Ecological Grief and Grace

In this season of penitence, in which we reflect on our own place in cycles of grief and grace, I’d like to share a piece I wrote a few years ago.

Ecological Grief and Grace

I am blessed to live in Sewanee, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau, and I, like so many here, love my home. Several of my colleagues at the University of the South have spent years walking, studying, and becoming intimately familiar with the plateau’s cove forests, sandstone bluffs, and winding trails. They observe its transformations on levels ranging from microscopic, like the decomposition of a mighty fallen ash tree, to the geologic.[1]

I know some of these trails very well. I run one loop, the Caldwell Rim trail, around the top of Lost Cove, regularly. Nonetheless, I had not imagined that I had been here long enough, or was familiar enough with the trail, to notice its changes the way my colleagues had, let alone to experience those transformations in a profound way.

This summer, part of the Caldwell Rim trail was closed for logging. I dutifully obeyed the detour signs until logging operations were completed. One recent Sunday, however, driven either by curiosity or wistfulness, I bypassed the signs and returned to my familiar trail.

When I rounded the curve to where the trail joined the logging road, I was stunned. Where once there had been a shaded fire lane, lined by white pines standing tall like sentries, uneven with moss-covered stones and rivulets, there now was a broad, bare orange road, open to the sky and surrounded by fallen and half-fallen trees. I knew where I was; the contours of the road were familiar. I have run it hundreds of times. Yet I was utterly disoriented: this was not at all the place I knew.

I dropped to my knees. I hasten to add that this kind of spontaneous expression of piety is not typical for me. Nonetheless, I knelt in the rocky dirt of the logging road and prayed. I silently voiced my gratitude for God’s providence that gives us trees for shade and beauty and shelter, for those that had fallen and would provide for human needs and for those that remained to shelter birds and exude oxygen. I thanked God for the hands and minds that had harvested the trees with what I knew was care and exactitude, even as I lamented the damage before me, and the countless ways our common life damages the lives around us, usually with far less consideration and forethought.

As I knelt in that rocky soil, I heard birds singing in the pine and oak trees nearby. As I continued on my run, I saw deer tracks and animal droppings in the mud of the road. Life has not abandoned the logging road. The forest will gradually reclaim it, likely with help and encouragement from the same minds and hands that created it. The familiar path will never return, but with time — and not as much time as we might expect – the logging road will be indistinguishable from the other fire lanes and paths around it. These forests are not pristine; they grow and change and fall and burn and recover, and always have. The grief, the sense of loss I experienced is a result of my particular perspective as an occasional visitor to the forest, though no less real for that. From a landscape perspective, change is continuous and ubiquitous.

I know the domain manager to be an exceedingly knowledgeable and thoughtful person, and he later confirmed my assumption that the logging operation had been undertaken with care. I learned that the fire lanes were created with logging in mind, in order to concentrate the environmental impact in one place. Most of the trees harvested were selected with the goals of increasing biodiversity and removing unhealthy or dead individuals. Some of the wood will be used for local projects. And recovery will be managed with prescribed fire to increase understory plants and maximize habitat diversity. The fauna I observed – the deer, songbirds, and hawk – will all benefit from these changes. The soil is good, and the forest will return in many ways healthier than it was.

This is life in what ecologists call the Anthropocene era, a geological epoch where human action is the defining driver of change. This is ecological grief and grace: we mourn what is lost, whether through careful use or, more often, negligence, and we rejoice at the grace that brings new life. This is death and resurrection. This is not metaphor: in the death and rebirth of nature God’s grace is actually present. Christ, the incarnation of God’s grace and redemption, is actually present — for where else do we see that grace so clearly manifest to us in physical, bodily form as in such ecological renewal? The fallen pines are at once cross and crucified; they also hold in their cells the beginning of resurrection. We may learn of death and resurrection from scripture and then see it reflected in nature, but we also learn of death and resurrection from nature and thereby come to understand scripture better. We know that God’s grace transforms destruction into life because we encounter it in the world around us. Death and loss are inevitable and universal, as are rebirth and transformation. In nature, as in human lives, grace brings life and redemption to places that are desolate and unrecognizable. Even as we grieve and repent, we find hope in God’s forgiveness and renewal.

When, finally, the logging road turned to the left and the forested path went right, I retreated under the forest canopy with deep gratitude. The white pines once again guarded the path. A red-shouldered hawk soared through the understory just ahead of me to the right. I was on familiar soil again. The grief of the logging road remained with me, and remains with me still. So, too, does my gratitude for the gifts of the forest and its message of grace.

[1] One of the best examples of such observation at both ends of the scale is David Haskell’s work; see David George Haskell, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, Reprint edition (New York: Penguin Books, 2013); David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (New York, New York: Viking, 2017).

Published by Andrew Thompson

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