Jon Young, founder of the Wilderness Awareness School, teaches young people the skills of wildlife tracking and plant identification, fostering an ecological connection to nature. Many skills and techniques are easy to learn, and there is a deepening sense of wonder and gratitude that grows along with their skills. But when the youth reach a certain stage in their learning, they hit what he calls the “wall of grief,” an experience of being overwhelmed with sorrow at the loss and degradation of the natural world around us. That grief is the most difficult challenge the young people face in all of the school’s programs.
I felt such a wall of grief, during the spring and summer of 2010 watching millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken BP oil well. It seemed as if the earth itself was bleeding from this gaping human-made wound deep below the waters of the sea.
I believe that our spiritual growth depends on deepening our connection to the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. The natural world is vital to our spiritual journey. We might say that the earth is our Bible, our Quran, our sacred revelation, and our paradise. We echo this principle in the mission statement of my own congregation, when we say, simply, that we walk with care on this earth.
But there are times when that careful walk awakens deep sorrow and anguish. We know so much more than human beings have known before. We know what is happening all over the globe. We see the melting of ancient glaciers, as the climate heats up from greenhouse gases. We know there is a vast soup of plastic refuse possibly twice the size of the continental United States floating in the Pacific Ocean. We know that the topsoil in which our food grows is being depleted, and the rain forests which renew the world’s oxygen are being cut down. We know that increasing numbers of species are threatened with extinction. We know that there are nuclear stockpiles that could destroy most life on earth many times over.
We know so much more than human beings have known before, but we don’t know the solutions to these problems that threaten our future. And that is a wall of grief that can stop us in our tracks as we seek to walk with care on this earth. How do we live with the painful questions that do not yet have answers?
I learned the story of the Wall of Grief in Starhawk, The Earth Path