Protecting What Remains and Reconnecting with the Ground Beneath Our Feet

When the latest environmental devastation—a clearcut forest, a mountaintop mining site—breaks your heart, it’s easy to sink into despair. Author Trebbe Johnson, who founded Radical Joy for Hard Times, hopes to inspire others to find joy, make art, and experience ritual, through her book Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places (North Atlantic Books, 2018).

Join Johnson at the 2018 Bioneers Conference, where she’ll speak about leading with nature’s guidance, and read more from Trebbe Johnson here: Make Guerrilla Beauty by Meeting With Friends at Wounded Places.

The following excerpt is from Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places.

When Charlotte Regennas returned to her home on Little Torch Key after Hurricane Irma’s rampage through Florida, she found the whole area so radically changed that she hardly knew where she was. Only part of the roof still clung to one room of her house. Most of the walls had collapsed, and her belongings were broken and scattered, most beyond recovery. She couldn’t even approach what remained of the house to poke through the upturned contents, because debris blocked any passage. The whole neighborhood was almost unrecognizable. Charlotte had been back for only a week, however, when she spotted something that filled her with joy. “Already there are tiny buds on the trees. It’s coming back already. What you thought was dead turns out not to be. That eases my pain a little bit, seeing those buds. What’s happening to the trees is true of everyone. We’re in a budding phase here.”

In the midst of despair and grief there sometimes arises a startling perception: a flash of something fleeting and luminous. It shoots out of all that is entrenched, dark, and numbing, and it penetrates your whole being. It does not make you forget everything else that is happening to you, not at all, but it blasts the negative into bits and disperses it through your sudden and undeniable realization that everything you’re dragged through, even this, is part of life. Surely, as Charlotte Regennas’s exultant discov­ery of Florida trees asserting themselves after a devastating hurricane also makes clear, joy is just as likely—perhaps more likely—to land in times of hardship as in times of ease and comfort, for it is in such circumstances that we least expect and most need it.

This joy has to do with a sudden full-bodied epiphany that you are part of the murky, marvelous, ceaseless surge of life, and that life is going to keep surprising you, no matter how down in the dumps you are. In this flow all things sweep past: death, falling in love, losing your phone, holding a baby, hating your job, immersing yourself in a book, getting a dreaded medical diagnosis, diving into a cool pool on a hot day. There is nothing wrong, then, with opening up fully to that joy when it grabs you, for you have not chosen it; you have simply passed under its stream and found yourself momentarily rained upon. Saying yes to joy—accepting it with as full a measure of consciousness as you have accepted grief—doesn’t mean that you are ignoring the reality of calamity; it simply means that you surrender to the full range of life. Besides, those moments don’t last long. All too soon, the burst of joy dissipates, abandoning you again to the real­ity of your sorrow. And yet, when joy descends upon you, you just can’t help but offer yourself up.

Yeats wrote, “Now that my ladder’s gone / I must lie down where all the ladders start, / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” To find and practice radical joy in hard times is to confront our grief about the state of loved places but refuse to fixate on misery. This is an important distinction. Living with the diminishment of wild animals and wild places and the unpredictability of seasons is—and will continue to be in our lifetimes and the lives of our children and grandchildren—a challenge unlike even that of the death of a loved person, for the demise of loved places is ongoing. If your community shudders at the foot of a mountain that is being blasted daily by the coal industry, you are permitted no respite for recovering and rebuilding. Over and over you must concede to fear, worry, grief, and anger until it feels like there is nothing left to feel. And then, once again, you set your foot upon your ladder and start climbing back up: you determine to find beauty, generosity, compassion, and community, and you determine to offer it. There is no other way to survive. When things go wrong, I must accept the invitation to meet them with inner ferocity and inner receptivity greater than I had assumed I was capable of. As Zorba the Greek blusters, “It just can’t go on like this, boss; either the world will have to get smaller or I shall have to get bigger.” Making ourselves bigger, we open up to being pierced by these odd, illogical darts of joy.

The future will require heroes and heroines who are not just brave but joyful as well, not just productive but relentlessly creative, not just capable of organizing effective actions but of acting spontaneously to comfort, give compassion, act generously, make beauty, and share joy. We are those heroes. Planet Earth is spinning in its old orbit, yet everything humans have taken for granted about the airs, waters, weathers, and living crea­tures participating in that wild ride is being challenged. We citizens of the planet, lovers of our own homelands, will have to engage a culture that is losing what it knows and has always taken for granted. How will we live with increased mining and drilling in an age where the planet is burning up? How will we absorb the reality that Bengal tigers and the frogs in our own woodland ponds have gone extinct? How can we possibly prepare for the next devastating storm when it could land anywhere at all and do incalculable damage? What choice do we have but to make our work—and our lives—as creative, meaningful, mutually supportive, and joyful as possible?

Implicit in all of our responses must be the recognition of the reality that exists, even as we acknowledge that it’s a reality we do not want. We must live, as revolutionaries have always lived, with the knowledge that our actions may produce few results—and that the effort itself is worth everything. We must strive for the impossible—and continue to strive. Protecting what remains is vital. Fighting further depredation is essential. And there must, at the basis of all of it, be attention to living meaningfully where we are right now. To acknowledge the places among us that are wounded, make time to visit them with curiosity and compassion, share the stories of what they mean to us, spend time getting to know them, and making gifts of beauty for them, we come back to Earth, to the place where we exist in all our human fallibility and nobility in the moment. Then we reconnect, as people for millennia have known it is essential to do, not only with the ground beneath our feet, but with the ground beneath our hearts.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places by Trebbe Johnson, published by North Atlantic Books, 2018.

Read more from Trebbe Johnson here: Make Guerrilla Beauty by Meeting With Friends at Wounded Places.

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