Giant elephant tusks are arranged on a dry African plain, held up by the rangers who confiscated them from poachers. Each tusk comes from a fully grown mature elephant, the rest of whose body was left to rot in the hot sun. The rangers themselves provide the scale: the tusks are man-sized- the size of the elephants themselves can only be imagined, as they are forever lost to us. See this and other pictures at

The photographer is Nick Brandt whose astonishing and timeless images silently capture the majesty of what has been lost in Africa [1]. In a poignant interview [2] with Mary Oliver, a wonderful free spirit and poet, she states simply that the woods she knew, loved and played in as a child are now gone; that the woods she knew as a young woman in her twenties, are gone; and the woods she loved as a mature adult are now transformed and tamed beyond recognition, criss-crossed with bike trails and laid paths.

Richard Nelson, an American cultural anthropologist, laments the loss of an old tree in a clear felling near his home in Alaska. He counts the rings to find the tree was 423 years when it was cut down, and wonders whether the logger gave any consideration to the tree at all when s/he pulled the cord on the chainsaw and started felling it. But he feels responsible: “whatever judgement I make against those who cut it down I must also make against myself. I belong to the same nation, speak the same language, vote in the same elections, share many of the same values, avail myself of the same technology, and owe much of my existence to the same vast system of global exchange” [3]

He acknowledges his part in all this and makes a commitment then and there to do the work of bearing witness to what has been lost, to naming, feeling and owning that loss as his own. That practice of bearing witness to really seeing and allowing ourselves to feel what has been lost from our world is shared by all three of these artists, and by many more people around the earth.

That is a sacred path: the ancient monks in the Christian tradition practiced "memento mori", the living with continuous awareness of mortality, our own and everything around us. In his wonderful account of this practice Douglas Christe [4] argues that allowing ourselves to be broken open, to fully engage with our own felt response to what has been and what will be irrevocably lost, is a first and necessary step to reimagining a new world. Without feeling the loss and brokenness of the world he argues, we can never engage fully with its repair.

The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference, it is numbness. I read the other day that there is no song about climate change, no single anthem that unifies and bonds as there has been in many other situations and disasters. There have been attempts, the latest I saw was a beautiful haunting joijk [5] by a Sami singer, Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska at the people’s march in London on Sunday. But I don’t think it will catch either, in part it is because we as human beings don’t deal well with tragedies and disasters that are too big to comprehend, to put into our own words. So we need to start with our own experiences, our own places, and bear our own witness to the truth of what is happening to those places, and open to how that makes us feel without fleeing, escaping or hiding from that brokenness.

Elephants, like us, mourn their dead, and another of Nick Brandt’s iconic photos shows a group of elephants investigating an elephant skull. These next weeks let us hope, and pray, that the decision makers in Paris remember and engage with their own trees, places, creatures and landscapes that they have known and loved and which are no longer; and that through the sadness of that witness there comes the courage to take responsibility for the largest conversation the world can have [5] just now...

<.i>“Let us pray dangerously,… where the most dangerous prayer is YES.” [6]


[1] see. Images from the portfolio href="">See this and other pictures at “Across the Ravaged land”

[2] Radio interview from 3.54 minutes on NPR interview 'A Thousand Mornings' With Poet Mary Oliver

[3] Cited in Christie (see below) p98

[4] The blue sapphire of the mind, by Douglas E Christie p 98

[5] ()

[6] Loosely based on quote by David Whyte

[7] Regina Sara Ryan:

  • Pippa Soundy

    on December 8, 2015

    Do the decision makers ever allow themselves to feel what has been lost by engaging personally with the natural world? Watching the planned destruction of the Chilterns by HS2, I can't imagine that they do.

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