Re­sis­tant mourn­ing a pow­er­ful tool for pos­i­tive change

Sackville Tribune - - REAL ESTATE/COMMUNITY - Mar­i­lyn Lerch Mar­i­lyn Lerch is an area res­i­dent and Sackville’s poet lau­re­ate.

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, 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.

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