I walked out this morning for my early walk into a gentle weeping of the trees.
Heavy fog had drifted in, a winter occurrence here in Florida when nights are warm. (For the past month we’ve been unseasonably so.) Condensation from the fog gathers in the limbs and leaves of trees drips with a slight, pale and distant sound. Its disconcerting at first because it isn’t actually raining though the trees are behaving as if it were.
A slow seeping of moisture, not rain but fertile. A grievous leaking of broken skies in the midst of a winter warm by Florida standards, cutting short whatever small reprieve we have before the next longer hotter summer season.
Whatever your reading (we are poets), the sound was a gentle and sad.
Grieving the year that has just ended, or the one to come? They merge here, one door closing, the next creaking open. Our breeding climate miasmas steel us (or should) to increase the threat by unknown factors. On Thursday a Colorado wildfire fueled by drought, unseasonably warm temperatures and 100 mph winds destroyed nearly 1,000 homes; by the weekend, winter weather had reversed the course with snow falling heavily over the same area. On Saturday a line of storms producing tornadoes marched through the same counties devastated by tornadoes two weeks ago — with a winter weather advisory in their wake. In the Philippines, residents are still plying the wreckage of Typhoon Rai, the island nation’s 15th cyclone of the year. More than 400 were killed and some 530,000 houses were damaged by the storm. And in the northeastern counties of Brazil, where drought has plagued the region for 5 years, the skies opened in December with the most rainfall in three decades, driving 50,000 from their homes. Natalie Untersell, president of a climate policy think tank in Brazil, urged the government to take climate change into account when rebuilding “Brazil is built to a climate that no longer exists,” she said.
Concurrent with this (always some equally worrisome concurrency in our new world), the Omicron variant runs rampant — 5 million new cases worldwide in the past week; in Florida alone, 77,848 new cases of COVID were reported on Thursday, almost double the previous one-day record set a day ago. And we can’t be sure these number are close to the accurate count since home testing became available and those infections are rarely reported. Florida’s Republican governor, who has warred on mask mandates and vaccine requirements, has been absent from public sight, and the state doesn’t plan to open new testing sites. I remember when 10,000 new cases was a jaw-dropping new reality. Twenty eight percent test positivity and few wear masks at my local grocery store.
Now I’m sure you are weary of these weekly body-counts as evidence of a dying Earth. If you are still looking for that evidence, you won’t be disappointed; if you’re hoping it will convince others to act, well, the dance has become almost meaningless. For the incessant patter of it is like moisture falling from fog-bound trees — here but already gone.
My body-sense of this death is ambiguous — so far and too near — and with no sense of linear progression. Change keeps coming in unpredictable ways.
New year, same old harrows, new and old at the same time.
As I said a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading Pauline Boss’s new book The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. It seeks a larger riff on her life’s work studying how grief is endured and perpetuated in families, between generations and in society at large.
While some losses can be grieved in linear fashion — something that feels like a beginning, middle and end — many losses cannot, either because the fact of death was never quite confirmed or understood or the departed is has only been lost in one sense, like an alcoholic parent who is physically present but emotionally gone. Ambiguous losses like this are rarely acknowledged, which leads both the loss and grief of it to frozen. In such cases, people simply wait for things to go back to normal but they never quite do.
Other ambiguous losses range from the personal — breakups, separations, migration — financial (loss of job and financial security) to collective ambiguous losses due to slavery and racism (think of all the opportunities lost) and more widespread ambiguous losses due to catastrophe.
Traditional models of grief recovery say that closure is needed — to finally put the thing behind us and go on — but with ambiguous loss, the timeline is all screwed up. When a spouse goes missing, when does one finally declare they are widowed? Also, shutting the door to old pain may be a way to force forward movement, but few really benefit from burying their losses. Rather, we live an absent ghostly host; to be rid of them would to lose the better half of our heart. Rilke famously refused psychotherapy, saying, if you rid me of my devils I will lose my angels, too.
