3 weeks ago

How to Overcome Grief in Nature

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In 2005 I experienced one of the greatest upheavals of my life, when my first wife, of twenty-five years, and I suffered a tragic canoeing accident in northern Ontario. Swept into a long run of ferocious rapids, the boat capsizing about a hundred yards in, I managed to escape with massive bruising and a couple of broken bones. For three days Jane was missing, rescue crews searching for her from sunup to sundown, by air and on the ground. And then a search dog, trained to pick up scent coming from under the dark, tea-coloured river water, finally caught a sign. A high-ropes recovery operation was launched, and in mid afternoon on a cool day in late May, fitful with rain, her body was gently pulled from that tumultuous water. I was nearby, at the search headquarters, and when the search commander told me the news I fell to my knees. And the long, often hopeless journey through grief began in earnest.

While on one level I welcomed the idea of friends and neighbours and relatives providing comfort – at times I craved it – the idea of those connections providing any kind of significant healing seemed far-fetched. Still, the gravity of that tragedy had thoroughly ejected me from life as I knew it; burned to the ground and helpless, I placed myself in their care. The memorial service was held on June 10 in what was then my hometown, in the Catholic church – the only place big enough to hold the event. I lurched through the side door of the church on my crutches, my brother at my side looking nervous, as if he thought I would stumble and fall at any moment. Inside the sanctuary, some six hundred people were waiting. Friends and family had gathered from all over the country.

I’d asked for room in the service for people to tell stories, and they came in good measure. Funny tales. Lovely ones, too. When it was my turn I explained how Jane often remarked that when it came her time to go, she hoped the end would come in a wild place, doing what she loved. And so it did. Somehow, though, I said, I imagined the end being decades away. Maybe with her as an old woman out on some last camping trip, snugged in a down bag, staring out the door flap of the tent into a sky riddled with stars.

The Red Lodge Fire Department, which included most of Jane’s fellow EMT and search- and-rescue workers, had parked their biggest fire truck outside the church, the ladder raised in tribute. Near the end of the service the dispatcher issued a so-called final page – an honour given to those who die in the line of duty, or who’ve made significant contributions to the community.

The radio crackled: “Red Lodge Fire Rescue, dispatch.” Then a few long seconds of quiet, a gentle whoosh of static. “This is a final page for Jane Ferguson. She died in the wilderness, doing what she loved. Her dedication and compassion for her fellow citizens will not soon be forgotten.” And then: “Dispatch clear.” For about a minute afterward it was completely quiet; the whole place seemed about to collapse into sobs.

Looking back, I can tell you that the so-called fear centre in my brain was on overload – great floods of troubled dreams and flashbacks of the wreck, as well as a compulsive loop where I kept imagining a dejected, despairing life that I was sure would plague me for the rest of my days. Yet at the same time I was learning – slightly, but deeply – how friends, even new friends, how even my two cats, could in a time like that shoulder a share of my burden, how they could begin to stem the bleeding of loneliness.

When my leg healed I started heading out into nature on long treks – officially to scatter Jane’s ashes, as per her request, in her five favourite wilderness areas of the West. But unofficially, and largely unconsciously, because the community I also needed – much like Walt Whitman after his stroke – was one of creeks and forget-me-nots and deer and bears and mountain lions. Those places, too, teeming with all manner of life, would, like my friends and family, leave me feeling held, allowing me to feel at least a whisper of a sense that somewhere deep down I still belonged, and that such belonging might one day allow my grief to be just one facet of a life bigger than just that. From where I stand today I can see what happened. As those scattering journeys unfolded across the years following the accident, I was carried slowly but surely out of the little room where loneliness lives back into this wide world of embrace. A world of sunlight in my bones, of elk and wolves and tall pines and rivers in my blood.

My third scattering journey was to the flowing slickrock canyons of southern Utah. Back in her late teens, it was there, on an Outward Bound course, that Jane had finally turned the corner on what was a nearly fatal eating disorder she’d been struggling with for years. When she’d first decided where she wanted her ashes scattered, which she did some dozen years before her death, canyon country was high on her list.

I drove south from Montana, and by the time I reached the village of Caineville, Utah, the land had melted into the bare bones of existence: rusted waves of sandstone peeling away with every passing storm; deep blue sky, hot and thirsty and bright. Just off the highway, pocket meadows no bigger than backyard swimming pools nestled against sweeping arcs of sandstone, tossed with the red of firecracker penstemon, the burnt orange of globe mallow. Lone junipers hung by their toes to the walls of Slaughter Canyon.

I laid the brown pottery vase that held her ashes in the top of my day pack and started walking from a set of corrals near the Notom Road – heading west toward Sheets Gulch and the stark, fluted edges of the Waterpocket Fold. A cluster of cottonwoods was leafing out along the wash, dripping with that fleeting, electric green of April. The skies were mostly clear, though far to the west was a long train of dark clouds, dragging their tails along the tops of a red rock divide. Nature moves fast here, often violently, with storms entirely out of sight sending walls of water pushing down slot canyons, tearing boulders loose, and ravaging the cottonwoods. Yet another good reason to be fully anchored in the moment, paying attention.

Fluttering on the ground were clusters of Apache plume and rabbitbrush; along the damp edges of coulees, horsetail poked from the Earth looking like thin, bony stalks of asparagus. The magpies were out in force, rising and falling in ten- or twelve-foot dips, toying with the wind. I looked for just the right place, the right arroyo, the right butte, and in the end for unknown reasons found myself on top of a small rise at the eastern edge of Capitol Reef National Park. It was a view that whispered of a timescale so grand as to be inconceivable: old swamps in what is now the tumble of the Chinle Formation; massive desert dunes locked away in Navajo Sandstone; the hiss of shallow seas, now frozen in the layers of Mancos Shale.

The puffs of ash I spooned into the sky that afternoon held together for a long time, hanging in air that had all of a sudden turned windless, drifting slowly, slowly to the north against a reach of rust-coloured sandstone. I placed the spoon and jar in the sand at my feet. Then I lowered my body to the ground, laid my cheek against a warm slab of rock. A lone, pumpkin- shaped cloud drifted overhead and then dissolved. A hummingbird flew by on her way to grab lunch from a patch of star lilies, passing so close to my head that I could hear the whir of her wings. The beauty of it all was impossible to miss. And for a precious few minutes there came a sense of putting the burden down. Like the hole in my life had gotten smaller, a smear of black in a bigger world of sky and slickrock and morning glories.

My recovery was a small natural system rebooting after a psychological wildfire of terrifying proportions. Like that patch of ground in New England, ravaged first by fire and then by bulldozer, laid bare and abandoned only to soon begin recovering layer by layer. In the end for me, too, life would yield still more life. More diversity in relationship and experience. More gratitude. More beauty. Like that New England landscape, I would in time be righted, friend by friend, plant by plant, bird by bird, until one day my ravaged heart and brain would return me to my own unfolding.

“Is the first note a part of the next note?” master cellist Yo-Yo Ma once asked. “Or have you just moved from one infinite universe to another? The second note is always a revelation.”

From: Eight Master Lessons of Nature by Gary Ferguson, £9.99, Doubleday.

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