“To speak of sorrow
works upon it”
from Denise Levertov’s “To Speak”
I haven’t felt like writing.
After the big report on climate change and biodiversity was made public in May, I feel paralyzed, stunned, crushed, blank, undone, guilty, sad, depressed, grieving, grey, blue, flat. It’s not that we didn’t know it was coming, but the news still hit hard. Given the state of the world—one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, with humans at fault—writing anything that doesn’t contribute to solving the problem seems frivolous. Blogs, poetry, fiction: all of it seemed trivial, narcissistic, diversionary. And yet the fire to read and to write continues to burn, regardless of the state of the world.
Sadness upon sadness: a couple of weeks after the climate report I learned of a young man dying of a drug overdose. Sure, it happens every day, but when you know the family, the sadness hits your solar plexus. My raw and open heart told me to sew. Working with cloth, with objects, feels healing. Even in the midst of sadness and paralysis—perhaps because of the sadness–the work wants to be made. So I sew, and plant, and draw, and write.
I have slowly been making a quilt using pieces of my stepson Alex’s t-shirts. He died at age 27 in the summer of 2016 when the car he was a passenger in plunged into a deep ravine. This slow craft is my way of memorializing him. When I heard the news that Logan, who had gone to school with my sons, died two weeks ago at age 25 from a drug overdose, I was again plunged into sadness. I paused in my quilt-making to sew death’s pennant.
Pennants typically celebrate the accomplishments of sports teams, but here the “accomplishment” is early death and wasted life, symbolized by the useless buttons that fasten nothing. I used scraps of Alex’s t-shirts, reminding me of his death but also reverberating with the deaths of all those who die young. Birth leads to death and then back to birth: I chose blood red cloth, the ruddy triangle representing the fertile womb from which we all came.
I decided to look closely at a very small part of the natural world and pour my love into that. I won’t be saving any species, but perhaps focusing my energy on a little mound of dirt and a flowering plant will be healing at this time of grief.
When we had our perimeter drains replaced in the winter, the contractor told me he would have to dig up the garden. Did I want him to save any of the plants? I dug up some of the small ones myself, storing them in the shed. “Can you save just four? I’ve tagged them with red ribbon.” The white peony, the two lavender plants, and my favourite, the big blue hydrangea. During all of the chaos that erupted in front and back yards, the mounds of dirt, the rain and mud, planks of wood bridging the mucky walkways, I lost track of my hydrangea. Eventually, they put her back in the earth, but as March turned to April and April to May, nothing happened. The dry brown sticks remained barren. I could see no life at all.
I was unhappy. I loved that plant. So many times I had sat on the living room couch and gazed out our big picture window at the full-blown blue globes. Marvelled as they changed hue from soft Egyptian blue to darker indigo, then became edged in violet, and finally took on a full, deep purple as late summer turned to fall.
The loss felt deeper than simply a favourite plant dying. I felt stirrings of an old feeling I hadn’t felt for ages. When I was in my 30’s I was part of a Deep Ecology circle. The five members met over several weeks, taking turns hosting, and during each session we’d discuss material we’d read by some of the greats of the movement: Arne Naess and Warwick Fox, for example. I don’t remember much from the experience except that we visited a local Wiccan gathering and learned how to do the grapevine step as part of the spiral dance. More than any event or book, however, I remembered a feeling from that time, and the feeling was coming back to me like pinpricks of sensation return to a numb limb. We have been desensitized, have learned to turn away from Earth, to tune out her sufferings, because to really feel them, to empathize with her would be too much for us to to stand. Overwhelming. But when we allow ourselves to connect with her, we start to feel the deep grief and outrage appropriate to the situation we are all in.
My dead hydrangea had come to symbolize all of the destruction of the earth, and I grieved over her death for weeks.
Finally, last weekend I bought some potted hydrangeas from a garden center and placed them on the front steps. I put on my orange gardening gloves and got the pointed shovel. “I’ll dig her out and replace it with another,” I thought to myself. I knew it couldn’t be the same; I had loved that particular hydrangea. She had generously given her bunches of lapis lazuli every summer and fall. One of those bunches I had dried and the lovely antiqued florets graced the bathroom cabinet in a delft vase. She was even a character in one of my short comics. Hydrangea was cherished.
But I couldn’t stand to look at the dry sticks any longer. As I started to push the shovel into the ground to pull out the roots, I noticed a few green leaves at the centre of the plant. What? How had I missed that? Had it happened overnight? Although the main part of the plant appeared lifeless, there was life—tender new shoots and rich green leaves at the heart. So I went back to the shed, excited, to grab the long clippers and instead of pulling out the plant at her roots, I clipped back all of the dead sticks to expose her new child. Beside this little green girl, I dug a hole and introduced a friend—one of the new hydrangea plants just out of a plastic pot. I’ll watch the two loves grow together this summer, probably not producing any flowers just yet, but hopefully thriving as they reach for the sky under my gaze from the living room window.
This is just a beautiful writing, Madeline. I love how you have made Hydrangea a character, and how you point to green leaves at the heart of loss and sorrow. Thank you so much for sharing this with the world.
Thank you Michael.
Ok, This is just great writing!! I admit I am biased, because you are my dearly beloved sister, but I had to read it twice so I could comment again (somehow my first post got lost in the ether) and both times I had to pause in my reading to sob and sob. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a good criteria for evaluating a piece of work to some, but it is to me because it touched my heart. Deep inside where I bury the biggest hurts. The hurt it touched is the one birthed sometime in my teens- the terrible pain of knowing that we, humans, are slowly destroying the awesomely beautiful earth we live on, and no one seems to notice or care enough to do anything about it. Of course now that is big news- and probably the reason I idolize Greta Thunberg- My 15 year old self is cheering her on- somehow she has had the persistence and grit and belief in herself to stick with what she believes in and speak the truth.
Mad, you so beautifully wove the strands of death, grieving, creation, growth and our present environmental emergency state together so beautifully😊❤️.
To finish my comment which I know is really a post in itself is the little shoot of hope that is growing in our family of 2. Sarah has embraced metal straws- she carries one in her backpack and uses it, we are not buying iced tea juice boxes anymore- she suggested I buy her the reusable plastic sippy boxes to fill with tea and take in her lunch (it’s ok to look like a pre/schooler if you are saving the sea turtles), Sarah is doing a project on not using plastic bags for social studies, and I just ordered paper laundry eco strips so we can stop buying plastic jugs of detergent. Little shoots of hope.
Love you Mad, please keep on writing and sharing- so inspiring!!!!😊❤️
Katy, thank you so much for your inspiring comment and the news about how you and Sarah are changing how you consume. I love the little shoots of hope. Love you guys. And yes, I will keep writing 🙂