I missed giving you a new episode last week because I went on a short backpacking trip into the wilderness. That’s a lame excuse, I know, but it was very restorative. I am the teacher and executive director of a Zen center with 80 members and also maintain a Zen podcast from which I make part of my living, so I’m usually burning the candle at both ends in order to also do the Climate and You podcast. I really wanted this podcast to be weekly, but what I can actually maintain is probably three episodes a month. I hope you will continue to listen!
Nature as Eternal, Dependable, Ever-Present
One of the things I find most rewarding about getting out in the wilderness is encountering settings of striking beauty – like an alpine meadow, a cool forested glade, a quiet spot along a river, a waterfall, or a whole mountain when it comes into view – and contemplating how this scene endures serenely year after year, decade after decade, human lifetime after human lifetime. The character of the scene changes with the seasons, but seasonal cycles also continue in a steady and predictable way while all kinds of human dramas unfold elsewhere. At any given moment, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, this waterfall continues to flow and put on a show, regardless of whether any human is watching.
We know a given tree might die and fall, or a fire may temporarily alter the ecology, or successional changes may result in a different mix of species in a given area, but as a whole, nature endures. Compared to our human sense of time, nature seems eternal and dependable – a vast field surrounding and supporting us at all times, whether we’re aware of it or not. And when we’re able to set aside our human affairs for a while and enter those places where nature takes up more space than humans do, the alpine meadow and forested glade are there for us, calming our hearts and expanding our perspectives.
Of course, nature isn’t always serene and pleasant. There have always been terrible storms, fires, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. We understood that nature could be cruel sometimes. However, if we survived these relatively rare disasters, we knew nature would settle back down and make her bounty available again, as she has for as long as humans can remember. Nature’s occasional departures from the expected, however distressing, happened in the context of climate and weather patterns that had been more or less stable for millennia. Whatever misfortunes befell us in our personal lives, or to our families, clans, or societies, nature went on – implacable, predictable at least over the time scale of multiple years, ever-present, more or less unchanging.
No Longer Being Able to Depend on Nature
I think it’s important we Bear Witness to the fact that we are no longer able to depend on nature the way we used to, and that this is deeply traumatic – although the trauma is happening to us relatively slowly, and we’re not yet sure exactly how it is going to manifest for each of us, or in our wider societies.
Farmers can no longer count on water from lakes, streams, and water tables that have been providing for centuries but are now drying up. Farmers can no longer be sure that the crops they have grown for generations are suited to the new climate of their farmland. Extreme droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves are coming too often for people to cope with and still maintain their homes and livelihoods. The forest and grassland ecosystems that filter water, sequester carbon, and provide humans with lumber and grazing land are unraveling. The vast ocean is permeated with garbage and plastic and is acidifying, threatening the survival of the fish populations on which so many people depend. Whole villages – inhabited by people and their ancestors for as long as anyone can remember – are being lost by rising water and melting permafrost. We can no longer count on our favorite birds passing through our yards every year, and the flowers and trees that used to be just right for our area are dying.
When I contemplate making a trip to the wilderness ten years from now, I fear I will see the breakdown of natural systems even in the remote meadow and glade. I fear I will watch a trickle of water over a waterfall while hearing people reminisce about how it used to be a torrent. That the rivers will be empty of insects, frogs, and birds. That the forests will be dying, diseased, or burned. That the seasons will be nothing like what we remember, and that even the mountains will start wearing away, deprived of their blankets of snow and vegetation.
Thinking of this loss of nature as we have known it, this loss of stable and predictable natural systems, I touch a grief more profound than I am capable of embracing. It’s just too big. Integrating such a grief leaves you facing an abyss of further loss, rather than allowing you to recover and appreciate the steady ongoing pulse of life. There’s not only grief, there’s also a sense of being disoriented, adrift, lost, without context. And, of course, there’s fear.
Bearing Witness to Our Loss
We can hope that humanity is going to course-correct quickly enough that not all will be lost. That we will put the brakes on this accelerating climate and ecological breakdown and give nature the space to recover. She has amazing powers of recovery! I plan to talk about just that in some future episodes.
In the meantime, though, in many ways we have already lost the luxury of depending on nature the way we used to. The term “solastalgia” was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in his 2003 book Solastalgia: a new concept in human health and identity. He defined it as “the homesickness you have when you are still at home,”[i] because your environment is changing in rapid, negative, and probably permanent ways. It’s often used to talk about the experience of people and populations dealing with the loss of their homes, livelihoods, communities, and culture due to climate change or destructive practices like mining.
People who are less directly connected to and dependent on the natural environment in their daily lives are less likely to report experiencing solastalgia, but I wonder if anyone is going to be able to escape it in the coming years.
It’s important to acknowledge if we’re feeling something like solastalgia. Turning our mind toward such an experience can be painful… but we can’t avoid our feelings by ignoring them. Ignored, our grief, anxiety, anger, fear, and solastalgia can fester quietly until they undermine our health, decrease our openness to life, and compel us to speak or act in ways that don’t necessarily reflect our values. Bearing Witness to our feelings, though, can encourage us to connect with others who are feeling likewise, and motivate us to help protect what we love.