How to Avoid Eco-Despair

A friend who recently attended a cremation ceremony told me that it had been the highlight of his week.

Resisting the easy jokes, I asked him why.

Because, he said, there is nothing like death to remind you of what really matters.

If you've ever experienced the death of a loved one, chances are you know what my friend meant. An encounter with death tends to lift us (at least temporarily) above our more petty preoccupations.

But what happens when we sense that we are surrounded by death -- when we recognize that we are living in an age characterized by unprecedented levels of death and destruction in our natural world? How do we continue to bear witness without losing heart, without falling into immobilizing despair?

The Seattle-based artist Chris Jordan is embarked on a new project that begins to hint an answer: the Midway Journey.

Midway Island, an atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is roughly halfway between North America and Asia, and home to more than a million birds, including most of the world's large seabirds: the Laysan Albatross.

The first time Jordan traveled to Midway, he saw a land covered in dead albatross. It was after birthing season, when adult albatross spend months flying over the Pacific in search of food -- dead squid or pieces of seaweed -- for their young.

But all too often, Jordan explained during a recent visit to his studio, the adult albatross scoop up the most common things they find floating on the surface of Pacific. The result is that they inadvertently feed plastic to their young, who cannot yet regurgitate. The chicks then die by the thousands, with bellies full of bits of bottle caps, syringes, and Popsicle sticks.

The photos Jordan took during his first trip are simultaneously startling, beautiful, and heartbreaking. But they are not, as he later realized in conversation with writer Terry Tempest Williams, the whole story.

That is why Jordan will be returning to Midway on March 21, 2011 for the third of at least four planned trips. Having seen the tragedy, he now wants to document the joy: in both the mating dance and birthing season, when hundreds of thousands of albatross are hatched and, as local rangers say, the island is covered with so many fluffy white chicks, it looks like snow.

The artist is setting out, in other words, to witness the entire life cycle of the albatross at Midway (as it happens in this case, in reverse.) In the process, he is trying to connect two ways of looking at the world that are different as two opposing ends of a magnet.

The "south end" perspective, as he puts it, is that the world is a giant screwed-up place--a view that typically leads to fear, anger, and grief. The "north end," in contrast, perceives the great beauty of the world.

Along the way, his work holds the promise of showing that it is the ability to hold the tragedy and the beauty, or, if you will, the grief and the love that enables one to avoid despair -- and even, perchance, to act.

You can track Jordan's Midway Journey here.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director for the Center for Ecoliteracy and a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is a contributor to the Center's most recent book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009.