photo by the author
Eve Ensler, playwright, author, and screenwriter, recently wrote a haunting and powerful book called The Apology, and, after writing it, she realized that there was an apology inside her waiting to be spoken too. She explains:
After I finished writing The Apology, a book in which I wrote a letter from my father to myself apologizing and exploring, explaining in detail all the ways he had abused and harmed me, I realized there was an apology I needed to make — an apology that would force me to confront my deepest sorrow, guilt and shame, an apology that I had been avoiding since I moved out of the city to the woods where I now live with the oaks, locust and weeping willows, Lydia the snapping turtle, running spring water, foxes, deer, coyotes, bears and cardinals and my precious dog, Pablo. It is my offering to you. It is my apology to the Earth, herself.
Eve published the letter in Maria Popova’s wonderful blog BrainPickings. It’s worth reading Maria’s article in its entirety, but I’m taking the liberty of reposting it below because it may be the most moving, and important, letter written so far in this century:
It began with the article about the birds, the 2.9 billion missing North America birds, the 2.9 billion birds that disappeared and no one noticed. The sparrows, black birds, and swallows who didn’t make it, who weren’t ever born, who stopped flying or singing or making their most ingenious nests, who didn’t perch or peck their gentle beaks into moist black earth. It began with the birds. Hadn’t we even commented in June, James and I that they were hardly here? A kind of eerie quiet had descended. But later they came back. The swarms of barn swallows and the huge ravens landing on the gravel one by one. I know it was after hearing about the birds, that afternoon I crashed my bike. Suddenly falling, falling, unable to prevent the catastrophe ahead, unable to find the brakes or make them work, unable to stop the falling. I fell and spun and realized I had already been falling, that we have been falling, all of us, and crows and conifers and ice caps and expectations — falling and falling and I wanted to keep falling. I didn’t want to be here to witness everything falling, missing, bleaching, burning, drying, disappearing, choking, never blooming. I didn’t want to live without the birds or bees and sparkling flies that light the summer nights. I didn’t want to live with hunger that turned us feral or desperation that gave us claws. I wanted to fall and fall into the deepest, darkest ground and be finally still and buried there.
But Mother, you had other plans. The bike landed in grass and dirt and bang, I was ten-years-old, fallen in the road, my knees scraped and bloody. And I realized that even then nature was something foreign and cruel, something that could and would hurt me because everything I had ever known or loved that was grand and powerful and beautiful became foreign and cruel and eventually hurt me. Even then I had already been exiled, or so I felt, forever cast out of the forest. I belonged with the broken, the contaminated, the dead.
Maybe it was the sharp pain in my knee and elbow, or the dirt embedded in my new jacket, maybe it was the shock or the realization that death was preferable to the thick tar of grief coagulated in my chest, or maybe it was just the lonely rattling of the spokes of the bicycle wheel still spinning without me. Whatever it was. It broke. It broke. I heard the howling.
Mother, I am the reason the birds are missing. I am the cause of salmon who cannot spawn and the butterflies unable to take their journey home. I am the coral reef bleached death white and the sea boiling with methane. I am the millions running from lands that have dried, forests that are burning or islands drowned in water.
I didn’t see you, Mother. You were nothing to me. My trauma-made arrogance and ambition drove me to that cracking pulsing city. Chasing a dream, chasing the prize, the achievement that would finally prove I wasn’t bad or stupid or nothing or wrong. Oh my Mother, what contempt I had for you. What did you have to offer that would give me status in the market place of ideas and achieving? What could your bare trees offer but the staggering aloneness of winter or greenness I could not receive or bear. I reduced you to weather, an inconvenience, something that got in my way, dirty slush that ruined my overpriced city boots with salt. I refused your invitation, scorned your generosity, held suspicion for your love. I ignored all the ways we used and abused you. I pretended to believe the stories of the fathers who said you had to be tamed and controlled — that you were out to get us.
I press my bruised body down on your grassy belly, breathing me in and out. I have missed you, Mother. I have been away so long. I am sorry. I am so sorry.
I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen. I am branch and hive and trunk and stone. I am what has been here and what is coming. I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order. I am perfumed peonies and the single parasol tree in the African savannah. I am lavender, dandelion, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, chrysanthemum, pansy, bleeding heart and rose. I am all that has been named and unnamed, all that has been gathered and all that has been left alone. I am all your missing creatures, all the sweet birds never born. I am daughter. I am caretaker. I am fierce defender. I am griever. I am bandit. I am baby. I am supplicant. I am here now, Mother. I am yours. I am yours. I am yours.
Please support the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in its efforts to fight the extinction of wild birds.
I am hoping to read Eve’s letter at our next local Transition meeting; it probably says what we’re about better than anything else ever has.
In this apology, Eve Ensler traces her complicity with the ongoing extinctions of birds, etc. back to her personal trauma. I am doubting the validity of that connection. The distancing from “nature” that she bemoans is a real difficulty; I experience it too, and I agree that it leads eventually to extinctions. But I think the distancing is much more cultural than individual; it is not avoided by a lack of personal trauma (as in my own case). Are we to take her testament as a general principle, that personal trauma generates or exacerbates a distancing from nature? I am afraid, rather, that even without the personal traumas that are common in our culture, it effectively distances (separates) us from nature, with dire consequences.
Yes, I agree, I think. But I would also guess that for those also suffering personal traumas it may be impossible not to see them as intermeshed. If you look at the relative damage that has been done to the world, the vast majority of it is the result of male actions, while I believe our culture personally traumatizes most women far more than most men. I’ve argued elsewhere (based on John Livingston’s arguments) that it is not just our culture’s trauma that has disconnected us, but our self-domestication. Self-domestication brings with it loss of autonomy and authenticity and steals our ‘natural’ connected culture, replacing it with a disconnected, prosthetic one, that in turn instills in us fear, shame, anger, grief, a sense of hopeless and helpless entrapment and loss — just about all the ingredients of trauma.
My sense is that we self-domesticated because drastic climate change (ice ages, massive cosmic radiation from space that burned our natural homeland) required it as an essential adaptation for our species’ survival. A tragic accident of evolution with a ghastly cost, perhaps analogous to the cost that ‘traumatized’ cancerous cells inflict on themselves and on the healthy life around them, for a short while, until the diseased life kills itself off as well, and the trauma ends.
Beyond “what is common in our culture,” there is also what is common in our biology, shared with almost all other living things. In short, life eats life. As Dave points out, our species evolved, adapted, and outcompeted to the point that we became, um, highly problematic. However, unlike the bacteria and beetles and bears, we possess sufficient self-awareness to potentially turn back from consuming our host, the planet. Yet we lost that battle with ourselves. So while we might not blame other species for following their biological imperatives, we take blame onto ourselves for what we’ve accomplished, still developing but already having observable effects on all species. The difference between individual and collective culpability seems to me a tertiary issue at best.
Also, as what we’re describing is the sixth (seventh according to some) mass extinction, I’d say that the trauma doesn’t really end with individual or species death. The results of mass extinction last over evolutionary time.