Season 2, Episode 7: When Grief Is A Barrier To Enjoying Time In Nature

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image credit | Paul Earle

Season 2, Episode 7: When Grief Is A Barrier to Enjoying Time In Nature

In this episode, Thomas and Panu confront an issue that is commonplace as the impacts of climate change are more widely felt: How can we enjoy our time in natural settings and seek the restoration we crave when our awareness of environmental destruction and our feelings of ecological grief are so strong? Panu shared research about how climate grief acutely impacts many young people and their emotional connection to places. Thomas reminded us that ecological grief has been a perennial challenge among ecologically aware people, even a strange privilege—citing Aldo Leopold’s famous dictum “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”—and looked back to his own youthful confrontations with old growth clearcuts through his “postmodern expeditions” practice. As this podcast demonstrates, we are not doomed to live alone with our feelings about the world. We can join with others that share our values and sense of urgency. And, as our recent discussion with Rosemary Randall taught us, grief is not solely a barrier but also a gateway, an invitation to new ways of being that mourn our losses and reinvest our energy back into life. So too with our potential for re-securing our attachments to places and restoring (re-storying) wounded places. Listen for more details and share in this important discussion.

The Climate Change and Happiness Podcast is a self-funded, volunteer effort. Please support us so we can keep bringing you messages of coping and thriving. Become a Patreon or visit our Donate page.

Links

  • Hickman, C. (2020). We need to (find a way to) talk about … Eco-anxiety.

    • All I see is lovely trees and that reminds me that we are killing all the trees and then I feel angry and sad, so I won’t or can’t go there any more. If people stupidly tell me that time in nature is healing all I can say to them is that all I see is dying animals and plants”.

Transcript

Transcript edited for clarity and brevity.

Thomas Doherty: Please support the Climate Change and Happiness Podcast. See the donate page at climatechangeandhappiness.com.

[music: “CC&H theme music”]

Introduction voice: Welcome to Climate Change and Happiness, an international podcast that explores the personal side of climate change. Your feelings, what the crisis means to you, and how to cope and thrive. And now, your hosts, Thomas Doherty and Panu Pihkala.

Thomas Doherty: Hello, I’m Thomas Doherty.

Panu Pihkala: And I am Panu Pihkala.

Doherty: And welcome to Climate Change and Happiness. Our podcast. The show for people around the globe who are thinking and feeling deeply about climate change. The personal side of climate change. And other environmental issues. Obviously climate change is one part of a larger suite of challenges that we have. And talking about our emotions. And today it’s Panu and I. And we are doing some of the original work of this podcast which is trying to sort out some of these challenges that we confront personally and that people come to us. Questions that people come to us with. And today we’re getting into this question. This issue. This suffering that people have when they feel uncomfortable or they feel grief going out into nature. So rather than getting this restoration they’re seeking they have to confront these sad and negative feelings. And it gets in the way. And they don’t know what to do about this. And so we’re going to talk about this. And so listeners you can see how this fits for you. But Panu, tell me more about this problem? How are you hearing about it? And how it’s being discussed in the world.

Pihkala: Yeah. That’s something that came up prominently, for example, when we were organizing facilitated discussion groups for people who wanted to talk about their ecological emotions. Especially so-called eco-anxiety. Ympäristöahdistus in Finnish. So this was in Finland. So clearly people who care about the more than human world deeply and who are highly aware of what’s going on, it may be difficult to bear. And so many things may remind people of ecological threats and damage. So the potential triggers for feeling some kind of distress are so numerous that it’s complicated.

I’m also strongly reminded of interview research done by my dear colleague Caroline Hickman from Great Britain, who has been interviewing children in various parts of the world. And asking about how they feel about climate change. And what are their thoughts about it. And this following is an excerpt from Caroline’s 2020 article We need to (find a way to) talk about … Eco-anxiety. So here’s Caroline:

“A number of young people told me that they no longer felt able to go and spend time in nature because it made them feel so angry and sad and full of grief at the loss of nature that it was now becoming unbearable for them.”

