Everywhere I have been in Israel, Palestine and Jordan is more than one place. These ‘wheres’ are layered with ‘whens’. The hillsides have been grazed for millennia. Caves have been inhabited by thousands of generations. Even Neanderthals have been found in the Carmel mountain range.
Each church or basilica is often a collage, a composite assemblage of past shrines. Byzantine establishment, Islamic conquest, Crusader rebuilding, reconquest, 19th or 20th century restoration. Ottoman and then British colonial rule. Most recently, the state of Israel.
Israeli nationalism imagined a unified Jewish homeland. After WWII this aspiration gained traction. When Israel declared itself a state with British permission in what was then Mandatory Palestine, some 400 Arab villages were “depopulated.” Either razed or reinhabited by Israeli re-settlers. A massive global diaspora felt it was coming home. Arabs who had lived in these places for hundreds of years felt like they were being driven from their traditional territories so to speak.
Nationalisms of all stripes tend to purify and reify places and construct them as if there were an original people and place. Palestinian and Israeli nationalisms both make claims to autochthony, which literally means self-earth. Of the place. And all these peoples have strong claims to this land. Throughout the long list of empires that have trampled and exploited the region, some measure of plurality has been navigated. From Pagan to Christian to Muslim empires.
We are now living in a time of either/or, left/right, oppressors/oppressed. Israel and Palestine’s aspirations will continue to play into this winner/looser political rhetoric.
In this way, Nationalism is a kind of sacralized mono-culture. One that tries to control stories and identity by imposing a single reading of place. Regardless of the future arrangement, plurality is going to have to be recognized by all sides.
From May 15-31 I will be in Israel/Palestine on pilgrimage. Going to post some jottings. But I’m writing them on my phone so forgive the brevity and choppiness.
The first ten days will be on a tour led by a Franciscan friar named Father Ben. He is originally from Ghana. Getting here was a long journey but very smooth. On my over night plane from JFK to Tel Aviv, there were many different kinds of Jewish folk. The man next to me wore a black woven Kippah on a bald head and it kept falling off when his head dipped in sleep.
I would wake up and look around with groggy eyes and see men dressed in full Jewish prayer regalia bobbing in place with prayer books in hand or sitting quietly adjusting their phylacteries on forehead and left arm.
The airline steward asked if I wanted my mid flight meal kosher, or “just regular.” I looked at my Jewish seat companion and said, “um, non-kosher please.” I said that so as not to imply that eating Kosher was all that odd.
At the hotel, there were mezuzahs on every door. A surcharge for spa services on Shabbat. And there was an elevator that was designated for use on Shabbat, saving observant Jews from having to press the elevator buttons. There was a small synagogue in the hotel basement.
In the front of the hotel, just below their welcome sign, there was a small pipal tree growing, the holy tree of enlightenment for Buddhists. I think they are quite common here.
When I rented a car on the first day before the tour started so I could see Haifa, I saw a man pulled over to the side of the busy freeway praying on his mat in the dust. In the most mundane of places he was making that dust holy with his prayer.
As I drove on the busy Israeli freeway, I passed a Caesarea freeway exit and the Roman aqueduct that fed water to the city from Mount Carmel built by Herod to honor the Roman Emperor in 22 BCE. It felt surreal to see Biblical place names on street signage. But of course, how else would it be? These places did not freeze in time.
In Nazareth, we visited holy basilicas and shrines and then ate shawarma in an equally ancient grotto turned pilgrim cantina. I joked that perhaps it was the place Jesus himself had his first shawarma!
Eating fish at our hotel on the Lake of Galilee, where Jesus and his disciples fished. Walking the shoreline and seeing privatized beaches with kayak and sea doo rentals.
All the religious sites have been breathtaking, if crowded. But at the margins off all these places and spaces there has been a kind of dialect of the holy also spoken by the mundane. If holy places are so often sacred because of what we believe exists there objectively, holiness can also be a powerful practice of making-sacred-with our places.
I recently joined the board the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society. We are getting ready to launch our website, and I was tasked with writing a short bio on Father Charles Brandt, a Hermit-Priest who lived in a small cabin and supported himself as a bookbinder on Vancouver Island. I met Charles in 2016, when I was completing my dissertation at UBC.
Charles Brandt was the fifth child of the six and was born on February 19, 1923, in Kansas City, Missouri. He is of Danish-English heritage, the child of Alvin Rudolph Brandt-Yde and Anna Chester Bridges. His father was an auto mechanic at a Buick dealership and later served as a pilot in the Airforce during World War II. After the war, he worked as a Park Superintendent at Swope Park. Charles had two brothers and two sisters.
At the age of three, the family moved to a small farm where he had some of his first encounters of wonder in the natural world. The family raised chickens and had a milking cow. A small spring emptied into a creek on the property and there Charles would fish for perch and crawdads. In primary school, an observant teacher encouraged Charles to paint, and he enjoyed painting apple blossoms with watercolors. His Aunt, Helen F. Bridges, was on the board of the Kansas City Art Gallery and encouraged all the Brandt children to pursue artistic talents. Charles continued studying art at the Kansas City Arts Institute on Saturdays for several years.
