Good Grief

Darkness is imminent. I sit in damp needle duff with my back against a straight young fir. Bedtime is imminent for a covey of California Quail. In the dimness I see only their plump diminutive shadows and hear the powerful thrum of wings launching them into limbs directly above. They ignore me, and one walks within arm’s length. They cluck softly, and their gentle jostling sends a shower of dead needles onto my shoulders. If I were their parent I would fly up there and tell them to be quiet and go to sleep. Instead, I mind my own human business and use the drapes of nightfall to close off rooms full of unwanted noise, the incessant residual chatter of a fall that seems far too busy.

Scattered thoughts coalesce around oncoming winter. In the intense dryness of summer, wet darkness was something of a theoretical construct, kicked around by climatologists, psychologists, economists, astrologists, and other prognosticators. Now the rains have really come. Gardens have been put to bed, drab warblers that I no longer recognize have moved south, and ducks I labored to identify in summer eclipse plumage are back to their shiny, distinguished selves.

I am continually astonished by the ongoing willingness of Earth to provide. Gratitude is easy in this wet green womb we call home. We are graced by water. Rains cleanse our sky, sifting through soil, swelling plant roots and fungal mycelia, shedding contaminates, recharging aquifers, and emerging as springs of clear water that grow moss and lady ferns and torrent salamanders. We are graced by sunshine, too. Photons rain down for six months and are converted by chlorophyll into food, fiber, fuel, and finally compost for garden beds. I am uncertain whether there is a relationship between a congenial climate and congenial people. We have our problems, but they seem small in comparison to places in the world life where life is harder and competition for resources is keen.

Yet even here, in the easy living abundance of our locale, the limits of our biosphere are being breached. At this point the people who cannot see this are choosing to ignore it. The only serious remaining discussion is whether or not anthropocentric damage has set off an irreversible chain of events that endangers the future of humans and some large fraction of our fellow multicellular beings. Last summer the local record for days over 90 degrees was obliterated. Salmon runs are fluctuating wildly from year to year. A hive of honeybees is hard to keep alive these days. Despite the bad news, most of us find ourselves living in this beautiful corner of North America well watered, well fed, and well cared for.

Still, anger abounds. I know activists, environmental and social, who will die angry over the ongoing insults to the Earth and her people. Many of us have felt this. I certainly have. I’m not a fan of anger, but with regard to environmentalism it is usually selfless, rather than selfish, and stems from a healthy response against unhealthy human tendencies toward greed, self-indulgence, shortsightedness, and I’m only warming up!

If we swim upstream a bit in search of the source of this anger, we find that it springs from an aquifer of deep grief for the disappearance of things we cherish: primal forests, calypso orchids, monarch butterflies, spawning salmon, and Band-tail Pigeons; we feel the loss of our own health and safety and any comfort in thinking we will leave our children a hospitable world, and we feel helpless trying to right the injustices. Any psychologist worth their salt would say that our good long-term mental health depends upon recognizing and processing this grief, rather than paving it over with therapeutic smiles. At some point we must dive in and embrace our loss. And even though we can’t simultaneously hold the grief and gratitude in our minds, even though one is a so-called positive emotion and the other negative, the two seem conjoined. Here lies the crux of my ongoing conundrum: we experience deep grief precisely because we are so deeply grateful for things that we have lost. Oh my. Words. Now where?

Every autumn I noodle on this Gordian Knot and can’t put my hands on a sword. This fall I am giving up. Perhaps that is the solutionrecognizing that gratitude and grieving are conjoined. They are inextricable parts of our complex human experience, two symbiotic feelings that have evolved within our emotional ecosystem and are forever merged in mutual interdependence. I have no credentials for telling people how they should think or feel, no degree in psychology or counseling or human development. Intuition is my only ally. To give thanks is to lower our guard, because gratitude makes us vulnerable to grief. Yet maybe in this season of shrinking daylight, swelling streams, falling color, and emerging fungi we could choose to live dangerously. We could make ourselves vulnerable. We could open our arms in gratitude for all that still surrounds us.

We could even give thanks that we grieve.