And then follows a quote from a child who is saying:

“All I see is lovely trees and that reminds me that we are killing all the trees. And then I feel angry and sad. So I won’t and can’t go there anymore. And if people stupidly tell me that time in nature is healing, all I can say to them is that all I see is dying animals and plants.”

All I see is dying animals and plants. So that’s a pretty strong case of becoming so affected. So, what thoughts come to your mind, Thomas, when hearing that example?

Doherty: Well it’s really a beautiful quote. And it speaks to the directness of young people when they come upon these things. I’m just thinking of Greta and other young climate activists who are really calling out these issues. I think this is really important. I think, myself, I have experienced this problem. I know you have, Panu. Anyone listening who’s done any environmental work of any kind. Whether it’s conservation work or landscape work or humanitarian work, has had to confront this. So, I have had this question come up recently in my therapy training group. As therapists are struggling with this, also.

And so there’s two things going on here. One, it’s novel and new for many people. Like you said in our planning conversation, the extent of this is really important. Many, many people are being able to tap into this now because many, many people are having consciousness raising about environmental issues and climate change. And things like that. Although, we can look back in history and find many people that have already trodden this path. You and I have trodden it. We’ll talk about ways that we cope. And we’ll look at other well known environmental leaders that have spoken about this.

So, the first thing that I tell people is that, first of all, your feelings are true and accurate. You know, the feelings task is important. Let’s just stay with the feelings. Validate. Elevate. Create. Let’s validate this. Put it on a pedestal. Not just sweep it away. Particularly young people. No, let's stay with this. This is important. Tell me more about these feelings. And then let’s get creative about them. When did it start. And what do you do about it. How do you cope. So that creativity like in our recent episode with Kim Stafford. It’s all about sort of having a blank page. But then, realizing, as I always tell myself, if I can think about something then I know someone else already has. And then I can start to sort of see this. You know, what I tell a therapist is that, simply put, this is not a barrier, it’s a doorway. This is a threshold. This is a rite of passage. So it’s a normal part of our development of our environmental identity. It’s stark when these young people have such sad and troubling things to say. But it is a sign of development. It is a sign of moving forward.

So that’s the way I would start talking about this. As a kind call to adventure. Kind of the hero's journey kind of model. And obviously we want to refuse the call because we don’t want to let go of our innocence and our kind of idea that nature is there for us and pristine and safe. But that’s ultimately a child-like idea that these young people are. It’s kind of being stripped away from them, unfortunately. But I think there are ways to nurture this and move forward.

Pihkala: Yeah. Thanks for sharing all that. And one phrase that was used I think in an early 2020s report by Lise Van Susteren, a colleague was the working wounded. Referring to people who work with environmental matters. Or simply work outdoors and so can’t escape the facts that there is much happening [in] ecosystems. And it was very difficult for a long time for many of these people because the working communities didn't really have resources for encountering the emotions. As you say Thomas here, you know, staying with the feelings. But instead, in many natural science communities, for example, it’s a totally new idea to talk about emotions at all. Not to mention emotions related to what’s going on in the natural world. So people felt very isolated. And there was lot’s of unhealthy suppression and repression going on. And some people like Phyllis Windle in the 90’s already wrote a very good article about the grief of environmentalists. And that goes much deeper in history as you say, Thomas.

Doherty: Yeah. One of the gifts of the ecopsychology movement. Particularly in the 90s. That original ecopsychology edited volume was that people pulled a lot of these ideas together. And there is a good chapter in there on restoration. So many people have had this insight. That restoring myself and restoring nature are part of the same process. There’s many things. I mean whenever I get into this I always go back to the famous quote from Aldo Leopold. From the Sand County Almanac, you know, one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on the land is invisible to laymen. And ecologists must either harden his shell—this is a dated quote in some ways. In terms of gender and things like that. But, an ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business. Or he must be the doctor who sees marks of death in a community that believes itself well. And does not want to be told otherwise, right? And that’s very much what this young person that you quoted is channeling. This kind of thing. But we don’t need to live alone, first of all.

