The next sense – the emotional impact of climate change

Twilight cover take us away, we’re only here for a day – Younger Brother

We often hear about people with S.A.D, which is Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s another concoction of the medical profession to make us think something is wrong with us, so we will go running to our doctors to get a pill for what ails us.

We are natural beings, floating in space on an organic ship. And, when we have cataclysmic changes like we’re having now, we’re bound to feel them in every layer of our being. It’s not just about long rainy seasons and grey days anymore; we are digging ourselves out of mountains of snow and using the dog’s water to keep the lavender alive.

I feel like I’ve been on a verge of a “thing” lately waiting for the rain to come in California. I’ve been poised on some theoretical cliff, waiting for the grass to grow again, the birds to be alright, and the flowers to shine. It’s a melancholy that bears no relief. I am outside, wavering between pockets of cool and then the unnatural feeling that the earth is being microwaved.

In the article “The Hidden Mental Health Impacts of Climate Change,” Marlene Cimons writes about a recent Lancet report:

The report, which was published Tuesday by the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, said that victims of natural disasters often suffer elevated levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD, as well as “a distressing sense of loss, known as solastalgia, that people experience when their land is damaged and they lose amenity and opportunity.’’ Moreover, “these effects will fall disproportionately on those who are already vulnerable, especially for indigenous peoples and those living in low resource settings,’’ the authors wrote. These effects not only include the emotional reaction to physical illness and destruction of property, but involuntary “displacement” that forces people to move elsewhere in order to survive.

The Lancet report said that experts already have identified such reactions in people who have experienced floods, and even among those suffering from slow-developing events, such as prolonged droughts. The report noted that emotional impacts include chronic distress and even increased incidence of suicide. “Even in high-income regions where the humanitarian crisis might be less, the impact on the local economy, damaged homes and economic losses may persist for years after,’’ the Lancet report said.

But even if the rain comes we’re spiraling toward something so different now, none of us can predict the future. Migrations are thrown off, sea creatures are hurling themselves onto beaches, and only those who think, but aren’t really in tune, are exclaiming “what a gorgeous day.”


I think we are bound to, and by, nature. We may want to deny this connection and try to believe we control the external world, but every time there’s a snowstorm or drought, we know our fate is tied to the world around us. – Alice Hoffman

I have stopped caring about the drought, but not in the way that you think. I’m not apathetic. I do still think we should try to save our dying planet, even if it’s just for the history books…if they survive, too.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of “Crow Planet” and one of my favorite nature writers, said in the same book that wonder has fallen from favor, and I would agree. Though our planet is sick from drought, extreme climate change, and apathetic consumers, I often step back and wonder at what extreme changes I’m seeing. Rather than wallowing in the stupidity of humans, and wringing my hands at what can be done, I instead choose to wonder.

Don’t get me wrong…I do my part. I’m vegan (though I’ve tripped up a few times), I support farm animal sanctuaries, and I try to educate people when they ask what I care about, or why I don’t eat meat. Enough? Maybe not, but right now it’s all I can give. I had to save myself, because the weight of the world was killing me. I had to change how I thought about things.

Lyanda wrote: “I am no ecological Pollyana. I have borne, and will continue to bear, feelings of wholehearted melancholy over the ecological state of the earth. How could I not? How could anyone not? But I am unwilling to become a hand-wringing nihilist, as some environmental ‘realists’ seem to believe is the more mature posture. Instead, I choose to dwell, as Emily Dickinson famously suggested, in possibility, where we cannot predict what will happen but we make space for it, whatever it is, and realize that our participation has value. This is grown-up optimism, where our bondedness with the rest of creation, a sense of profound interaction, and a belief in our shared ingenuity give meaning to our lives and actions on behalf of the more-than-human world.” (Crow Planet)

So today I sat outside with my parrots in their outside cages, and gave myself a homemade manicure and pedicure. I wondered at the nettles and their blossoms, and I let the ants run across my legs. I also contemplated, for a while, the three ladybugs (family Coccinellidae) that crawled through the nettles. What were they doing? What were they looking for? I wondered for a while.



I had a daughter, called her Annabelle
She’s the apple of my eye
Tried to give her something like I never had
Didn’t want to ever hear her cry

— Annabelle, Gillian Welch

I can’t listen to a song or see things in my life without it conjuring up a memory. A number of songs remind me of old lovers. The song Annabelle reminds me of when I promised a friend of mine that she would be in my wedding, and then, well, I don’t know what happened, I chose someone else, and she got very angry at me. Here name was Anna, and I used to call her Annabelly. She was lovely, except for her smoking habit. American Spirits, if I recall. So every time the song Annabelle comes on, I think of Annabelly’s face in her mother’s home, and the smoke on her breath. She was lovely, except for all the lines in her face from years of abuse. I could never figure out why her teeth stayed so white.

I thought to name a future dog Annabelle, in the hopes that I could replace a mistake with a positive experience. I have a strange brain that way. I also think about the songs I that would accompany the video I would make when my beloved dogs die. They say that what you obsess on you draw to you, but in my mind it’s going to happen anyway, so why not imagine the beautiful movie it could be.

January 4, 2015, 16 days after death (a life in Robins) – about my mother


The other day a flock of American Robins landed in one of my trees behind my house. It was such a sight, like big and alive beautiful ornaments in a Christmas tree. They were restless, hurried, and when I coughed they flew away, save for a few brave souls.

It was a day of remembrance, not of my lost mother, but of the smell of oranges after a cold rain. Not of my sister, but just a symbol of my sister, who was named Robin.