In many cases of grief, closure is the wrong tack. There are no clear and absolute endings. As Mitch Abrom wrote, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” Divorce ends a marriage, but not other elements of that relationship including friendship or co-parenting. What if the missing spouse should return, the alcoholic parent sober up? Both possibilities remain real; the reality is that one must live with that ambivalence. Likewise, while it important to form new relations and connections with life after a loss, memory of the departed becomes a part of one’s identity, and to lose it is to lose one’s own past. Our culture is hasty about getting over the hard parts, is too quick to erase cultural memory of its stains. Mastery and control create many ghosts.
People have suffered a wide range of ambiguous losses due to the pandemic. Here are some that Boss lists:
- Loss of hopes, dreams, and plans for your future—the loss of a way of life that had promised fulfillment and satisfaction
- Loss of certainty about safety and health for yourself and family
- Loss of routines
- Loss of playdates for young children and at-school learning for all students regardless of age
- Loss of parental time and freedom to go to work due to the need for at-home schooling for their children
- Loss of ability to be with a loved one who is hospitalized and/or dying
- Loss of traditional rituals of mourning and burial, not knowing where the body of a loved one is
- Loss of ability to celebrate or mourn major life events—births, graduations, marriages, deaths, etc., in community with others
- Loss of support and comfort from your community at times of loss
- Loss of ability to attend large events—concerts, sports, lectures, reunions, and so on
- Loss of control of how much time is spent with partner and children (too much, too little)
- Loss of trust in the world as a fair and just place
- Loss of trust in leaders and authorities
- Loss of freedom to move about as we please
Pandemic losses suggest the scope of the pandemic in ways we don’t see as fully looking at it straight on, taking in only the hard counts of infected and dead. Now heading into its third year, it’s hard to imagine some things ever coming back; we wonder if the faces behind all those masks have been erased.
In a very similar vein, climate change is creating myriad ambiguous losses. Many are losing their homes and livelihood due to rising seas, wildfire, drought and excessive rain. Millions are on the move, with a homeland vanishing behind and no welcoming place to go. The skies are emptying of birdsong, wildlife is vanishing, tree populations are dwindling to clear-cutting and pestilence introduced by exotic species. A hard dread forms at the beginning of hurricane and wildfire season. I don’t know how fast the coasts of Florida will inundate, but millions of residents will be on the move, inland and up-state exactly where I live. How soon? Will we have to move too if we are still living here, in what will probably be our advancing age?
Making these things even worse, our language for addressing these changes feels lost. The experiences are so new we haven’t found words for them. The Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht got on the map for formulating the word solastalgia, meaning grief for one’s homeland vanishing due to environmental damage; he went on to write Earth Emotions, a book that reaches for this new lexicon —like meteoranxiety, for dread of the weather to come, and meucide, the extinction of human emotion. (While these words are a helpful start, I don’t think they work in poetry since they have no collective legs to walk on.)
Our public dialogue too easily slips to extremes of denial and hysteria. The change is so big, so global, no regional language feels apt. How does one love in an age of global catastrophe, raise children, make enduring contributions? And the technologies which sped us here are speeding past — they may have already fled — rendering written language obsolete, leaving us with memes and emoticons to describe the ineffable. I have nieces in their late 20s; I can’t even imagine building a career in the wake of the transformative shimmer.
Boss suggests some strategies for living with ambiguous loss:
- Develop resilience, “the ability to be flexible in the face of pressure without breaking down.”
- Learn to live with ambiguity. Instead of mentally closing out the loss or denying the loss or its ambiguity, learn to live with tolerate the ambiguity and live well despite it. “Instead of neat and precise endings, the reality of loss comes in complicated shades of grey … Continuity and change, the ultimate contributors to paradox, must be recalibrated now and then and changed into something new.”
- Embrace both/and thinking. Instead of seeking perfect solutions where none is possible, “use the ongoing tension of conflicting ideas to provide the momentum to move us forward toward adaptation and change—living life in a new way without the lost person.” Sometimes a loss is both present and gone; both/and thinking “is more fluid, less absolute, and thus closer to the truth of ambiguous loss.”
- Find meaning. Make sense out of the loss, and when the loss is meaningless, accept that as its meaning.