As a Boy Scout, he earned the rank of Eagle and was drawn toward craft and book binding. Eldon Newcomb, a scientist who was also the head of the nature staff at Osceola Boy Scout Camp, became a major mentor and influence on Charles. For several summers, he served as a counselor at the Osceola Boy Scout Camp, where he taught bird watching and natural history. As a Scout he was elected to the Mic-O-Say tribe, which is an honor society that exists within the Boy Scouts of America. (In recent years the organization has been criticized by Indigenous people over concern that it engages in cultural appropriation. But in Charles day, it was a different time.) Charles was very early on fascinated by birds. Charles writes,
“During the spring of my 2nd year of high school, having become quite interested in bird study, I had an experience on weekend out along the Blu River. It was beside a small stream with the spring foliage when I began to see a stream of warblers moving along the stream and in the bushes, feeding and calling. The amazing thing was there were about nine different species in all their mating plumages, migrating through their nesting grounds. It was an overwhelming experience of beauty and wonder and wild. I wanted to preserve it forever” (Brandt 2006, 2).
This fascination with birds, birding and wildlife was a key dimension of Charles’ contemplative approach to ecology, and ecological approach to contemplation.
Father Brandt attended high school in Raytown, Missouri. Active in debate, band, swimming, oratory, sports, drama. He also worked as a life saver and lifesaving instructor. When Charles was thirteen, he read Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden Pond, and immediately felt the desire to “go to the woods”, a desire that eventually would call him to the hermit vocation. On Thoreau Charles said,
“I got interested then in Henry David Thoreau. He went to the woods to find out what life was all about, and that was really quite exciting, and a real challenge for me; and I wanted to do something like that. That was probably my first inroad into the hermit life” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 42).
Land, place, ecology and silence were for Charles a single whole from a very young age.
But at university, he decided to study conservation at the University of Missouri where he majored in wildlife conservation. Reflecting on this later, Charles realized that he had roomed with Starker Leopold who was studying wild turkeys in the Ozarks. Starker was the son of the famed conservationist Aldo Leopold (1987-1948).
In 1943 Charles entered Active Service with the US Army Air Corps. It was around this time, while Charles was studying in Colorado for the army, that Charles began attending a Baptist Church. And until 1946, when Charles was discharged, he travelled and studied for his service positions with the US Army, including bombardier training in Victoriaville, California. Charles was appointed a Flight Officer but never saw active combat before the war ended. When he entered military service, he didn’t really reflect on whether or not it was the right thing to do, since it seemed to be a patriotic duty. But by the end of his service, he felt that he had become something of a pacifist and winced at the thought of being an actual bombardier.
In 1947, Charles headed to Cornell University to study ornithology. Charles studied birdsong recording under Dr. Peter Kellogg and studied nesting birds at the Edwin S. George Reserve in Michigan. He was also elected to Phi Kappa Phi, a student scientific society for his high academic achievement. Charles would go on to graduate first in his class with a Bachelor of Science in biology. Charles’ first scientific article was published in the Wilson Bulletin, based in Anne Arbor, Michigan. The essay was entitled “The Parasitism of the Acadian Flycatcher.”
Taking serious stock of his spiritual life, Charles began attending Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Ithaca, New York. Soon, Charles met the Reverent Francis Voelcker, the priest in residence there, who saw in Charles a great contemplative potential. He began mentoring Charles and encouraged him to explore a vocation to the Anglican priesthood. Charles spent that summer living with an Anglican religious order, the Brothers of Saint Barnabas, who were devoted to the care of men and boys with developmental disabilities and incurable illnesses.
Though as a Hermit-Priest Charles never married, and he doesn’t mention many romantic partners, it seems that during this time he was quite fond of a woman he refers to as C.C. They attended services together at Saint John’s and Charles simply writes, “we spent considerable time together” (Brandt 2006, 4).
After graduating from Cornell in 1948, Charles decided to pursue Holy Orders. He returned to Colorado where he lived during his military training and was accepted as candidate for Anglican priesthood by Bishop Bowen of the Colorado Diocese. He entered Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin, living there for three years where Charles enjoyed the routine of the community which included Mass and the daily office.
However, during seminary Charles continued to wrestle with finding a meaningful spirituality and began to read more widely from books by writers such as Jeremy Taylor and Father Benson of the Cowley Fathers of England, another Anglican religious order. He seemed to be seeking a deeper spirituality of silence and contemplation. Then, Charles stumbled upon Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Story Mountain and found a deep resonance with Merton’s rich contemplative spirituality. Of Merton’s writing he said simply, “it blew me away.” So much so that he and several seminarians had arranged to spend easter at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived, to experience Trappist life firsthand and meet Merton in person, but the trip was cancelled at the last minute, and they didn’t end up going. On reading Thomas Merton for the first time, Charles reflects,
“So when I read The Seven Story Mountain, that was what I was looking for; that really answered my question. I wanted to know if it was possible to really experience God in this lifetime, can you talk to him, as a person? That was really a revelation, The Seven Story Mountain, and it changed my whole thinking. From then on, I was thinking in terms of monastic the life” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 48).
That year, however, Charles ended up visiting another Trappist monastery. He made arrangements to meet with Father Bede O’Leary the Abbot and theologian of Our Lady of Guadeloupe Trappist Abbey which at the time was located in New Mexico (in 1954 the community relocated to Carlton, Oregon). Charles wanted to talk with O’Leary about contemplative, or mental prayer and Father Bede became a great voice of council for Charles.
In 1950 Charles spent the summer at the Community of Augustine and Anglican Contemplative House in Orange City, Florida and on December 7th Charles was ordained a Deacon at Saint Andrew’s Church in Denver, Colorado by Bishop Bowen.
In 1951, accompanied by Reverend Voelcker, Charles went to England to explore the varieties of the Church of England’s contemplative life. They visited Chevetogne, Belgium where he met with Dom Lambert Beauduin (OSB) who was interested in the Anglican re-unification with Rome. This meeting brought Charles to question the validity of Anglican Holy Orders, because he learned that they had been declared invalid by the Vatican.
