- Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Grief and Loss ed. by Ashlee Cunsolo and Karen Landman
If C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed (1961) can be considered an account of a lost human relationship, then Cunsolo and Landman's Mourning Nature forms a posthuman, but nonetheless personal, examination of the losses of relationships with plants, animals, and even entire ecosystems—an ecological grief observed. In this regard, one of the motivations for this book was Cunsolo's interviews with Inuit residents who experienced profound sadness and despair at the changes in the landscape brought by climate change. Beyond this, each of the contributors to Mourning Nature brought a variety of written, auditory, visual, and meaning-making experiences to their acts of mourning wild nature. The parallels to Lewis' book end here because the authors are not writing about their unique losses, although their accounts may be both personal and compelling. Instead, this book moves beyond the personal and human to the posthuman perspective. In different but recurring ways, the authors explored our ethical obligations to: 1) consider the subjectivities of plants and animals; 2) find ways to mourn the losses of place, land- and waterscapes, and the living things that occupy them; and 3) transform the intense emotions of grief mourning into productive and collective action that can reduce ecological losses. In this way, "mourning nature" is less about an individual, perhaps selfish response to loss, but something that is a testimony to both the scale and the value of what has been lost and a motive for pursuing preventative actions together.
Mourning Nature consists of eleven chapters written by thirteen authors and two editors. In their introductory chapter, Cunsolo and Landman justified the book on the basis of sparse and scattered writings that addressed [End Page 79] ecological loss and mourning. The presence of a slowly-emerging literature on ecological loss is a somewhat surprising given the sheer magnitude of the current extinction rates of flora and fauna. We appear to be in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event in the Earth's history and may well be losing dozens of plant and animal species each day (Ceballos, Ehrlich and Dirzo 2017; Chivan and Bernstein 2008). It is possible that Mourning Nature is among the first of its kind simply because the current environmental and ecological losses are outstripping our abilities to thoughtfully reflect and write about each one. Similarly, it is possible that the prevalence of a persistent humanistic ethos, with its focus on present-time material happiness and comfort within a market-oriented and capitalistic system has obscured our attention to the vast losses our planet has suffered (Kidner 2012).
Smith (2013) describes four aspects of ecological senses and community that are responsive to much of the framework and organization of Mourning and Nature. That is, the non-human environment possesses material manifestations that may disappear as species wither and decline. Plants, animals, and their habitats exert myriad and systemic effects due to their presence and interactions with other biota. Plant and animal species also possess what Smith (2013) refers to as semiotic resonances. What meanings do life forms have for each other given their ways of existing? Plants and animals have experiences and we can also experience them. The extinction of plant and animal species, along with land and water habitats, implies that their avenues for experiencing the world are gone—and with this the ability of present and future generations of humans to experience these species. Finally, Smith refers to the loss of ecological community; this loss encompasses the gestalt or emergent qualities of the foregoing aspects. Approximately half of the chapters in Mourning Nature place their primary emphasis on the loss of appearances and effects of plants, animals, or ecosystems. The remaining chapter authors place heavier emphasis on the meanings, phenomenological experiences, and ecological communitarian aspects. Most authors treated all of Smith's aspects and went beyond them to explore possibilities for transforming grief into action.