Melanie Jae Martin “The Ecology of Grief”

 I. To see what the end of the world looks like, you must go to the very edge. By night, the wind of coyote howls roams the canyons that rumors of mountain lions haunt by day. Deep in a canyon, cattails spring from a bog beneath a tar sands test mine, where the state Division of Water Resources says no water runs.

In the remote Book Cliffs range of eastern Utah, a Canadian startup has been trying to launch the first mine in the U.S. that produces fuel from tar sands. Called US Oil Sands, it hails from the massive tar sands industry of Alberta, Canada, which has turned an area of boreal forest the size of Florida into a Mordor-like deathscape. Oil from rocks: an alchemy of madness.

For two summers, two falls, we’ve stayed with this land. With a rusty two-horse trailer filled with food, military-grade tents to shelter us from summer monsoons, and a hefty bunch of art supplies, we held constant vigil through the work season as US Oil Sands prepared its massive processing plant and bulldozed the forest. We hosted training camps and tours, and took direct action. Dozens locked their bodies to machines and blocked haul roads to intervene in mine construction, even sitting on top of tall metal tripods to blockade the clearcutting of forest. In autumn of 2015, after spending four months on the land, I was arrested for taking part in an action that stormed the worksite and shut down machinery for part of the day. This place was in my bones—and with the massive climate, water, and air impacts of mining tar sands, it had come to represent the future of our world.

This struggle began in the courtrooms and ended up in one of the most remote wilderness areas of the country. Utah’s Supreme Court had dismissed Moab-based Living Rivers’ lawsuit against the project on a technicality, saying they hadn’t filed within the narrow window of time allowed. We began to embrace direct action as a last and best resort after the systems meant to uphold our rights had failed us.

Despite our conviction that US Oil Sands would ultimately fold, due to mounting pressure and the plummeting price of oil, we knew their business strategy was to make a mad dash to the finish line in hopes of attracting enough investors to make a go of it. It was a Hail Mary pass, but even if it failed, we knew they’d leave as much destruction as possible in their wake. Day after day, we watching the megaloads of equipment go through the gates of their processing plant from our campsite across the road, turning a forested ridgeline into a twenty-three-acre processing plant. In August 2015, we saw them bulldoze a beloved campsite they aimed to mine. Panic pulsed through my fingers, down my spine, seeing it all happen. But despite my deep love of this place, despite the shock of the total devastation before me, the tears wouldn’t come.

How do we begin to grieve for something so vast, especially when we’re in the thick of it?

Near one of the highest overlooks on the Book Cliffs, you come to a bleak spot on the landscape that looks like a crumbling parking lot. You hike down, and the smell is all-pervasive—the scorch of diesel-like fumes leaching from this disturbed outcropping of tar sands. Piles of crumbled rock sit above rusting machinery abandoned when the upstart project went bust in the mid-‘80s. And you realize that this is a microcosm of what could happen to 32,005 acres of the Book Cliffs if the plan goes forward.

There are a lot of reasons to leave here and never come back.


II. Within the Storm.

There are hunters in these woods—hunters of the living and long dead.

Far below the work site, I hike through Main Canyon’s sagebrush forest in early autumn. I’m in a steep-sided canyon where I’ve always felt sheltered, where I could always go for respite, to meditate and pray and plead with the universe that the destruction above will never reach this lush and living land. Here, the ATV trails give way to grassy streambeds where elk herds meander up the canyon. Aspen shoots spring forth from the shimmering groves that each make up a single organism. The occasional puffball mushroom the size of a soccer ball sprouts from the hillside (and is delicious when marinated and seared like a steak). A network of narrow, tree-shrouded draws open into the wide stretch of the canyon base, which is bordered by vertical red rock cliffs and steep, dense forest. It’s unscalable, unreachable without a feat of effort. The sounds of the road, of the company generator, were once a world away. But not anymore.

I pass the spot where the bear emerged from the forest last year as I hiked by, as I walked through the dense sagebrush towering over my head, not knowing where the bear had gone after spying it walking hesitantly in my direction. Then I feel a rumbling, and this time it’s not my stomach but the whole wide earth. The grader rolls along the cliff’s edge on the spur above me, racing at a speed it’s hard to imagine its lumbering body could achieve.

