Grief, Hope, and Climate Change

Two boys walked on the other side of Seneca Street. We were leaving the Climate Strike gathering on the Ithaca Commons. I watched these teenagers, one dark skinned with a snug T shirt showing his taut belly with loose pants riding low. The other kid was pale with red and white baggy workout clothes. He hugged a skateboard close to his chest.

One boy’s arms carved the air with enthusiasm and energy. He laughed and nudged the other kid who gave a gentle shoulder nudge back. Were they talking about climate change or the skate park? Were they talking about their favorite DJ or how cool it was that the strike let them leave school on this beautiful day? What do guys that age say with no adults around?

On the Commons, I’d photographed teens, babies, elders in wheelchairs, and signs. I spotted three laughing girls behind the speaker’s stage. Their smiles and the familiar way they reached out to touch each other made me feel comfortable approaching them.

“May I take a photo of you with your sign?” I asked.

Their broad smiles and the way they lined up with the sign made it clear the answer was, “Sure.” I couldn’t hear their words, but I could read their bodies. The PA system and crowd noise had blown out my hearing capacity by then, but I walked away feeling lifted and hopeful. I walked away thinking of these high school kids of many races, hanging out together to protect the wounded planet they’ll inherit.

“I’m so angry, I made a sign,” one kid’s sign said. His message was I’m normally too cool to make a stupid sign, but I’m scared and mad about climate change, so I’m here. He was glad to pose for a photo.

It’s amazing these students don’t hate everyone my age, but most don’t seem to blame us for the mess we’ve left on this earth. I’m not sure I’d be so generous. I relate to Greta Thunberg’s UN talk. “How dare we?”

The rally had a good vibe, reminding me of the Women’s March in Washington DC after the last presidential election, another moment when national grief surfaced and created action. I couldn’t understand much over the PA system and people with perfect hearing said the same. I didn’t get close to the podium because the crowd was packed. I’d have to shove and then be trapped if the noise was too much.

I grieve about politics and climate chaos and want to do something. Noise fatigue is the price I pay for showing up at a rally where people yell and chant and the PA system blares, but others are here in wheelchairs and strollers. We come because we long for hope and change.

I saw a few close friends, including my writing teacher Ellen and her husband. I asked Ellen to pose with my sign. She wanted me in the photo, but I insisted. So there she is, one of the grey heads like me, grinning over my sign of the Creator’s hands cupping the Earth.

The most loving and essential thing we can do for these kids is save the Earth and do all we can as individuals and governments to step back from fossil fuels and plastics and all the rest. We know the story and the heroic effort needed. Will we wake up or is it too late?

I walked away with the inspiration I needed to sign one more petition, go to one more protest, and take one more step away from fossil fuels. Thank you, Greta Thunberg, for your first solitary protest and the persistence that led to this day and your powerful talk at the UN.

When I got home, I released a Monarch butterfly I’d protected. Just another way to keep hope alive.


How are you handling climate change? I often feel helpless as I wait for voters to wake up to the threat for coming generations. We are not political radicals or off the deep edge if we’re concerned about this. We’re realistic about the science that’s been clear for 30 years. What can we do?

For a post about climate protest in Washington, DC in 2013, see Standing Up for Mother Earth. For a post about one sacred day of a successful extended local action to prevent polluting Seneca Lake with underground gas storage, see Blessing the Water, Blessing Our Life.

  1. This is a beautiful post Elaine! It makes my heart feel strong and proud to know there are so many others, millions in fact, all over the world, choosing to protest against how our planet is being slowly and surely destroyed. How devastating this is and yet … when I read your words today I feel hopeful and inspired too!

    The photos you’ve included speak volumes don’t they?! I love all the climate change signs, most especially yours … with the Great Mother’s hands around our beautiful planet keeping Her safe! Ouch! Your poor ears … hope they recovered quickly! Whenever I see wheelchair bound or frailly walking on sticks protestors I’m so full of wonder and admiration! All of us can add our own unique voice in a million different ways.

    Yes I support the marches, sign climate change petitions and read as much as I can on the subject. If you want to read a great novel on the subject take a look at “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, (if you haven’t already read it!) it’s been my favourite read of the year so far! Warm autumnal blessings, Deborah.

    • It no longer feels like a slow change or a future catastrophe to me, Deborah. It feels like now as I notice how few insects there are and how many tree species have infestations or disease. It feels like we’re crashing over a waterfall. I guess that’s the “tipping point” I’m sensing. My ears recovered, but next time I need to remove the audio receiver in a loud environment. I can then get along with just my hearing aid in the other ear which is what my hearing was like before the implant. I felt OK while at the protest, carried along by enthusiasm and the beauty of the day, but there were repercussions later. Nothing permanent, but lots of disconcerting head roaring. Sigh… I’m learning.

      A few people told me about The Overstory. Thanks for mentioning it. It’s on my reading list.

  2. Lovely post!! I loved seeing the Ithaca kids and their signs and smiles!

    • Thank you. I loved seeing them, too, since climate rallies are often populated by older people with few young ones around. Thank you, Greta Thunberg, for ringing the warning bell with passion and power.

