Grief for a lost future and an eroded past

The places my father loved have disappeared, and so have my memories of him.

Grief for a lost future and an eroded past

The places my father loved have disappeared, and so have my memories of him.

My father liked to be near water. When my brother and I were kids, he’d take us to a reservoir close to where we lived in Northern California, strap life vests on our chests and feed us salami sandwiches on a motor boat. Or we’d lounge around a pool and drink sodas, and then go down to the neighborhood pond and feed the ducks. This was the early 2000s, when the winters were still cool and the grass along the highway was green. I remember he’d turn on the sprinklers in the yard so we could jump through them, and we watched the water soak sour cherries that had stuck to the hot tar of the driveway. One time I caught him smoking in the front yard after he turned on these sprinklers. “That’s bad for you,” I said, somehow knowing about that at age six. “You’re right,” he said and dropped his cigarette into a ring of water at the base of a blooming iris. The water pooled around the stems.

He died before the first drought I can remember. It would come two years after his death, in 2007, when I was nine; it wouldn’t end until I was 11. The second came in 2011. I realized most of my memories of my father were near water, and I mourned through those water-less years watching the lakes, ponds, and pools where we’d spent our time together evaporate. I would feel a separate kind of grief, a longing for the landscape and weather patterns as I had known them when my father was alive. I was not only mourning my father’s suicide during that decade of dryness: I wanted rain with a feverish desperation so that I could see him again, legs dangling over the pool’s edge, a jump into the lakewater, him holding a garden hose snaked through the lawn.

The drought through which I grew up was the largest and most severe one in California history. The nearly decade-long dry spell can be partly attributed to the state’s natural weather patterns, as California has oscillated throughout history, between seasons of drought and seasons of flood. But climate change contributes significantly: increasing global temperatures accounted for 8 to 27 percent of the drought from 2012 to 2014, according to the American Geophysical Union, and the higher temperatures will only increase the likelihood of extreme droughts. During the 2011 to 2017 dry spell, 102 million trees died, and a total of 5,209,620 acres of land burned by drought-intensified wildfires. A 2019 study found that since the 1970s, California’s wildfires have “increased fivefold” and that “increases in atmospheric aridity” are clearly linked to anthropogenic climate change. This can be seen in the Sierra Nevada region particularly, where I grew up, and where fires have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in the last few years.

Fires that consume hundreds of miles are hardly the only consequences of prolonged droughts, which will occur more often on Earth as changes in our climate intensify. Diminishing access to water threatens not just the Sierra Nevada, but most of the state. California farmer Alan Sano, in a 2019 op-ed for The New York Times, wrote: “The drought of recent years made [climate change] hard to ignore; we had limited surface water for irrigation, and the groundwater was so depleted that land sank right under our feet.” In communities that rely on wells, severe droughts can literally run them dry. The Union Democrat, a newspaper located in Tuolumne County in the Sierra Nevada region, reported in 2015 that thousands of residents rely on private wells for water, and that if their well did run dry, their owners would have only two options: “deepen the well or build a new one in a different location.” Though a dry well results in a literal water crisis, owners are still required to obtain a county permit before starting the life-saving well construction. Obtaining a permit, digging a well, and installing a new water system also pose a heavy financial burden, costing anywhere from $3,500 to $20,000.

When the water level of the reservoir in which my father had taught me to swim was as low as bathwater, I started to forget.

But perhaps the most overlooked consequences of climate change-induced aridity are the profound psychological effects on those living through them. The National Wildlife Federation estimated in 2012 that 200 million Americans “will be exposed to serious psychological distress from climate-related events and incidents.” According to Margaret Salamon, a climate psychologist and founder of the advocacy group Climate Mobilization, this such distress is extraordinarily similar to the grief one experiences when processing an actual death. For many, coming to terms with climate change’s scale of consequence will require confronting our past and what we may have once hoped for — and which may now never be.

“[The climate crisis] is about grieving the people who have already been lost, the species that have already been lost, and perhaps most importantly, about grieving the future that you thought you had,” Salamon told me. “You have to grieve who you thought you were and where you thought you were going.”

Before the drought, I could picture my father only in the foreground of the verdant landscape of the Sierra Nevadas, in the reservoirs and ponds of my youth. But when the wildfires ran through the campsites where we’d spent our summers, and when the water level of the reservoir in which my father had taught me to swim was as low as bathwater, I started to forget. He became difficult to picture, out there in the empty pool, out there in the grass, where we weren’t allowed to run the sprinklers like that anymore, because we were told there wasn’t enough water. It was not long after all the grass in town yellowed that I could hardly remember him at all. Those years through the drought were so ruthlessly, incessantly blue.