From here, Charles began to try his hand at the monastic life in earnest and in 1951 he became a Postulant at Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican monastery in Mirfield, Yorkshire. Despite his doubts, in 1952 he was ordained an Anglican Priest by Bishop of Wakefield, UK.
In 1953 Charles left the Community of the Resurrection and spent some time in continental Europe making various stops in France and Rome. He spent ten days in Assisi, a few weeks in Rome, and met with a Benedictine monks named Father Dennis Stratham OSB. Father Stratham was from Saint Gregory’s monastery in Shawnee, Oklahoma. This meeting would prove providential, as Charles was received into the Roman Catholic Church there in 1956.
In the meantime, Charles continued his quest for a place to express his contemplative vocation within the existing religious communities of the Anglican/Episcopal traditions. When he returned from Europe in the latter half of 1953, he travelled to a property in Gaylordville, New York where Father Paul Weed had a property that he wanted to transform into a contemplative community. Father Charles built a small hermitage on the property out of old railroad ties and started working as a Chaplain at Kent School in Connecticut where he also helped with the garden.
Soon however, Charles discerned that this was not his place and he decided to move to Three Rivers Michigan, a small Anglican Benedictine community in 1954 and entered as a postulant. While he was there, he learned to chant the divine office in Latin, and continued his voracious reading of the mystics and contemplatives. Charles was deeply moved by the writings of Camaldoli monk Father Bede Griffiths whose autobiography The Golden String deeply impacted Charles. Griffiths was a monk in England for many years, but eventually found himself in India dialoguing with Hindu Sanyasis and fusing East and West. Father Charles also began reading John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Newman had spearheaded the Anglo-Catholic revival in the Church of England in the late 19th century, but eventually converted to Catholicism and was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. This period sealed Father Charles movement to the Roman Catholic Church, so he left for Louisiana to meet with the only catholic priest he knew, Father Bede O’Leary who was on leave and serving a parish there. O’Leary sent Charles to St Benedict’s Monastery, and he met with the Prior there. Despite meeting daily for a month, Charles was not quite ready to make the move from Anglican to Roman Catholic. So, Charles decided to travel to Mexico City on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our lady of Guadeloupe, accompanied by Father Bede.
Upon returning, he decided to head to Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, Oklahoma where he continued his discernment, studied Latin, and met with a resident theology professor regularly. It was during this time that Father Charles fell in love with book binding, a skill that would become his own contemplative bread and butter throughout his years as a hermit in British Columbia.
On January 26, 1956, Charles Brandt was received into the Roman Catholic Church and in April he was confirmed in the Cathedral at Oklahoma City. Charles continued his stay at Saint Gregory’s, taking theology classes and deepening his bookbinding skills. That Easter Charles decided to travel to Gethsemani Trappist Abbey where he met with Thomas Merton who was the novice master at the time. Merton was warm and received Charles with kindness.
On his first meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Brandt recounts, “So at Easter I went to Gethsemani. I knew Merton was the novice master. I didn’t realize I was going to meet him. I was in the guest house for about a week. So [knocking] I hear this knock on the door, and in enters Thomas Merton. You know, he sat down there, just the most ordinary person in the world. Immediately, I liked him, really liked him as a person, and we talked. My intent was to enter the novitiate there, but he said, “Don’t come here. We could make a good monk of you, but not a good contemplative”” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 52).
After several chats with Merton and later his Bishop, Charles decided to forgo a trip to Rome to pursue a quicker pathway to priesthood and decided to first solidify his vocation as a monk. Charles decided to enter New Melleray Abbey, Dubuque, Iowa, another Trappist Abbey. This decision seemed fruitful and in 1958 Charles made Simple Profession (temporary vows) and was put in charge of a small book bindery. Charles continued his studies in philosophy and theology.
In 1964, during the upheavals and experimentation of Vatican II, Charles became uncertain about making final profession (vows). All over the world, monastic orders were studying their roots, which went back to the hermits and recluses of Syria, Judea and Egypt. Charles remembered that Thomas Merton told him about the Camaldolese Order which had a monastery in Ohio. So, Charles and his Abbot drove to visit them. However, the Camaldolese stood for the duration of the divine office. Having a back problem, Charles knew within ten minutes that he wouldn’t make it.
Back to the drawing board, Charles wrote a letter to Thomas Merton. Merton’s reply was published in a collection of letters, and Merton encouraged Charles to continue his search for a more contemplative place to live out his vocation. Charles soon found two eremitic experiments: A Benedictine hermit named Peter Minard in North Carolina and Dom Winandy, greatly admired by Merton, who was leading a small group of hermits on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
After visiting Peter Minard, Charles was impressed. Minard lived a simple life on old plantation. But soon it became clear that Father Minard was mostly looking for someone to run the farm. So, the Abbot of New Melleray wrote to Dom Winandy, who gave Charles permission to come for a visit.
In March of 1965 Charles arrived at Winandy’s group, The Hermits of Saint John the Baptist, located on the Tsolum River in Merville, BC one hundred acres of forested land. Charles moved into a small trailer and then began to build a hermitage there with some local help which was completed in September. To earn a living Charles decided he would try his hand at being a professional book binder, and the Trappists of Carlton, Oregon, Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey (who Charles had previously visited in New Mexico), donated some book binding equipment. With this Charles began to search for clients in the local area.
Despite Dom Winandy’s misgivings about hermits becoming priests, Winandy gave Charles permission to meet with Bishop Remi De Roo, who eventually accepted him as candidate for priesthood. In August he received minor orders and was incardinated in the Diocese of Victoria which essentially ended his temporary vows at New Melleray. On November 21, 1966, Charles was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest by Bishop De Roo at the Canadian Martyrs Church. According to Charles, he was the first full time hermit ordained in Catholic Church in several hundred years.
