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Is climate changing awakening our love for the world?

One sunny morning in May I was weeding in my garden when I noticed two bees – a honeybee and a smaller native pollinator – each busy in a bright yellow dandelion flower.  I wasn’t in a hurry, the sun was warm on my back, and I stopped for a closer look.

The honeybee had bright orange clumps of pollen on her hind legs and her wings were veined and translucent, almost shimmering. The native bee was half her size and zipping around at twice her speed. The flower was new and fresh, only partially unfurled, perfectly symmetrical. The dandelion’s jagged leaves stretched across the soil, and tiny red-brown ants, which I hadn’t even noticed at first, hurried down the center of one leaf as though it was a little ant highway to somewhere very important.

This was the first sunny day I’d had in the garden since the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released its findings: we humans are causing an unprecedented decline in the health and diversity of nature, with up to one million species threatened with extinction. Climate change is a key culprit, along with unsustainable agriculture, clear-cutting of forests, polluting of oceans and over-fishing.

Dandelions are tough little plants and I suspect they’ll be thriving for a good long while despite humanity’s destabilization of Earth’s systems. But honeybees and native pollinators are already struggling under the impact of pesticides and habitat loss. And what might two or four degrees of global warming mean for ants? Has anyone even studied that?

The sun was still warm on my back, but I felt a chill, and a feeling I couldn’t find words for.

So, I did what any self-respecting, networked citizen of the age of social media would do. I pulled my phone out of my pocket, and with grubby, weed-stained fingers, I typed out a tweet:

Is there a word for this feeling that comes with awareness of climate catastrophe? Something that means noticing details of the world with more acuity and also more tenderness?

The phone went back in my pocket, the bees flew off, and I went back to my weeding. Hours later, when I next glanced at my phone, I discovered hundreds of responses from people around the world. Something in that little tweet had resonated!

Many just wanted to express that they felt it too, whatever that feeling was.

But not everyone was at a loss for words; the responses contained a full lexicon for feelings of poignancy, regret, appreciation, and sorrow.

There were references to poets and philosophers of prior centuries who had grappled with the feeling of impending loss of health, vibrancy and beauty. I learned the idea of Weltendämmerung, ‘the dusk of the worlds,’ from German existentialist poetry, and I followed a pointer to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, which ends with:

“This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

Someone else mentioned Joni Mitchell’s version of the same sentiment – “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Non-English speakers replied as well. I learned about the Dutch landschapspijn, which translates as ‘landscape pain,’ mottainai, a sense of regret over waste in Japanese, and audade, Portuguese for ‘missing.’

Many readers offered the newly coined ‘solastalgia’, a form of distress caused by environmental change.

There was a spiritual bent to some of the replies, with ideas like ‘awake’, ‘mindful,’ and ‘paying attention’ or, from Buddhism, ‘bodhichitta,’ awakened heart /tender heart of sadness.

“It sounds like grieving’ other people said, and in fact, a few people respond with stories of their own encounters with serious illness and mortality, sharing how those experiences made them more patient, but also filled with urgency to live well, and more appreciative of small pleasures and details of everyday life.

“Rage” someone else said, ‘that feeling is called rage,’ which made sense to me. I didn’t notice anger in myself there in the garden with the bees and the ants, but it’s a short journey from the feeling of tenderness at something threatened to the rising force of protectiveness that we call anger.

One other word stood out in the replies: love.

And maybe, really, in the end, that’s it, short and sweet – just love.

Alongside the awareness of the loss and peril of this moment, perhaps in exact proportion to it, we can also, if we open ourselves to it, touch into an awareness of love and our capacity for it.

The awareness itself is a gift.

What we do with that awareness, whether we channel the feeling of love to fuel change, to try to save at least some of what we love, that is a choice.