Resistant mourning a powerful tool for positive change
I think it is fair to say that all of us who teach or mentor young people today are acutely aware of their anxieties, sadness and anger about what humans have done and are doing to our earth and all its wondrous life forms. The concern becomes how to work with these very real and appropriate responses of our youth without creating despair or apathy.
When we read that dozens of species are lost forever every day and those losses are linked to other life forms and so in the decades to come the rate of extinctions will increase, what do we say to our children, our students?
Thinking about earth heating, I was led to a book titled “Mourning Nature, Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss & Grief,” edited by Ashlee Cunsolo & Karen Landman (Mcgill-queens University Press, 2017). One of the book’s dedications sums up the intention of the collection: May our individual and collective mourning unite, catalyze, characterize, mobilize, and heal.” One article in particular, “Auguries of Elegy, the Art and Ethics of Ecological Grieving” by Jessica Marion Barr went some way toward answering my question.
Through the ages, poets have written elegies mourning the death of family members, friends, towns, graveyards, the famous and the common. Traditionally, elegies have been a method of finding cathartic release and consolation, often in eternal life, or in nature, or in pride of nation. One I never tire of reading is Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Courtyard Bloom’d” – his magnificent tribute to the fallen Abraham Lincoln. Whitman finds consolation in thinking of Lincoln as a martyr that history brought forth. In the larger context of a nation torn asunder, Lincoln’s death and the outpouring of grief might begin the process of healing that nation.
After the slaughters of the First World War, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, poets began to change the focus of elegy from seeking consolation, “death’s outlet song” as Whitman phrased it, to a hard questioning of the causes, the reasons given for and the unjustness of many kinds of death. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Art must be stripped of compensatory literary tropes in order to soberly confront the horror and politics of manufactured death.”
After all, what consolation can be found in Auschwitz? What larger frame of justice can hold the death of the Spanish Republic?
So elegy became anti-elegiac. Instead of an easing of sorrow, the poet cries, “Never forget.” Keep the injustice, the horror alive so as not to repeat it.
Today there has come into being art that warns of future loss, an anticipatory or prophetic elegy. Bill Mckibben, founder of 350.org, warns that we are living through the biggest change since human civilization emerged. And yet people seem not to have been touched enough by this enormity, this slow and not-so-slow global violence, to do something about it.
An example of this prophetic art is a film by Chris Jordan called “Midway,” showing baby Laysan albatross dying from being fed plastic from the sea by unwitting parents. This is our future, Jordan is saying. We are those albatross with trash tangled in their tiny stomachs. Art like Jordan’s is what Marshall Mcluhan meant when he said, “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” Implicit is the idea that if humans are touched, moved, by this kind of art, they will feel kinship beyond the human with the entire web of life and want to preserve what is left. Resistant mourning can begin to create ecological communities.
I remember standing in the middle of thousands of quilts spread on the grounds of the Washington Monument, literally acres of them, each quilt dedicated to a human being who died of AIDS, each quilt beautifully made, eloquent expressions of a precious life gone. The scale of death and the very personal words, photographs, symbols, on the quilts prodded me to begin working with people living with AIDS.
Now what does all of this have to do with our worried young people? Resistant mourning is the key. Let me give an example that may seem like a very small gesture in the face of rampaging earth heating. A group of Marshview students who were members of an environment club became aware that all waste leaving the school, including refundables, ended up in the landfill in Moncton. After touring the waste site, they began to talk to the staff and their classmates about how to properly sort waste. This was a very complicated business and the Mighty Earth Warriors, as they called themselves, asked people like professor Michael Fox of Mount Allison to help. They stood by garbage bins during lunch hours to educate about proper sorting. This year Renaissance Sackville named them Sackville Youth Citizens of the Year.
These students saw with their own eyes the huge dump of waste. I would imagine this touched them to the point that they felt compelled to take on the difficult task of getting the entire school to sort properly. Awareness, sadness, action. Resistant mourning.
On a much larger scale, 21 U.S. children and young adults, ranging in age from eight to 19, initiated a climate lawsuit in 2015 that argues the Trump and Obama administrations have failed to curb carbon emissions even as they knew of its harmful effects. Recently, a U.S. District Court ruled that the case can go forward. The suit states “… government actions have worsened carbon emissions and have violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.” These young people have seen the results of climate change, and moved by this knowledge, acted.
Resistant mourning. All of us need to adopt this motto.