It started snowing early this morning. Not the thick kind of snow that covers everything from one minute to another. The snow of this morning is shy, the flakes small, almost as if they are in a trial phase. Do we dare? Half an hour later they stop, only to start again. Let’s try again. I open the window and I am outside, in the wind and the snow and the darkness that is all encompassing this time a year.
It’s almost been one year since I came to Norway, and these days I feel a strong sense of symmetry. In the beginning of January, I travelled into the winter of Telemark, and although I am in a different place now and it is December, it is winter again. I am returning to Germany soon, and I am uncertain how I feel about this homecoming.
This year has been astonishing in so many ways, as it has been so for all of us. More than anything, for me this year began with an escape. I escaped a pandemic, I escaped a crowded city and, in addition, I was hoping to escape a crowded mind. I hoped to escape feelings of isolation, depression and hopelessness that all clung together in a big messy clump. The clump would be wandering through my body, taking up residence here and there, changing its consistency between chewy and rock hard. It would sit in my throat, making it hard to breathe and speak. On other days it liked to colonise my stomach or turn my thoughts to glue. Sometimes at night, a whole bolder would sit on my chest, weighing it down like one of those aprons they make you wear when x-raying your teeth.
Two disorderly conditions, waiting to be treated
There are many ways to study mental health, many lenses to look through. I am sure all of them have their legitimacy. But a lot of people only ever zoom in on chemical imbalance. Certain hormones are not being produced sufficiently, certain transmitters are not doing what they are supposed to do. The diagnosis for this imbalance is almost always followed by prescriptions for antidepressants. And I can’t help but notice the similarities between our approach in treating mental health conditions and our attempt to “solve” the climate crisis, the issue that brought me to Norway in the first place. Both are framed as disorders and both call for medical and technical solutions. What is being obscured by this approach is the intimate relationship between mental health, social conditions and the natural world.
There is a growing body of research, uncovering evidence that depression and anxiety are not caused by chemical imbalance and malfunctioning neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Instead, more and more studies argue that mental health problems are triggered either by traumas or by key problems with the way we live today (a good metastudy is Johann Hari 2018).
What makes us miserable, amidst all the privileges we enjoy?
The version pointing towards trauma is easy to grasp: Say a woman has suffered from having been physically abused as a child. This horrific occurrence, particularly if unresolved, will affect her life: the way she connects with other people, what she aspires to, her sense of trust, how she might unknowingly connect love and being hurt, love and suffering. It could be the case that this trauma caused the woman’s brain to develop an imbalance of certain transmitters and hormones. But would we therefore assume that imbalances were the cause for her depression or anxiety? Would we conclude that feeding this woman’s brain with drugs will somehow reestablish her broken trust in primal relationships? To me this is an absurd way of looking at cause effect relationships.
The second cause of depression and anxiety due to lifestyle choices is harder to understand because it is so manifold. What makes us fall into the pit of depression amidst all the privileges of the Western world that we get to enjoy? What is it in our postmodern era that makes us develop anxieties? There is no easy explanation and I couldn’t attend to them even if I wished to. Individualism is one paradigm, secularism another, late capitalism a third one, the virtual world a fourth. Each of these have brought some of us (and not others, consequently) development, privilege and freedom, wealth and convenience. And they have caused all of us (not only those who are gruesomely exploited for the benefit of others) a good deal of hopelessness, isolation, despair and depression.
My personal feelings of depression and hopelessness were (and are) strongly connected to what we call the climate crisis. It is connected to the contradictions of modern life. What is the climate crisis other than a mass extinction of animals and a displacement of humans, caused by excruciating amounts of fossil burning, by intensive agriculture, by excavating and using up natural resources. What is the climate crisis other than the destruction of our world, our own habitat if you will, precisely due to the way we live? A whole area of Psychology now studies what I am suffering from. The concept is called Climate Grief or Eco-Anxiety, others call it Solastalgia (Glenn Albrecht 2007) or Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as opposed to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (for a taste of this interdisciplinary research spanning the fields of Psychology, Ecology and Sociology see American Psychological Association 2017; Clayton/Manning 2018; Davenport 2017).
The apocalyse – isn’t it all exciting too?
Words matter, but in another greater sense, they don’t matter all that much at all. I am glad there is a term for what I am experiencing but it doesn’t necessarily help a great deal in working through the experience. I felt incredibly isolated and alone in my grief, and on some days I still do. I could not put into words what I was dealing with, hence I couldn’t understand it. Reading yet another research paper on exponentially increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere, studying graphs on how many harvests will remain, or watching Ludovico Einaudi play his Elegy for the Arctic in front of calving glaciers, I just wanted to curl up in the foetal position and ceise to exist. I still do sometimes. I diagnosed most of my friends and the people around me with cases of operative denial that helped them keep going and keep pretending.
I understand this impulse so well and use it as a means to survive on many days. Focus on the day to day. Pretend that everything somehow will be ok, that it will not be as bad, that we will find technical solutions. The majority of people still seems to agree the climate crisis needs technical solutions, it needs level-headed people, not those who are emotionally affected like me. Geo-engineering might be the magic potion, they say. And if that doesn’t work we can still colonise Mars. Others seem to almost shudder gleefully when talking about the apocalypse. Isn’t it all exciting too? The sixth extinction sounds like good entertainment.
Who in their right mind would not become depressed?
People have different coping strategies. But when facing the facts, and I mean really letting the ungraspable sink in, who in their right mind would not become depressed, would not experience grief, shame, anger and despair? Isn’t grief the most natural response to the anticipated or already prevalent scenarios we have to deal with? To be able to grieve you first have to have experienced feelings of love and care for something or someone. You only grieve what you love.
