The Art of Losing

William Roberts had asked me to talk about the writer who had most profoundly shaped my understanding of the environment. But I couldn’t stop thinking about loss.

I had just finished reading Brian Brett’s Trauma Farm. A farm is both theory and worms. But his essay Tasting My Father kept shuffling its way to the top of my pile of papers.  Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meat did more to vegetarian-ise me than Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser’s manifestos, both of which were sitting on my desk, but it was Ozeki’s article, The Art of Losing: On Writing, Dying, & Mom, that kept drawing me in.

When I sent William a brief outline of my talk with links to the readings I planned to reference, he called, confused. “I don’t really understand what this essay has to do with the environment.”


“This Brett essay, about his father dying…?”

“I know. But these things keep putting themselves in my face. I’m trying to trust them.”

William’s a shaman at heart. So he agreed to go with it.

As did the room full of people that Wednesday night in the reading room of the Nita Lake Lodge, when William opened the dialogue with an invitation to introduce ourselves by talking about the landscape we first belonged to. Strangers dived into deep-memory, told stories about places that don’t exist anymore, have been paved over, suburbanised, fallen into the hands of hostile governments…  Places that, even if they had been preserved, cannot be returned to, because we’re not ever able to crawl back into our 6 year old selves.

The sense of loss and longing rippled amongst us like a shoal of hundreds of tiny fish.

In One Art, poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote: 

Then practice losing farther, losing faster;

Places,  and names, and where it was you meant

To travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or

Next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,

Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

The solution, resolution, I had proposed, when confronted with the sense of loss that comes with being displaced from the landscape of childhood, is to start a vegetable garden. Michael Pollan answered the question: Why Bother? with an invitation to press seeds into the soil, to reconnect, and commingle our identities of consumer, producer and citizen back into a healthy compost. Michael Pollan would be the last word for my talk.

William called me back, immediately after we had talked. “Guess what just came on the radio?” He started singing a riff: we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…

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