The Dark Mountain Blog

Good Grief

2011-07-25 01.29.412

The ethical ecologist Marc Bekoff says that ‘Play is training for the unexpected’. As we face a time of critical uncertainty, play is undoubtedly the best training.

But there are questions. How do we manage our grief at ecological loss? How much should we involve children in this grieving? Will they manage their grief if they do it their own way or should we protect them from knowing it all? What can we learn from children’s ‘sad play’? Will they lead us beyond our current ‘space between stories’?

Why am I thinking about this? It’s International Remembrance Day for Lost Species on 30th November. The initiators are Uncivilisation attendees Persephone Pearl and Andreas Kornevall, as well as Vanessa Vine. (I’m also involved this year by including it in Treeage, a week of creative actions for trees.) There will be poems, songs, stories and other forms of litany of loss for the many pristine habitats and non-human beings we will no longer see. Some people are asking ‘why do this? Surely we should be taking action instead?’

To convey the event’s purpose, Vanessa quoted Stephen Jenkinson on how grief is the twin of a joy for life, and therefore essential: ‘From a young age we see around us that grief is mostly an affliction, a misery that intrudes into the life we deserve, a rupture of the natural order of things … What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway?’

So we learn from this that we must not repress grief. The ability to grieve is there when a baby opens her mouth to cry but it can still increase with practice. Grieving well is about loving life profoundly and precisely, loving all the parts of life as they pass, and emerging more whole. The ability to grieve is to pass through it.

There is much to grieve for. I’m writing this in yet another pre-dawn insomniac anxiety fit, having read a study about a critical state shift in c.2045 that will prevent the planet from supporting life as we know it. Many people share my insomnia. Drew Dellinger, who made this filmpoem, wakes at 3.30 am because his great great grandchildren won’t let him sleep. They’re asking ‘What did you do once you knew the planet was being plundered?’ My daughter commented drily, ‘Yeah, so what did HE do? He just made that video!’

What can you do?

Sitting here in the dark before she wakes, I worry that my daughter will read these terrifying statistics or hear me talk of them. She has already heard some of it, of course. She has responded in part by carrying on her life as joyfully and creatively as she can. But she also weaves some sadness at biodiversity loss into her art work. For example, she co-invented the Unextinction Machine – an art project where she collaborated with her dad to generate new animals to combat extinction losses. The animals are just imagined, so in some way it’s not going to directly tackle the problem. It is only play. But it was an oblique strategy that raised our spirits and awareness, and it also led us to take practical actions for wildlife.

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It is only play, but play is not only. What is play then? Its opposite is repression and fixity. Play does involve rehearsal and imitation but comes with freedom to change yourself and to generate novelty. Playful learning is inherently complex and edgy, pushing you on a trajectory towards becoming fully human, which means more fully interacting with the world. Healthy playful learning involves grief, when you disturb yourself to points of horror (by taking risks in games or by approaching harsh truths obliquely) then cycling back to places of comfort or denial. You have to repeat this process. Prolonged and free playful learning allows you to gradually assimilate those unpalatable truths or to cope with risky tasks.

So, I think it’s right that children should be free to play and make art about big tragic issues, but I also worry that the knowledge of what is to come is just too tragic. On the other hand, I don’t want to see knowledge repressed. I think as adults we become suckers for stories that miss the target of the real reasons for our grief, and we harden the split in ourselves between the horror and the denial. This leads to a benign orthodoxy where we agree that we mustn’t speak too much truth because alarming people, especially children, about the future causes negative reactions. It’s an intractable problem, this balance between comfort and knowledge.

David Bond knew he had to do something for the sake of the children, so he assigned himself Marketing Director for Nature and set up Project Wild Thing. This is a new campaign using creative media to get children playing outdoors in green spaces, in touch with their inherent wildness. A film is linked to pledges and games that motivate adults and children to have green time. The film is getting well circulated and should be effective because it is a well-crafted narrative, compelling and light-hearted. It is hard to disagree: of course children belong in nature. We know it from our own experience.

