Grief is the pathway to action

clearcut forest

Clear cutting near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas. Courtesy of Wikimedia


Day before yesterday we had a little rain here in Los Angeles, a late season shower in a drought year.

I suspect we won’t see rain again until December. This long interval of dryness is normal in a Mediterranean climate, but what is not normal is how little rain fell this winter (or last winter, or the one before that, or the one before that), and how parched we are already as we look toward a nine month long summer with no hope of relief.

So I sat on the porch and experienced the rain, happy just to feel the cool, wet air on my skin one last time, yet at the same time feeling angry and frustrated and sad.

And as I sat there, I thought of conversations I’ve had with people who’ve confessed that they are grieving for what is being lost all around us, or they are grieving for a world their children will never know. Often they feel alone, as if no one else cares, or is much bothered at all.

I don’t think we like to acknowledge this grief, the deep sadness that comes from witnessing the diminishing of the world and the death of species due to human influence of various sorts. There isn’t any public forum for airing it.  (“Tonight at 9, a public gathering to weep over the disappearing starfish.”)

Yet I don’t think it’s all that uncommon to be sad, and what’s more, it is, of course, entirely appropriate to be sad. We’ve been discussing environmental degradation since the 70’s, if not before, but I feel like now it’s beginning to hit home, and hit hard. It’s not uncommon to feel sad because:

  • That little wilderness you loved playing in as a kid has been covered by a housing development
  • You can’t see the stars from your parents’ house anymore
  • You don’t hear the frogs sing at night anymore, either.
  • When you hike you feel like it’s awfully quiet. Where have the birds gone?
  • The fish seem to have left that spot you used to fish at with your grandpa
  • As you drive in the mountains you notice half the trees are turning brown

Or maybe you grieve or things you don’t witness, but hear about, like the plastic gyres in the ocean, worldwide deforestation, those last four white rhinos in Africa, quietly grazing away the final days of their species, the polar bears swimming in circles.

Often we don’t talk about these things because we don’t want to be a downer. Nor do we want to be labeled morbid, pessimistic, impractical, oversensitive or even (gasp!) a tree-hugger.

(FYI I was reprimanded in kindergarten for repeatedly arriving at school covered in sap because I’d been hugging trees all the way to school.)

But the grief is there, the endangered elephant in the room, which we walk around and talk past, and do our best to ignore by making our lives ever busier.

And anyway, what are we supposed to do about it?

Suburbia by David Shankbone. Tract housing in Colorado Springs


I think there is something to do about it–about both the grief and the problems which lead to the grief.

I’m talking about work and atonement.

First, we in the developed world must own that our lifestyle has cost this planet dearly, and impacted all our fellow creatures as well as our fellow men. No matter how “good” we try to be with our recycling and organic produce, we are the heart of the problem. Us. Not other people. We use the roads. We fly. We shop. We use gas and petroleum and electricity and coal.

We all carry the responsibility for what is happening now. Not just the politicians. Not just your clueless sister-in-law. Not that guy driving the SUV. You.

I’m beating this point over the head because it’s way too easy to blame others for this, or to blame abstractions, like “the consumerist lifestyle”, or to think if everyone was like you, things would be better. I doubt it. Even if you’re some kind of off-grid saint, I’d still ask where you came from, and how you got there.

Too often I tell myself I’m doing “good enough” and “all I can” and that anyway, “I’m doing more than most people.” This leads to inaction.

Also, when I tell myself those things, I am lying.

This brings me back to the grief. Grief doesn’t allow me to lie to myself for long. Grief calls me to action. Grief alone can be paralyzing, but when paired with action, it becomes an ally, a compass, a burning fire in our hearts.  Grief can motivate us and activate us and spur us to do more than we’ve ever tried before.


When we hurt someone, we apologize. But as you know if you’ve ever been on the other end of the hurt, an apology alone isn’t enough. It’s not enough that the one who injures feels bad about it, they have to learn from the mistake, so they don’t do the same thing again. They have to re-form their hearts.

That is the path of atonement between us and the natural world. Grief is not an end, it’s a beginning.

Can we re-form our hearts to make them big enough to encompass the world? I think we can.

And then we begin the work.

Leave a comment


  1. I found this short video about Charles Eisenstein to very moving.

    My wife and I are also in a workshop with Stephen Jenkinson, the subject of the film Griefwalker (watch the film for free on the NFB website).

    Jenkinson just launched his new book Die Wise in LA, so you have missed him in person for a while. He is best known for his work on our grief and disconnection from death, but his deeper work in the Orphan Wisdom School is more about the death of our culture, the grief we feel for that—and the imperative to rebuild what scraps of culture we can in our lifetimes.

  2. there is a book for you, coming out April 15: “The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise” by Martin Prechtel. See his website for more info. So good!

  3. It all sounds very tree-huggy and spiritual, but what must be remembered is this: the backbone of every serious environmental effort and attitude in the modern world is a prosperous Western culture. Feel free to check out the recycling laws in China or Cameroon if you don’t believe me.

