Golden grief in a changing Northwoods
I’m scared of how much this place I love might change.
As my car tires kicked up dust on a national forest road, my nose started running. I had the window down, arm outstretched toward the golden paper birches. The air was warm and the pressure to cry was pressing up against the back of my eyes.
“There’s been enough crying!” I shouted at my reflection in the rearview mirror. But my chest grew prickly and I took a deep breath to try to clear out the sadness.
“What are you even sad about?” I asked, gentler this time. It’s something I’m trying to ask myself more. This fall has been a season of loss, within a year of loss, within an era of loss. The losses I’ve been hung up on have been comparatively small and comparatively impermanent in the context of all this death. Which is not to minimize them. But it is to say, “Girl, it’s been months, can we please move on?”
Driving through the woods, I thought I was riding another wave of that small grief. Out of nowhere, a large boulder appeared on the side of the road, and I pulled over to read the sign explaining it was 2.5 billion year old slime.
The forest appeared quiet in the absence of tires on gravel. My lungs felt heavy. The night before, my friend Abi taught me about how lungs hold grief. We drank cold water they’d infused with mullein flowers in the tent they turned into a sauna and breathed.
“What exactly am I grieving?” I asked out loud again. I expected an answer from my own memory. Maybe: Having someone to talk to all the time; That one song; Reading poems.
Instead, the answer came from the birch I had my elbow resting on. A frayed paper scroll gently scratched the inside of my arm as if to say, “Me. It’s me you’re sad about.”
And suddenly I was crying.
I’m in love with the Northwoods. I’m only ever a visitor in these forests, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Some loves are best kept long-distance. This is the place I worry about the most — the place where I feel everything slipping away most acutely.
I spend a lot of time worrying about climate change. It’s part of the gig now (and I don’t mean work, I mean life). And while, certainly, there are places where people are more at risk, this is the place I cannot imagine the world without.
These forests are so special. They are the place where the temperate meets the boreal. Natural communities you don’t find anywhere else. Wild rice and balsam fir. All those gold glowing paper birches.
I once mentioned to a young Red Cliff tribal member that I felt inexplicably drawn to the Northwoods. She didn’t find it inexplicable at all. There’s a current of energy that runs around Superior, she said. Not hundreds of years of destructive mining could take away the power of all that iron and copper.
Centuries ago, the Seven Fires Prophecy brought Anishinaabe people to the Northwoods. They foretold the arrival of settlers and the ecological peril that would come if white people did not act in brotherhood. Those prophecies felt particularly tangible in the changing woods.
I’m not even here enough that I really notice the changes, but all weekend there were signs: The blooming blueberry; The roadside black-eyed Susan; The garter snake slithering on warm, sunny rock.
In the sauna tent, Abi had pointed out a grouse call. A deep drum. Almost soundless. Subsonic they called it. I felt it in my chest, free for the moment of grief, and took another sip of water.
In the morning, their sweet pup Juniper brought a grouse carcass into the yard. Abi wondered if maybe this was the grouse that had been calling last night, and that the sound had made it vulnerable to a bobcat or fox. Grouse usually call in the spring, they explained. Seasons are shifting.
Wildfire is also coming to the Northwoods. This summer, swaths of Northern Minnesota burned in wildfires. That will happen more and more.
I thought again of the Seven Fires Prophecy while I cried in the woods. If we settlers can change our path, the last prophecy said, there will be a better world. Have we already passed the possibility for it? I think it would be pointless to assume we have— to assume that we’re doomed.
But even as we grow toward a better world, we will still have to reckon with all that has, and will, change.
I don’t know if it’s possible to recover from this much loss. I don’t know how to fill the void of a friendship lost. How to grieve the millions killed by COVID. How to say goodbye to all these ecosystems. But I know that it’s worth it to try. I know that it’s worth it to fight until every unfurling piece of paper birch has a safe place to stretch.
I think maybe we all need to take a moment in the places we can’t imagine the world without, and really hear them. Notice what is wrong: What is blooming now that shouldn’t be? What looks sick and what looks healthy? Cry. Grieve. Know that certainty is impossible. No outcome is guaranteed.
Life now just has a constant grief component. Maybe it always did. Maybe I just wasn’t willing to see it, bear it, hold it. But I know now that, no matter how much I dislike and fight this truth, pain is unavoidable.
These last few months I’ve been learning how hard surprise losses hit. How when you think you have more time, you spend a lot of the aftermath full of regret. The things we are losing to climate change are not surprises. We know what is happening. So take this time to love those things. Extend the time you have with them as much as possible. Thank them, love them, move them. And find ways to grieve in community. Walk the right path, we all depend on it.