  3. Thank you for this post, Elaine, and for attending the Climate Protest. I’ve been gobsmacked (don’t get a chance to say that one much) at the resistance to this climate change protest in particular; we had a great deal of animosity here in Vermont aimed at the students who would leave school. I became quite saddened by the despair these people must be feeling and are unable to express their own personal frustrations. The kids become scapegoats. As for what I’m doing? I’ve been recycling since the early 70s, refusing plastic for many years, fostering monarchs, and buying a hybrid when they first came out. But lately I’ve been more focused on institutional and structural change, supporting those organizations that fight for our planet, that fight (and sometimes win) the battles I’m unable to even enter. Individual action is good for morale and keeping at bay the despair we are surely experiencing. Yet, it will never be enough. The factories must stop burning coal; the cities and states must adopt renewables; our autos and airplanes must get off fossil fuel. And if people could please stop having more than two babies per couple it’d be really great. Alas. When my grandchildren are my age, they will live in a very different world. I hope they can still find beauty; but for the life of me I can’t envision what that will look like.

    • Thanks, Janet. I was happy to see some teachers striking with their students in Ithaca, especially from a small school called New Roots. These kids want to do something. This is their world. My generation leaves them with the mess we didn’t deal with. I remember the huge gas guzzling cars my dad used to drive in the 1950s. I also do small things and the best local grocery stores (one a large chain) don’t provide plastic grocery bags anymore which is a small positive step. I don’t have a hybrid car but switched to all solar electric plus other small things. The big changes have to be led by the will of the people and our goverments who can finance the change to renewable fuels which means to stop having the majority of government posts filled by people who’ve gotten rich off fossil fuels and don’t seem to care that we’re polluting the planet and running out at the same time. The present situation in Washington DC has many of us alarmed. I hope we can wake up and make changes beginning at the ballot box, but it’s easy to feel deep despair about politicians, climate policies, and our future. I have to hope and pray for a paradigm shift. May it be now!

  4. Yes, these kids are truly inspiring Elaine. Glad you were part of the resistance! These kids are the future for sure. 🙂

  5. My husband and I recently did a long road trip. More to be done tomorrow and again in several days time when we return home. We both noticed no bugs on the windscreen. Not the first time I’ve noticed this.
    Good on the youth protesting along with the oldies. We’re all in this together. We have to rely less on coal and use renewables. Each of us must do our bit and refuse goods in plastic and polystyrene. It’s not rocket science. Thanks Elaine for your gentle reminders to be mindful.

    • It was great to be with so many students on that day. The weather kept us smiling. I feel for them. They’re inheriting a hard discouraged plastic-filled world.

      We can now switch our electric from natural gas to solar without installing solar panels. There are many solar farms in New York State, so they have the solar arrays and sell the power to my electric company. The cost is 10% less than gas, I don’t have to install solar panels (a good idea, but not on this old house), and I use less fossil fuel. Win, win, win. We have to find more ways to lower carbon emissions.

  6. Kids doing SOMETHING- a great thing, no matter what the age! And kudos to 16-year-old Greta Thunberg: May her tribe increase!

    Just back from the book tour, I’m trying to get into a new rhythm, which still includes caring for the environment to the extent that I can. I just saw artist and designer Olafur Eliasson on the Netflix show Abstract in Season 2. It was heartening to see his using art to illustrate the dire plight of our planet: bringing blocks of ice from his native Iceland and putting them in his city square, so onlookers can observe the “melt” firsthand. Eliasson is also pro-active in using solar power to design “nightlights” for children who live in parts of the world off the grid.

    Thanks for showcasing Ithaca’s contribution to saving our fragile planet. And “YaY!” for your metaphorical release of the monarch, Elaine!

    • Thank you, Marian. I hope our country will face this issue…and quickly. I also hope your book tour was delicious and nutritious but will know more after reading your blog. I’ve had visitors with more on the way including a puppy a week from tomorrow. It’s a little wild here, but your book is a gentle balance to the harsh news. We’re in a mess on so many levels, but climate change won’t wait. It was a record setting 90 degrees here a few days ago and below freezing 36 hours later. I was happy to see a few Monarchs floating south over the fields today since I’m waiting for the last chrysalis to eclose into a butterfly. I think it be stay warm enough to keep the nectar flowers blooming so the little straggler has fuel to get south. I hope I can release one more, #143. And here’s to hope!

  7. Yes, thank you, Elaine, for keeping the topic of climate change front and center, which is where it must be. I cope by feeding myself whatever helps keep hope alive, which right now includes reading/watching anything involving Greta Thunberg. I also just finished reading “The Overstory” by Richard Powers and found inspiration in it.

    And, by the way, your sign of the Creator’s hands cupping the Earth is stupendous! And the monarch just happened to land on that exact spot at the top of the world?!

    • Thank you, Anne. What can we do except keep trying to withness and ease the struggles of nature? A few people told me about ‘The Overstory.’ It’s on my reading list. I think of you with your granddaughter and how influential my farm grandma was in teaching me to love gardening and animals–and also music.

      So the secret behind that photo: When I release a Monarch, I usually place it on a flower. They happily crawl on my hand after they’ve left the chrysalis enough hours or overnight and have dry wings or there’s a gentle way to pick them up at the back of the wing and move them to a good release area. Sometimes they hang out a while at the release site and sometimes they fly immediately. When I got home from the Climate Strike, I had a Monarch ready to fly, so this baby climbed on my finger and I took her to the top edge of the sign. She walked around on the sign a few minutes before flying away. A cooperative model before flying up to roost in a tree.

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