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  • Writer's picture Brian E Pearson

When Eco-Grief Gets Real

Photo Credit: Jeff Rotman / Getty Images

I’m a wuss of an environmentalist. I see too many sides to a situation, too many angles to an argument. This immobilizes me, preventing me from becoming a true activist, writing letters and marching in the streets. But I know how I felt, the day our thoughtless mistreatment of the natural world became personal, and changed me forever.

When we moved to the rugged West Coast of Vancouver Island, settling in the logging and fishing town of Ucluelet, I had already read in the news about the recent protests, the occupation of logging roads and clear-cut sites, the arrests, the violence, and ultimately the victory of the environmentalists as logging companies shut down their local operations.

But then I learned the other side. I was shown pictures of the garbage and destruction left by the occupying protesters, rivaling anything we saw in the aftermath of Woodstock. I heard the stories of tree-spiking and bridge sabotage, designed not just to stop the logging but to injure the loggers. I witnessed the slow death of a town whose other industry, small craft fishing, was being phased out at the same time that it was losing the logging.

This made it hard for me to take a stand, one way or another, except as a pacifist. You demonise anyone, whatever the good of the cause, and you become less human yourself. It’s the way, despite our high ideals and best intentions, that we make the world a worse place. War destroys everything, including the principles for which we fight.

But the day I saw the nets of that big commercial dragger, bulging with its by-catch, that was the day I felt the sickness in my body and the anger in my soul that incites a person to get radical. I didn’t get radical. But I still seethe when I think of it, over twenty years later.

Draggers, like dredgers, also known as bottom trawlers, drag a massive net along the seabed, weighted with a heavy iron plate that scours the bottom. The targeted fish might be halibut or sole, or shellfish in the case of dredgers, but the net rakes up everything in its path, including the habitat that supports it all.

Most often, in Ucluelet, the seiners and draggers took their catch directly to one of the fish plants, out of sight of curious passers-by. But this day the fish plants must have been full, and the dragger was forced to tie up at the government dock, its net bursting with catch, hauled up and suspended over the stern, dripping water and blood into the black waters below, where sea lions circled to catch whatever morsels might fall.

I could not have imagined a grislier sight: a large octopus, its tentacles splayed, cut, and twisted into a mess of sea guts; dog fish, like small sharks, their bodies torn and disfigured, pressed into the braided rope of the net; fish of all descriptions, some with bulging eyes or empty eye sockets, their eyes having exploded in the quick ascent from the depths.

Their manner of death was horrific enough, scooped from their natural habitat, dragged, compressed, then shot to the surface. But the senselessness of it was even worse. They were the collateral damage of a fishing operation designed to take everything in sight so it could get its hands on the specific catch it sought. Everything else was wastage.

Dragging is the marine equivalent of strip mining or clear-cut logging. It destroys entire patches of natural habitat that support the exotic and the miraculous, species that might otherwise thrill us in a David Attenborough documentary, all to catch the fish we pay to have cooked and presented on our plates at suppertime. It made my heart sick.

We each have our own experience, our own stories to tell, that would qualify as “eco-grief.” We are destroying the planet, which is also our home, for the sake of our voracious appetites and our greed. What other species does this—destroys its own habitat, rendering its own nest toxic? Such destructiveness may be the most enduring feature of what it means to be human, and also the most damning.

But I gained some necessary perspective on eco-grief when I spoke with Jodi Lammiman, a spiritual director and eco-awareness guide, for this episode of The Mystic Cave. I learned so much from her about the roiling emotional mixture of sadness, anxiety, and rage we cannot help but feel as we re-engage with the natural world and rebuild our connection to it.

Despite the apparent hopelessness of it all—we may be too late to save the planet—her words awakened within me something deeper than grief and wiser than hope: the call for each of us simply to love this world, and to do our part to protect it ... whatever the outcome.

Press the Play button below to hear our conversation.

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