I hike further up the draw, scrambling over mossy boulders as the trail tightens and broad sunshine turns to shadow. Then I see the scar. It looms above me, just going down, and down, a wall of pale earth where once had been pine climbing up to gamble oak and juniper. They’ve clear-cut and scraped down a slope it seemed unfathomable their heavy machines could navigate, stretching halfway down the hillside.

That evening, I scale the slope and see clusters of mule deer fawns lingering along the edge of the destruction zone. Their parents guardedly eye the vast open space, totaling many dozens of acres. Together they nervously skirt its border. Seep Ridge, from which the destruction zone descends, is a major wildlife crossing. Navigating it will be much harder now for many migrating species, with the high barbed wire of the industrial plant site and this wide-open wasteland.

My blood boils. That’s only natural. But lately, it feels like the only emotion I can feel is a more intense boiling of my blood, or a more pervasive anxiety. Why does the catharsis of tears come so easily when something trivial upsets me, and never seems to arrive for the really big things?

There is a man, a veteran in late middle age, camped down in PR Canyon. He shot a coyote there because he was afraid it would come out of the bushes and bite him. The trauma that war puts people through. There are people hunting their past.

Another veteran around the same age visited camp the other day. He’d spent most of a decade in the woods, to recover from Vietnam. He came to watch songbirds. There are people seeking solace. We go to the woods to recover, and to relive fears.

When we confront companies engaged in acts of warfare against the earth, our emotions can take such divergent forms. Too often when things get stressful, we lash out at each other, especially when living full-time in a small group where everyone is dealing with a complex and intense mix of emotions. Unfelt grief comes out in bizarre ways, sneaking through the cracks to affect our relationships and work. And if we stay immersed in fight-or-flight mode when living in the face of destruction, it’s bound to come out on each other. At times, we—myself included—felt stung to the core by careless words that would have bounced off in another context, and accused others of being selfish, thoughtless, even intentionally hurtful over the smallest transgressions. It was easy to feel we were each doing more than everyone else, and allow that feeling to come out in petty ways, when in reality we just each had our own areas of focus. We have the potential to sabotage ourselves better than any saboteur could, if we don’t become conscious of what we’re really feeling.

A pack of hound dogs sounds in the distance—they’ve treed a bear. They’re very close—a clearing near the top of the neighboring ridge. I move through the brush—I can see them. Two hound dogs are climbing the tree, precariously balanced. I see a flash of orange, hear a man’s voice. I pray to the canyon, palms on the earth. Whatever that bear is feeling, absorb some of it, please. I sit with the bear, through this awful, endless moment.

No shot rings out. Was there no bear? Finally I move—the pack is heading closer. Is it me they are chasing—did my prayer work that well? As I dodge them, renegotiate my path, my blood rushes with the adrenaline I imagined the treed bear must feel, the mad rush to survive.

III. Little Things.

Bulldozing doesn’t encompass what it is. It is an unweaving. If we could see it for what it is, for the time-steeped relationships it erases, we would perhaps be able to grieve. The very word “bulldozing” signifies a completed act. It places the focus on what is done, not what has been. We see generic images of forests being chained, dragged up by their roots—and as horrific as this is, it erases the miniscule elements of life that permeate this world from forest floor to canopy. It erases the particular, and the particular is what we are capable of grieving for. We can’t take in all the individual manifestations of beauty when watching the instant of bulldozing; our eyes and hearts can’t focus on or fathom so much all at once. We can’t simultaneously watch all the unweavings of life that are unfolding before our eyes. Perhaps if we could follow the path of time as it carves smooth caves of sandstone from winter snowmelt and summer monsoons, and grasp how many millions of young bats took their first flight across this canyon floor, we might feel in our hearts what we know in our minds. If those of us who aren’t native to this place could see how abundantly this land sustained the Ute people over the long, harsh winter, the sadness might overpower us then. If we could sit in that limbo land beneath the berm of the mine—that fragile and tenacious spot where life carries on—and feel something other than panic and rage, there might be space for the sadness.