But I have questions too. So much more needs to be done to restore children to their birthright to a thriving planet. There is the issue of time. We can’t teach children in abstract ways to be better Earth stewards and sit waiting in the hope that they succeed where we failed.

What can we do?

Jay Griffiths has written an impassioned analysis of the crisis for children in Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape. A key message of this is that children are chronically estranged from their ‘kith’, denied freedom to grow through full connection with a favourable place (or oikeios, the Greek origin of the word ecology). This book provides an anthropological foundation for grasping the crisis, on which we could build a comprehensive and systemic plan for children. At the same time, a big part of ‘what must be done’ is expressing sadness for what is lost. Jay is often criticized for her emotional prose, which keens most about the restricted freedoms and losses of wild beings. This criticism arises from our split-ego culture that is so uncomfortable with personalised, informal and open-ended expressions of grief. Free-range sadness is mostly banished from designed play and learning because adults assume it is not safe and that children won’t like it. Perhaps too, we adults fear that children exploring sadness would open up too much reason for grief in ourselves.

Bayo Akomolafe has published a rousing speech on The Deep Shift We Need for a New Planetary Future. He opens with a reflection on the recent birth of his first child. His ecstasy about being a father contrasts with a tendency amongst some young adults now to reject procreation – because they can’t afford it, are concerned about overpopulation or don’t want to bring children into a doomed world.

Bayo feels that ‘children enchant the world. They are the prime reason why I still find it possible to believe that the universe has not given up on us. They bring hope and light and play to our otherwise bland existences.’ He also knows that ‘there is a depth and sternness to their play … They are heralds of hard questions and difficult considerations.’ He outlines his argument that most do-good initiatives are just sticking plasters, that we need a deep shift based on connectivity. We must turn to each other. He returns to the theme of children, explaining how they teach us: ‘I suspect that our children bear a crucial message for us in these transitory moments … in learning to be with them we not only find clues about the new world now demanding our attention, we find wisdom for catalyzing her emergence.’

So, if children teach us how to be wild, free and connected, then we must allow children to be so and must model this ourselves as adults. I see this as a feminising shift. Some may say this sounds too undisciplined and soft but I think this essential shift in adult behaviour towards intimacy and expressiveness is tough to enact and does not mean abdicating responsibility. Simone de Beauvoir argued that our patriarchal leaders are like children, and that in inheriting or accepting patriarchal power we also become infantile. Our leaders have gamified their competitive and corrupt power, in the form of the Global Race, and expect us to play this big game. But when do we ever hear any expressions of sorrow or honour for the losers in the game? This is not a good game. We need games and stories in which we can be wild and free, and sad and connected.

Paul Shepard in his essay ‘Nature and Madness’ diagnosed the environmental malaise as one of adult infantilism, due to a lack of ceremonial initiation into the natural world. Education focuses too much on making the world (which means destroying and then remaking) and not enough on loving the world as the ground of our being. In a less infantilising society the emerging adult ‘will not study [nature] in order to transform its livingness into mere objects that represent his ego, but as a poem, numinous, and analogical of human society’.

So, we can but try to involve children in serious rites of passage. As Persephone says ‘making events like Remembrance Day that are eclectic, seemingly eccentric, sometimes playful, is part of a bigger task of finding inclusive, accessible, beautiful ways of looking at and talking about difficult things, and most importantly mark a commitment to explore the realm of rites here and now – to try to re-find or invent a language of praise, connection and memory and to share that with our children’.

First image: Funeral for Lost Species, Feral Theatre, Uncivilisation Festival 2012.
Second image: the Unextinction Machine.