That’s part of the issue. Most eco anxiety and eco grief, the problematic aspects of it are because we are alone. And we don’t have anyone to share it with. So, we are doomed to live in a damaged world. Humans do impact the natural world. And there is no way of getting around that. But we’re not doomed to be alone with it. We’re not doomed to be, you know, ignorant of it. Or in suppression of it. But obviously these young people are having a meta awakening. They’re awakening to our economic systems and our legal system in which nature and trees do not have any intrinsic rights. Right? And that we do have to kill a lot of trees and harvest a lot of trees. Whether you use the word kill or harvest is notable here. But we do harvest trees. And, of course, native cultures have created and have always had ways to understand the reciprocity of using trees. And animals. And having a relationship with nature that provides a ceremony for all of this interbeing and interconnection. In young people and in our capitalist society we don’t have any ceremonies to hold all this sort of stuff. So it is quite jarring to have this waking up syndrome, as they call it. Particularly with young people.

Pihkala: Yeah, definitely. So the awakening or realization can be very difficult. Especially if there’s no community to help you with the awakening or realization. And in many human societies, there’s been ancient traditions designed to deliver potentially traumatic information. Or, you know, these deep facts about the human condition and living on earth. For example, related to mortality and so on. So, something like that would be needed also in relation to the times we are living in now. And many concepts have been used of the state where people encounter these painful truths. Some have been applying frameworks related to post traumatic stress disorder, for example. Getting creative and using terms like mid-traumatic stress disorder [e.g. Mary Pipher, The Green Boat, 2013]. Because we are living in the midst of it. And I think personally and as a researcher that some of that scholarship about post traumatic stress is very fitting.

But of course we need care in how we use concepts of trauma, for example. And concepts which have the word disorder. So that may have some unwelcome implications. But, some elements of the scholarship like, you know, becoming quite shaken by the images and thoughts. And they are intrusive. It’s difficult to get away from them. And even when you go to a dear forest you start seeing burning trees in your mind. So that has some profound links I think with what the scholars of post traumatic stress are about. But how about you, Thomas, as a therapist? How do you see these issues?

Doherty: Yeah. Well, I think we need to be careful. Particularly mental health therapists need to be careful because their tools are ultimately about disorders. And about trauma. And I don’t know that I necessarily want to saddle young people with trauma in this regard. I think, in the healthiest sense, this is simply a learning process. It’s a way of learning our environmental identity. And I think of it more as a rite of passage in a building capacity versus some sort of trauma. Obviously there are traumatic feelings, but I’m not interested in saddling a young generation to all be trauma survivors and victims. I don’t think that’s very inspiring. And I don’t think that’s what our ancestors would like. I don’t think that’s what native cultures would ultimately think about. Or Aldo Leopold. Or Rachel Carson. Or any of these people.

So, we have to be careful if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so, using some of the healing concepts from trauma work, but not necessarily using pathology as the lens through which we see the world. I don’t find that very inspiring. Rosemary Randall who we. The last two folks who we had on the podcast, Rosemary Randall and Kim Stafford, were great examples of people that were approaching this issue, but in a very growthful way. And very compassionate. And ultimately inspiring. Rosemary Ro used William Worden’s grief work in her work with people who are confronting their own climate impacts. And, you know, so there are road maps here for us, right? You know, accepting the reality of the loss. We have tasks when we’re going through ecological grief. And so when someone is having this barrier to being out in nature, there are some steps. It’s accepting reality intellectually and emotionally.

The emotional piece is the hard one, obviously. And then working through these. Sharing the feelings. Understanding nuance. What the feelings are. Anger. Grief. Loss. You know, I have my grief map that I use with people. So it’s like are you grieving something from the past? Are you grieving something currently? Are you grieving something that you expect to happen? And all the being with that disorganization. So there’s a period. It’s a rite of passage. Once you open that door and step in. It is confusing. And we don’t know. And our old ways don’t work anymore. And I might keep going to a natural place and be confused about it time and time again. Until I can see that place in a new light. And adjusting to this new environment. And new skills. New sense of self. And putting my energy into this new world. Which is, oh I need to help caretake and have a sense of stewardship for these places. It’s not just the backdrop. It’s not just a product. Or a commodity. Or an Instagram photo, right? You know, young people are sucked into the beauty and the adventure of nature. And they think they can partake of it. And then also the shadow side comes along with it. And that we don’t see the shadow side on Instagram, right? We don’t have a shadow Instagram out there.

