for MJ and Marvin
Most of us know what the pit in the stomach of loss feels like. It is a feeling we all want to avoid but, in this life, being mortal, it is unavoidable.
The other night, talking with a friend from Soldotna, Alaska, I said I realized that the shit was hitting the fan. She said, “We are in the fan Mary.” She is correct. In this case the fan is Covid and the 6th extinction. Those of us now alive are witnessing the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change. It is not climate change for the better. It is the end, very possibly, of our species.
Climate change is such a vanilla word for what is to come. My friend, who has lived in the same town since she was born, told me they are having nightly thunderstorms. Violent, noisy thunderstorms, the complaints of a planet out of balance. She, who does not normally worry about such things, is worried. She was also the buddy that accompanied me to the anti-fracking meetings we held in 2016. She has an amazing sense of humor that was no where in evidence as she told me of the changes in the weather patterns in her area. She lives in Alaska.
Alaska is on the front lines of climate change. As Alaska is so far north, the environmental changes are distinctly visible in this area of the world. You do not have to be looking for them, they smack you right in the face, looking or not.
In 2006, a friend and I went to visit Portage Glacier. He wanted me to see this magnificent glacier as he had remembered it from years ago. We arrived at the parking area and got out of the car and walked to the end of the land. There was a lake and far off in the distance a bit of ice, dirty looking ice at that. He stood in silence staring out at the lake. Then he said, “Mary, that bit of ice used to be within throwing distance of this shore. It was massive. That was only twenty years ago.” We had talked about the changes in the tundra he had witnessed over the years, but he had not seen this change until that moment. I was new to Alaska and realized the impact of this and the indicator that it was only through his reaction. I had not seen it before that moment. “The elders are right,” he said, “the world as we know it is over.”
What I saw on his face was grief. The pit in the stomach realization that something was happening that was completely out of his control and foretold disaster for his people. My friend is Cu’pik. Many of his people rely on hunting for food. It is not a sport in his area of Alaska. There are no supermarkets in the villages. The meat that is for sale is overpriced and not very good. Anyone who eats meat has to hunt and being a vegetarian on the tundra would be tricky. In this area of Alaska, largely Yu’pik and Cu’pik, the rivers freeze over solidly and become the highways for people. The rivers are no longer freezing solid. The patterns of the game are changing, which if you rely on these patterns to successfully hunt, they you may not have food for the winter. The return of the salmon is also changing. The abundance of game and fish that once was a given in this part of Alaska has dwindled. The fishing is not what it was ten years ago. The weather is not what it was. The ability to rely on this once upon a time abundance is over. This receding of the glacier was one more indicator that my friend’s people were in danger. A reliance on fossil fuels was damaging the environment and all who lived within it.
What I saw on my friend’s face was shock and grief. He is a bright man. He understood the implications for his village and his people. The villages were already changing with more and more people leaving their home villages and moving to Anchorage because the land could no longer sustain them. With their leaving their villages they were also leaving something of their history.
I live in the lower 48 now, away from the trauma of the unfolding disaster that I saw personally in Alaska. Cultures falling apart, the subsistence lifestyle under threat, the history and rituals of the people dying slowly in front of me. My friend was caught between the old ways of his father and mother and the encroachment of a society that does not care what glacier it destroys because it does not realize that this destruction will one day kill it, will one day kill us.
My work as a therapist is what sustains me. I have a very modern occupation. I help people deal with their anxiety and depression, and often their history of trauma. Last week a client, a young woman, stated, “I want to feel safe.” She is attempting to find a partner and this sense of safety and trust is especially important to her. There is nothing wrong with the desire to feel safe with another human being, but it is a fantasy. I thought about how I could tell her this. “We are mortal, we will all die, those we love will die, nothing is predictable or safe, the essence of life is a lack of real control.” Yeah, this did not seem to be helpful to me either. What I said instead is that control is an illusion and we need to find safety in letting go. That is also true but a little more nuanced and maybe not so frightening. What I sometimes want to say to people is, “Wake up!! We are destroying our home. We are definitely not safe.” This also, would not be a kind thing to say.
I believed until recently that I would miss the dramas of the changes that I have seen coming for years. I believed I could duck out of the tragedy by dying of old age. I am old enough that this seemed possible. All the scientific predictions were for the worst of it to hit in thirty years. In thirty years, I will be 98 and probably out of here. I no longer believe this. The end is happening now. The glaciers are melting now. The Ganges and many other glacially fed rivers will go away in my lifetime. Millions will be homeless, with no water to drink, no food to eat. All the predictions are in, but mother nature is taking us to task now and speeding up the catastrophe. The migrations out of Central America and the Middle East are in part due to the area’s droughts and the impossibility of people being able to sustain themselves by small scale farming. If you listen to their stories, they will tell you. It is not because of wealth or politics that they are leaving, they are leaving their homes because of starvation or the imminent threat of it.
