Saving Mr. Charlie’s Trees: Transforming Heartbreak
The past week has been a turning point for me.
Sunday March 5th, I was able to schedule a “final” session with my editor and friend Chris, a minor miracle. He’s very talented and much in demand, just promoted to COO of a French TV studio, also fathering a young family. We got a lot done. Only one last step to go: mix the audio.
Monday March 6th at midnight Paris time, I attended a zoom meeting of forest activists organized by the Dogwood Alliance and “met” some of the people on the frontline of climate justice whose video interviews I’d watched on the website.* Hearing what they’re up against day to day (EPA inexplicably granting more and more permits for pellet factories in their backyards, more clear cutting, more pollution, more illnesses, titanium mine threatening the Okefenokee) made me emotional. I told them about my uncle, Mr. Charlie’s story, from poverty to planting a million trees, how UGA sold the 1000 acres he entrusted to them for trees and wildlife, most of it to a lumber company, how I want to honor his legacy on film and IRL.
“Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed by the scope and the scale of what we’re all trying to do. There’s a lot of grief. My reward is connecting with you and this community. Your example keeps me going. Moments of joy in the grief.”
It was the first time I used the word grief about this.
Tuesday March 7th, I spent the day compiling email addresses, sending out personal notes and links to my articles and videos, mapping a strategy to share the preview as soon as it’s finished, publicize and get support for the documentary.
Wednesday March 8th, responses began trickling in. Mostly encouraging, but one stopped me in my tracks. A conservation professional I respect and would like to have as an ally was put off by my attempts to maintain contact, expressing reticence about “becoming entangled” in my “fight with UGA.” Could I clarify? Trying to get other things done, I spent the whole day mulling this over and taking notes for a reply, seeing myself through his eyes.
Everything that’s happened since I found out UGA was selling my uncle’s bequest in July 2020 began flashing before my eyes.
-Shock: this can’t be happening, there must be a mistake. Surely the university will back up when they realize it’s a misunderstanding. Phone calls and emails to UGA, video of Charlie clearly stating his wishes for the land.
-Response: UGA reps string me along, brush me off. I keep sending emails, calling, as courteously as possible.
-Reaching out to family and friends of Mr. Charlie’s. Compiling documents. Unanimous reaction: “What? This is wrong.” They send letters and affidavits.
-Lawyers give pro bono opinions: apparently someone at UGA found a loophole to make the sale legal, but there was a moral obligation to ensure its protection with new owners. The agreements were signed by all UGA administrators and the person who oversaw the sale knew Mr. Charlie personally, knew his intent.
-UGA finalizes the sale anyway.
-I contact conservation agencies and non-profits, keep researching: everyone says the way the land was sold is unethical but there’s no way I can outmatch UGA’s clout in court, they have deeper pockets. I learn about the larger picture, southern forests and climate justice.
-Me: move forward with film, network. Filmmaking community very supportive. I post on social media, share videos, organize film shoot in GA in August 2022, now completing the preview, planning the documentary: tell Mr. Charlie’s story in the larger context, balance with potential positive outcomes, show the forest champions and how we can all act for a better future.
Running through everything I see it: a thread of growing frustration and more or less polite anger, definitely boiling over in the way I planned to edit a sequence of a UGA rep interviewed in August, in extreme close up, dehumanizing.
-The word grief from Monday’s zoom comes back to me and I let myself feel it. Behind the anger is huge, soul-drowning sorrow. Sorrow for Mr. Charlie, fitting a million seedlings into furrows behind a tractor for hours, for years, walking the land he brought back from ruin and wanted to protect for wildlife. Sorrow for the millions of trees being clear-cut day after day in the US South, trucked to wood pellet factories, suffocating local communities there, burning and polluting in Europe and Japan. I know some trees have to be harvested, but not this way.
I feel sorrow for the life-spring Okefenokee wetlands where Twin Pines Corp wants to mine titanium. Sorrow for the Amazon, sorrow for the glaciers, sorrow for the icecaps, the oceans….sorrow sorrow…
And I’m sad for some of the people I met at UGA who thought they were doing the right thing, misinformed by advisors focused on dollars. And this is not an isolated incident, it’s a trend. Excellent reason to make the film, get the information out there, prevent this from happening to others. If Charlie had been more informed, his land could have been protected.
I thank my anger for carrying me here, for saving me from a bottomless well of grief. I thank the people defending a forest near Atlanta for the anger that makes them brave.…But will my anger bring conservation protection for Mr. Charlie’s bequest? My highest role models, the ones having the most impact, are not weaponizing anger. I need to be clear-headed and focused to create alliances. To get beyond anger I have to face the grief.
-Here are the 5 stages of grief, according to E. Kubler Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance…
I see myself bouncing back and forth between the first four states since July 2020. I haven’t allowed myself to even think the D word, filling my senses with beauty in all its forms to stay afloat: family time, friends, pets, art, sky, trees, ocean, cooking, music, flowers, writing, home keeping…. But if I tell the truth, my undeniable moments of intense fatigue are probably due to the heaviness of carrying the grief behind the anger. As for stage 5, there are things I can never accept.
Days go by. Can’t stop thinking about this.
Sunday March 12th. Woke up to waves of thunder rolling from somewhere outside. Took a minute to identify it: drumming. A lot of demonstrations in Paris right now. Is this another one against retirement reform? Coffee in hand, searched online. Among other mass movements across the city, there’s a marathon and Climate March. Maybe I’m hearing the Brazilian percussion band* that always turns out for climate events? Threw on my clothes and ran over to the big square nearby that serves as a gathering place. There they were, bless them, rocking back and forth, twirling their sticks, radiant, energized, batucada carnival vibes turning a gray weekend morning into a holiday.
I felt like an idiot standing there with tears streaming down my face. emotions of the week spilling over. Grief, but also gratitude to these dancing drummers and everyone keeping up the beat, the vital heartbeat of love for life on earth, no matter what. Gratitude to so many others putting their lives and lifetimes on the frontline.
Can we replace step 5 in the grieving process with Transformation? ID the anger, elevate the sadness, transform them into right words and action?
Email to the conservation professional: I want to create consensus not conflict.
Email to editor Chris: hey, one last edit, reframe, pull back from that extreme close up on the UGA rep’s face. It’s carried my anger, protected me from grief, but it won’t create alliances for Mr. Charlie, for climate justice, for life on earth.
Meanwhile… in some twisted synchronicity, hearts are breaking very close to me. A couple I adore are splitting up. Parents I know just lost their only child in an absurd accident.
Not to mention world news.
I look to the people who have gone beyond mourning. The Chamberlains creating a foundation in their lost son’s name. Marion Stoddart who single-handedly saved the dead Nashua river in Massachusetts and Sue Edwards who made a film about it. Dogwood, NRDC, SELC. So many staying at it every day, beyond grief.
To paraphrase Glennon Doyle, “All love revolutions start with a broken heart.”
Each in our own time. Let us drum, dance, heal our hearts, transform.
(I’ll probably have to revisit some of the grief stages, but I can be clearer and surely more effective.)
Activist interviews Dogwood Alliance
They were there for the marathon, not the Climate March, but I’ll take joy wherever I find it.
More updates at https://gofund.me/86ea6cc2