So anyway, listeners should know there are steps. And there are people that have trodden this path before. Many many people. We talked about Rachel Carson and the idea of a sense of wonder recently. Obviously she was able to balance both fear and pain and concern. But also the sense of wonder. But when you think about things that inspire you, Panu, personally what comes up for you?

Pihkala: Yeah. Several things. Francis Weller. The American West Coast psychotherapist who has written profoundly about grief is one inspiration. And he’s using the metaphor of gates of grief. So that comes to mind. Thomas when hearing your metaphor here. And I’ve really found his work helpful. And in his workshops there’s also people tapping into their feelings of ecological grief. Even though they might have come to the workshop with a different purpose. And of course these are intertwined. You know, various things that happen in our lives become intertwined.

I've been very impressed by Trebbe Johnson’s work. She and colleagues have developed Radical Joy for Hard Times Network. Radicaljoy.org I think is the website. And this method of what they call “Guerrilla beauty”. But anyway the idea is to go together there, to go into these wounded natural places as they call it. And being aware of the very human temptation of trying to look away, and not going somewhere where painful feelings and memories come to mind. But instead going toward them. Spending time there together. They even sometimes have a sort of method of liminality. Liminality, referring to this sort of rite of passage-like space, where you step away from ordinary life for a while. And then you sometimes step back. So, for example, going on a pilgrimage or a sacred journey is a classic example of a liminal state.

And so it’s related to this rite of passage thing that you, Thomas, mentioned. But, for example, if there’s some clear cut forest which is dear to you, you may just take a branch and use that to signal a border. A threshold. So crossing that branch you sort of enter into this liminal space with the clear cut. You spend time there. You reflect on the feelings. You do things that your body sort of advises you to do. And perhaps then, also, doing something in return like a small gift of beauty. That’s what they do with the “Radjoy” network. Then stepping back over the branch into everyday life. So it’s quite a creative methodology. And has spread into many countries. And I really like the idea [of Guerrilla beauty] to encounter these painful feelings together.

Doherty: Yeah.

Pihkala: I guess, Thomas, that that resonates with many things in your ecopsychology work in the past few decades.

Doherty: Yeah. I mean it reminds me of what I did when I was quite young. I mean I confronted this stuff a long time ago. An interesting experience for me is after I left college—and I still had not had my eco awakening at that point—I was still naive about really the state of the world. And living in this bubble of capitalism. And kind of anthropocentric thinking. And then I went to Alaska and I worked as a fisherman. In Kodiak, Alaska. It was such a wakeup call. I was confronted with all my illusions about what the wild is. And about, you know, nature. And I saw this really utilitarian view of nature and the natural world. And what it takes to actually get salmon and halibut and cod. The fish we eat. And from Alaska. And, you know, I really had this awakening, but I had chosen it. See this was also Ro talks about chosen. When you choose something and learn it, it’s different from when it’s thrust upon you. It’s always nice to come back to our very very first ideas. Before. When we have beginner's mind. Before we become educated and read a lot of journals and articles and things like that.

And I did some projects called “Post-Modern Expeditions,” I called them. Where I would actually go, when I was living in the Seattle area in Washington state in the US. You know, I would go into a clear cut. And then go into the old growth. And when you walk around a clear cut area, you can find the edge. And you could walk from the clear cut into the forest. And it’s unlike anything you typically see because the edge is so stark. It’s not like walking into a city park where there’s a kind of gradual going deep into the forest. Where there’s a clear cut, in some places you can go from a hot, dry, dusty clear cut, that’s full of sun and the sun beating down on you. And there’s all this slash. And kind of, you know, debris and insects buzzing. And things like that. It’s quite hard to hike through a clear cut area because there’s no paths. And then as soon as you walk into the forest. As soon as you walk into the part that’s not cut, it becomes silent. And cool. And it’s muted. And you realize, oh I’ve stepped into this whole different world. It’s a whole different ecosystem. You know, an old growth forest is immense. A huge canopy. And undergrowth. It’s kind of hard to describe unless you’ve done it. But I would purposely do this.

