a new column exploring the intersection of literature and ecology
by Maryka Gillis
Like many Millenials, I have anxiety and foreboding concerning the changes across Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Call it what you will – climate change, global warming, global weirding, an unfortunate coincidence – the changing state of our environment is dire. With rapid rates of deforestation, species loss, acidification, and other habitat degradation, on top of worldwide changes in weather patterns and atmospheric composition, we’re in deep.
I started middle school soon after Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” presented climate change to the greater public, when even the most informed called it “global warming.” My public school science classes from middle school on, consequentially, dealt extensively with climate change and ecological degradation. I involved myself with environmentally concerned student groups and learned why I should care about recycling. In my first year of college, I chose to advise my residence hall on sustainability issues, and proceeded to live in a sustainable living community my second year. I continued reading articles and watching documentaries about human mistreatment of our planet. The publications were peppered with quotes from some of the world’s leading scientists examining which planets would be most suitable for human settlement when, as they claim, we inevitably have to leave the wasteland that Earth will be twenty or fifty or two thousand years down the road (depending who you ask).
Out of the resultant trepidation for the state of our planet, I adopted a cynical outlook on humanity’s ability to change according to anything but selfish desires. I was unclear what to do to mitigate damage to the earth – some sources said making my life more sustainable was the most I could do; others said forget the backyard garden and gray water, all that counts is political upheaval. I became so overwhelmed with the enormity of climate change that I felt my ability to preserve the earth in any way was nonexistent.
I wish I could say my intense anxiety about climate change has climaxed and since subsided, or that I found my exact role in preserving our planet’s biodiversity and lowering atmospheric carbon. But I can’t. What I have found in its stead is a way to cope. A few months ago, I began a poetry class and started reading and writing more verse. In poems about an array of subjects, I found emotional moments that are beginning to redeem my perception of human behavior and help me process climate change’s terrifying implications. In Mark Doty’s poems about grieving for his partner and finding an inherent worthwhileness in life, I found grace and the forgiveness to begin processing global ecological degradation. In Matthew Dickman’s poems about American culture and his role in it, I found empathy for myself and other endlessly fallible people, and I began rediscovering society’s value. And in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poetry about motherhood and her relationship to heritage, I found a way to take large issues piece by piece, in digestible bits.
We can find solace in literature that, on the surface, seems irrelevant. I have not yet lost anyone close to me, nor am I a mother or from a diverse cultural heritage. However, moments of pain and recovery present in literature about these issues and beyond have helped me begin to heal through their humanity. I don’t understand most of the circumstances I read about, but I do know what their associated emotions feel like.
In the opening paragraph of the foreword to Barbara Kingsolver’s essay collection Small Wonder, she says, “It is possible to move away from a vast, unbearable pain by delving into it deeper and deeper… You can look at all the parts of a terrible thing until you see that they’re assemblies of smaller parts, all of which you can name, and some of which you can heal or alter, and finally the terror that seemed unbearable becomes manageable. I suppose what I am describing is the process of grief.” The grief she describes is universal. At the time her book was published, it existed as nationwide grief from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When I was reading her essays, however, it existed as my own grief concerning Earth’s immense damage. While literature rarely directly combats an issue, it gives us an understanding of how to cope with our pain, whether that pain is the result of a global problem or personal grief. It helps us process. Literature allows and sometimes forces us to look at grief on a small scale, so that, in Kingsolver’s words, it becomes manageable. Feeling we have agency in a traumatic or otherwise difficult situation is the first step toward doing something about it; without hope, we are stuck. When we feel as though we are capable of action, we reclaim our ability to act.
Maryka Gillis is a Junior at Colorado College studying Creative Writing and Ecology. She will be working in the White Mountains of New Hampshire this summer, conserving trails and writing verse. The Editor in Chief invited her to launch this column as part of Folded Word’s ongoing sustainability efforts.