While living on the Tsolum River, Charles began working as a fisheries technician, and assisted in some parish work on Cumberland on Sundays. Eventually the hermitage site became a bit too crowded, and Winandy and several hermits including Charles dispersed to other properties. In the Spring of 1970, Charles moved his hermitage structure to its current location on the Oyster River.
In the mid-1970s Charles travelled extensively to improve his bookbinding skills. He spent several months in San Francisco learning book restoration and then travelled to the New England Document Centre in Andover, Massachusetts to learn more about flatwork conservation of maps, parchments and prints. Charles was even appointed Chief of the Bindery, which kept him very busy teaching workshops and conducting surveys. In 1975-76, Charles travelled extensively in Europe where he both worked and studied additional conservation techniques.
Returning to Canada, from 1976-1981 Charles was employed by various Canadian book conversation programs. First, he worked for the Canadian Conservation Institute in Moncton, NB as Professional Book and Paper Conservator. Charles said a daily noon Mass in an English-speaking Church in Moncton. When this office closed, he moved to a centre based in Ottawa where he restored bound volumes, maps and art works on paper. Charles was also hired by the Manitoba government to design and oversee the building of a state-of-the-art restoration laboratory in Winnipeg from 1981-1984. The purpose was to survey and restore the Hudson’s Bay archives. Charles also travelled throughout Canada doing conservation work in Yukon, Manitoba, and Alberta during this time. On his love for bookbinding and conservation Charles wrote:
“Probably the best contemplative part of bookbinding is sewing the book. It’s a very relaxing, I think a very meditative, contemplative aspect of binding. Literature is disappearing at a great rate from our libraries all over the world, and it’s our written record of humanity. So if you’re preserving that, as I am, you’re preserving humanity, the culture, and I think that’s really quite worthwhile. It’s like preserving the earth. It’s not just a job, it’s something that’s conducive to the prolongation of civilization” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 55).
Charles was a craftsman and appreciated work well done. The embodied nature of the work, the quiet and the sense of purpose facilitated a contemplative atmosphere that was conducive of prayer.
In 1984, Charles finally returned to his beloved hermitage where he began making additions to the structure and installing a conservation lab and library. Charles began teaching conservation and restoration techniques at University of Victoria, UBC, Simon Fraser, University of Alberta, Washington State University and in many communities across Vancouver Island.
Even before he left for his travels related to book binding and document conservation, Charles was a passionate lover of place. He would write letters to local officials protesting proposed developments on the Oyster and Tsolum Rivers. When he returned to full time residency at the hermitage in 1984, he began lobbying campaign which mushroomed into a large number of environmental projects throughout the Campbell River and Comox Valley. Throughout the years, Charles was involved in many environmental groups and causes: The Steelhead Society of BC, Haig Brown Kingfisher Creek Society, the Campbell River Environmental Council, the Tsolum River Enhancement Committee, the Oyster River enhancement Society, the Oyster River Watershed Management Committee and the Tsolum River Restoration Committee. In the 1990s the local media began to take notice, and he even received several environmental awards for his work on river restoration and conservation.
It was at this same time that he began holding meditation retreats with the local community, despite some Catholic leaders warning against “Eastern” forms of prayer and meditation. His work of ecology and contemplation were quite a natural fit: Action and Contemplation were connected. In 1990, the meditation group became a regular event, which continued to the end of Charles’ life.
In 2001, Charles was the keynote Speaker at the Western Conference on Christian Meditation in Edmonton, Alberta which solidified his leadership in the global contemplative movement. On prayer, Charles reflected, “I think that anybody who prays benefits the whole body of Christ. Prayer touches everybody. The person next to me is affected by whatever I do. If I pray, that helps them, and it also helps the natural world” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 39).
Charles life was a series of questions lived out in many different places and among many different communities. But his love for craft, ecology, and prayer shine through all of this. Charles is an exemplar of contemplative ecology lived well. Toward the end of his life, Charles reflected on the contemplative life and on the hermitage property that the Hermitage Society lovingly maintains. He said,
“In a way, I’m looking towards eternity now. I’ll be 93 on February 19th, , so I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling. And this is my place. I walk out and I know the trees, and I know the birds and the animals. They’re my friends. As I said, the human community and the rest of the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community. I feel that I’m part of this community where the natural world and people come and go; and if we don’t, as Thomas Berry says, we’ll perish” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 57).
Father Charles Brandt died at the age of 97 on October 25, 2020, after a short stay at a local hospital in the Comox Valley. Upon his death, close friend and co-founder of the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society Bruce Witzel reflected, “His stature as a spiritual teacher as well as his whole legendary reputation as someone who integrated spirituality with ecology will live on after him in the lives and efforts of the many people he directly inspired” (Closter 2020).
Charles Brandt. Meditations from the Wilderness: A Collection of Profound Writing on Nature as the Source of Inspiration (Harper Collins, 1997). 150 quotations about ecology, place and contemplation.
Self and Environment: On Retreat with Charles Brandt. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2000). An outline of Charles thinking on contemplative and ecology.
Charles Brandt, “Autobiographical Timeline” Email from Charles Brandt to Judy Hager (Dec. 14, 2006).
Rev. Don Grayston (1939-2017) and David Chang “A Single Sacred Community:
In Emily Stoddard’s debut poetry collection, Divination with a Human Heart Attached, I felt many resonances with my own life, particularly the wrestling with faith and the deep love for plants. The 2023 collection of 36 mostly free verse poems is deep and wide. There is rich religious language that is at times biting critique of institutional corruption and sexism in religious institutions, and at others cleverly reimagined Christian mythology. In other corners of the book, we sit with the author’s deep longing for rest in the Divine and realize that there are green shoots emerging from the scorched earth of our contemporary religious wasteland.