When coming to Norway I tried to escape feelings of depression and despair. In reality there was no escape, of course not. Instead of the great escape, something else happened, and it had to do with a farm in the forest close to the sea. It had to do with standing knee-deep in cow shit, with living in a room that opened its doors right into nature, and with a small community of people.
Lessons of reciprocity
I spent the first half of 2020 outdoors, listening to the world around me, and I experienced this process as a kind of osmosis: doors and windows opening or disappearing entirely, wind blowing into every corner. I became quiet and I let all sorts of weather wash through and over me. I spent the first half year without many words. I hardly wrote anything, I read no news, not even books. I don’t quite understand now how I could willingly become so quiet, how my mind could become so still. Instead of spending all that time thinking, mulling things over, worrying about the state of the world by reading on the internet, I went outdoors and started listening. Gradually I began not only to understand but to sense that this world was every body’s. It was my world and the world of the squirrel living in my ceiling. It was the horsefly’s world, tormenting me on summer afternoons. A world of sunflowers and raspberries and nettles and field rats and weeds, an entirely unknown world of underwater creatures. And among all the others, a world of people. Sleeping in a hammock and with open doors became my practice of dissolving the indoor/outdoor. 2020 was the year when I was looking into the eyes of a horse and saw her looking back at me.
The Age of Enlightenment in a nutshell
It was only after having experienced a sense of belonging that I tried to translate this into words. 2020 was the year I stopped talking about the environment, about what in German is called Umwelt, the world that is around you and surrounding you. The word does not include the one who speaks. Saying Umwelt automatically turns you into an observer. It draws a circle around you, it is a means to differentiate and to separate. The paradigm of the Enlightenment in a nutshell. Words matter and they do shape and create our world (funny enough, one of my constant typos is world and word. I get them mixed up constantly).
2020 was the year I no longer spoke of the environment. Instead, I started to use terms like the natural world, of the more than human world, I differentiated between inanimate and animate.
The Genesis already gets it wrong: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Word, everyone seems to agree on (according to Britannica), is a translation of the Greek logos, and it already marks the line as permanent.
The word belonged to God and was given to humans later. But there is no evidence that word, in this understanding, could have also meant the rustling of leaves, birdsong or the sound of a huge body of water nearby. Word is logos, is mind, is ratio.
Experiencing that there were no words to describe what I was experiencing, both when I was in the pitfall of depression and later when I was experiencing a connection with the natural world, has left me somewhat wary of words. That is a troubling experience for a writer.
I don’t want you to think of my retreat into the outdoors as a means to become ignorant or idle, to be in denial. As I said, it was only ever an attempted escape. When I process what I was doing during the last year I think of something George Saunders said: If I get up in the morning and think about the despair of the world, I am a less powerful person. All this time, I was trying to regain a sense of power and agency. And I am often asking myself: Can being in the outdoors become a form of activism too?
Experiencing depression and simultaneously the impact the climate crisis can have on the human psyche I can’t help but see the similarities in the ways we are treating both. Depression and climate break-down, diagnosed and tested as chemical and biological imbalances respectively, become problems that call for technical solutions. This is an understandable, rolling up your sleeves and getting shit done-kind of approach. The root of the problem, however, remains unrecognised: that our society brings forth individuals that experience themselves as entirely separate from the world they are entangled in.
The split is as old as the Cartesian dualism of body and mind, and some people say it even dates back to the time humans started farming. Othering seems to be the modus operandi of the Anthropocene, an observation that brought ecophilosopher Timothy Morton to remark that if people wanted to prevent further harm of the natural world they should become activists in the Black Lives Matter movement or fight sexism. Morton argues that fighting climate breakdown in opposing the othering of the natural world is as valuable as opposing the othering of vulnerable minorities. All three are social justice struggles. I disagree with much of what Morton utters in his “Ecology without Nature” approach. But I think he is right in connecting environmental and social justice issues.
Outdoors I am a more powerful person
I spent an awful lot of words to express the simple idea that regaining a connection to nature and experiencing oneself as a part of it, to me, has become a source of resilience, of strength and even hope. I still feel paralysed on some days. The gooey chunk makes the occasional rounds through my body. I experience grief in many forms, as sudden waves or underlying currents, and I have come to accept it as a natural response to being attuned to the world.
Experiencing the natural world and letting it run through me has also given me permission to seek new ways of communicating. It is half a lifetime ago that I last identified as an artist. My writing never seemed an artistic practice but a technical craft. I am rethinking this dualism.
Naturally, the artist struggles just as much as the craftsperson. She struggles with the world/word typo. She gets frustrated when words fail her. But she has come to learn that art and life are ever ongoing processes of trying. When I write I try to express my way of being in the world. Zadie Smith. The emphasis is, as always, on trying.
Today, whenever I feel grief and anxiety wash through me I rise from my desk, slip into my boots and get out doors. Or I open the window, even in the darkness and cold of winter. Being under the weather isn’t all bad. Call it participation or osmosis, call it being present. Outdoors I am a more powerful person.
American Psychological Association (2017). Climate Change’s Toll On Mental Health.
Albrecht, Glenn (2007). Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change
Davenport, Leslie (2017) Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: A Clinician’s Guide. Jessica Kingsley Pub
Hari, Johann (2018) Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury
Smith, Zadie (2017). “Fail Better” and “Read Better“, originally two essays in The Guardian