Here in south-central Alaska, winter seemed to drag on and on. Deep cold hung with us into March, snow fell almost daily from December until early April, and icy roads curtailed easy walking. I felt housebound and subjugated, like a flame in a jar starved for oxygen, flickering and, fading.
The war in Ukraine, which began in late February, added a malignant focus to this never-ending winter. Images of huddled children, burning buildings, and snaking lines of Russian tanks filled my head as I moved about my days and haunted me even as I slept. The tears I felt but didn’t shed - having long ago learned to stifle such outward displays of emotion, manifested as a severe sinus infection I couldn’t shake.
My awareness of all that’s unraveling, from democracy to declining bird and insect populations to the loss of great forests through logging and fires, has taken an emotional and physical toll. I am in mourning and don’t know how to endure this grief.
Some cultures have professional mourners – individuals who show up at funerals and wail, giving sound to the desperation we feel as loss robs us of joy, hope, and kinship. If I had not been raised to present a stoic calm that belies the shattered emotions that roil beneath the surface, maybe I would release my anguish into the world and cry and cry. But if I started crying, how would I stop? How many tears would be enough?
I know I can’t go on like this, reading the landscape, both near and global, as if I hold a deck of tarot cards with death coming up on top at every turn. To recover my health, I have stepped back from climate change news that warns us of an increasingly slim margin of time to act, from the images of war crimes in Ukraine, from headlines of continued drought conditions in the west. I feel guilt over this, as if looking away only contributes to the problem. But caring friends who have responded to my blog posts gently remind me that I may be missing the larger view.
To that end, I reread the kind words of friend and ecologist Ed Berg, “I understand your sadness about the future of the planet, but I don’t have quite the same degree of despair. The costs of the present phase will indeed be very high and the suffering will be intense and so unnecessary, but in time it will pass. The survivors will be stronger and wiser, and have amazing technology to build a better world in the ashes of the old. There are no tipping points in sight that haven’t been tipped before in the geological past. Life will go on, with or without the human component.”
I drink in these thoughts from treasured mentor and author Jan DeBlieu, “Nature is going to win. We humans are a momentary rash on the back of the great Earth. Calamity will happen, perhaps soon – probably soon – and our species will wane in influence and destructive power. And all the rest of the world will rejoice.”
In an effort to reconcile the growing loss of species as humans perpetuate the sixth mass extinction event, I imagine a future without us and recall how quickly animals responded when Covid drove humans indoors. Within days, marine mammals surged in the safer waters off the coast of France, wild boar trotted the streets of Haifa, and birds sang more complex songs in search of mates in San Francisco, freed of the roar of automobile traffic which typically dampen their range.
I consider Mother Nature’s past resurrection from the ashes of volcanism, meteorites, rapid sea- level rise, and glacial advance. During the most recent mass extinction event, 66 million years ago, an asteroid plunged Earth into wintery darkness as ash blocked the sun and acidification poisoned the ocean. The ecological collapse, best known for extincting dinosaurs, reduced Earth’s plant and animal species by 75%. And yet, because of this cataclysmic event, mammals and birds gained the advantage, rapidly adapting and expanding into vacated terrain.
Given time, the creative forces that fashioned wild horses, nodding daffodils, and the sweet trill of larks, will surge forth with new, seemingly magical abundance and beauty. The water cycle will, over millennia, clean the air, rivers, and ocean of our toxins. Green growth will mask the strip-mined mountains and garbage dumps we leave behind. And the air will be abuzz with insects and the wings of glorious creatures we can only dream of. My problem is, I’m attached to the world we have, and lament the decline of each species as if my own children were being pulled from my arms.
I turn to Buddhism and find a blog that offers, “Perhaps the most fundamental, most core belief, of the Buddhist religion is the concept of impermanence: that nothing lasts forever. That which didn’t exist at one time will cease to exist in another time. Everything you own, everyone you know, all the places you’ve been to, your memories, the entire planet, the sun, the galaxy, and even the universe, will at some point cease to exist.” In short, everything is destined to change, and accepting this inevitability makes life easier. I understand this intellectually but suspect grief will always be an undercurrent I brace against.
