I didn’t know there was a name for the peculiar floating anguish I have felt all my life. It is an empathy with the Earth so deep that I felt the pain when a tree was felled by wind, or worse, cut by a viciously whining saw. From my earliest years, I felt the burning when southern California’s wildfires swept the ridges of ancient oaks, and I could feel the terror of deer, squirrels, and other animals trying to outrun the inferno as if it were my own.
Ever since I was a child, I had recurring dreams of disasters. Sometimes it was nuclear war—not surprising since I was in elementary school at the height of the Cold War—and sometimes it was ever-rising tides flooding roads, impossibly fierce winds, a crazily moving earth, or advancing flames.
As the process of environmental breakdown intensified exponentially after about 1980— from loss of biodiversity to increasing pollution to ever more obvious global warming—my own anguish kept pace. In 2004, the year of the great pinon die-off in Santa Fe, I tried to stave off the death of the pinons on my own land by hauling out buckets of water to beyond where my hose could reach. One day I could no longer deny the telltale light green on a tree at the end of my driveway, the inevitable sign that the tree would soon turn brown, another victim of climate change-fueled bark beetle infestation. I fell to my knees on the painful gravel, holding the tree’s pale branches as the needles came off in my hand like a chemo patient’s hair, and howled with grief like a crazy woman.
Some time later I came across the term “planetary anguish,” coined by Buddhist scholar and environmental activist Joanna Macy. I searched for words that would describe my feelings, knowing that a term had to exist because I couldn’t possibly be alone in my lifelong extreme sorrow, oscillating between depression and rage.
In the course of my research, I came across a 1996 article in Psychology Today by Theodore Roszak called “The Nature of Sanity.” Can true sanity be defined by whether or not a person is in touch with his or her grief and fear about the scientifically probable end of the eco-system we have come to know and love? In other words, if you are not depressed by the current state of ecocide against the environment that sustains life, you are not sane, or at the very least not paying attention.
I have worn my anguish as a badge of the courage to have awareness. The anguish has threaded through my veins and arteries in tandem with my blood, skipped through the instant synapses of my neurons, and lodged in my aching heart. And yet, despite all this, I found that I could simultaneously hold anguish and hope. Anguish made hope necessary, and hope assuaged the degree of anguish and made it bearable. It is this very combination of anguish and hope that inspired and drove me to write Weather Menders.
It came as a form of relief to discover that other writers are also addressing planetary anguish. Deena Metzger’s achingly beautiful and poetic cli-fi novel, A Rain of Night Birds, evokes it unflinchingly. I bought the book because Sacred Activist and writer Cynthia Jurs of the Earth Treasure Vase Global Healing Project posted about it on Facebook. As a cli-fi writer, I hungered to read other people’s work in the genre.
I started reading the book on a plane and was immediately transfixed. The characters of Sandra Birdswell and Terrence Green come from radically different backgrounds, but reach the same place of connection, agony, and love for Mother Earth. When I read the line, “Sometimes she thought she heard the Earth call out in pain,” I burst into tears of recognition.
Who doesn’t feel that way? Who is so numb that they don’t feel the Earth screaming with thirst during a drought, shedding acid rain tears at the polluted air, struggling to breathe as her lungs are choked by deforestation in the Amazon, and desperately feverish with the warming that won’t go away?
A child who never knew a mother, as her own died giving birth to her, Sandra has always found solace in the earth, literally in her collection of soil from many places, and experientially and metaphorically in the patterns of wind and weather. As she studies climatology, initially with her Native American advisor Terrence, she learns of TEK, Traditional Environmental Knowledge. Some years later, she and Terrence reconnect as lovers: “The grief for the destruction of the Earth and the Earth-based peoples of the world was between them, the grief that had brought them together.”
Their love story is one of shared understanding and mutual teaching and learning, despite coming from very different upbringings. Sandra is a doctor’s daughter raised in the dominant culture but with the strong influence of her father’s best friend, a Navajo Medicine Man, whereas Terrence is an indigenous child drawn into success in the dominant culture. The two who never knew their human mothers discover that “Earth was the Mother.”