Raised in the Mormon tradition, I consider myself a contemplative catholic these days, but my faith in the Roman Church is anything but certain or confident. Sometimes I feel as alienated from my Catholic parish as I might at a Richard Dawkins talk. But the good earth is big enough for my faith and my doubt. And I am glad about that. And Stoddard’s poetry lends me hope that I am not alone in this.
My heart swelled with sympathy with the very first line of “More & More”: “The trouble is / everything calls to me.” From my desk I can see birds squabbling over my birdfeeder. I have come to love these birds and they are an important part of my work from home ecosystem. There are white-crowned and song sparrows, juncos, chickadees. I am writing a university course on birds in the humanities, and I have been fascinated to learn of the common practice in many cultures, but particularly among the ancient Romans and Greeks of divination using birds. This art is called augury or ornithomancy, and the omens brought by birds appear at key moments in the Iliad and Odyssey. Stoddard’s title references divination that goes inward, but her poems are richly colored with plant and bird life. In one instance, the magpie presents a powerful fusing of the transcendent power of air and flight and the earthy arrival of ground.
In “I Might Have Been a Botanist”, she wrestles with the wonderful knowledge of science and its tendency to reduce the world beyond the recognition of poetry. She writes, “More, I said, / tell me your name, I said / without the restraint of a scientist,”. As a child, I was fascinated by the natural world, but science and math classes felt anything but earthy. My favorite activity outside was make believe, imagining I was a boy in the wilderness, where I was at home talking to animals. The reductionism of science also repulsed me during my graduate work on forestry, where our frequent trips into the woods seldom invoked words like beauty from the instructors and foresters.
In “Hivemind Elegy (There are Things Coming)”, Stoddard enlists the imagery of that fatal mythical apple to speak of a surging ecological grief that is attending our descent from fossil fuel civilization. She writes, “Migration patterns may soon / become escape routes,”. We all know something is coming. We don’t know how bad it will be. Satan stands before us offering two temptations: embrace technological optimism or give up hope completely. I hear Stoddard facing her anxiety, tapping into her grief, but not making any sweeping claims about where this journey will take her.
In “Inheritance Rosarium”, we trace the contours of a multigenerational shawl knit from the bodies and hearts of a grandmother, a mother and the author. There are references to the mysteries of the rosary, saints, the rib of Adam, crosses and a deep longing for God peppered with the doubts of a strong young woman. The last line punches: “If it’s true, if god is there at all, she kicks us from the inside.” Reclaiming the image of god the mother, who is also being born by us, invokes the mystic wisdom of Meister Eckhart, who believed that each of us was called to give birth to God through our own spiritual fecundity.
In “Petronilla tries to imagine her father’s prayer (I)” Stoddard moves from divine feminine to lesser-known biblical women. The poem gives us a glimpse into the mind of a little know extra-biblical character, Saint Petronila the traditional daughter of Saint Peter. We see through Petronilla’s eyes and wonder at the traditional story of her being disfigured to save her virginity.
One of the most unique, narrative poems, is “Passion Play” which is a touching portrait of a daughter’s love for her father, and his love for Christ and trees. After considering the damage a Roman whip might do to the skin of a defeated Jesus of Nazareth, she smirks at the strangeness of applying fake blood to her father, as he prepared to carry the cross in the passion play at his Catholic parish. Stoddard’s father had crafted the cross himself from a redwood tree. However, unlike the bellowing cry of sadness from the cross, Stoddard connects with the loneliness of the garden. The garden where Jesus found himself alone with the trees as his companions slept. Most Easter Saturdays, I find myself in a Catholic church witnessing the somber glow of candles. The bishop intones a chant in the dark, lights the bonfire, and then lights a single candle whose light spread outward through the congregation’s huddled candles. More subtle than a passion play, but every year this ritual fire rekindles my own inner flame.
In “Descendants” we find a heartbreakingly relatable wrestle with feeling out of place in an achingly beautiful cosmos. She writes “restless / for the language / an ancestor spoke / into the sky / of their god”. Wrestling with a feeling common among settlers of European descent in North America, she writes, “the ladder / of my spine / is lined by shores / that were not ours / to fish”. It is such a familiar feeling to live in such a vast cosmos, with unlimited data coming to us from satellite images, without a coherent story to tell. And even the ground beneath my feet, in Vancouver, BC did not create me or my ancestors, who were scattered across north America by the frantic boats that left southern England in the 1700s. The pathway forward is far from certain. Divination with Human Heart Attached is a powerful auger of what remains worthy of our attention, even in the dark.
Keynote address presented to Facing Ecological Grief at Simon Fraser University, April 29, 2023
I don’t know how you all build community, but planning conferences like this is one of my favorite ways! Planning this conference has been a joy. I am very grateful to Naomi Krogman, Paul Kingsbury, Laurie Anderson, Laurie Wood, Candace Ratelle-Le Roy and Chelsie de Souza for believing in this gathering. I am also grateful to all of you, who trust us enough with your day to come and sit and talk.
But I am not just grateful to you. I need you. We are going to need each other to weather the coming age. I am not sure if what we are witnessing is a death rattle or a birth pang. Perhaps, both. What I am going to do is outline some perspectives on ecological anxiety and grief. Not as a psychologist but more as a cultural and spiritual activist.
I want to gesture towards an engagement with grief that holds all the wonderful and terrifying tensions that are building in our time. I don’t come to grief as a problem to be solved. A symptom to be alleviated. A neurosis to be alchemized into action by positive thinking.