In environmental justice fights, often what we’re dealing with—climate change, for instance—is so huge, it’s hard to fathom. We don’t know how to begin to grieve for what has already been lost. Even though I can see and touch the destruction of this place that I’ve been working for years to defend, my emotions don’t flow out as tears. Instead, it has a “punch me in the gut” effect, taking the shape of pervasive anxiety and overwhelm. And often I feel anger at these things. I feel anger seeing megaloads of machinery come in. But why not sadness?

For me—and probably for many of those driven to this work—the fight or flight response is strong, and I guess that’s why crying about the ongoing destruction isn’t my first response. It doesn’t fit into either. It assumes I have the luxury to cry, rather than needing to fight for others or myself. My emergency heart, as activist and writer scott crowe calls it, beats strong—but that means I too often get trapped in fight-or-flight mode.

In countless places around the planet, we are playing out the mounting struggle between corporate greed and human rights, between intact ecosystems and status-quo capitalism. And we all have to play to win. Along the way, we sometimes lose places that have become part of us, gain awareness that climate catastrophe has been unleashed. That means a lot of us are feeling a big kind of grief, a grief for something—or many somethings—too large to name. A lot of us have no language for what we feel, and thus have a hard time coaxing it out of ourselves.

Unable to comprehend a sadness so big, our minds and hearts shut down. We grieve, but not as grief. We take it into our shoulders, our relationships, our work. We feel anxious and angry, powerless and driven to feel powerful, claiming our power in any way we can—by trying to control the actions of those around us, to demand more from those who have less and less to give, driven like us by emotions that are too big to see.

My emotions often manifest as the tension in my neck, the clenching of my shoulders—somaticized as tightness in my body, as if my body were bracing itself against the sadness—or just persistent anxiety about whichever little thing is most prominent at the moment. I often don’t realize it was grief until long after the fact. I’ll obsess about a little thing, and know it’s absurd, when I’m really storing a lot of emotion and expressing it in a way that somehow feels safer because it’s habitual. It’s like the emotions have to be felt, and can’t be felt all at once, so they crop up continually in response to mundane things.

These small anxieties serve another role—they allow me to create a story of triumphing over something that on some level I know isn’t a real fear, or a situation that I do have some control in. Manufacturing drama in order to overcome it and feel powerful is a common human experience—and one we need to become conscious of to move beyond.

It’s hard not to live in fight-or-flight mode, too, when we’re forced to move and live as outlaws to even bear witness to the destruction. To see the scar up close, to document the toxic runoff into streams leading out to the Colorado, to walk through the forest just beyond, takes great caution. The state sends police to observe when we do guided tours outside of the no-trespassing zone. We are outlaws just for looking, for knowing.

I envied those who could cry in the gray rubble of the test pit when visiting it several years ago, as the fumes just made my own eyes sting and left me feeling nauseous.

It often takes a little thing—a small insight, a beautiful turn of phrase—to let me cry over a big injustice. It’s like that small thing chiseled away a piece of the armor of my fight-or-flight response and let the grief out. When it stays inside, and anxiety and anger stay high, it makes me respond in those ways to everyday things, to almost everything.

We need to learn to feel grief in small bits—today, I will mourn for the penstemon flower. Tomorrow, for the deer trail I used to know. And the next day, for the tar sands outcrops that couldn’t just stay right where they belong, sparkling in the sun, nestled in the hillside as they had been for millennia, relics from an ancient inland sea.

Gazing into a big green puddle at the abandoned mine, we notice small shapes moving. Tadpoles. Then something else—some sort of small bottom-feeder fish. So that’s why the flock of ravens was gathered around when we arrived. In a few days, that brave little pond will dry up in the July sun. Life struggles so very hard to hold on, even with all the suffering that brings.

The ecology of grief is a spring running out of the berm of a tar sands mine.

The bat guano in those caves below the mine site could be older than the colonial government that claimed this land. How can we claim something older than ourselves?

Glowing spider eyes in the dark, as they crawl through beds of needles. Maybe that’s what I will remember most.