- Adjust mastery. “The more we try to control the pain of loss, clear or ambiguous, the more it dominates us. It is better to flow with the sorrow when it comes,”
- Reconstruct identity. “Knowing who we are in relation to a lost loved one requires reconstructions in mind and emotions about who we are, what we do, and how we act …. Over a lifetime, loss and change accumulate, so we must be malleable enough to grow and shift who we are and what we do.”
- Normalize ambivalence. “If we live in contexts of confusion and ambiguity, it helps to acknowledge our mixed emotions so that we can more likely manage our anxiety and guilt. It takes mental strength and resilience to manage such uncomfortable feelings.”
These newer approaches to grief recovery have resonated in the academic disciplines. One that you might not have thought is archaeology. In a Neolithic Near Eastern settlement, bodies that were buried were later retrieved as skeletons, the skulls removed and then fashioned into “faces” adding gypsum, lime or mud plaster. Why? Were these tribal elders or men of some other social or economic status? Traditional anthropologies have “read” these remains as such, but an elaboration of Boss’s work called Continuing Bonds theory say that societies need space and time to grieve its collective losses. Some archaeologists now argue that rather than putting the dead behind, the adorned skulls allowed them an ongoing place in tribal life, to the point of “reconstruction” to keep their memory alive for generations. Forensic analysis of the skulls also reveals that they were from a cross-section of the population, including women and children; that may mean that the entire community shared in the grief process.
Traditional archeology has also centered on and in the head, imaging bone that has lost all trace of life and focusing on precise dating and making a wide cultural inference from the data. There is a bias in our Western civilization placing importance on hierarchy and the self, where other cultures were far more collective and ambiguous about identity. Dating provides context, but can obscure the complexity of cultural change. The grand theory that hunter-gatherers lay down their spears and took up plowshares to become famers of the Neolithic is just not true; agricultural practices were slowly merged with hunting culture, with centuries, perhaps millennia, of co-existence. Likewise, there wasn’t a sudden change from paganism and oral culture to Christian and literate; the medieval clerics who wrote Baile Suibne were five hundred years removed from the historic events and yet were still able to capture the haunting forest melodies of Mad Sweeney.
“Queer” theory has led to important reassessments of reading history from bone. If identity is fluid, then seeing with the body instead of just from the head means bodies were more than skulls. How to bring all the senses into play, and not just the peering eye, staring at remains? What about the stench? The sounds of devouring birds? And now central was identity in the long haul of the centuries? Karina Croucher and Stuart Campbell write in “Dying for a change? Bringing New Senses to Near Eastern Neolithic Mortuary Practice,”
Within Near Eastern archaeology, mortuary practices, such as the high degree of intentional fragmentation of the body … often suggest that concepts of the bounded individual body were neither intended nor apparently relevant in certain mortuary contexts, where we witness a high fragmentation and de-individualisation of both the human body, as well the bodies of animals, and certain material objects. Such cases allow for an investigation of the themes of individuality and identity, often in relation to practices of fragmentation, circulation, manipulation and discard, in relation to human bodies, animal bodies, and material culture, and their conceptualisation in reference to the body. (In Que(e)rying Archaeology: Proceedings of the 37th Annual Chacmool Conference, University of Calgary, 2009)
This “queering” of the body also allows for a more fluid identification of the human body with the wider tribe of animals.. Chantal Conneller examined findings of the Mesolithic Starr Carr site dating back to the second half of the tenth millennium BP and focused on one partially submerged platform that for centuries had ritual use in the production of animal beads and the deposition of bones in lake waters, particularly deer frontlets. Contrary to prior theories that the frontlets were used as a hunting disguise, Conneller proses the frontlets were a means to reveal, not conceal, the body:
