I’m grieving the death of my brilliant young friend Rachel, a Quaker climate specialist and university teacher who has died suddenly.
I met Rachel almost twenty years ago when she was the young Friend sent by Britain Yearly Meeting (Quakers) for a ten-week term at Pendle Hill study and retreat center. She participated in the course I taught, “Discerning Our Calls,” which included learning related to clearness committees. Rachel often stayed after class to talk, and we became friends. As the ten weeks flowed toward their conclusion, Rachel’s fellow students were eager to have her stay another term. She wondered if it would be right to stay longer, so a group was convened to hold a clearness committee, to help her discover what inner guidance she was receiving about this possibility.
Though it happened almost two decades ago, I remember that clearness committee well. Both Rachel and her friends wanted her to stay a while longer. But as we asked her questions and listened to her responses, I also heard her give compelling reasons why going home to England might be the right thing to do now. When she was invited to stay more about this, Rachel became more radiant, describing a sense of calling and purpose that was connected to being at home. Soon it was clear that however much she had enjoyed her time at Pendle Hill and loved her fellow students, something in her heart was calling Rachel home. When a clearness committee reaches the place where the focus person is clearly articulating the truth in their heart, we enter Holy Ground.
Rachel went home at the end of the term. It took her a few more years before the shape of her calling became clear. In the meantime, before the age of thirty, she wrote a wonderful memoir about being a young person finding her way. Raised Catholic, she had been much influenced by spending time living in a Catholic Worker House which provided hospitality to immigrants seeking asylum. She wrote about that experience and also about seeking a theology and spirituality that seemed truthful to her experience. For her, faith was meant to lead to action.
For many years of her life, even after entering an academic career, she volunteered at a homeless shelter in London during the Christmas holidays. She became a Quaker, but took an annual time of retreat in a Catholic convent.
Motivated in part by her desire to protect those who are most vulnerable–the poor of the world, who will bear the hardest brunt of it–she became clear that she was called to help society mitigate the effects of climate change. She studied to earn a Ph.D. and become what she called an “interdisciplinary social scientist with a focus on social behaviors related to climate change.” She took an academic position first at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales, then at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was Programme Director of their interdisciplinary MA in Sustainable Development. Her research interests included: lower-carbon lifestyles; pro-environmental behavior change; energy-related social practices and policies, social movements and education for sustainability; and communication about climate change. Especially interested in education, she was a well-loved faculty member in her department, drawing large classes. Recently she had done research on teaching styles that encourage students to become active in relationship to the fields they are studying, not just passive learners.
As Rachel became aware of how significantly air travel contributes to carbon emissions and exacerbates climate change, and that flying is a luxury used most often by the wealthiest people in the world, she became increasingly uneasy when she took a plane. In 2003, shortly after returning home from Pendle Hill, Rachel decided she would never fly again. In part because of Rachel’s vow not to fly, I saw her only one more time, when I flew to England in 2006 and attended Britain Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions, held in London.
Rachel never had a long-term partner or children. Instead, she directed a lot of love and attention to the many members of her large family and to her friends, students, and members of the communities to which she belonged, including Quakers. She sent out regular newsy email reports to a list of Friends, of which I was one. Through this means I kept in touch with her over the years. She told us about her research and teaching; about speaking on government panels related to climate change; about leading or participating in singing programs for Quakers and others; about family events, including the births and milestones of nieces and nephews; about her annual walking vacations along the coasts of England, Scotland and Wales; about the people she met in the homeless shelter, and so much more. She sent photos and links to videos, and sometimes jokes or cartoons. She wrote back whenever I responded to one of her reports. She regularly read my blog and was one of the few who often left a comment. (For example, hers is the first in response to my blog about the Climate Strike event I attended in Philadelphia—she wrote about her experience at the Climate Strike event in Edinburgh. She also commented first on my review of the amazing novel The Overstory.)
