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Self-Care for Climate Activists

Yesterday I gave the first of two presentations that are my contribution to this year’s 24 Hours of Reality event. Doing presentations virtually, like having chapter meetings virtually, makes us all aware of the rooms we’re sitting in and what the background looks like. Some presenters go the virtual background route, but that has little appeal for me. I like the piece of furniture that is part of my background. Sitting on top are a number of things that hold personal significance for me. One that gets more than a few comments from presentation or meeting participants is a human skull. How I came by the skull is a story for another time, but the truth is that I rescued it from being sent to the landfill. A skull is of course a reminder that the only certainty we have in life is that we too will die. How we deal with that certainty is central to how we construct meaning in our lives.

A vine sprawls in front of the skull. This vine and the pot it sits in were in the office where I practiced psychotherapy for nearly 30 years. It has been cut back often and repotted in new soil more than once, and pieces of it have been transplanted into other pots; but this is still the original vine. For a time, I was content with that juxtaposition of skull and living vine. This summer, I started adding freshly cut flowers from the garden. As the nights have cooled in October, there is a riot of color from zinnias, Gerbera daisies, dahlias, marigolds, and the esperanza bush.

For all of us who work as climate activists, there is an on-going issue about how we practice self-care. The realities of the deepening climate crisis can be terrifying, depressing, and enraging all at once. One antidote that is widely prescribed is staying deeply connected with nature. For me, that comes via work in the garden. I said all during my academic career that gardening kept me sane. (Not all of my colleagues were convinced that it worked.) Getting my hands back in the soil brought me down out of my head and the “big ideas” that academics are so fond of.

I have been reading a truly marvelous book on the joys and benefits of gardening. The author, Sue Stuart-Smith, is both a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst; but she is also an avid gardener. The book is titled, The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature. It reviews the many emerging lines of empirical research on the benefits of gardening for physical, social, and mental well-being. It is also beautifully written, perhaps reflecting the fact that the author earned a degree in literature at Cambridge before going on to medical school.

This sentence captures for me some of the poetic quality of the writing throughout, “’When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility.” When climate activism threatens to get you down, consider sowing a seed. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can get a pot for a sunny windowsill.

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