    Green philosophy is a luxury, just like air conditioning and the internet are. And if Average Joe loses his air conditioning or his internet, you can be sure he’ll stop giving a hoot about pollution. So any push to ‘heal the world’ that weakens Western culture or causes noticeable discomfort will not only fail, it will also reduce peoples’ embrace of environmental causes.

    It’s all well and good to speak of ‘atonement’ and ‘grief’ and whatever other abstractions you like – but practicality and pragmatic change are the only strategies that will make a difference.

  4. They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot
    They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum

    This song always made me sad. I have changed the way I do things, but no ac is not healthy for me. My atonement will probably never happen, but I try.

    Do you think any of us can ever redeem ourselves? I would have to go away and live without utilities, give up my car and access to medical care, food, and everything I have come to expect and to need. I don’t think I could ever feed myself.

  5. I feel like an opportunist writing this comment, but I’ve spent most of my life wrestling with this question, and five years writing an answer titled _Walking the Talk: Engaging the Public to Build a Sustainable World_. I’m having an awful time getting people to read it, so I’m giving it away for free as an Ebook right now (click on the website button.) I’m told that it is very well written, but deals with “big issues”, so it can be a lot to absorb.

    Basically it suggests that at the time when people most need some sort of “outside direction” in their life—of the sort that used to be supplied by faith and patriotism—we have rejected these authoritarian solutions. Unfortunately, we have replaced them with self-centred ideals like “self-actualization” and “following your bliss”. I suggest that we need to develop new ways of finding meaning in our lives through re-aquainting ourselves with “practical philosophies”, like Stoicism, Daoism, and so on. Armed with these rational ways of looking at the world, we can accept the personal sacrifices necessary to build a world that has room for nature.

  6. I don’t understand why I’m getting your posts a day late, always. Grieving is limited to those whom follow a more sustainable life. I fear it will get much worse. I see the clear cutting on a daily basis. Asked if they replant and the answer is no, even though where I reside we see landslides frequently. Cheaply build cookie-cutter houses should never have been allowed. You write beautifully, Mrs. Homegrown, to the heart of those of us who do care and who have kept our grief to ourselves.Thank you also to the comenters who provided additional links. The Homegrowns have wonderful followers.

  7. Beautiful words. Exactly what I needed to read today. The part about re-forming our hearts just about shattered me. Thank you.

  8. Your poignant description of our losses and of our private, unshared grief touched me to the quick. Having seen the wild meadows where I grew up in Maine turned into cornfields and sterile lawns, I keep listing the names of the wildflowers that once grew there as if they were war dead. I cringed when some local news site here in LA described our last, precious rain as “foul weather.”

    It’s so much easier to be smug about my conservation habits (such as they are) than to acknowledge the attachments I remain unwilling to surrender. Thank you, Mrs. Homegrown, for chipping away at my denial.

  9. Thank you for sharing this – for putting these emotions and these truths so beautifully and poignantly into words. I’m guilty of the excuses, denial and apathy too, yet posts like these inspire and motivate me to look at what else I can change.
    Blessings for your continuing journey in being that change that you want to see. <3

  10. Pingback: Transition Towns Maroondah Inc » Grief is the pathway to action – Root Simple

  11. The sad thing about that picture is that the forest in the background is a “production forest” those trees are maybe 10 to 15 years old and soon to be “harvested” as well, fly in to Portland some time and look at the patchwork forest…………… True old growth coniferous forests have grandfather trees and smaller youth trees, very sad!

    The problem is that no one looks at this place as our only place and our only hope, we look to the stars and think “when we use this place is all used up we’ll just find another one”. We live in a fish bowl and we’re foweling the water something awful! We are finite beings, we might come back, we might not, but it just feels better to leave things better than we found them.
    I believe that are living in the age of enlightenment and things will change. The peaceful revolution has begun.

    When the earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth from many colors, classes, creeds, and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth green again. They will be known as the warriors of the Rainbow — Old Native American Prophecy

  12. Thank you all so much for your support and your suggestions. You guys are the best!

  13. Pingback: Earth Day… what more can I do? | ♥ heartshapedhands ♥

  14. I am a big crusader. For everything. Sometimes even I think its stupid, like what am I doing this for? Who is keeping track of my habits? Does this even help, does it MEAN anything? YES. It does. I can’t be perfect, I can’t save every tree, every polar bear, recycle every plastic bottle, walk to abosolutely every place I need to go. But, I truly believe that we all have to at least TRY to make it a better world. Everyone, everyday. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t make a decision that involves the bigger picture, and when I can I try to help others understand my reasonings for doing the things I do. Sometimes I feel grief, definitely for the world that is surely going to hell in a handbasket, but I can’t stand by and say I won’t try because no one else seems to care. I think more and more people are waking up and seeing that without mothernature we are NOTHING, I am proud to be a tree hugger, I encourage others to keep loving and keep up the good fight.

Comments are closed.