MOURNING TREES: THE PAIN, THE COMPASSION, THE COMMUNITY

By Amy Spark

Photos by Jodi Lammiman

 

Thanks again for the ceremony and for guiding us through some of the stages of healing around the grief we all still feel. I found this very helpful for my own healing process, so I am certain it had significance to the many who attended. I suspect there is still more work to do on all of this however, but taking this step yesterday was very meaningful. – Anonymous

***

We have rituals following loss. Funerals, estate sales, storytelling, flowers on a grave. These are the markers of human loss. Ritual grounds us – it helps us cope. Yet what rituals do we perform when the loss is intangible? When we lose a wetland to development, or beach to erosion? At Refugia, we believe recognition and ritual is important and helpful for dealing with environmental loss.

So we had a funeral – for the trees.

The Ghost Valley community is a tight-knit bunch; one that has been brought together by mutual grief over the landscape changes in the valley. Clearcut logging, rampant off-highway-vehicle use, and the 2013 flood has left the landscape looking very different than it did even five years ago. So Jodi and I were honoured to be invited to help with this transition in a small way: by leading the community through a ceremony of loss.

It began with a pipe ceremony performed by elders Virgil and Glen Stephens. This ceremony honoured the transitions and seasons in the valley, and allowed the community to talk about their loss and pain. And together – we ritualized it through a cairn of mourning. We each took 15 minutes alone in the clearcut, looking for an object that would represent our individual grief. We gathered together and one by one, placed our item in the centre. In the end, what was created was a marker for what was lost and what we were leaving behind.

***

The Ghost Valley is a special place and is also part of the headwaters for all Albertans who live downstream. We have lost our natural wetlands, when once we had hundreds of water fowl come and go each spring and fall. Beavers, fish… that habitat has been destroyed for lack of water.

This group of people have put their heart and soul into trying to stop the logging but by also staying human about it as well…. We may not stopped it but we did make a huge difference. Not once since we have been involved have we ever heard someone knocking down another for what they believe in! That is a first for me and shows me as well that people can work well together. What a gift.

Our memories of this group shall carry with me wherever I go. These are the memories of the Ghost Valley and the many new friendships that have been made going forward.

So as we go our separate ways... we will always be connected to each other while one is advocating to protect for what they believe in. -- Anonymous

***

But it turned out to be less of a funeral, and more of a Celebration of Life. For its in the midst of chaos that friendships are often formed. And this chaos highlighted one very important similarity among members of the Ghost – despite all the other differences. To grieve something is to show that you love it. So to celebrate the life that still thrives in the valley, we spent the rest of the evening sharing a meal and stories over a campfire.

As a facilitator, this experience was powerful. But this is not my story to tell; it’s the story of those who live there. So the italicized sections are written by two Ghost Valley community members in their journey of grief, community, and compassion.

***

Doing this work I think, by its very nature, breeds compassion within us. Compassion for our neighbours, for the wildlife and the forest in which we live. But this compassion I feel extends further to include compassion for those who drove the machinery that leveled the land we are all connected with. Perhaps it’s like a victim forgiving their perpetrator, as impossible as that seems. But there is a hidden understanding that comes with compassion - it would be like looking into the eyes of an equipment operator and understanding his life, his children and his desire to feed his family etc. Compassion and understanding for him will lead to him having more compassion for those impacted by his actions.

Somehow, I know now that if I were to start down a similar path today, to the one we started 2.5 to 3 years ago, I would likely make some different choices, engage people differently and likely see even a better outcome than what we had this time around. Perhaps I could make that journey with less anger and more compassion.

There are still many wrongs in the world of forestry in Alberta (and beyond), but I feel that we need to collectively use our accumulated experience and knowledge to still push for change - but push from a place of compassion.

Below is one of my favorite poems, which to me this symbolizes our deep connection with the Earth - our Mother Earth and how, if we work at deepening our connection with her we deepen our own understanding of ourselves… and with this follows compassion.  -- Anonymous

 

***

Knowing the Earth

To know the Earth on a first-name basis

You must know the meaning of river stones first.

Find a place that calls to you and there

Lie face down in the grass until you feel

Each plant alive with the mystery of beginnings.

Move in a circle until you discover an insect

Crawling with knowledge in its heart.

Examine a newborn leaf and find a map of a universe

So vast that only eagles understand.

Observe the journey of an ant and imitate its path

Of persistence in a world of bigger things.

Borrow a cloud and drift high above the Earth,

Looking down at the smallness of your life.

The journey begins on a path made of your old mistakes.

The journey continues when you call the Earth by name.

N. Wood

"UNMOVABLE EARTH" - A REFLECTION ON refugia's Listening to your life retreat

By Jennelle Dippel

 

I've been watching a lot of space movies lately. It is quite comforting to me to imagine the vastness of the Universe. The Something so outside of myself. The Something much bigger. I imagine the quietness out there, and the slowness of a place without gravity. That might be a sign of how unsettled life here on Earth has felt during the last year. 

A few weeks ago I attended Refugia Retreats' Listening to your Life, a one-day event hosted in the breathtaking Ghost Valley. I had grown up frequently attending camps and retreats but, as can happen when you begin adulting, I'd lost touch with those special times of drawing nearer to myself, others, and nature.

