by: Jodi Lammiman
I’m sitting in a one room solarium at King’s Fold Retreat Centre, 30 miles northwest of Cochrane, overlooking the Ghost River and the Eastern Slopes of the Canadian Rockies. It is a still morning. The large window affords me an immediate view of a golden aspen. Yesterday it was gently shaking in the breeze, leaves slowly fluttering. Today not a leaf moves. This place is special to me. For four years, I lived here at this little retreat centre on 166 acres of wilderness property. While here I was a witness to magic. The electric yellow of aspen groves illuminated in the autumn light. Ravens diving and twirling, chasing each other on the wind currents high above. A great grey owl gliding silently from fencepost to fencepost hunting at dawn. A bull moose, picturesque in profile on my morning run (who thankfully had no interest in me). The northern lights eerie and beautiful on a winter night. The clitter-clatter of grasshoppers, the warbling of robins, distinct chicka-dee-dee-dee of mountain and black-capped chickadees. And one of my most treasured encounters: an evening ridge walk under the full moon, snow crunching beneath my feet. And from the valley below, where the Ghost River babbles on its timeless journey: melodic, haunting singing. The cries of a wolf pack. Deep, resonant voices layering one over the other as they called back and forth into the evening.
This encounter, while magical, was also tinged with grief. This particular pack had been displaced from its longtime den by a large clear-cut happening up the road from our land. Late in the evening and early morning when the night was particularly silent and even the animals seemed to be asleep, I would walk out onto the ridge in front of our house and see the feller-buncher’s lights glowing from across the valley, moving back and forth clearing the trees. And I could hear in the distance the mechanical rumble of the beast disrupting the peace of the night. I pictured it as a monster. While I knew that humans operated the machine, humans whose livelihood depended upon it, I also couldn’t help but think about the destruction left in its wake. I also thought about the many other species of plants destroyed by human activity, the animals who lived in those trees and called that particular piece of land home: squirrels, mice, rabbit, deer, bobcat, wolves, and many others, all displaced from their home because of our “need.” All winter long, whenever I heard the wolves, I pictured them mourning, lamenting the loss of their den. While I felt their loss in my own body, I didn’t know how to mourn with them. My heart felt as though it were breaking.
That grief was compounded for me when I left the Ghost Valley the following autumn. Moving into the city, I had not anticipated the way it would feel as though my heart was being wrenched in two with much of it left on the valley floor. There is a particular intimacy that one begins to feel in a place that one has lived in and known well. I missed the cycles of the moon over the ridge, the outline of the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies – pink and orange in the morning light, a clear blue with shades of purple and silver at dusk – and the eagles that soared over the valley. The trees on the far ridge swaying gently in time to the music, the particular woodsy smell of leaves changing in the fall, and new forest growth in the spring. I missed living in a place where I felt connected to the seasons and rhythms of life, a place I felt I belonged.
Ecological grief has, for me, looked very similar to the grief of losing a loved one. It has felt as though an intimate part of my body and soul has been ripped away from me, leaving me fearful, lost, and deeply wounded. I have found it hard to know how to heal and how to grieve. How do you grieve the loss of something so intimate but also so other? And what does it look like to be patient and present to my own particular process? These are questions that I’ve been faced with as I mourned the loss of habitat for the wolves. And for my own loss of home in the Ghost.
Here is what I’ve learned from my experience:
1. There is no timeline to grief. Some days the clear-cut in the Ghost feels like a distant memory and some days it feels as present to me as though it were still happening. I’ve learned not to judge my feelings or my sorrow but to notice them and to honor them by giving them time and space. I do this in a number of ways. Some days I simply allow myself to feel what I’m feeling. At other times, I journal or reach out to friends who are patient and gentle with my grief even when they don’t understand it.
2. Personal and communal rituals help. When the clear-cut was finished (for now), a group of neighbors who had formed Stop Ghost Clear Cut (now known as the Ghost Valley Community) asked Amy and I to facilitate a ritual for grief and healing. You can read more about that in our previous blog. Additionally, to continue my grieving process, I have written letters to the land of the Ghost Valley, walked the labyrinth (at King’s Fold) as a guided process of letting go, and ritualized a burial ceremony. In this ritual I wrote a letter about what I was mourning and letting go on one side of paper and a letter about what I was hoping would be birthed out of the death on the other side. Each of these practices helped me to mourn and honor the grief that I experienced. Personal rituals have given me the opportunity to be thoughtful and present to my grief, and communal rituals have helped me to realize that I am not alone in these feelings.
3. Grief can be a doorway into solidarity and action. Author, activist, and eco-philosopher Joanna Macy has a quote that I have used as a touchstone during my own eco-grief. She says, “The other side of our pain for the world is our love for the world.” When we love something we work for good on its behalf. These words are a good reminder that the depth of our grief connects us to our capacity to love. When we grieve a loss it is because of our connection to and experience of love for that person/place/creature/thing. And our love empowers us to act for good on its behalf. During my time at the retreat centre, I struggled with not knowing how to act or what to do with my grief. I’ve learned that for me part of understanding my connection to nature and the non-human world has come through grief. The loss I’ve experienced has given me the ability to see my connection, deeply experience love and eventually discover the opportunity to move into solidarity through action.
Each of us has our own experience of moving through grief into love and action, as well as our own way that we are called to act in this world. For me, this has a been a process of learning that my action and contribution comes primarily through creating spaces for people to interact with their own connection to the non-human world while dialoguing with others about how to do that. I also practice painting, writing, and my work with Refugia itself has become a way that I can create space for others to experience and move through their understandings of connection, grief, solidarity and action.
I’d like to close with a quote by author and psychotherapist Francis Weller, from his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: “Whenever we touch the places of loss in our lives, at whatever gate they appear, we move closer to the earth.” My grief gave me the opportunity to move closer to the earth by attending to the places of loss in my own life, allowing me to be reminded of my love and ultimately by leading me in to greater solidarity and action on behalf of the earth. My hope for you is that your experiences of ecological grief might do the same.