IV. Lost Identities. 

I’m in a haven within a landscape of hunters

Hoping I don’t get found

Hoping these quiet warm woods

stay a respite for elk and deer,
My camp keeping camo-clad men at bay.

RV lights on Horse Ridge to my left,

mine generator humming on the ridge to my right.

Sometimes screaming into a canyon

is the best medicine

But not today.

I feel myself being unwoven along with this land. My life and goals have honed on this place’s salvation; everything I have learned about myself since then from organizing, and become, has been driven by here. Four years of guiding people through this land, and months of living intensively with it, have brought it closer and closer to the core of my identity. Now I am left with that guilty, bitter sadness of knowing I might carry on while it does not—and the guilt of the selfish question, “Where does that leave me?” Because despite all our bravado, we might lose. I’m hit by the deep sadness of being the one to tell the stories—and the grave honor that is.

The next day, I hike to the opposite ridge and peer through the trees at the destruction zone. That smell of warm needles seems powerful enough to keep all destruction at bay. It surrounds me, its warmth coursing across my body in the languid breeze.

That forest remains a watchpost over all the doom and destruction. Those Doug firs are guardians, watchkeepers. They witness. They hold strong, provide harbor for elk, deer, frustrated activists. They are the voice of the canyon, speaking in wind-whispered warm needles, the pervasive chattering of red squirrels in the morning.

I ask myself, who would I not be without this land, and who will I not be if I lose it?

Who we are is fundamentally intertwined with the places where we live, and the places we love. For people of some cultures, that relationship has existed for millennia, but all of us have bonds to place, or the deep desire to form stronger bonds than we currently have. Some of us have built deep relationships with places we’re working to protect and that nurture us.

I let this land and its sandstone caves, its chipmunks, its woodpeckers seep into my bones, so I can tell its stories. Because I need to be prepared for the worst, even when I believe we will win, and no matter how much more it will hurt. Because I need to grieve for what has already been lost in this act of warfare against the earth.


V. Addressing the Roots.

Someone has trademarked the term “environmental grief.” Is there nothing that cannot be claimed?

In addition to grieving for a place, we’re usually grieving for a lot more. We might be grieving for the place, a lost identity we had cherished, and the failed systems that are causing such devastation to our world. We have to bring them all into our consciousness, slowly if necessary, and with the needed support, to move through the sadness.

We may need to grieve for our role as a member of a colonial culture trying to impose dominance over the land—grieving for the suffering our ancestors inflicted on others, and how we still unwittingly inflict suffering through our privilege. We must grieve for the past as we grieve for the present, because it’s not a linear progression but the same story, told over and over until we learn to tell another one. We must grieve for the historical traumas inflicted in and on the places we’re trying to defend. Uncompahgre Utes were marched here at gunpoint from western Colorado, and then robbed of it in short order; whites drained the reservation lands on this plateau of water, and ran their cattle over the lands where the Utes were forced to attempt farming. We have to recognize and grieve for the pathology of the culture we belong to, if we are part of a colonizer culture; to move beyond the despair it inflicts on us. We have to mourn for our own complicity in it or benefits from it, and work to create a new way forward.

We need to learn to give space to all our emotions, too, realizing they are a way of grieving, and validating them. Grief doesn’t have to look a certain way. We desperately need to feel and talk about them, rather than wearing a false bravado. We might wear that bravado when speaking publically—just as industry execs often do when pitching a risky project—but too often, we bottle everything up with our own comrades and friends as well, perhaps because we all want to feel and look invincible. But inside, we know we’re not. We need to dig deep into our uncertainties, to find ways to support another or find support from those outside our organizing circles. Mocking company execs and how they might ultimately fail is a form of coping, but it only gets us so far, not addressing the deep-down fears so many of us are silently dealing with.

If we seek support from a professional therapist, we should make sure her approach goes beyond more mainstream varieties of ecotherapy, understanding our passion for addressing root causes. Focusing on the individual relationship with nature is important, but that likely won’t address an activist’s burning desire to address root causes, and even individuals who have focused less intensively on activism might find themselves feeling unsatisfied if they stop there. Ecotherapy should be concerned with finding ways of experiencing feelings of grief and then finding useful expression for them, as Douglas Vakoch and Fernando Castrillón say in Ecopsychology, Phenomenology, and the Environment. This means not stopping with trivial acts, but engaging in a meaningful communal effort to transform the systems allowing the destruction to persist.