Rather, I want to suggest that grief is more like an art form. Grief is a skill. I would even say that grief is a companion or a friend.In the arriving age, we need movements and justice and policy and technology. We also need practitioners of what I call grief-craft: Midwives and storytellers and artists and chaplains. So let’s talk about our time of trouble with no easy answers.
A Litany of Bad News
Because I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the world as we know it is ending. There has been a steady litany of troubling news from policy experts and scientists. There has been a litany of pleading for change from the world’s religious leaders, environmentalists and Indigenous communities. Listen to a few of these actual headlines from my newsfeed in recent weeks:
“Temperatures in 2023 could be record breaking with rapidly developing El Niño.”
“We are not the first civilization to collapse, but we will probably be the last.”
“Living sustainably isn’t just a trend, it’s a necessity.”
“As 1.5 degrees looms, scientists see growing risk of runaway warming, urgent need to slash emissions.”
“Climate diplomacy is failing — but we need it to survive.”
“Catastrophic warming will claim lives without action.”
“Ocean currents could collapse this century.”
“Oceans littered with 171 trillion pieces of plastic.”
“Record deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon a challenge for incoming president.”
“Extinction crisis puts one million species on the brink.”
“Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate crisis: act now or it’s too late.”
Of course, there is lots of good news peppered in there too! Deforestation rates have slowed, nations are committing to more protected areas, or even that the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean is enabling novel marine ecologies! But these days the scales seem to be tipped toward the catastrophic. We know there are still several pathways forward. But as the weeks and months pass, fewer and fewer of these pathways exclude a great reckoning with massive ecological, cultural and spiritual losses. This litany of troubling headlines can trigger in me a deep well of anxiety and anticipated grief. But what’s worse is that most of the time the sheer quantity of bad news results in numbness to feeling anything at all. (It also helps that the next frame is usually a tree or a cat or someone falling or a brand-new baby!)
So, while there is no longer any uncertainty about the reality of anthropogenic climate change, it is not certain what kind of world our children will inherit. While passing 1.5, 2 or even 3 degrees warming will not be the end of the world full stop; this does not resolve a sense of dread about how bad things are and will continue to get. How much loss will the coming generations have to metabolize? How many species, whose evolutionary lineages span millions of years, will be put to an end? As psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “at the end of uncertainty comes the uncertainty of the end.”
For me, this uncertainty at the end of the Holocene climate invokes a buzzing anxiety. Ecological Anxiety is typically defined as a state of worry about the future that invokes feelings of sadness, despair, anger, helplessness or hopelessness. Mental health and therapy circles have been talking about climate and ecological anxiety as an impact or symptom of the unfolding crises. This clinical approach tends to revolve around adapting one-on-one therapy models to equip individuals with more tools for coping with their climate-induced emotions. But anxiety is a completely normal response to an unfolding crisis.
Anxiety is as much a signal being communicated from the heart of the world as it is a complex of subjective emotional responses. So rather than just coping with symptoms, deep attention to all of our feelings is an important part of engaging with anxiety related to the ecological crises. In her book Generation Dread, Britt Wray writes, “Despair and fear are not inherently bad. Hope and optimism are not inherently good…. We must move from an either/or to a both/and model. There is meaning in every emotion.”
There is a powerful practice here which is borrowed from Buddhist mindfulness. Anxiety is not best dealt with by insisting that I think positively or try to just focus on feeling gratitude. As Alain de Botton writes through his School of Life organization: “Peace of mind doesn’t come from hoping for the best; it comes from close attention to the very worst…”
A common misconception in discussions of climate anxiety and grief is that this is primarily a concern of the privileged, global north. However, psychologist Susan D. Clayton and co-authors which included Britt Wray have shown, young people in the global south self-reported negative emotions related to climate anxiety at a higher rate than those in the global north. Their essay published in the peer reviewed journal Sustainability analyzed the data from a survey of 10,000 young people between the ages of 16-25 from ten different countries. For young people all over the world, climate anxiety is impacting their ability to function on a daily basis. In Western countries however, self-reported impacts averaged around 45% whereas in the countries from the global south it was closer to 75%.
These findings reveal the obvious: Those closest to the front lines of these unfolding crises are most impacted by them. This is also the case for the far north. As the research of Ashlee Cunsolo, Dean of Arctic and Subarctic Studies at the Memorial University of Newfoundland shows, Northern and Inuit peoples are on the front lines of ecological anxiety and grief in an ecology that is seeing rates of warming four times higher than the global average. One of Cunsolo’s research partners, an Inuit Elder remarked: “Inuit are people of the sea ice. If there’s no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?”
In a civilization that has perfected the art of either or, the media often presents us with two responses to the unfolding crises. The first is Climate Doomism which believes it is too late for any meaningful action. The second is a Hyper-Optimism that includes the belief that the more we do the better chance we have of fixing all the world’s troubles.
American writer Roy Scranton, in his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene writes, “The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”
Scranton frames himself as a climate realist, rather than an alarmist or reactionary. In my view he is more motivated by his anti-capitalist politics than a healthy realism about the future of the earth’s climate. Swedish academic and activist Andreas Malm, himself a Marxist scholar, calls Scranton’s book a reification of despair. This means that too often the Doomist view risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that frees its adherents from any responsibility “in the meantime.”
But there is something else going on here too. Having frequented environmentalist circles and taught in universities in different parts of North America, I worry that a contributing factor to the Doomist mentality is the belief that our species deserves to go extinct. It is imagined that perhaps the earth community would be better off without us.
