This essay is excerpted from Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World.
I PICKED BLACK RASPBERRIES FOR GLEN when he was dying of cancer on a cot in his living room. I discovered the patch under the power line at the bottom of our road. Or—as so many have done, entering a lived-in land—I thought I had discovered it.
Black raspberries are my favorite. They are a staple in our freezing and canning for the year, skills we learned largely from Glen and his wife Peggy, who, as it turns out, had been harvesting from that patch since before I was born. The two of them taught me most of what I know about growing food, heating with wood, needing and therefore attending to the place where I live. In fact, my young family now lives in the house that Glen built by hand—I am looking right now at the floorboards where that Hospice cot stood.
At the beginning of the pandemic the black raspberries were ripening, small and green in the centers of their flowers. I was driving the gravel road home with my daughters in the back seat, and had to stop the car when I saw it gone: the whole patch cleared, and the power company truck blinding white in the right of way.
I fell into an instinctive mourning, and my daughters picked up on it quickly. This is how to mourn I was showing them. And, in truth, it felt like a sacred responsibility to model: this is loss. This is how to make room for feeling loss. By the time we were up the hill to our house we were, all three, holding full-on vigil.
My daughters told their father about the black raspberries as he helped unbuckle them from the car seats, their speech and eyes low, like mine. But his voice lifted. “They’ll regrow,” he said. “That patch grew there because of the clearing for the power line.” He told them that the rest of the mountain is too wooded and shaded for a berry patch. In a few years, he pointed out, because the patch had been re-cleared, we would have black raspberries again—or something else.
So why do I still mourn the loss of the black raspberry patch? And why do I feel it is my responsibility as a parent and as a human—who can feel mourning—to do so?
Ben and I met at a Buddhist monastery in the dead of winter. He was processing the end of a marriage and the dissolution of his Christian faith. I had just finished my graduate work and, guarding my own heartbreaks with a borderline eating disorder, was on my way to Virginia where I knew that Glen and Peggy were homesteading and growing food, having raised three boys. I knew that I wanted to live richly without depending much on money, and Glen and Peggy had proven to me that such a life was possible. I did not yet know how to grow that life. Certainly, neither Ben nor I knew that it was the very disruption and decomposition of our previous worlds (relationship, faith, control, self-image) that would make the growing conditions work. This kind of compost/growth imagery is basic to the Plum Village tradition of Buddhism in which Ben and I met. “No mud no lotus” says its founder, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. His is an understanding of reality based on continual transformation rather than on concepts of life and death.
It’s an understanding of reality illustrated by ecology. Without death, we have no soil, no “mud”, no “fund of things,” as Wendell Berry has called it, from which new life comes. I know this. I see it everywhere on our homestead, and it’s a favorite theme of the poets I love most. So why do I still mourn the loss of the black raspberry patch? And why do I feel it is my responsibility as a parent and as a human—who can feel mourning—to do so?
Death may be a necessary stage of life, but destruction—that is, more death than is helpful to life, or death from which life will take a long time to emerge (for example, the excess extraction and release of carbon)—destruction is another thing. The black raspberry patch will grow back, but it will not grow back as it was. And though the earth is in no danger of “dying”, it is in the process of anthropogenic changes, which will make life difficult for many species, including humans, and impossible for some. It will not grow back as it was. This may not be the kind of “end point” often imagined as death, but from the perspective of a human life-span it is great loss. And, for humans, loss requires mourning. It requires me to attend to my hurt or guilt or fear, to try to offer, as I would through the loss of a person I love and depend on, ways to say thank you, and I’m sorry, and what can I do to help?
Once, there were no black raspberries where I live and no place for them to grow, yet they are sacred to me. I mourn the wood thrush, even while I hear it sing. Or, not the wood thrush, but the thought of the woods without its song. I mourn it because I love it. Mourning songs are love songs and, in singing them, I can sing back to the wood thrush I love you, I love you, I love you.
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According to many a Prius bumper sticker, Chief Seattle (Si’ahl of the Duwamish people) said: “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth”. It’s a phrase I have heard so many times that I stopped hearing it long ago. As the pandemic continued, and I watched the cleared black raspberry patch come up in weeds, the phrase occurred to me in a different light, one without the semi-gloss reflection of my guilt. I no longer saw in it the specter of Admonishment, wagging its personified finger at greed and waste. The phrase itself seemed cleared to the ground, and had begun to regrow differently, speaking a far deeper truth: that whatever we do to ourselves and to one another will go back into the earth, the soil, that “fund of things”—where else would it all go?—and that our human accumulation of extraction, pollution, excess, violence, love will become a layer in the layers of the earth. Not because we are terrible beings, but because “we belong to the earth”—because we are the earth, as a leaf is the tree. As the tree is the soil from which it grows, even before it is the soil again. The Anthropocene itself, I realized, may not be the moral judgement I’ve understood it to be, but a simple and very deep truth, one that certainly calls upon humans to be better versions of ourselves, but also one that relies on a more expansive sense of self, and place, and time.
Mourning songs are love songs and, in singing them, I can sing back to the wood thrush I love you, I love you, I love you.
“Our perception of time may help,” said Thich Nhat Hanh in an interview with The Guardian at age 86, which he gave two years before suffering a stroke and losing the ability to speak. “For us [death] is very alarming and urgent, but for Mother Earth, if she suffers she knows she has the power to heal herself even if it takes 100 million years. We think our time on earth is only 100 years, which is why we are impatient.” He continues:
Maybe Mother Earth will produce a great being sometime in the next decade… we don’t know and we cannot predict. Mother Earth is very talented. She has produced Buddhas, bodhisattvas, great beings. We have to accept that the worst can happen; that most of us will die as a species and many other species will die also and Mother Earth will be capable after maybe a few million years to bring us out again and this time wiser
Solastalgia is what I feel about the wood thrush song, but it is also what I feel when I look at my daughters knowing that the 3 and 6 year olds I see and touch will be gone into teenagers, and eventually gone entirely—that the very eyes with which I see them will be gone. When I am worried about that—if it will happen (it will happen) and when I rail against the fact that it already has happened (those babies, where are they?)— it becomes my anxiety that I see, and not their faces at all. What has happened has happened. What will or won’t happen has not yet happened. What can I do now to love them? What can I do now for their world? With acceptance comes resilience and the ability to act. “Come butterfly,” Basho sings back, “it’s late—we’ve miles to go together.”
This essay is excerpted from Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World edited by Paul Bogard(University of Virginia Press, 2023). Copyright © 2023. Reprinted with permission from UVA Press and Leah Naomi Green.
Paul Bogard is associate professor of English at Hamline University and the author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.