That was my first ecopsychology work was plumbing these things. Or canoeing down an industrial river. The Duwamish River in Seattle. Which is full of, you know, factories and container ships and things. And then going twenty miles south and going down the Nisqually. Which is a wildlife refuge. And paddling through there. And realizing this is the same landscape, just two different versions of it. I don’t know why I was doing it, but that’s what I was called to do. But, you know, once you expand your horizons then, you know, you’re not stuck in this kind of painful innocence. So I think where we go with this is like, how do we move toward stewardship? Restoration. Understanding regeneration after fires. After Mount St. Helen’s eruption in Washington. We learned so much about the regeneration of the landscape. And about life. Life and nature are tenacious. And places will restore themselves over time. All the places we’ve lost can and will restore themselves. Maybe not the same anymore because our climate is changing obviously. But that power of restoration I think. And regeneration after a loss. After a fire. Can be quite inspiring for people.

Pihkala: Yeah thanks for sharing that. That’s a very profound experiment and method you mentioned. And I hear a lot of intuition in the method. And can resonate with many parts of it. There’s lots of clear cuts in Finland, also. We have endless ongoing debates about how to treat forests in Finland. And when I was still more involved with Christian congregations, I was sometimes also pretty spontaneously leading grief rituals for clear cut forests. So applying sort of what you have into the situation at hand. So that’s a glimpse from my own history related to these themes.

But I really think that the embodied dimension is important here. Going somewhere. And then activating your senses. Trying to keep the emotions open. And the eminent grief researcher William Worden, who was mentioned here, he’s been alive and dynamic and changing the wordings in his tasks of grief. Which I think is a great sign of following the times. And an earlier formulation of the fourth task was reinvesting emotional energy and life energy. And, of course, also around us the life energy is moving and replenishing as you, Thomas, say. So I think there’s so much strength in that formulation. But lately he’s been integrating this framework of continuing bonds and emotionally relocating the lost object or person in one’s life. This is too large a topic to go into depth here now. It’s related to things I’ve been doing in my research also lately.

But I think that by going into these wounded natural places. Or these sort of ambiguous juxtapositions of, for example, the border between a clear cut and an old growth forest. I think that’s working through our affective bonds with the more-than-human world. So working through our affective bonds with the more-than-human world. I think this is what’s going on. And there’s interesting possibilities for integrating grief theories and then ecological grief dynamics.

Doherty: Yeah. Yeah. This is such a juicy thing. And we’ll keep coming back to this topic. So listeners you’re taking this in. And kind of seeing how it lands for you. I mean I think the key thing is that this is not a new idea itself. But the newness is the extent of people that are rapidly coming to grips with this kind of loss of innocence. This waking up syndrome. And, you know, so it is a kind of adulting for us to let go of the innocence. Well that’s not the right word. We don’t let go of our innocence. We integrate our innocence with our maturity. And our adult mind. Obviously Kim Stafford who we just spoke to. The poet. He channeled a very kind of infectious, beautiful adult kind of innocence in terms of creativity.

But there is an adulting here. Where we say, we need to take responsibility for this. We are the people that are going to change this. And it is also somewhat of a white phenomenon. I’m thinking of Sarah Ray and some of her writing about this. You know, the people that are more vulnerable to some of this are privileged because they did have this sense of innocence. And a sense of nature is there for me. And these stories. And, you know, the childhood stories about how nature is beautiful. And all this sort of stuff. And so some of the people that are most privileged are the most vulnerable to these feelings. But we don’t want to blame the victim. We don’t want to say well that’s your problem because of capitalism. And you’re first world people so you should suffer.