As I write these words, I feel the reality of this. My very bones hurt with sadness. Anyone who does not feel this is dreaming. Asleep. I fortunately or unfortunately am not asleep. Our world, our incredibly beautiful and abundant world is struggling to survive, and we humans are the agents of its destruction. We will probably die first, the dinosaurs did, and the world went on, but it is a tremendous loss. There have been five major extinctions previous to this one and the world survived but the extinct did not. This should be incentive for us.
Years ago, my husband and I went camping. We were traveling into an area I was familiar with and had been to before. The area was in New Mexico, a bit north of Silver City. A pristine area of ruins, pine trees and mesquite, it was a beautiful area. We rounded a corner in the road to see acres of clear-cut pines. I stopped the car and got out and felt such a sense of horror and grief that I started to cry. My husband at first tried to comfort me but I was inconsolable. They he became frustrated. Why was I so upset about this? What I couldn’t tell him at the time was that I saw this as a message of what my species would do and the consequences of this action. I saw the future in a sharp and painful way. An understanding came to me that my species would cut down an ancient forest with no regret or understanding of the time it took for these trees to grow and no appreciation of the consequences to our health. We are currently cutting down the Amazon, which is referred to as the ‘lungs of the Americas,’ for good reason. If the Amazon goes the way of that forest in New Mexico, the system that cleans our air and allows us oxygen, will be gone. No oxygen for us, no life.
When I say we, I do mean we. If we are not paying attention and actively doing something about this, and there is a lot that individuals can do, then we might as well be out there in the Amazon with an axe. I know how harsh this sounds but we have had warning for over fifty years. When Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’ about the effects of DDT use, that was the first notice that we were traveling down the wrong path. That was in 1962. Many of the people alive today were not yet born, and it is these people who will bear the biggest burden of the destruction to come. I look at small children today and pray that I am wrong, and I now know most likely I will not dodge the coming bullet. The women in my family live a long time and as my friend says, we are now in the fan.
Our development and invasion of the wild places is part of what created the pandemic we are now in the middle of. It is no accident and it is not 5G. Biology is definite about cause and effect. We have not always understood how biology worked and this is part of the problem. We started using nature to suit our needs, pulling coal from the earth, cutting down trees, pumping out oil and gas, inventing vehicles that would kill us and not understanding the implications of any of this. We invented a religion and a god that stated we were the masters. We had the right to make decisions for all else. We gave ourselves the ultimate power but without an understanding of the consequences of this power. And here we stand, on the precipice of the consequences of our belief in our omnipotence.
That certainly was a mistake.
We are part of nature. We rely on nature and all its mechanisms. The recycling of the air, the waters flowing from the glaciers far from the river we see in front of us. If we had been wise enough to be the caretakers of this earth, we would not be facing a sixth extinction. Nature is biology and if we understand biology and respect it, we are not likely to die as early as we might.
For forty-three years I have worked as a therapist. I have believed that in my small way I have contributed to the lessening of damage. The more my clients understand that they are part of the design, not necessarily the whole of it, the more my clients can step away from a self-centered universe of one. This makes it more likely that they will make wise choices regarding the world in which they live. That is what I have told myself and it is partly true. People have grown healthier, more aware, kinder to themselves and the world with therapy. That is the essence of my work. Despite this, after 43 years, I sit in a pandemic brought on by greed, brought on by the human desire to eat pangolin. How many of you have even seen a pangolin? They too are going extinct. Their habitat is being destroyed by us. They will die before us, but this does not guarantee our survival. As of today, slightly over 125,000 people have died in the United States from Covid-19. One way of looking at this is that these people died at least in part of killing pangolins, of someone capturing a wild pangolin, bringing it to market for consumption where the virus incubated, hopping, the scientists think, from a bat to a pangolin and then to us. It is all linked. We are not separate from the pangolins or the earth, we are all linked. My response to the clear-cut forest in New Mexico 36 years ago was not very odd considering what I understood in that instant. That my beloved world was under attack and that it would get worse.
We now are in a time that can be used as reflection. The news reported that during the quarantine people could see Mt. Everest from New Delhi. That must have been an amazing sight, as if the world were new again. We could make this a time not only of reflection but of change. We could make this a time of action and insist that the changes that might still save us be made. Some people are doing this. We could use our grief as energy, to insist on action and change. We could fight for the ability to see Mt Everest from New Delhi but more than this to insist that the child my neighbor gave birth to months ago will grow to full maturity in a world that she can breath in, have enough in and maybe even live to see a pangolin.