The imbalance of the elements begins to act out in their respective lives in dramatic ways at the crux moment in 2007 when the terrifying report from the International Panel on Climate Change was published. Both are scientists who fully understand the implications for life on Earth, and yet as individual humans they must each make their own journey of coming to terms with the probable future, even as the imbalance of the elements and the Earth affect each of their bodies in dramatic and life-threatening ways.
“How could they possibly be well if the Earth was afflicted? Suffering tuned them to the world, looking to heal the larger circle in order the heal the circle that was themselves.” These words resonated deeply with me. Some years ago, I went through a health challenge that could have turned life-threatening. While I will never know the cause for sure, I came to believe that the imbalance in my immune system was due at least in part to extreme grief over the various wars I had witnessed—between humans, and between humans and their own planet. It was necessary for me to embrace the sorrow fully in order to heal the condition.
Paradoxically, the process led me to hope against the odds and probabilities. Like Sandra, I realized that “Everything is alive, even the stones,” a teaching I have received over and over from various sources—from indigenous teachers like the late Hawaiian healer Kahu Kauila Clark and the Zulu sangoma Credo Mutwa to esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism and Sufism, to energy healing and quantum physics.
This knowledge both changes and explains my pendulating emotions. I am able to feel breathless awe at the beauty of Yosemite Falls, the excitement of seeing giraffes, lions, and a whole family of white rhinos in Kruger Park, the recurring heart-opening beauty of sunsets of coral fire, rose, and plum. I can be moved by the shining crystals coating the branches of trees after an ice fog, and the fractal patterns of ice on a window. I can delight in the macrocosm of river systems echoing in the microcosm of tiny venules and arterioles in our own mammalian bodies, and again in fossilized dendrites in ancient stones.
It was in my study of Sufism that I first came upon these correspondences. “Of course,” said my soul quietly “Of course.” There is a serenity in that experience of Oneness through echoing patterns.
As I write late on December 17th, the fires in southern California give many a reason to feel planetary anguish. They come hard on the heels of the October fires in Northern California and the burning summer in British Columbia. Intellectually, I know that the increased frequency and intensity of these wildfires is due to anthropogenic climate disruption, and I know that the fires themselves create a massive injection of greenhouse gases that can lead to further and quicker feedback loops that are terrifying in their implications. On a personal level, I am feeling not only for the humans who have lost their homes and the brave firefighters, one of whom has died, but for the animals who have lost their homes and lives, and the plant beings who have lost their lives and their communities, their biomes.
At times the anguish is too much to bear. At times I can only cry. And at other times I can meditate, can slip effortlessly into moments of non-dual perception.
And so tonight, December 17th, on the anniversary of the Persian Sufi poet Rumi’s death, his “night of wedding” with the infinite, I went to observe a Sema, the Turning of the dervishes. Here, in Santa Fe, seven dervishes doffed their traditional black cloaks and let their pure white light shine as they turned in trance, circling in the same direction as the Earth turns. Still, despite the unnecessary and intensified destruction caused by human hubris, the Earth turns. Still, so far, the dervishes turn like planets.
For a moment, anguish transforms to ecstasy, to an overarching experience of Oneness, of peace, of heart-connectedness with all beings, and with Gaia as the biggest, most all-encompassing sentient being. For a moment, watching the genderless dancers and swaying my own body to the ecstatic music, I become Mother Earth at her finest, most alive moment. For a moment, there is only this moment, this mystical now. And it is in this mystical now that all possibilities lie, that a seed of hope is born that could, perhaps, survive the extreme weather events of Earth and mind, and grow back into a Tree of Life. In the mystical now, anguish at loss turns to joy at the possibility of the restoration of the marvelous and magical biodiversity that has blessed our planet. In the mystical now, the wedding of consciousness and planetary healing is possible, and the rebirth is now.
For now, for tonight, it is enough.
Photo of the Sema at Konya, Turkey, from the film Rumi Returning, used by permission of Cynthia Lukas and Heaven and Earth Creations.