Although there is an impulse, I think, among some people to really hold people’s feet to the fire. And say you deserve to suffer. Not because many other people have suffered. And, you know, listeners can tap into that energy too. But we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You know, people like Louise Chawla and David Sobel. Some of the educational theorists have looked at ways to cope with these kinds of things. Maya Lin has a great website. What Is Missing? Which is an online kind of memorial to extinction. And so I think one interesting thing to think about is our own memorials. I was talking to Panu before we started. I said, is there truly a memorial to extinction? I mean like a Lincoln Memorial style memorial to extinction. There isn’t, unfortunately. As far as I know anywhere in the world. And so that’s kind of what we need. And if we had something like that. Where people could go. And it was publicly recognized from the powers that be, then I think we would feel a little differently about this. But that would be recognizing a huge shadow-side of our society which is difficult. So.

Pihkala: It indeed is. And in my 2017 Finnish book [Päin helvettiä? Ympäristöahdistus ja toivo] I had a subchapter on memorial places. So this is something also that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. And in Britain there’s been this quite large project on so-called MEMO. Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory. [now Eden Portland, UK] So the original idea was to have a quite conspicuous building. But they ended up in financial difficulties. And they are continuing the project in some way. But that was quite an inspiring idea. And then of course smaller scale things have been happening. But also together with some artists in Finland, we have been thinking about these memorials for also climate change. Which is a transitional loss and change. And then extinction which includes these very sort of permanent losses also. But perhaps this topic of memorials and places is something that we might devote a whole episode for at some point.

Doherty: Yeah. Part of our environmental identity work is maybe, you know, creating memorials for things that we’ve lost. But we do this in our life anyway. We know that we have to let go of certain things at certain times. So ultimately, listeners, we all have to follow our hearts here. So our minds have a sense of what is and isn’t. And what should be. But when we get into a place, there’s beauty. There’s process. There’s life of all different levels. And so if we can kind of approach a place with fresh eyes. Particularly the eyes of a child. You know, as an adult we can tap into different ways of thinking about things. But it is a process. And I don’t want to make it seem easy. Because if you’re just in the first emotional stages of this. This rite of passage. It’s quite daunting. But in the rite of passage. The classic model. We have to go on this quest. We find some friends and some helpers. We find some people that can teach us. And then we get some insights. And so that’s where we’re at with this. We’re getting insights.

And, you know, our podcast is part of our own rite of passage. We go out into these difficult topics and try to bring something back to the world to talk about. But we’re all doing this together. So we’ll keep talking about this. But just know that you’re not alone if you feel a barrier to going out into nature. And it’s helpful to find other people that can understand this without either getting too caught in the doom. You have to rightsize it. Find people that are resonating in the emotions that you think are growthful and helpful for you. There’s a lot of detours where people get stuck in loss. Get stuck in anger. Get stuck on disorganization. Get stuck on numbing themselves. But we want to just feel a sense of the current. Keep going on the current of life.

Pihkala: Yeah definitely so. And we have wrap things up quite soon for this episode. But I want to finish from my part with a lived example of a Finnish young woman who joined a facilitated discussion group on eco-anxiety. And she was telling us that often when she goes to local woods, that makes her cry because it reminds her of all the ecological destruction. But still she said: “I go there every night because at the end, it still makes me feel better.” And it brings all these good things. And reminds of care and love and so on. So I think that was a very moving example of somebody who was able to pass the threshold even though it was continually painful for her also. But in the end, it was still worth it. And the energy levels were higher because she did it. So good luck all you fellow travelers over there.

Doherty: Yes. Don’t turn your gaze away, but be compassionate to these wounded places that you’re discovering. Be compassionate to them because the wounds in the place remind us of our own wounds. So, giving thanks. Giving thanks for what we have. Thanks for this opportunity. Panu, I’m always thankful for our discussions.

Pihkala: Likewise.

Doherty: And I’m thankful that we have all these other people that really do understand what we’re doing. And that we can look to. And that we can learn from. You all take care and we’ll talk to you again soon.

Doherty: The Climate Change and Happiness Podcast is a self-funded, volunteer effort. Please support us so we can keep bringing you messages of coping and thriving. See the donate page at climatechangeandhappiness.com.

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