Two months ago i got stuck in a death grip. Perhaps it was bought on by the tragic death of Rosie, our house cow. Perhaps it was seeing some of the news articles about climate change that have revealed that we are in the middle of a sixth mass extinction.
Last week I took five minutes to look beyond some of the headlines about climate change. I used to be a full time campaigner, raising awareness about how we can take ourselves off this path to climate catastrophe. But in the last four years I’ve poured all of my energy into living what I feel needs to happen, rather than shouting about it.
We get our power from the sun, our water from a stream. We have a hybrid vehicle. We grow our own fruit and veggies. We don’t buy anything new.
It’s been a delicious few years. But last Monday I saw that I’ve actually had my head in the sand.
The numbers are different now. The degrees have changed. In just a few years we’ve gone from climate change being “over there” and about “future generations” to it being about right here, in our lifetime. It’s an emergency.
That night my friend texts me about a whale stranding up north. I joke “WE MUST GO” and then google map it. If we left now, at 10pm, we’d make it by 6:30am, when they wanted the public’s help.
We leave. We drive all night and arrive to see eight Pygmy killer whales laid out on the beach. Whales so rare they’ve only once been sighted in New Zealand waters. My oldest daughter pours water over the youngest female while we wait for the tides to rise. She lays her hands on her fin, puts her face up to her eyeball. I think about the humpback whale discovered just days before, with 1000 bits of plastic in her belly. I think about how in my lifetime alone 50% of all wildlife has become extinct.
Three hours later we float those whales out to sea. Three hundred of us hold hands to make a net so they don’t float back in. We watch them bob in the waves, we sing out “go home, whales” and laugh and cry to see them back where they were meant to be. We drive home. Tired, but with full hearts.
The next day we read that the whales beached again, further up the coast. All but one have died. Those whales may have nothing to do with what humans have done to earth, but to me they feel like the wild face of our damage. I weep. Big snotty heave weeping. It’s the climax of the death grip I’ve been in.
The next day we fill bowls with juicy red strawberries, we plant sunflower seeds and watch our new blueberry hedges bloom. The hot pink of the hollyhocks seem like an audacious mutiny against the bleakness I feel. My stomach is twisted with grief.
“A life well lived is one that engages joyfully in the full emotional experience of living, and dying.”
In the days since, I’ve poured my heart and soul into Extinction Rebellion. An uprising sweeping across the globe, calling on our leaders to tell the truth about the climate emergency we are facing, to enact emergency measures like that enacted during wartime, in order to change the trajectory we are on.
This activism is different for me. Usually I campaign and protest with the desire to triumph. I fight to win. This time, I’m not sure we can. It’s possible it’s already too late.
Somewhere in the strange and uninvited pain of the last two months I’ve been able to make my peace with that.
I’ve come to understand that a life well lived isn’t one based solely on hope. A life well lived is one that engages joyfully in the full emotional experience of living, and dying.
My children, my garden with its rainbow of flowers and earnest growth allow me to gaze at death while stumbling over joy. As I’ve entered into an acceptance that we might not “win” this battle to stop runaway climate change, I’ve been more intimately restored to the wildlife around me. The birdsong is sweeter. The trees are more beautiful. The heart of the whales are more connected to my own heart.
Dr Kate Marvel of Nasa says “The opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale and inevitability, binds us into one, broken hearts trapped together under a warming atmosphere.
We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.”
Even if, like the whale rescue, this last chance grasp at saving everything fails, it won’t be futile. We all want to be able to look our children in the eye and say we did everything we could. That we put our lives on the line to make it better. That we chose an audacious mutiny.
Lucy blogs at lulastic.co.uk. Read about her adventures in our next edition, out in March.