8 thoughts on “Good Grief

  1. An unextinction machine? They are working on that ya know… Stewart Brand’s new outfit ‘revive and restore’ (http://longnow.org/revive/) is trying to use synthetic biology and other biotech tools to bring back the passenger pigeon, tasmanian tiger, wooly mammoth… the real money in it is from the cattle cloning companies and the Wildlife Conservation Society who run the New York Zoo – imagine the money they can make on tickets from the throngs coming to gawk at a captive de-extincted wooly mammoth. Just to say: careful what you wish into being…

    some background:
    http://www.etcgroup.org/content/mammoth-distraction-syn-bio-and-de-extinction and

    http://www.etcgroup.org/content/using-conservation-synthetic-biology

    • Thanks for that Jim. My daughter’s idea for an Unextinction Machine was partly about the futility of creating new creatures, because we are only human and can only make art, not to suggest that we can be gods and make new creatures or bring old ones to life.

  2. Lovely essay, Bridget. Much food for thought for my own children!

    Jim – funny you should mention Brand and his cabal. I’ve an essay on just his subject which will be in the next DM book in April. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

  3. ‘Good grief’ indeed.
    Despite circumstances, grief is a state of mind that can be relied upon to be realistic. It has little place for optimism, pessimism or idealism and as long as panic and depression don’t set in, the grounds for good sober appraisal can add to a stable mental, emotional platform from which good progress can be made…. Reality makes the best and most substantial building material.
    Learning to ‘let go’ is perhaps, paradoxicaly, a lesson that is basic in the evolution of a more conciously natural approach to living as it allows for dambursts of anxiety without confusion and a sadness, deeply felt, but nevertheless sweet rather than bitter.
    I love the questioning that underlines your writing. It is beautifuly succinct and on the button…..
    I see childhood as a curious mix of essential innocence and the erratic acting out of social immaturity and i guess they will inevitably grow up taking for granted facts that for us have been a discovery. This is generational and can be for better or worse but certainly if they are exposed in a mindfull but matter of fact way that is not overly tinged with emotions that confuse the issue, it can only be for the good.
    So dealing with ones grief in a positive manner that allows for
    clarity and letting go will help a great deal in how we manage to communicate the facts of the world as we see it for the ongoing story. Because it is ‘ongoing’, one way or another.
    Best wishes…jim

    • By the way, the unextinction machine is quite clearly not a been there done that, repetitious rehash of unimaginative, can’t think of anything better to do, whoo whoo way of getting attention that is hardly other than firing off yet another, insult to the cosmos, rocket into outer space.
      On the contrary it seems born of ‘genuine, artistic merit’ and suggests to me that if the sobering effect of grief creates useful vacuum then we can at least see to filling it with some good wholesome fun.

  4. Our work with Radical Joy for Hard Times, a network devoted to making beauty for wounded places, is often received with the same question: shouldn’t you be planting trees, cleaning up a river, etc? But of course we cannot have the sustainable, resilient life on Earth that we claim to want until we acknowledge the endangered beings and damaged places in our midst… so we can find a way of being in relationship with what IS in all its horror, sadness, beauty, and, as you point out, play.

    We have found that children grasp this concept and have quite profound ways of dealing with it. Once a year we sponsor the Global Earth Exchange (next year it’s June 21), a day when people all around the world go to wounded places, spend some time getting to know the place as it is now, and make beauty there in the form of a bird created from found materials. Every year there are groups of children who participate. One family in Chicago invites their children and the children’s friends actually to lead the whole experience. (You can read about their 2012 Earth Exchange for Lake Michigan at http://bit.ly/1d1fCYS and then scroll down to or find “Chicago”). At the end of the lively and moving ceremony the children did at and for the polluted lake, one child remarked that “we have made something beautiful, truly, because we brought only ourselves, and used what was given to us by the Lake.”

    • Hi Trebbe
      That is moving, and more so as half an hour ago i picked up an injured dove and just finished talking to my friend Marios at the local wildlife hospital about caring properly for it as birds are not exactly my speciality. I never stop marvelling at just how ‘alive’ is the life we live and how these terrible times are also helping us to connect in a deeper sense.
      I think you are right, if children are given responsibility they rise to it……cheers

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