Last to arrive, I joined a circle of people whose faces radiated different stories, backgrounds, and reasons for showing up. Though perhaps nervous, this group of strangers softened fairly quickly into beautiful exchanges of vulnerability as we were guided through reflections about the past year. As unique as our stories were, it was clear that as we let ourselves be seen, we could see ourselves in each other. The Universe bound us together through our shared knowledge of both struggle and hope. It was the Something so outside of us. The Something much bigger. 

Later, as I surveyed the plentiful options of where to cozy up for some self-reflection, I instead felt guided to the path that led from the top of the property to the riverbed below. My weak footwear choice had me slipping and sliding down the incline while I held on to branches and side-stepped into snow banks. In my hand I held a rock from one of our reflective activities and on it was written the word fear. It was to describe my 2016. I stopped and held it up, noticing how its shape and rough edges closely resembled the mountain towering behind it. Such a small rock. Such a small Me, in comparison. In order to continue along my trajectory, I had to make a decision. It wasn't working to carry my rock and also hold the nature-hands that were helping me down the path. I paused, almost laughed at the life metaphor, and threw my rock away. I let go of my fear and held on to the Earth, which sat unmovable around me. I held on to the strength and groundedness of the Universe. The Something so outside of myself. The Something much bigger. 

These small moments are the kind that shape our lives - the choosing to join in life when we feel nothing but chaos, and to put ourselves in places where we can look up to the heavens. Where we can connect to the Something Big. 

Thank you to Refugia for drawing me out to that place, where I could dip my toes in the flow of the Universe and trade in my rock for a bigger one.

"Turning Towards" - A Reflection on Refugia's First Workshop

By Christopher Lammiman

         

          I was tired. I was distracted. I wasn’t sure I had the capacity to be there at all. It had been a hectic season. We had just moved from the beauty and stillness of the forests of the Ghost Valley into the freneticism and discord of the city. We were both starting new jobs. It had only been two weeks since we moved into our new apartment. I hadn’t really even had a day off in over a month. It was a Saturday in October. Chilly, but the sun was out and there were still a few golden leaves hanging onto the poplar branches. I was attending the first ever event created by Refugia Retreats – a day long introductory workshop to Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects. I was tired. But I was there.

          I arrived with few expectations, but a fair bellyful of anxiety. I was anxious about the day for the sake of Jodi, my partner. As one of the workshop facilitators, she was taking a courageous step: hoping that the work she and her co-conspirators had prepared would be meaningful for us participants. But I was also anxious for my own sake. Meeting people can be hard. Sharing personal feelings and thoughts with relative strangers can be very hard. But even more than any of these things, my cursory knowledge of The Work made me aware that we would be dealing with some of the most personal and vulnerable parts of ourselves. I have trouble allowing myself to go there, much less allowing others into that space. I was there. But I was anxious.

          Others have probably stated it more eloquently, but the lesson I am learning about life is that all that is really required is to show up. Most of the messages I receive and amplify are variations on the theme of not being enough. Be better, do better, act better, feel better. Pull yourself together. This narrative is dangerous for me not only because it diminishes my intrinsic and kinetic worth, but also because it isolates. It is the story that disconnects: Like, I have to sort my stuff out before I’m any good to anyone else, so it’s probably best if I just don’t put myself out there quite yet. I’ll stay home today and work out my salvation – with fear. And trembling. But that’s a hard job, and so maybe instead I’ll just watch an episode or six of Breaking Bad. Thus, the not-enough messaging perpetuates a negative feedback loop that turns me away from my relationships, my community, my ecosystem, and my soul. I turn away. But showing up – tired or not, ready or not, comfortable or not – showing up is simultaneously an act of courage and an act of love. It’s not about being good. It’s about being there. Joanna Macy puts it like this:

“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That was what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of the world.”   

          So I was there. I wasn’t fully there – “absolutely present” – as Joanna puts it, but I was there.  There were 17 of us, gathered in a small conference room in the west end of downtown Calgary. And it was, in the end, a hard day. The Work carries participants through four movements of a spiral: 1) Opening to gratitude; 2) Owning our pain for the world; 3) Seeing with new eyes; and 4) Going forth. It is beautiful, deep, meaningful work, but it can also be achingly difficult and personal work. It requires acknowledging and even embracing the whole truth of the mess we are in as a species. It brings to the surface the deep fear, grief, confusion, hope, and joy I hold in my soul – for the entire planet as well as for my little interior world. This is hard work. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. My heart though, was full.

         “Refugia” is the name Jodi and Amy have chosen for this endeavor. It is an ecological term: Refugia are the small pockets of sanctuary found amid desolation and destruction where life survives, endures, regenerates. These refugium have been discovered where no one expected anything to survive – after the Mount St. Helens eruption, for example – and are the catalysts for new life and new growth in devastated areas. On that chilly day in October, those 17 of us gathered in that little conference room simultaneously discovered and created a refugium together. Joanna Macy says that we have the opportunity to live in the Great Turning – where we as a collective species turn from life-destroying systems toward life-sustaining systems. This turning is as big as changing our economic, political, and social systems. But it is also as small as turning toward each other in gratitude, lament, hope, and love. The Great Turning is me turning toward you. It is us turning toward each other, and all our neighbors (human and otherwise). It is turning towards ourselves, honestly, and openly; tired, anxious, whatever. It is a refusal to keep turning away. This is the gift I received from our little refugium that Saturday. A glimpse of the Great Turning manifest in the small turning toward. A small seed planted within that I will cultivate and tend to and add to our shared garden. 

 So, I was there. So I will keep trying to be there.