Then, as if in answer, my dear friend and artist Rika Mouw sends me this comforting quote by Elisabeth Rush in her book First Passage, “The only way to survive grief is to care for what remains with even more heart than before.”
As I ponder the significance of these offerings, warmth and color begin to transform the hills around me and I contemplate the genesis of spring. Spring is the key to ecological renewal and regeneration. Breaking the dead grip of winter’s dark and cold, no matter if that winter lasts a season, or a generation, spring, in an alchemy of sunlight, warmth, and verdant growth, sparks rebirth.
On a cool, bright day, craving sun on my face, I bundle up in a blanket and sit on the porch. The sun warms me, and I discard the blanket, like shedding a chrysalis. I cock my ear and hear the sound of water in a shallow creek, burbling and splashing as it speeds away, snowmelt turned to sustenance for this ever-changing landscape. I listen to the staccato of Steller’s jays and watch them secret twigs into a canopy of spruce trees. I grin as amped-up squirrels chase each other over the lingering crust of snow covering the garden beds. In a warm curve of the yard, red fists of rhubarb shoots thrust themselves up through the naked Earth. Energy, hope, and reverence for life awaken in me on this sunny day. I lean into spring for a cure.
I venture down to the warmth of the greenhouse, where I pull away the detritus of last year’s crops and run my hands over the crumbly soil. I connect the garden hose to the faucet on the side of the house and dance a spray of water over the dry soil, awakening the smell of Earth in my sensitive sinuses. I create shallow furrows and pour seeds into my palm, pinch them in my fingers, and gently dispense lettuce, arugula, radishes, and spinach into the furrows. Breathing in deeply, my skin warms, and my head clears.
Any day now, I will hear the off-key notes of the first varied thrush, our earliest returning songbird. Soon after, the reedy call of sandhill cranes will beckon me out of the house to stand barefoot on the cold deck, looking up to see these harbingers of spring and survival, long legs dangling, as they return once again, yet again, still again, to the ponds and sloughs and grasslands that they have inhabited for countless millennia – eons before we took up our destructive residence.
Driving into town in the afternoon, with less snow and more grass exposed as I drop in elevation, I idle behind a school bus. I watch as it disgorges children. At the first stop, two girls bounce off the bus and, still in their winter boots, kick up road dust as they head home. Two blocks later, a gaggle of kids, coats unzipped or jammed into backpacks, hurry like eager ducklings into the warm embrace of a free afternoon. At the next stop, a trio of older girls, demure until they too break into a run, sprint downhill toward a future that beckons irresistibly.
Spring, though fleeting, offers me the balm I craved when snow fell on an April morning while I longed for sun and soil. The alders will leaf out, hiding the neighbor’s collection of spent cars, sagging outbuildings, and an ill-advised gravel pit. The robins will return, making nests in the trees, but also within the sharp angle of the roof above the back door. They will weave together grass and moss, doghair, and bits of yellow twine, to create a perfect cup for tiny chicks.
The garden will grow, and I will bend to weeding, watering, and harvesting. Soon fresh kale, sharp arugula, and crisp asparagus will ease our grocery bill and enhance our dinner plates. We will fish for salmon, driving up the road to dipnet in the Kenai River, or down to the bay to set net, hoping for enough of these silver beauties to keep us through the winter. Fish we will grill or bake with flesh so moist and flavorful we never grow tired of it. In this way, we will take the gift of the ocean into our bodies, becoming ever more one with our environs.
With that encouragement, I give myself over to spring so that I too might be reborn, entrusting my despair to warm rains that will give rise to green grass and the delight of dandelions freckled across the lawn. I release my sorrows of ecological loss and war to spring’s gentle ministering. For a short time at least, may my troubles melt away like the sculpted piles of snow that linger in the shade.
Margaret Renkl – NYT, in her glorious New York Times guest essay entitled “What to Do With Spring’s Wild Joy in a Burning World” summarizes my thoughts with, “In this troubled world, it would be a crime to snuff out any flicker of happiness that somehow leaps into life.”
Jessica Shepherd writes about Alaska's vast but delicate wilderness. Her essays offer an eye-witness perspective of life and change in a small coastal town, coupled with scientific findings and a spiritual appreciation for land and seascapes.