This intuition is actually a kind of self-hatred that appears among some settlers and progressives. Some days, I empathize. But I worry that we will not bother building the foundation for a world that we don’t believe our children are worthy to inherit.
Rather, with scholar Lyla June Johnston, who has Navajo, Cheyenne and European ancestry, I believe that “Human beings are meant to be a gift to the land.” Human extinction would be as tragic as passenger pigeon extinction or monk seal extinction or tiger extinction or orca whale extinction. Human beings emerged from a mesh of ecological brilliance; and there is a place for us in the web of life so long as we can stop techno-industrial civilization from unraveling it completely.
On the other side of this false choice is what I am calling Hyper-Optimism; which feeds a well-intentioned fix-it mentality. All of us struggle with finding meaningful ways to take action. But this urge is so powerful that we sometimes demand ten ways to take action, before listening to what’s really going on. Fed on a sugary diet of can-do’s, many activists throw their lives into the work and end up burning out in a few years. In his excellent book Earth Grief, Stephen Harrod Buhner reflects, “Activism is an institution that compulsively seeks to heal the world’s pain rather than feel it.”
Of course, he (and I) are not against action, or activism. We worry that a compulsive activism, fueled by urgency but also by guilt, can end up bypassing the necessary work of processing our feelings of fear, anxiety and grief. Some of this hyper-optimism is also deeply rooted in the modernist humanism which created these crises in the first place. The so-called techno-optimists, sometimes referred to as Eco-Modernists or Pragmatists, promise us that we are one technological breakthrough away from solving the climate crisis. Geoengineering, carbon credits, carbon capture and de-extinction will allow us to finally usher in the ecological utopia we have been dreaming of. I am very often tempted by their promises myself. Boosters of this approach are not so shy about suggesting that soon we will be managing every aspect of the planet’s biosphere.
There is, I think, a middle way between Doomism and its self-hatred and Hyper-optimism and its over-activism. Ecological Grief is part of this middle way: Grief work engages with complexities and uncertainties. As Donna Haraway writes, it’s part of the work of Staying with the Trouble. As an analogy, perhaps rather than franticly thrashing around in the dark to find the light switch, we might sit still for a moment and let our eyes adjust.
Topographies of Grief
In his book about the death phobia that pervades European descended North Americans, Stephen Jenkinson offers a novel description of grief: “Grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view. Love is a way of grieving that which has not yet done so.” The famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a typology for the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, and finally Acceptance. This has been a helpful tool for individuals coping with a terminal diagnosis or the death of a loved one. But as the illustration on the right shows, there may be a common definition of grief, but there is no common experience of it.
We began today with a land acknowledgement. And every land acknowledgement brushes up against a deep well of historical trauma and grief. To speak of ecological grief as an emerging phenomenon is absurd without first acknowledging that it is a present reality for so many. As Indigenous scholar Kyle Whyte writes, “In the Anthropocene, then, some indigenous peoples already inhabit what our ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future.”As a philosopher, Whyte has theorized an Indigenous ethic of sustainability and spiritually appropriate science. He also amplifies the many examples of Indigenous communities that are restoring ecological and cultural connections to place and species despite the heavy losses wrought by colonial violence and erasure.
To some extent, all our bodies carry the grief of our ancestors. But the topography of ancestral grief is anything but flat. The collision of colonial, racist, gender-based and species-ist violence with ecologies and Indigenous bodies, black bodies, brown bodies and women’s bodies shape the contours of the topographies of grief like tectonic plates. Some are subducted under the enormous weight of oppression, while others are lifted to greater heights of privilege and social mobility.
Ecologies of Grief
Humans are not alone in feeling grief over lost loved ones. There are cultures of grief woven through the earth community. Fellow primates express grief and may even have a form of ritual. For example, chimpanzees have been observed ritually cleaning the fur of a dead loved one. Elephants are well known to reverence the dead and even to handle their bones. And closer to home, J35 was a Salish Sea resident mother Orca who carried her dead newborn with her for over 17 days.
Psychologist and writer Andrew Solomon writes, “To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who despair at what we lose.” Most of us have felt that icy absence of a partner, a loved one or a pet from our homes. We have walked around familiar places after a divorce or tough break up and felt both cherished and painful memories.
There is an ecology to our grief that is at once a response to loss within the web of our relationships, and the slow composting of loss into new life that finds a way to keep going. Grief after the death of a loved one is learning to inhabit a new interpersonal landscape, a rearranged social ecology. Paraphrasing writer and mythologist Sophie Strand, “Each loss opens a wound and a song in the Animate Everything.”
Zooming out a little, loss is also an integral part of the earth’s ecosystems. But on the ecological level, the long-term effects of loss are more difficult to judge. By this I mean that ecosystems are not nouns they are verbs, they are not things but events. Ecologies are adept at reorienting around loss and forming new processes and pathways. Afterall, with hindsight, I am incredibly grateful for the many losses that melted the glaciers that once covered this very spot and made way for lush rainforests to grow.
Death and loss are not separate from change and life and birth. The good earth subsumes interconnection and rupture, balance and imbalance. If you go into a forest and only see what is alive, you are only seeing half the picture. So, to my fellow environmentalists, if all we see when we look at changing ecosystems is loss, then we are not seeing the possibilities that change might afford for fostering novel relationships that are regenerative.
But do not get me wrong! I am not saying that actually, loss is just change, let’s accept it. There is a massive work of discernment here! It is true that a fear of change makes me allergic to loss. So, engaging with ecological grief helps me become better acquainted with loss and death. But ecological grief, as contemplative as it is, is not quietism! It is not a resignation to whatever may come. If grief is a way of loving, then I am not afraid to admit: We still have a lot to lose! This is going to mean that grief-craft is not just the skill of accommodating loss and tragedy. It is not passive or reactive.
