It was a couple years ago that I saw my first glacier. I was on a trip to Alaska with my family before my father died. He had always dreamed of seeing the region, and we were happy we could do this one, last trip to fulfill it for him. We cruised through the Inside Passage past glaciers glimmering with cerulean blue ice, drove through part of the Yukon Territory of Canada by turquoise lakes, and hiked close to one of the last, ever receding glaciers. All of it was as awe inspiring as it was heartbreaking.
I am one of those people who finds it difficult to set aside what I know about the planet and where we are headed, and simply enjoy the moment for what it is. I cannot walk through a forest without feeling a sense of dread that it will someday be felled. I cannot watch whales breaching the waves without wondering if they will die out in my lifetime. I cannot see a glacier and ignore the overwhelming evidence that globally, they are in retreat. And I have come to realize that I am far from being alone in this feeling of joy mixed with sorrow.
Grief in the West is often viewed as some kind of disorder to be dealt with by pushing it away, ignoring it or medicating it. We often hear well meaning people suggest to the bereaved that they “keep themselves busy.” If our grief lingers, we are told that we are “depressed” or “not coping well” or that we need “closure.”
The reality is that our consumer culture is incapable of understanding grief. It is designed to ingest anything and everything just to keep it going. It does not pause for reflection. It is a giant throat ravenously swallowing the earth with our soul along with it. But this culture is destined to slam into a wall of reality on a finite planet with dwindling resources. There is a point of no return and it is closing in fast, and no distraction or technological fix will be able to stop the impending crash of a system that is fundamentally flawed. One way or another, we will have to face the crimes we have committed against the natural world on which we all depend.
I, like many others in the West, understand the paradox of where we stand. My family and I took this journey to Alaska thanks to our inordinate privilege. By global standards we are wealthy and benefit from being born into one of the most powerful empires the earth has ever known. And while many of us in the West mourn what industrial civilization has done, most of us still benefit from its excesses, wars of plunder and ecocidal convenience. But none of us can avoid getting caught up in the coming turmoil. It is a tide that will sweep all of humanity into its chaos. It has, in fact, already begun to do so in many areas of the planet, although this is carefully obscured by the wizards of Western, consumer society.
But perhaps if we shun the impulse to avoid feeling despair, as this culture encourages us to, we can step into our sorrow and walk with our grief as a companion rather than an adversary. In doing this we may be able to open up corridors of empathy and compassion for each other and the myriad of species we share this planet with. Grief can be a guide through the wilderness of alienation that this society perpetuates. It can deepen us and open our senses to a force greater than ourselves. It won’t spare us our fate, nothing can. But it may spare us a kind of spiritual death.
Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of wonder that a child does when struck by the awesomeness of life itself. I also felt immensely small. My heart beat with an ache as I attempted to comprehend what my species and, in particular, my society has done to this precious life giving earth. I felt the cold air from that melting glacier roll over me. But this time I decided to not chase that specter of sorrow away. I embraced him like a long lost friend. And he smiled at me and said, “what took you so long?”
Kenn Orphan 2015
This essay is dedicated to the memory of my father, George Orphan, Sr. (June 7th, 1925 – November 25th, 2014). You will be forever in my heart and I can never repay you for the gifts you have given me.