I only have passing thoughts. Of days on the lake in Whiskeytown, jumping off the shoulders of my mother, and lying for hours in the blazing hot sun. After napping you awake within a hazy dream and run toward the water, it embracing your burnt skin like a homecoming. And your mind goes under the dock, not with a boy or a girl but by yourself, like a sea creature.

It’s never the things that are said but the feelings from memories. Pink roses and drunkenness, a wood stove and lost sisters never known. Manure, abuse, and lingering anger. You think you will feel all this grief, and sometimes you do when Johnny Mathis is playing on vinyl, or when she tried to make it right, and it was too late.

All we have


In the woods we lit a fire
And we watched a wary deer walk by
The trees were restless,
moving underbrush
And clouds were banking in the sky

But I got a message from the hummingbird
He gave me a warning in disguise
He told me they’re marching on Monsanto
But the same monolithic structures rise

“Hummingbird” – The Both

I have a few days off before I go back to work again. Today I had breakfast, walked the dogs, fed the birds, stared at a tree, and took a nap. I listened to the space around me and watched lonesome birds go about their business, trying to survive the drought. The Western Scrub Jay has reappeared on the dead lawn, finding a feast of mosquitoes and flies within the dusty holes where the ground squirrels have made their home, and today I saw him bury a nut in the dead log under the Catalpa. The ground squirrel has since moved on to other lawns where there are gardens. I’m assuming any bird seed that accidentally got dumped in our back yard was a temporary snack until a greater meal could be found. I saw a single Eurasian Collared Dove, and a Northern Mockingbird.

Everything feels hotter. Every day I feel closer to the sun, and every day I feel a sadness about the changing climate and landscapes. I watch over the wild life in my backyard, in the local park, like a doting mother who knows she can’t do anything except watch and wait. I feel a sadness as I watch people around me blithely immune to their impact, though I know that is not fair, that I’m sure it lingers in most people’s minds and conversations, even if it is just a passing comment about needing rain. I am slowly moving beyond judgment, knowing only that I can change myself, as it’s all I have. Maybe through my actions I can help show others this is all we have.

Above and below

Snowy Egret

If the rain has to separate from itself
Does it say, “Pick out your cloud?”
Pick out your cloud

– Tori Amos, “Your Cloud”

Lyanda Lynn Haupt wrote in her book Crow Planet that “Many human activities are wholly ugly, working against the nature upon which we forget we depend. Still, we do not flip-flop back and forth, now in nature, now in culture, now feeling quite animal like, now wholly intellectual. We are, at all times, both at once. In this, humans may be unique, but we are not less natural. We are the human species, living in culture, bound by nature.”

Today we walked the dogs in Millbrae, just West of the San Francisco Airport, along the bay. To my right, small songbirds flit amongst the condoms, cigarettes, and tossed coffee cups, as tourists and business folk stand at the cement wall and watch the planes come in. We chat with whomever takes interest in our tall dogs. There is something easy about small talk, especially on a Sunday. We are all outside together.

To the East is the San Francisco Bay with its lovely shorebirds. Just down from the Benihana, in the marshes that make a cul de sac from bay water and the cement buttresses, stand three Snowy Egrets, one a parent and two fledglings. They are decidedly stoic, content to stand within the marshes and meditate, all the while silently preening. Then, the adult breeding Egret takes flight to most likely find fish for her loved ones.

I always wonder how the birds fair when situations aren’t idyllic. Each year, thousands of birds get tangled in our plastic bags or eat our trash, and most likely die slowly and silently. Also, in drought years, birds are forced to get creative about how to find water to drink. When someone wastes water washing their car, the crow down the street waits near the drain, and drinks it.

Though I couldn’t help but observe that our walk wasn’t absolutely beautiful it was what it was. The sky above, with its gulls, crows, and songbirds, and the ground below with the same, and egrets and grebes in the water. For me, those birds weren’t out there in nature…we were here together, sharing the same above and below. I maintain a sense of responsibility and respect among them. They are lucky — they don’t have to think or take action about the world and all its environmental tragedies, as the world changes around them they will either live or die.



“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.” – Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

As a young child and teenager I used to escape into reading, to feel safe. It was my only window into the outside world, my only solace in a house where I suffered needlessly. Some days I wondered if I would eat, or be allowed the keys to the car. If I didn’t know the answer to either, I cowered in my room with a book. My world began to unravel in earnest when I turned eleven, and I became a more sensitive child, which has not changed to this day. All sensory inputs are overload, but what I’ve learned to do is acknowledge that I think my dog is judging me, note the internal impact, and move on.

I look and long for lonely hours. If my dogs wake me in the middle of the night for a break, though I am tired I look forward to standing outside in the cold for a brief moment, wrapped in my purple blanket. It’s the same view of the stars and Cirrocumulus clouds, through the dead branches and power lines, lightened by the moon. The blanket is so long it gets dragged through the dust and twigs, that I bring into the house with me, and that I find some mornings between the sheets.

I look for birds that are alone. Where is their flock, and where do they sleep, protected, if there are no leaves on the trees? What are they eating, and where do they get their water in this drought year? The gorgeous Common Raven, following me around the park, seems to recognize me. He jumps from trash can, to branch, to bench, chortling and cooing at me. I tell him “yes, I know, the people who pick up the trash came early today, and you slept in, too bad for you.” Or, “I am not the red-head that feeds you, that must be someone else.” We come to an understanding, and he lets me leave the park. Or, the Northern Mockingbird that peers into his reflection in my picture window, thinking “could it be someone, lonely, who is like me?”