A Forest of Thoughts: My Journey with Eco-Anxiety 

Words and art by Heather Fortune

I have always felt at home in forests. The moment I step foot beneath the cover of the canopy, I enter a different world. One without deadlines, without the troubles of everyday life. Foliage crunching underfoot is a comfort; the smell of the earth is soothing.  I can breathe again.  

Throughout my years in St. Andrews, walking in nature has played a large part in helping me to cultivate active hope. I have recently gotten into birdwatching, and this too has been helpful in making me realise that although I am not too small to make a difference, I am also a small part of something bigger. The climate crisis is not my problem alone to solve.  

I duck beneath a beech branch overhanging the Hepburn Gardens pavement to enter the tree-lined path of Lade Braes. It is silent at first. I move forward, feet grinding on gravel noisily, but after a minute or so standing still, the world comes to life around me. It starts with one robin, puffing out its little chest to sing at a volume unexpected from such a tiny creature. The blue tits follow, like faint chimes of alarm clocks. A wood pigeon joins in, calling slowly to begin, and increasing its pace until it sounds as though it is hyperventilating, as my friend likes to say. A comment that amuses me every time. I breathe in the bird song and feel myself beginning to relax. I allow my thoughts to surface; I breathe them through.  

I think about the plastic which wraps the broccoli I purchased. I think about how the recycling bin I pass is stuffed with greasy pizza boxes, contaminating the entire cycle. I think about my flatmate, who constantly seems to need yet another Amazon purchase. I think about how I screamed at her, and in doing so was labelled a killjoy, the ‘angry environmentalist’. My sister told me that I am the kind of person who makes people “not even want to try” to be eco-friendly. I was hurt more than I let on, and feel guilty. I know they are both trying too, and I live my life far from sustainably. So, I tried my best to stop criticizing people, and now, walking under the bronze sycamore leaves, I realise that people have been much more open to conversation and suggestions about how to tackle climate change since then.  

I think about the time I attended a screening of the French film ‘Ruptures’, directed by Arthur Gosset, about five university graduates who give up the ‘successful’ futures they have secured to follow a more ethical and sustainable career path. I had brought along a friend, who was not particularly interested in sustainability but was curious to learn more.  I remember finding comfort during the scene where the director cries in front of his parents about his worry for our future, and guilt over his own role in this. I had told my friend, and she had laughed at me. “Aww, it’s that bad, is it?”, she had asked, condescendingly.  

I think about COP26, which hit me harder than I thought it would. I cried sitting at the desk in my mother’s house in Glasgow, as I attempted to do coursework between protests. In a way though, the protests themselves provided a sort of hope – a feeling of solidarity as we all marched together, willing our presence to be enough to make a difference. But that sort of hope is fleeting, and only lasts for so long. I attended therapy for the first time.  

A wren is singing somewhere in the bushes behind me. I breathe in, and breathe out. I think about ‘active hope’, a term coined by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in their 2012 book of the same name, which I recently read. It describes hope as a practice, rather than as something we already possess. They say that the way we respond to difficult situations is a choice we get to make, and it is important to remember that action can be taken (and can make a real difference) even when we have no hope for its success. They describe it as a three-step process: 1) getting yourself a clear picture of the situation you are faced with 2) identifying your desired outcome/direction of movement, and 3) considering the steps you can take towards this as an individual. Intention, not inspiration, is used to guide oneself, and thus it is a process that can lead to both successful action and the creation of hope, even in the absence of optimism.  

My train of thought is interrupted by a small brown bird which jumps onto the bark at the base of the tree in front of me. It’s a treecreeper. The treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) is a very active bird with a pale chest, brown-speckled back, pointy beak and high-pitched song. I watch as it ascends the tree in a spiral fashion, hopping further and further towards the canopy. Half-way up, it decides that there are no earwigs to feed on in this tree, so it flits to the base of the next. Treecreepers cannot venture back down a tree once they have already begun their climb. However, they can always start their spiral ascent anew, beginning with a different tree. They do not turn back – they simply find another tree and move on, continuing resiliently in their mission to find food. And so, I too must carry on, clear in my mission to help tackle climate breakdown, with a forest of attempts before me.  

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