Likewise, band-aid solutions like taking more walks are not a full response to the deep grief and myriad other emotions that many of us are feeling. While time in nature is important—and time in places less directly threatened by corporate greed can be immensely healing—it’s just a part of processing the intense emotions we’re feeling. Even for those less directly involved with environmental justice struggles, therapy that fails to suggest taking meaningful action to address the roots of our grief may not lead to real resolution, if the person is aware on some level that she is not helping advance a real solution.

True balance is liberating, allowing for forward motion. An escapism that allows us to retreat into a sense of security, or “change ourselves to change the world” and stop there, is not balance. It’s a tipped-back state, where we’re throwing all our weight backward so as not to tip forward into a truth-fueled inertia from which we cannot stop.

While processing our grief, we should remember that “grief has a rhythm of its own,” as clinical counselor and grief advocate Megan Devine says. There’s no roadmap of its stages, despite popular psychology’s claims. Our emotions might not follow a “logical” order that mirrors that of other people—just another reason to have patience with one another, knowing that what looks like anger in someone else might really be grief emerging. Untended grief explodes violently. When we see this happening in a comrade, we should strive to have compassion, to understand its roots, so it doesn’t wound us as well. Devine explains, “The truth is, you will seize up in the face of pain and soften into it, again and again, both things in rapid succession, and both things with silence in between. You’ll find ways to live inside your grief, and in doing so, it will find its own right place.” The process may continue to unfold, never really ending, but perhaps yielding periods of respite and temporary, repeated catharsis.


VI. The Bones of the Bear Dog.

It’s in Middle Canyon I find the bones—deep in the mouth of it, where the long path to the Grand Valley begins. I’ve hiked down to a faraway streambed, laid my bivy sack on a massive boulder, and hiked down the sandy streambed. As I come back up, I see the rib cage and attached hip bone. I hike a few steps further, and see the skull. I study it carefully. Hard to fathom what else it could be but a bear dog.

Their lives too often end tragically. They get lost in the winding draws, separated from the pack, and their radio collars go off the radar. If they’re fortunate, they make their way back weeks later, emaciated and nearly dying of thirst. They might get picked up by a BLM ranger or a random hunter. But probably most don’t.

Last summer, it happened to Lucky—a bear-hunting dog who came with a family who were all there camping together. He was an older dog who’d gotten lost before, but had made his way back. This time, they called from the ridgeline and blared their horn for long periods of time, but Lucky never turned up.

“Lucky, is this you? You were so very close,” I whisper, and then the tears emerge, rising out of my throat, shuddering through my whole body. “Lucky, I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’m so sorry you died alone out here.” Had he died so close to them, with his people just at the wrong ridgeline? Or had he dragged himself back to this spot many days or weeks later, after nights harassed by coyotes and days searching for food?

I sobbed and sobbed, as I walked back to the boulder where I was camped and then as I sat down on my bivy sack. The pain we cause, even to those we love, when we try to impose mastery over nature. “But Lucky, if you want, you can trail me out.”

By rising out of the fight-or-flight mode that so often consumes us, we have the chance to heal ourselves along with the places we love, becoming people who carry with us the hidden bogs of Main Canyon, the elk bugles that boomerang through the draws, the coyotes that glide as silvery shadows by our campfire at night. May we be brave enough to carry that love, I think, to allow it to remain our guidestar even when the future looks bleak, for only through that love will these places survive. And, especially, may we carry love for the friends who fed us, who made us tea from juniper berries and pine needles, who sang us to sleep by the fire when we couldn’t handle any more campaign talk—for despite all its imperfections, we did find community here, in this most remote and seemingly forsaken place. May we remember that, I think, as much as the adrenaline-pumped actions, the overnight backpacking, the animals whose paths we collided with, momentarily, in these bleeding and beautiful woods.


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