Although our friendship was almost entirely long distance, there were two key moments when we were able to reach a hand of friendship across the ocean at times of need. In November 2016, I watched the U.S. election results at home with my husband. We were both unpleasantly surprised when the early results were different from what we expected. Sleepy, my husband went to bed around 11 pm, still hopeful that the candidate for whom we had campaigned door-to-door would win. I was left alone on the sofa with television news commentators to keep me company as the news got worse and worse. In terms of much-needed environmental protections and a wise response to the growing climate crisis—to name one crucial issue, but not the only one–I felt that the election of the candidate I did not favor would be a disaster for the world. Waiting for the results, I felt alone in those wee morning hours. I opened a laptop to see what my Friends on social media were saying as we waited. Eventually, my social media news feed became quiet, too.
And then an email came from the other side of the ocean: Rachel had woken up for the day and learned the uncertain news about the U.S. presidential election. She emailed me to ask what was going on, and we communicated back and forth, both while I waited for the final results of the election, and in the days that followed as we both contemplated what this would mean for the world. Rachel’s companionship and friendship then was very sustaining.
In August this year, she reached across the ocean to me in the middle of her night. For several weeks she had been experiencing physical pains. Medication prescribed by her doctor had failed to soothe the problem, so tests had been ordered. After reading the results of one of the tests, her GP told Rachel to go to the Emergency Room immediately. Rachel looked healthy, and hours after arriving, she still hadn’t been seen by a doctor. A nurse had scolded her for coming to the ER. Finally, more tests were done. It was 1:30 am on her side of the ocean, and Rachel was feeling lonely. She didn’t want to wake her friends by calling in the middle of the night, so she sent a text to me. We texted back and forth. I held her in the Light, as she had asked.
As the medical news in the coming days got worse and worse, Rachel emailed me as she tried to discern the best way to share the bad news with her family and friends of the cancer growing inside her. She felt that I had more distance than those who were closer to her, and was therefore better able to be a sounding board as she first absorbed the news that she did not have much longer to live. It was a privilege to reach a hand across the ocean to her when she needed it.
After that, Rachel sent two more emails to her list of friends. At the end of the first, she wrote to her readers, “I hope you’re OK.” Then family members came to visit her, and she celebrated her birthday. In her last email she reported that it had become clear that no benefits could be expected from chemo; she would therefore be moving into a hospice. At the end, she thanked everybody for the good times they had shared with her.
Two days later we received an email from her father reporting that she had died, peacefully at the end, with both her parents present. It’s not surprising that she asked for a green burial, in a cardboard coffin, environmentally the kindest way to dispose of her body. In reporting the funeral arrangements, her father said that the many cards and notes that had been mailed to Rachel in her last weeks would be placed beside her body when she was buried.
I am so sad to lose my wonderful friend. I am sad for the world, too, because we have lost someone with a powerful commitment to help change society to mitigate climate change.
But I also know that Rachel’s soul still shines brightly, and I expect she will continue to reach out a hand, now across spiritual realms rather than an ocean, to help humanity face the crisis that is here and coming.
A Hand Extended Across the Ocean: © 2022 Marcelle Martin
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Rachel was author or co-author of 29 publications. One that she co-authored, “People and Planet: Values, Motivations and Formative Influences of Individuals Acting to Mitigate Climate Change,” is available HERE.
Sonya Peres, an intern at The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership (EAUC-Scotland), interviewed Rachel in March 2020 for a blog post entitled Academics Who Travel Better: Dr. Rachel Howell, in which she explored the reasons for Rachel’s decision never to fly again. When governments were bailing out the faltering airlines at the beginning of the pandemic, Rachel argued that they should instead let the airlines fail. Funds should be used to re-train those in the airline industry to work in more sustainable fields.
Here is a video recording of a March 2021 online interview in which Rachel speaks about Personal and Political Action on Climate Change.
Carbon Cutter or Climate Marcher? Personal and Political Action on Climate Change.
A large majority of people in Scotland (79%) think climate change is an “immediate and urgent problem” (Ipsos MORI survey, October 2020). Why doesn’t that concern translate into more action? If we want to take action, what’s going to make the biggest difference? Is it best to focus on political change, or personal behaviour change? Can an individual have any effect? And what about the current situation: has coronavirus actually been good news for the environment/climate change? These are some of the questions Rachel Howell considered, and which are discussed by the panel which includes John Dale, and Richard Frazer with moderation by Michael Fuller.