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As Environmentalists, We Need to Make “Ananda” Central to Our Lives

This holiday season let’s embrace the joy without which the universe would cease to exist

Driving during a downpour on the morning of December 12, my daughter Lucilla said: "Some of my friends think that this rain has ended the drought and I told them they are mistaken."

We live in California. She is six.

We discussed the state of the reservoirs and the need to build the snowpack, both of which she had tried to articulate to her friends already.

2 Kids by WallPhoto by Vince ScottMy daughter made me realize all over again that what the environmental movement needs is more beauty and playfulness and joy.

Seeing her level of understanding, I just felt so, so, so proud.

She knew it was snowing in Boulder, Colorado where her older brother, Vincent, lives. She asked if that would help. I suggested that that snowfall might not feed into our watersheds, though a subsequent conversation elsewhere led to the thought that if we drink Colorado River water … it might. The key thing emphasized: the importance of the snowpack in the Sierras. She thought about that the rest of the way to school.

I saved the conversation about groundwater recharge for another day.

Then, later that evening she said: "So in the mountains in California where there is a snowpack, they build snowmen, right?"

Me: "Yes."

Her: "So when the water in the snow melts and comes to the reservoirs and into our pipes… are we going to have, you know, scarves and hats and mittens and carrots and raisins or coal coming with the water?" 

Her charm unleashed a cloudburst of happiness in my heart. Oh Lucilla.

For me personally it has been a tough year. The environmental job that I adored for over a decade has been grant funded and my last day was December 1.   The father of my young children reunited with me for 36 hours in September and well, that’s story that does not end with a rainbow. I guess I share the array of heartbreaks of most human beings; griefs both unique and familiar. Underneath it all is the steady drumbeat of the things I know and have not found a way to resolve: ocean acidification, plastic detritus in the marine food chain, climate change, destruction of rainforests, crashing fisheries, the list of recent and pending species extinctions, groundwater depletion, the anticipated impacts of fracking upon water quality.  The need for environmental restoration is just so vast, so oceanic.

I’ve been watching the rise of depression and suicidal ideation in the United States and, I think, that by focusing on brain chemistry and family histories, we may have missed the key driver here. Depression and suicidal ideation, I think, are the adult response to Nature Deficit Disorder.  
Think about us as human animals meant to live in a natural world. Urban folk commute for hours in soul-crushing traffic and sit in offices with windows that do not open, or in cubicles with no windows, agricultural folks see the landscapes around them being sold for suburbanization and watch groundwater depletion with trepidation. Urban and rural, we all have watched the demise of the black rhino and are holding our breath for the fate elephants, giraffes, bluefin tuna, vaquitas and, oh yes, us.   

Based upon observation, I’d say that depression runs much higher in the subset of people who work on environmental issues. Your average biologist, civil engineer, or water rights lawyer knows a lot about the specifics of environmental troubles. And once you know such a thing, you cannot un-know it. It will wake you up at two in the morning.

And the way we work can be personally, emotionally, and practically constraining. Embedded in the language we use to articulate how we work are deep assumptions about environmental workers’ personal integrity and self-restraint: We know that effective environmental work has to be data-driven, research based, and show quantifiable results — in other words, at every step, we have to defend the work we do and the choices we make using science and then prove our outcomes by numeric evidence.  There’s no shooting from the hip here, there’s a very long preliminary fight just to get to the playing field.

Environmental workers who remain functional stave off the blues by taking on environmental problems that are potentially solvable and then addressing them.

I know I can remember every win for which I was responsible, little or big. One of my favorite moments, and I cannot tell you if it is little or big, was watching a very beautiful woman, hip-hop chic in a skintight white crop top and lots of bling, chat up our in-house naturalist Delmar Lathers, then pile up her immaculate white Mercedes convertible with native plants and seeing her smile flash as she drove off. She told us that she'd never heard of a native plant until she stopped by our sale, but the idea of these plants enchanted her – she said she was going to go home and tell all her friends in South Central about California native plants.  She made our day.

A great many environmental workers seem to waver between that highly functional state and being trapped in some kind of thickening amber of hopelessness. Nowadays, as a consultant, I have the opportunity to create solutions for environmental problems in my community and to find entities who want to implement those solutions. So I should be happy. But recently, a gloom had got me by an ankle was dragging me under — until Lucilla’s fictional snowman melted and got into the water supply system and pieces of him showed up in her imagination, and mine.

It was like an le coup de foudre.  Though a job, cash and more opportunities would be nice, what I was missing was right here, right now. I had forgotten how to be happy.
The next day, when my father and his wife drove my kids up to the boat to see their dad and I was left alone in Calabasas, I thought to myself — I could mope… or I could choose to be happy. 
So I went to the Do It Yourself center and bought a hundred dollars worth of paint. For years, I had not painted our plain white apartment because there would be a move out charge if I messed with our walls. Then I realized that by playing by the standards of Avalon Apartments, I was forcing myself to live in monotone. My mother was a gardener, a lover of Frida Kahlo, a woman who never met a color she did not like. .It was time to reclaim my space. 

I painted my bedroom a lush blue, the color the sky is before dusk arrives. The dining room I turned a light sky blue with a pale yellow sun and chest high roiling waves in Caribbean turquoise-green. 

The day after the painting extravaganza, when I brought the kids home, my little son was too tired to notice, but my daughter walked into the house, overjoyed. “Oh Mommy!” she exclaimed and embraced the living-room wall like she could step out and into the water.  She promptly began planning the array of sea creatures she would paint onto it. Her happiness and enthusiasm filled the room. Her response was incredibly energizing.
Looking at her, I realized that what the environmental movement needs is less Guernica and Raft of the Medusa (vital, brutal, truthful and  effective though they are) and more Henri Rousseau and, even, dare I say it, some Fragonard. We need beauty and playfulness and joy. Hope is the baseline, the prerequisite for all future work. If you lose that driver, you wind up in bed, unable to figure out which task to take on first, unable to forge the new ties that will implement the next project, pass the next bill, create a new wholesome business. 

The author Madeleine L’Engle often interwove ideas about science, religion, and the arts into her science fiction books for children. But there’s a lot in there that’s good for actual grown-ups, too. In particular, she addressed a major theme in Hinduism, the idea of “ananda,” which she, most gracefully translates from the Sanskrit as: “Ananda: the joy without which the universe would cease to exist.”

So that’s what we need more. More ananda. So this holiday season, get some and give some.

Melina Sempill Watts
Melina Watts recently launched an environmental consulting firm and is developing a new edition of Living Lightly In Our Watersheds: A Guide to Living in the Santa Monica Mountains for an array of cities and agencies at the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, where she has raised more than $14 million to implement community-based watershed goals. She is shopping for a publisher for her environmentally-themed novel.

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