As the twin sister of love, grief teaches us to accept loss when it comes, yes it does. But a love-bound grief is also willing to resist the losses that should not yet be let go of! In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road we read a grueling and gritty thought experiment with a stripped-down sense of human purpose. In the novel, a man and his son stumble through a post-catastrophe landscape scrounging for food and avoiding roving bands of cannibals. The man’s only purpose is to see his son survive. His son is deeply committed to an objective sense of the Good. He carries with him the flame of hope that some day a better world might exist. At the end of the novel, McCarthy warns us against inheriting a world that is starved of life and beauty. He writes,
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
We have a lot to lose, and I do not want to make meaning with the scraps of a once beautiful world! I want to live in a world that teams with life and love and beauty. And yes, even in that world that we all know is possible, grief will not disappear. On some deep level, I know that to love is to risk great suffering.
Building on this idea that love grows out of the rich compost of grief, University of Washington scholar Jennifer Atkinson writes that, “Grief is strength in these times. Burying our emotions might shield us for a while, but grief keeps us in contact with truth, and beneath everything, it opens our eyes to the profound love we feel for the fabric of life that’s under threat. Grief is a direct expression of connection—a pain we could never feel if it weren’t for the depth of our love. And more than cheerfulness or stoicism or more information, it is love that will move us to fight. No scientific report or technological innovation will ever match that kind of power.”
So being willing to risk the deep wounds of grief might give us a fighting chance. And that, my friends, brings us to Hope.
Litanies of Hope
Writer Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is a powerful meditation on the complexities of history and the power of collective action over the long term. Solnit argues that Hope is active, but it does not die when things don’t turn out the way we expect. Hope is a stance of openness to the possibilities that uncertainty may bring. It is a posture of prayer. Hope is what got me out of bed this morning. Hope is what led Britt Wray, the author of Generation Dread, to the decision to have a baby despite her deep fears for the future. Hope is what is blooming all over Vancouver right now. Hope is what brough the goldfinches and chickadees and sparrows to my bird feeder this morning.
For these reasons, I appreciate Stephen Harrod Buhner’s reflections. He writes, “Hope is a quiet, enduring, persistent thing. It is not filled with the excited, uplifting, future-oriented energy of optimism. It possesses instead a slow-moving groundedness, an enduringness, a solidity, a nowness. It isn’t going anywhere, it just is. It’s a form of faith, a faith that comes from life itself.”
Hope is our animal soul’s very breath! There are dozens of projects, workshops, circles, art exhibitions and gardens that are engaging with the skills that accompany what I am calling grief-craft. Projects that are exploring the personal and collective depths of ecological grief. Francis Weller’s book The Wild Edge of Sorrow outlines many ways of engaging with grief through ritual. And groups in Iceland and Switzerland have already held public funerals for glaciers that are melting out of existence. A woman named Gabrielle Gelderman who lives in Edmonton, Alberta has begun using the title of Climate Grief Chaplain. In Victoria, a small collective of artists has started a magazine called Solastalgia which aims to be a resource for art, movement building and grief-craft. (I’ll explain this word in a moment.) There are earth hospices, good grief networks, grief circles and climate cafés being explored all over the world, online and off.
Just to highlight a few more of my favorite projects: Participatory artists Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott founded the “Bureau of Linguistic Reality”. This project solicits new words that express worries and the textures of our unfolding reality. They took inspiration from philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s neologism Solastalgia which means Comfort-Pain, was imagined to get at a pervasive uneasiness about the losses our home places are incurring. This word has spoken to thousands of people from Appalachians fighting against mountain top removal, to the Inuit peoples witnessing the rapid warming unfolding before their eyes. This is a powerful reminder that cultivating a love for our home places is not just for good days. Placefulness, as I call it, is also about loving our places after they have been clear cut, or on the days that wildfire smoke is turning the sun orange and we cannot breathe.
Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects began as a pioneering method for processing movement and ecological grief. Her cyclical, almost liturgical practice, encourages us to return again and again to gratitude. Then, turning our attention to honoring our pain allows us to see the world with new eyes. And even after one hundred burn outs, doing so enables us to go forth. To say with Samuel Becket, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” In a way, I structured this talk around this liturgy of hope: Gratitude, pain, new ways of seeing and the ways we might go forth from this conference.
Trebbe Johnson, a former wilderness guide, has started an organization called Radical Joy for Hard Times. Through annual Earth Exchanges, she invites us to love wounded and neglected places with simple acts of beauty. In a similar act of beauty, on June 16, 2017, during a Save the Arctic Campaign Ludovico Einaudi’s played “Elegy for the Arctic” before a calving glacier. This was of course primarily a public awareness campaign, but it reminded me of the famous epigram from German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote from exile, “In the dark times will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.”
Ecological Grief is deeply personal, but we also need ways to express collective grief. I am open to ideas. Even bad ones! Perhaps we could create rituals that honor the losses we are too numb to feel. Perhaps we could sing our grief together and walk our grief together and dance our grief together. Or, perhaps we could experiment with nurturing trees and plants that are adapted to warmer climates. The many projects popping up all over the world help me to see that grief is not the opposite of hope, it is its pollinator.
Just as death is a mirror that we hold up to life to see how precious it is; grief is a mirror that is held up to love to feel how risky it can be. Public intellectual Cornel West once said that “justice is what love looks like in public;” well, my friends, if that is so, then perhaps what love feels like in public, is grief. And perhaps that is what storyteller Brother Blue meant when he said, “My heart is broken. I never want it to mend.”