When I was fifteen my dad was diagnosed with leukemia. In three or so years that followed I did everything I could to not pay attention to the fact that he was really sick. Even more than pretending he wasn’t sick I did everything I could to ignore the other realities linked to his cancer: the link between leukemia and natural gas production, the very real possibility that all of our family had been exposed to petroleum products that would eventually make us sick, the terror of waking up to smell chemical smells when near by wells were fracked, the fact during the same years that I watched my father’s body become lean, tired, scabbed, and sore that the very earth around me was cracked open, split apart, scraped clean in the pursuit of energy extraction.
Last year for Christmas I collected many of the letters and cards that were sent to my dad during the years that cancer was roughly shaking his body and our lives and made these words and images into an art piece that I presented to him in a celebration of life and survival and the experience we’d gained. At her permission I included the following words from my mother’s journal:
I need a place to put my sadness.
My freshman year of college, depression was the place that I put my sadness. For weeks I poured my sadness out in the form of tears. I remember lying in my bed crying and imagining that my sadness was a heavy black cloud that I would wrap around me so that I could stay there forever. Being depressed was a cathartic, painful, and ultimately illuminating experience for me. It forced me to begin to see and in that process to consider what implications the things I saw carried. The summer after my freshman year three months leading wilderness trips for girls in the north Maine woods saved me from being stuck in the place where I put my sadness. Time spent watching the moon, paddling wide lakes, singing until my throat was hoarse, and swimming in water that chased away my breath helped me to find my way out of the place where I had put my sadness. That summer the woods, the moon, and many powerful women pulled at my arms, legs, and heart–reminding me of all the journeys I had yet to take. From them I realized that the natural world was the place to put my sadness. My small body was not always capable of holding all the pain I felt but the earth? She could take it. I could yell and cry and laugh and shake my fists and she could take it. And so I came out of the woods that summer, knowing I needed to go outside–to find joy and to find a place to put my sadness.
I recently told a friend that I was scared of becoming too involved in environmental activism and engagement because I had a lot of anger about what is happening in the world. I explained that I felt unable to engage in this kind of work because I had no outlet or means to disengage–the Keystone pipeline is connected petroleum, which is connected to natural gas, which is connected to my father’s cancer, which is connected to my depression, which is connected to the natural world, which is the place where I put my sadness and find my joy. I did not want to be involved because it was painful and because I was pissed. My friend didn’t push. He simply said that he hoped I would look at my anger sometime because there might be a lot of power in it.
I need a place to put my anger.
At fifteen I was not ready to be angry. I was too busy surviving and ignoring. At eighteen I was not able to be angry. I was too busy realizing that I was sad, wrapping myself in this and allowing the pain to catch up with me. But now? Now I am angry. I am angry that my story is not unique, that we live in a world where many feel powerless to the whims of the energy industry and the bone jarring, gene altering impacts of cancer. I am angry that as a culture we have become careless with life, with wild spaces, deep forests, children’s hands, and dark skies.
I need a place to put my anger.
It is not enough to give the earth my anger–although I know she could take it. My anger is something to share, to give, to burn for light. My anger is a story to tell. My anger is not something to ‘do to’ someone. It is not a weapon or a threat, not an unkind word or careless act. My anger is more fierce than that, it will not be silent or put out. My anger is word and action, it is resistance and solidarity. I am realizing that instead of preventing engagement and environmental activism, my anger makes it necessary. It is necessary because it is an outlet. Through both my work as an outdoor educator and the words I write here I chose to engage, to speak up, and to allow my anger to have a voice. It is necessary because it is a place to put my anger.
I was given an image of a duck on a lake, floating calmly. Suddenly a gust of wind blows and throws a branch from a nearby tree, causing a terrific smash and crash. The duck ruffles her feathers, all anger and fear and business. She quacks noisily, speaking her indignation in sound and feather. And then. Then she settles back down, allowing her anger to move out of her. She again becomes part of the calm and quiet. I want to be like that duck. To be angry and loud, able to speak fully my fear and disgust and then to settle back into the calm. In the calm I will return to the place where I put my sadness and found my joy and I will see the stars.