“Disappointment” in the Garden

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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]


Notes

[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).

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.