On feeling climate fear
Some thoughts that are not about compost.
My friend Martine and I went to see The Lightning Field in New Mexico for her birthday. The property only facilitates groups for twelve-ish hours at a time, so Martine and I woke before dawn on our one day and walked the perimeter of the piece together. It took a few hours and we talked and I brought a cup of coffee. There was a crowd of cows in the distance, visible but not detailed, moving across the mountain like a muscle.
The idea of the piece, I think, is to ensure complete experience; to confront or relocate one’s sense of space in relation to land and also in time. These are such gigantic concepts that it’s hard to write them down, which is probably the point. The work is untranslatable and can’t easily be photographed. You can’t just “look,” you have to move—time is required. Needless to say, how refreshing. How refreshing to find something that resists being captured.
I sometimes forget, but the reason I started writing this Substack was because I was afraid. I was afraid about what was happening to the planet; full of grief that we are dying and what could I do? I had to do something. I started writing about compost, which was something I knew about and thought could be significant for the overall well-being of communities and the environment. It felt like the one small thing. I tell people that all the time: find your one small thing, etc., but lately I’ve been wondering if I am giving the right advice. The small things just feel so small.
When I texted Martine about this she quoted me Kathryn Yussof:
“The Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialism have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence.”
Thinking about the Yussof quote, I deleted almost everything I had initially written here and started over. What’s the right thing to ask of people now? What is even the first thing? Face that it has already happened, I think. The end of the world is not an anticipatory event. Contemplating it requires looking both forward and back. With that in mind, I think what’s been bothering me is not the size of my actions, but the scope of my perspective.
Climate fear, as I’ve encountered it within myself and among friends, is often rooted in the unconscious assumption that the world used to be one way (“safe” “good”) and now it longer will be. Yussof provides a wider lens. She offers the chance to see this moment not as the one abrupt shift toward inevitable doom, but a more layered reality where survival has great and incredible precedent. We are surrounded by it all the time. Our grief has to get bigger (world’s have ended), but our capacity might now expand with it. This is not the first time that something has been faced.
I went through my books while I thought about this, and rediscovered an essay on climate grief by the poet Rebecca Tamás:
“For most Westerners, consumed by ‘climate grief,’ the impacts [of climate change] are not so concrete, or so totally destabilizing. For us, ‘climate grief’ is a kind of luxury, suffering without losing our means of survival, yet. But the spectrum of emotion, despair, fury, even self-hatred or disgust, are similar. These feelings may be more speculative and general than [specific] … but that does not mean that the pain is meaningless.”
I appreciate that Tamás is candid about how differently located in this we are, while still allowing for us to remain connected along a spectrum of defensible grief. She gives permission for this to be hard. I want to take that one step further, though, and find a way for the hardness to be nurturing; to embrace the clarity that accompanies pain, and the openness required by accountability.
I think that’s all I know right now. I’m still trying to find myself in this.
Walter Benjamin has written that “we have been expected upon this earth.” I keep mixing it up and saying:
“The earth is waiting for you to arrive.”
It’s such a dumb mistake, but there’s something about the mixed up words that catch me, like somebody calling out from a distance. The earth is waiting. It is waiting for you to arrive.
Come now then, I want to say. —Don’t be afraid.