At, or in the vicinity of, Star Carr, animal bodies were broken down and reassembled with other things and agents. Antlers were partitioned from red deer and transformed into the frontlets and also into barbed points. Elk antlers were made into mattock heads (Figure 4). Elk and aurochs bones were used for tools such as scrapers and awls. Red deer teeth and bird bones were used as beads. As noted above, use wear reveals that hide working was a major task at Star Carr (Dumont 1988; 1989), while the recovery of faunal remains indicates that flesh was also partitioned at the site. In all these ways, animal effects extended the human body. People wore animal skins and beads of animal teeth and bone, they ate animal flesh as food and used parts of animals to extend their capacities in various tasks. These animals were intrinsic parts of different human identities. So in this sense there is already, in mundane daily activity, ambiguity about where human bodies end and animal bodies start. Parts of humans transform animals, who in turn alter and extend human bodies. (47-8)
… This is not to say that the person following this recipe will literally become a dog. Becoming animal is not about moving between different bodies. Though the animal is not literal, the transformation is. Parts of human bodies connect with parts of animal bodies to produce a new assemblage of bodily effects, one that is something else entirely, not human, not dog, that relates to the world in a new way. Just as the animal part transforms the human body, so the conjunction with human parts transforms the animal. With these insights in mind, we can move beyond Clark’s ritual–functional impasse. We can stop seeing the frontlets as a disguise, but rather explore how humans and animal bodies were produced at Star Carr. As animal effects, the frontlets facilitated a bodily transformation. This was not a literal transformation into deer, but one that turned the human body into something else, by taking on the effects of the animal. Taking on the frontlets also enabled new ways of seeing. As Donna Haraway points out, viewpoints of the world are not simply related to biologically discrete organisms or individuals, but are materially mediated and are constructed and extended through the use of tools and instruments. In this way, she talks of the need to learn to see faithfully from others’ point of view ‘even if the other is our own machine’. (Haraway 1988, 583). By ‘machine’ she refers both to the human body and its organs and to the machines and tools through which perceptual translations are arrived at. Wearing the frontlets would be one such way of seeing from another’s point of view, since it would facilitate engagement with the world from a different perspective. (50)
(Chantal Conneller, “Becoming Deer: Corporeal Transformations at Starr Carr.” Archaeological Dialogues 11 (1) 37–56 ©2004 Cambridge University Press)
I go to this at length (I know, typically, endemically) to get back to earthweal’s motto: “The grief is real. So is the hope.” Is it possible to grieve and hope at the same time? Such a question addresses I think our predicament as carrying on with poetry in the midst of such widespread environmental loss. What is our meaning? How can we proceed without becoming emptied by despair? How does our individuality scale with global change? What of our human tribe that has caused this mess, is there any way to reintegrate it with the world? Is there hope?
Pauline Boss’s ideas about ambiguous loss and the grief-work it presents is vastly different from those of mastery and closure; a tech mogul launching a rocket to the stars with a few human survivors is not a healthy mythologem for grief.
Perhaps we can see the change better with our ambiguous, collective, animal eyes. For this challenge, try to sense the ambiguous losses due to climate change in your world. They may be personal (like stunted encounters with a failing environment) or societal (the body’s atrophy in the technological apotheosis of self) or natural (a tree’s observation from its height and age of fifty years of change adding to its half-a-billion-year rootstock).
We have the scientific analysis of this change with its almost 100 percent certainty of carbons heating the atmosphere, rising seas, crashing and violent weather extremes and grand species extinction: But how does the heart feel this, the body sense it, the symphony of organs breathe, circulate, digest and procreate it?
Sensed by our embodied poems, perhaps our climate catastrophe will ring bigger bells for us to act. “The lens of ambiguous loss can help us make sense of these contemporary losses so that interventions can take place at multiple levels—the personal, the familial, the societal, and the global,” Boss writes. (p28)
What is this weeping of the trees?
THE DEAD TREE
Last spring you said
it’s an ancient mariner,
this white ash poised
like a spar among
the flat-footed maples,
bare arms upborne,
diver in perfect form.
Now it’s late June
and the mountain
swims in green
but the ash stands gray
and rigid against the wind
whipped by seaweed
in the eddying shoals.
Our neighbors say
Cut it down
for its straight grain
and pure line—but
we’re not finished yet:
nature includes its dead.
A wren’s nest, a squirrel’s
shortcut, brief rest
in a monarch’s long trek:
this ash is more
you, father, anchor
and keel, sing
in the rigging
as the ship sails on.
from Liquid Paper (1991)