in New England. Sandplain grasslands are prairie-like assemblages of grasses and bushes that are dependent on periodic brush fires for perpetuation. They used to cover hundreds of thousands of acres of the Northeastern United State’s coastal areas. Now, due to urban development and fire suppression, sandplain grasslands cover less than 10% of their former area. In their heyday, these natural communities supported a population of the greater prairie chicken (Tympanchus cupido), which is now only found in pockets of the Great Plains. Sandplain grasslands were also home to the heath hen (Tympanchus cupido cupido), a related ground nesting bird whose males, like those of the prairie chicken, emitted distinctive boom sounds as part of the specie’s mating ritual.

Heath hen illustration

The heath hen was endemic to coastal grasslands from Maine south to the Carolinas. The bird was said to be so plentiful and easy to hunt that early American colonists complained of eating heath hen too often. Its meat even may have been served at the first Thanksgiving. 

You can probably guess where this story is heading. Intense hunting pressure (by both humans and feral cats) and destruction of coastal grasslands led to the extirpation of the heath hen from the US mainland by 1870. A population persisted on Martha’s Vineyard (in what is now Manuel F. Correllus State Forest) but was decimated by a wildfire in 1916 that was made worse by fire suppression and the accumulation of dead wood. The island’s last heath hen, a male, was heard booming for a mate in the spring of 1932 and died soon after.

So loss was on my mind when I set out for Falmouth. Even the drive through the Upper Cape was punctuated by a sense of loss; I couldn’t help thinking of how, over the decades, the homogenous stretches of dry oak forests on the roadside have replaced a more ecologically dynamic mix of pine barrens, meadows, heathlands, and cedar swamps. Once I arrived in Falmouth, I could see that Frances A. Crane’s several hundred preserved acres were in fact picturesque and worth conserving; the milkweeds, wild carrot, and dozens of other wildflowers I couldn’t identify were in bloom, and there were probably rare insects buzzing through the grasses. But the boom of a once-abundant galliform was absent.

Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area

In his essay, In a Rhino, Everything, Charles Eisenstein writes that the sadness engendered by an extinct or disappearing species contains in it all of the grief we have suppressed in response to the other injustices of the world: poverty, police brutality, the destruction of nature’s beauty – the list goes on. The sadness I felt due to the absence of the heath hen was in fact grief, and my grief was wide ranging. I was sorrowful that the wide open skies and natural beauty of the grassland surrounding me could now only be found in a few fragmented conservation areas; about the possibility of exponential global warming, which imperils even these conservation efforts; about the thousands of daily deaths due to COVID-19 and the social isolation society is practicing to prevent further fatalities. 

This grief had a purpose, though. Earlier in the summer, I attended a webinar conducted by Penobscot educator, writer, and attorney Sherri Mitchell named “Processing Our Grief.” Mitchell reminded us that when we allow ourselves to grieve, we are feeling the pain of all of Mother Earth; when we feel this planetary pain, we can effectively pray to and ask for help from the spirits. So I suppose that my grief first for the heath hen, and then for the rest of the world, was a ceremony of seeking guidance for how to live with integrity in the unravelling years of the early 21st century.

I cannot say that my vigil immediately led to any epiphanies or profound solace. Only now, as I think about guidance and the lessons I can learn from the heath hen’s extinction, I am remembering the words of another Penobscot elder, John Bear Mitchell, which he imparted to Elizabeth Rush in her book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

The losses [from climate change and natural resource overexploitation] have been slow and multigenerational. We have narrowed our spiritual palettes and our physical palettes to take what we have. But the stories, the old stories that still contain a lot of these elements, hold on to the traditional. For example, our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don’t live here anymore. Similarly, we know the petroglyphs still exist, but now they’re underwater. The change is in how we acknowledge them.”

If physically absent animals and cultural artifacts can live on in our stories, as John Bear Mitchell suggests, then how can the heath hen live on in the collective imagination? The effort of conservationists to protect the heath hen, beginning in the late 18th century and going through the 1910s, was one of the first times in the US that a conservation project was directed at preserving an endangered bird. The effort’s failure therefore animated future conservation measures and helped prevent wildlife officials from repeating mistakes. So we could say that the spirit of the heath hen is still extant in the joy of animals that continue to thrive precisely because we learned from the hen’s extinction.

I think that when we acknowledge loss not only as an occasion for grief, but as an opportunity for integration, learning, and growth, we start getting at what it means to heal in these times. If the only stories we tell are ones of linear decline and apocalypse, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy where all the future holds is further darkness. Therefore, I’d like to think that each story that acknowledges loss, but followed by renewed resolve to protect and celebrate life, creates a ripple of light that disempowers the narrative of doom that we are all too familiar with. In this manner of mindful grieving and celebration, we may be relieving – transmuting – the sorrow of the past and all the injustices of the world.