Our Real Journey

Acting on climate grief

By Jenna Butler

“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us.” —Wendell Berry

We’re doing a writing exercise together, my students and I. It’s still the shoulder season at the farm, not yet time to plant, and so I’m in the classroom teaching a course on reading the body and the land. We sit down together to a five-minute freewrite, our pens moving across the paper as consistently as memory allows, leaning heavily into our connections to the places we carry with us.
What are the places you carry with you, and are they the same as you remember when you were younger? The first question draws smiling reminiscences from the students: winters on the family trapline, ice-fishing with an uncle, bringing in the cattle on horseback with grandparents. But the second question brings pause. “We don’t get as many wolves on the trapline these days; they’ve been pretty much chased out of the area,” says one student. Another notes, “The lake doesn’t freeze nearly as deep as it used to, and sometimes the ice doesn’t come in until November. There are huge bubbles that never used to be there. The ice rots out earlier, and we can’t fish the way we did when I was a kid.” The last student, the one thinking of her grandparents, is quiet for a moment. Then, carefully: “The cattle are still there, but the land is different. There aren’t as many birds. I haven’t seen a horned lark since I was seven or eight, and they used to be all over the place.”
Five years ago, when I taught this class, many students were still on the fence about the severity of climate change. Today there is no such spread of opinions. Students come in vocally frightened or quietly terrified. They’ve read about shifting baseline syndrome or generational amnesia, and they’re anxious to unpack what those terms mean. Several of them are young parents and carry the troubled weight of the future—the world their children will inhabit—on their shoulders.
These students come carrying heartloads of grief and fear that they don’t always know how to express. They find relief in putting terms to those feelings: we talk about climate grief or ecological grief; we talk about what philosopher Glenn Albrecht termed “solastalgia,” or the longing we feel when we are no longer connected to a beloved, changed place. We take apart Zadie Smith’s essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons” to get at the heart of her claim that “[t]here is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words.” We want to know these intimate words, how they connect to our home places.

“The land is different now. There aren’t as many birds. I haven’t seen a horned lark since I was 7 or 8; they used to be all over the place.”

Eventually, the talk comes back to action—as it should. One thing we’ve all acknowledged in the class is that we’re sinking under the weight of our own climate grief. That grief, after we’ve put words to it, remains nebulous. It’s as turbid as spring runoff, hard to see our way to the bottom. Harder still if we have children of our own who will come into themselves in the grief-fogged future we’re now considering.
We come, almost organically, to a sort of manifesto, a call to action against extirpation, against grief. We may not be able to heal the entire system, or turn back the clock on the changed faces of the lands we love, but we can do these important things. Cut back our consumption. Make the switch to green technologies where we can. Plant trees with friends and family. Reduce our flights and come to learn our home places better instead. Advocate for the land and the people whose histories and identities are intimately tied to it. Write letters to every representative we’ve got. Challenge our own anthropocentrism and live in a way that does not just leave enough for the coming generations, but perhaps even leaves more.
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do / we have come to our real work, / and when we no longer know which way to go / we have begun our real journey,” writes Wendell Berry, the wise old farmer and essayist. We read his words as a call to action, to keep looking for ways forward when our own grief for the world we care about threatens to immobilize us. And we turn to Robin Wall Kimmerer, too, the esteemed Indigenous professor and plant ecologist, as we lean into our actions: “Balance is not a passive resting place—it takes work, balancing the giving and the taking.” I think about her words as I begin the end-of-term winding down that will see me out on our small farm for the summer, balancing all the ways I can give back to this beloved piece of land in return for what I will take. We will balance the collective power of our manifesto after we leave the classroom, my students and I, pitching all our hope against the enormity of what’s coming.
Jenna Butler teaches environmental and creative writing in Red Deer and runs an off-grid organic farm near Barrhead.


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