New Melones Lake, Angels Camp, CA. 2015

New Melones Lake, Angels Camp, CA. 2015

“Solastalgia” is the name for the psychological toll of climate change. The term was coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who explained that nostalgia did not appropriately explain the longing for a pre-natural disaster place because the person had not actually physically left a location. What did it mean to miss home, he wondered, even though you haven’t even left? Solastalgia accounts for this unique sense of loss brought on by man-made environmental change, and has been studied most extensively in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales in Australia. The rapid expansion of coal mining and power industries beginning in 1987 have led to extreme changes in the region’s ecosystem, weather patterns, and landscape. An indigenous interviewee, exhibiting symptoms of solastalgia, told researchers, “Even [indigenous] people that don’t have the traditional ties to the area… it still brings them down. We take different routes to travel down south just so we don’t have to see all the holes, all the dirt… because it makes you wild.”

In 2013, the concentration of atmospheric climate change-inducing carbon dioxide passed the “milestone level of 400 parts per million” for the first time in history. It was the third year of California’s first drought, and the year of the third-largest wildfire in California’s history, the Rim Fire, which swept through Tuolumne County and delayed the first week of my sophomore year of high school. For weeks we began our mornings scraping ash from the windshield with an ice scraper.

This was also the year that I visited the neighborhood where my family had lived before my father’s death for the first time in six years. A few months before that I had found a letter he had written in which he mentioned walking to the neighborhood pond, not far from the reservoir, and contemplating what he had done wrong in his life. I think I hoped that visiting the pond would evoke some hidden memory, or might cushion the uncomfortable reality that by then he had been gone from my life for more years than he had been in it.

What was left of the pond was a matte layer of cracked mud, baked in with algae and yellowed grass. It was another typically cloudless day. I wanted to fling myself into the middle of the basin, find a garden hose and fill it with water; I was unable to accept the barren reality of the landscape, the inaccessible memory of my father. “Gone,” I told myself in the car, hunched over the steering wheel, over and over, clenching my fists, stuttering through the taste of salt. “Gone,” I told myself, until this was all I had left to say of the pond, and all I could say, for certain, of my father.

Climate change-related natural disasters break down community support networks in rural areas.

In America, the climate crisis has coincided with an escalating mental and public health crisis; since 2000, the rate of “deaths of despair” from suicide and substance abuse has nearly doubled from 23 deaths per 100,000 people to 46. These numbers will undoubtedly continue to go up, amplified by the deficiency of county and state-funded health services, particularly in rural areas like the Sierra Nevada region.

Climate change-related natural disasters also break down community support networks in rural areas. “Because the climate is changing, we are increasingly likely to experience severe drought interspersed with other severe hazards like flooding, all of which deplete community resources,” Jeremy Hess, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, told me. “We’ll need to invest more in the things that make us resilient, whether that’s health insurance or crop insurance, telehealth or telepsychiatry, and make sure those are appropriately priced. To buy those resources is less expensive than the economic losses, pain, and suffering that people go through as a result.”

It rained in California on Sept. 21, 2016 for what felt like the first time in years. It was the hottest year on record, the start of what would be the end of the drought, a year of downpour and floods. When I returned home from college in Oregon, I drove along the reservoir, rain turning the exposed basin a dark orange. It had been 11 years since my father died and I could no longer remember his face without looking at photograph.

I tried to imagine that there was some fraction of universe in which my father and I were still swimming together in that reservoir, everything green, leaves and vines and algae kaleidoscoping in front of our eyes; we were bathing in so much chlorophyllic light that neither of us believed anything so vibrant could ever die.

“When someone dies, that’s it. There’s no room for changing the impact,” Salamon told me about processing both climate and personal grief. “But with climate, you [still] need to fight to protect what can still be protected. There are two options… collapse or transform.”

I am hoping for a transformation, for us to reckon with our losses, our denial, and our grief. Mourning, both for our futures and our pasts, can drive us away from apathy, prevent our slow and certain collapse, preserve our futures. Unmoored from our homes and memories, I hope we anchor ourselves to the possibility — the necessity — of transfiguration. I hope it makes us all wild.

Leah Muncy is a writer based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @lelahmoney.