Envirobytes 8: Embracing Grief to Change the World

This week on Envirobytes, I share an important lesson I learned in British Columbia’s temperate old growth rainforests. From the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2022, I studied at Pearson College UWC on the unceded territory of the Scia’new Beecher Bay First Nation in southern Vancouver Island. While I learned much from my international classmates and from our school’s rich experiential learning emphasis, my most informative lesson came from the land.

Peacefully radicalized

In April of 2022, a group of friends and I went to build boardwalk in the old growth rainforest located on the unceded territory of the Pacheedaht and Dididaht First Nations in so-called Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island. Before this weeklong trip, I had only heard secondhand accounts of the direct-action movement to defend the last stands of old growth in British Columbia. By the end of it, I would be part of the greatest civil disobedience movement in Canadian history. 

The moment I set foot in Eden Grove, one of the last intact areas of old growth in southern Vancouver Island, I was overwhelmed by an unexplainable power. Surrounding me were trees older than the United States, older than North America. They were old enough to remember pre-industrial life, old with the wisdom of all those who came before us.  While building boardwalk to protect these sacred trees, I felt a dedication take root in my heart. Though I was only a temporary guest on stolen land, I was called to leave this place better than I found it. 

My radicalization did not come to the beat of drums, the chants of land defenders, or the songs of the Indigenous elders whose guidance led the old growth defense movement. It came with the quiet stillness of reflection surrounded by towering records of natural history. The Pacheedaht have a legend that dancing on the cedar’s delicate roots is enough to bring down them down. Building boardwalk to preserve the diverse life on the forest floor and protect roots recognizes the truth in this legend. These giant elders, covered in burls and scars reminded me that though I may often feel small in my work to change the world, my efforts are not unnoticed.

Making room for grief

Only 2.7% of all British Columbian old growth remains. Much of that limited quantity is in eastern Vancouver Island, a short drive from where I went to school in the south. Being so close to the frontlines, I often felt helpless to support the defense of old growth. My trip in April helped me realize that how we support justice movements happens at its own pace. Despite the urgency of the issues we face, we need to be patient with ourselves. 

During an internship in August of 2022, I revisited the site of my radicalization, this time as an educator instead of a student.

It is easy to fall into a pattern of denial in any movement. You think that if you deny hard enough, you can eliminate the real possibility that you lose. But doing this creates the risk of being blindsided by your rage and unprocessed grief.

My students helped me see my old growth journey with new eyes. Their shock and expression of grief for the situation of old growth across British Columbia broke the stoic façade I had constructed in my denial. At the current pace of logging, all of BC’s old growth could be gone in the next decade.

Revisiting Vancouver Island taught me the importance of acknowledging and processing the trauma and grief that often motivates social movements. One of my program instructors on this trip summarized it best when she said that “acknowledging what’s at stake is painful but it empowers us to fight our hardest.” It genuinely hurts to imagine a world without old growth, but through courage and honesty with ourselves, we can better understand the action we must take to protect these ecosystems.

Movements for change

There is tremendous power in grief. Everyone has something they care about deeply and if we are to protect it with everything we have, we must envision a world where we lose. Rather than live in denial and let emotions cloud our vision, processing our pain and letting emotion drive us can generate new strength. By carrying on despite everything we stand to lose, we can choose hope and lead our movements to success.

Up Next

The future of Envirobytes is up to you! Send in your ideas or participate in a poll here to let me know what you want covered. I am looking to share insights and stories from around the world and plan on doing a continental series on local climate issues. Thanks for reading and stay hungry for more Envirobytes!

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