Speaking Earth Day
Yesterday, Gary and I spent the day with a small group of people investigating grief. It was a rich, intelligent, and healing time. We call the workshop The Nature of Grief. And, in it, we weave together Gary’s storytelling and literary acumen with my knowledge of psychology and education applied to emotional, mental and spiritual health. It’s good work. We can tell by the responses of the people who join us – people directly in grief and people who provide professional witness and aid in support of those who are grieving.
Gary’s recent book, The Carry Home – Lessons in the American Wilderness contains the story of his first wife, Jane, who died 10 years ago in a tragic accident on the Kopka River in Ontario, Canada. Jane and Gary were nothing short of expert outdoors-people. For 25 years they scaled mountains, cycled continents and navigated whitewater. They had just finished honing their canoeing skills in a week-long workshop when they stopped on their way home for the equivalent of a walk in the park – a two hour paddle down the Kopka.
Their accomplishment, of course, rested on fundamental scouting skills, and as usual, they’d thoroughly surveyed maps and reports of this stretch of water. They knew there was a wild “stage 5” run of water around which they would have to portage — take the canoe out of the water for “a carry” along the bank siding the intensely rugged stretch.
What they couldn’t have anticipated was the unusually high level of the whole of the river due to big recent rains. They couldn’t have anticipated the shift of the portage landing to much nearer the beginning of the wild run. They couldn’t have known they’d be swept in. But, once they were, they knew immediately they would eventually capsize – no open vessel on that water stood any other chance. It was just a matter of time.
And they did capsize. And the fierce water took their bodies – took the canoe and its paddles – everything – into its unforgiving current.
Jane, it turned out, died immediately with an underwater blow to her head.
Unable to know anything of Jane’s fate, Gary was swept through. Twice his breath met with water instead of air. Twice he considered up very close, moments that might signify his own death. In the last case, his leg was trapped, keeping him deep underwater until, by providence, it broke and he came up – still alive.
Only a few days earlier, Jane had reminded Gary of an agreement they’d made some 12 years earlier – that should anything happen to her, there were five wild places, precious to her and her life, where she would want her ashes spread.
Days later, Jane was gone. And Gary was left with the loss – its unbearable weight. In what continued passing for reality. Nothing made sense anymore. Only Jane’s instruction.
It was this instruction that gave Gary a way to walk forward through the grief that now so savagely demanded his attention.
Read the book. The Carry Home – Gary Ferguson. You’ll see the process, its pain and its healing, its redemption and hope. You’ll also move with another grief journey – the one we are all engaged with as our climate shifts and harshens, in large part because of the behaviors and choices of human beings – of human progress.
Today is Earth Day. Forty-five years later we’re still observing this day – April 22 – set aside by environmental enthusiasts, and acknowledged by the federal government in 1970. Gary’s story – its deep despair, its surrender to the cycle – to what is, and its redemption are all about what is earthly.
This is true of the stories of all who grieve. But grief and loss are not things we are very good at talking about. They are not things we are very good at being in – at being with.
Whether we key in or not, the reality – the companionship – even the vitality of death – all are essential to the expressions of our Earth. The seasons carry death. The animal world shows us death. Life arises in form – and without exception, life passes away.
Earth day. The liveliness of life – and its inevitable death – both defining what endures.
I don’t have the words to encapsulate this. I can’t find them precisely in the most profound of poetry, scripture, sutra. Our minds can only begin to use our words to point in the direction of what the Earth – in its dailyness – moves through and shows us.
So, Earth day. A good day to consider such unspeakable things.