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  • bethhewett

Motivation to Help: Grief and the Environment

Grief comes in many forms. It’s not always about those we love who have died. We also grieve many transitions in our lives, like moving. One of my biggest transitions was from my brief time as a Floridian on the Emerald Coast of the Gulf of Mexico back to Maryland, from which I had begun life and in which I finished my adolescence.

As Dr. Francis Weller points out, we also grieve for our world—for the hurt done to others, for unnecessary pain, for war, for human-caused tragedies, and for environmental crises. Those people who have suffered human and possession losses from hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes know such grief intimately.

Environmental grief, sorrow for the hurts done to our precious environments, can come from our past actions, too. I’ll never forget being around thirteen, riding my bike, and tossing a piece of trash to the ground. A woman sitting on a bench as I rode by called out to me to pick up my trash. I heard her, and I knew she was right. I should have stopped and obeyed her. But I was embarrassed, so I became stubborn and decided not to pick it up, simultaneously regretting my wrongdoing and thinking about it for many minutes as I rode on. Obviously, I’ve never forgotten it, either.

At the end of May this year, I spent a week in Fort Walton Beach, Florida—actually on Okaloosa Island where I had lived for about fourteen months as a child. Amazingly, despite some growth of the inevitable condos that seem to infest all the American beaches, much of what I remembered was the same. As the photo below shows, there remain some well-preserved dunes with sugar-white sand that squeaks like snow. The biggest difference in the area was that the sleepy little fishing village of Destin had grown to a gigantic tourist destination for both the richest and the more modestly economically endowed tourist.

white sand dunes in Destin, Florida

In Florida, I found myself grieving what I didn’t know as a child and therefore what I, my family, and others were wrongly encouraged to do. For example, our apartment was right on the Gulf of Mexico, so we children were frequently told to go play on the dunes or on the beach. These days, it’s widely understood that sand dunes are a delicate ecosystem that must be protected not only for the plant and animal life native to the area but also for the barrier island protection they offer to humans. They’re not a play place to haphazardly run on and destroy.

Because Ft. Walton Beach and the surrounding areas were actively promoting themselves as tourist destinations, there had to be things to do for recreation beyond swimming in the Gulf. Fishing—whether one planned to eat the caught fish or not—was highly encouraged, leading to a great waste of fish life. Shelling was another tourist activity. On this location of the Gulf’s panhandle, not many shells could be found on the beach although some can be found seasonally. So, we boated a distance away to Sanibel Island, also known as Shell Island.

Just off the shore of Sanibel Island, in the shallows, the boat captain taught us children how to dig for shells in the sandy waters using fingers and toes. We happily dredged up living treasures: sand dollars (a type of sea urchin known by its brown color and petaloids that send food to their mouths), starfish (known for their tentacle-like arms), whelks of all shapes (complete with animals hiding inside), and so on. We were encouraged to take both living and dead shells. Of the living forms of sea life, none could live beyond a few minutes outside their water. No matter. We threw them in buckets and planned to bleach them at home, getting the “pure” seashells we otherwise would buy from the local seashell store. We even grabbed up sea cucumbers, which protected themselves each time by spitting out their guts to encourage invaders to leave them alone. Again, no matter. We kept trying to preserve these creatures, losing each one to its protective death.

What was fun as a child I now know to be a travesty and highly destructive process of failing to understand the sea. In later years, I became a snorkeler and then a scuba diver and an avid environmentalist for the Earth’s waters. I pick up trash in the sea and on the sand. I adore sea turtles, one of whom honored me with a kiss on the nose. Yet, I still make mistakes. After a tropical storm on Longboat Key in Florida one year, I picked up an object I mistook for a misplaced golf ball and threw it to higher ground. It wasn’t a golf ball. It was a sea turtle egg. Although the storm had uncovered it from its nest, I grieved for that baby I had most surely killed.

In this blog, I’m trying to convey not only my own guilt from lack of knowledge but also the grief pain of hurting the living creatures that comprise our ecosystem and on which we’re all inter-reliant. While self-forgiveness for what we didn’t know is important, I also can’t expunge my guilt of doing what I didn’t know not to do years ago. However, I can compensate the living environment wherever possible. I can donate funds to sea turtle and manatee preserves, assist with beach (and other) clean-up efforts, and encourage others to do the same. Undoubtedly, the kinds of damage we children did in the late 1960s is still happening. Every time swimmers, snorkelers, or scuba divers step on a reef, they damage the lifeforms in the water on which this world depends. Every straw, piece of plastic, or cigarette butt left on the sand hurts living creatures. Balloons released in celebration of someone’s life or death kills sea animals. The list goes on.

I’ll mourn my losses, our losses—that’s my duty in honoring the Earth’s gifts that are poorly appreciated. I’ll also forgive myself while learning to do better. I would invite you to reflect on your own actions with respect to the environment, making recompense where possible. Grieving the environment is a real and deeply human thing to do. If you find such grief in yourself, try to find ways to honor the losses, mourn your actions, forgive yourself, and give back where you can.

Thank you Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and—especially—Mother Earth.


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