keep-on

The first OSU environmental arts and humanities cohort has embarked on our journey for knowledge, for answers to our most confounding and deleterious problems; meanwhile, there is something happening in the world that cannot be ignored. We began the program in September 2016 while the most spiteful and toxic of American elections was winding to a close. Our first term was a whirlwind of discovery with a frequent recurrence of discussions about the place for hope and action in our discourses about change.

Then came November 9, a day forever burned into our memories. I woke up in a state of confusion, fear, anxiety, and denial, as did many others who share my values. However, this election result was not just a tragedy for the Democrats or Progressives of our nation. It is a tragedy for all life on this planet.

Now, as we finish our second term in the new Environmental Arts & Humanities program, much of what we feared is playing out. The president of the U.S. purports his disbelief in anthropogenic climate change while slashing regulations that provide us with clean air and water. These policies seek to provide only for those who profit from the industries while being masked as tools for job growth.

Is there a place for hope in this shift to authoritarian rule that disregards fact, that ignores basic human decency, that seeks to split the nation, that debases all that we value? Yes, there is always room for hope but only when coupled with truth and action. What we need now more than ever is radical hope, resistance, community, morality, and compassion.

It was around this message that 40 or so people joined together in fellowship at the Corvallis Unitarian Universalist Church on Saturday, March 18. Our motivational facilitators were none other than Kathleen Dean Moore and Libby Roderick who guided us through personal and community truth.

We started the Keep on Strong Heart: Moral Power in the Climate Fight workshop quite aptly by singing Libby’s song Keep On, Strong Heart.

Here are my main take-a-ways to help you in your journey to create change:

  1. We need to acknowledge the pain, fear, disbelief that we and other people feel. Practice active listening and engage in dialogue. We should avoid dominating any conversation because it hinders creativity and fresh ideas.
  2. We are stronger together working as a community when everyone acts and speaks up as a collective. We will be most effective when we are diverse in skill, in culture, in race, in class, in energy, in creativity.
  3. The statistics are in. Seventy percent of American adults believe that global warming is happening, but only 53 percent believe global warming is caused by human activities. In terms of risk, the greatest perceived risk is to future generations, 70 percent, but only 40 percent of Americans believe global warming will personally harm them. We don’t discuss global warming often enough; only 33 percent of Americans talk about it occasionally, and 31 percent of adults never discuss it. NASA is a good source for climate information. Educate yourself and start talking.
  4. We can react in three ways to anthropogenic climate change: 1. Business as Usual, 2. The Great Unravelling, 3. The Great Turning. We need to aim for the great turning. We need to collectively imagine and work toward this turning. It starts with more people joining together to discuss issues and fight back. The goal: to change our systems and lifeways in ways that reduce our impact on the Earth.
  5. Civil resistance and non-violent direct action bring results. Protest influences public opinion more than federal action or institutional advocacy.
  6. Your actions matter. Don’t sit this out. Don’t fall into complacency. Demand a present and a future that can be enjoyed by all life.

This was my first opportunity to really engage with others in the community (outside of the university) since moving to Corvallis in July. My inaction and lack of engagement was eating away at me. The future I imagined was crumbling away, and all I wanted was to abandon my academic duties and do something meaningful! I know others in my cohort share this sentiment. We are here to encourage environmentally ethical lifeways, to cultivate understanding about the true source of our widespread environmental destruction, to empower invisible communities who have been victims of injustices, to speak for the animals, the oceans, the forests under human rule and subjugation. How can we inspire change when we spend 40 hours a week talking, reading, and writing? Shouldn’t we be out in the world overturning the systemic oppression of human and non-human life? Shouldn’t we be acting?

But, if what we need is radical hope that leads to radical change, then we must take a different approach. An approach—or even an array of approaches—that is different than what has been attempted over the last few decades. My hope is that our cohort’s journey of intellectual discovery, of critical analysis, and of ethical thought will be exactly what we need to fuel meaningful, impactful action in new and creative ways. I don’t believe that our answers lie (solely) in technology, policy, or innovation. No, we must seek truth instead, we must question widely held beliefs, we must resist, and we must demand change that enables all life to flourish.

Stay active:

  1. MoveOn.org has daily actions to stay informed and engage in the political process.
  2. Call in to your representatives when you disagree with policy. (5calls.org)
  3. Get involved in a local climate initiative. (350corvallis.org)
  4. Acknowledge media biases and diversify your sources of information.

For further reading on this topic, see:

  1. Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael Nelson (eds.)
  2. Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change by Kathleen Dean Moore
  3. Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues by Kay Landis, et al. (including Libby Roderick) (eds.)
  4. Why Civil Resistance Works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan.
  5. Radical Hope for Living Well in a Warmer World by Allen Thompson.

I saw Disney’s new rendition of Beauty and the Beast the other day in a crowded theater with smelly seats. Despite the undesirable ambiance, I was enchanted. I laughed, I gasped, I cried. And for about a week now after seeing the moving, I have been pondering good and evil, trying to grapple with this dichotomy and its implications about who we are as humans. All the while I’ve been hoping that some revelation would also help me understand what irked me about a book talk I saw earlier this term by Benjamin Hale on his new book The Wild and the Wicked. I think I’m beginning to understand.

So first, let’s start with Disney…

Throughout most of the movie, I felt as though each main character had been created in order to fit into a polarized ideal of either virtuous or vengeful – altruistic, or a narcissist to the core. Belle, of course, is saintly. She is smart, fearless, and empathetic. She sees the beauty in a beast who does not see it in himself. Gaston – the broad-chested buffoon who makes the townswomen swoon – is the stereotypical brute and ultimately the embodiment of evil. Besides his boastfulness and penchant for drawing swords and firing his musket, Gaston also commits unforgiveable acts such as punching an old man (Belle’s father), tying him to a tree and leaving him for the wolves, and shooting the Beast multiple times in the back after the duel was supposed to be over. (What a jerk!)

So, Belle and Gaston are moral polar opposites, and the Beast is pretty awful too. In his earlier years (pre horns, claws, and lion/buffalo head), he threw extravagant parties for his own pleasure and arrogantly strutted about the dance floor, examining and judging the pretty women. When an old woman shows up at his door in the middle of one of these gaudy parties, asking for food and shelter, the prince turns her away. Unfortunately for him, she’s actually a witch, and she damns him to a life of self-loathing and pariah status until he can learn unconditional love. (Spoiler alert: he succeeds.)Yet I realized that the Beast is actually not evil. He’s also not as virtuous as Belle. In fact, he is probably the most morally realistic character in the movie precisely because he is flawed (as humans are flawed), and because he embodies the true complexities of humanity that are less easily grouped into Team Good and Team Evil.

What does this have to do with Ben Hale?

In a way, Ben Hale pushes against similar dichotomies of good and bad as they are applied to nature. He argues that humans should not have to love nature in order to respect and protect it. He also argues that it’s alright not to love nature – not only because not everyone enjoys camping and hiking, but also because, let’s face it, nature can be cruel… Right?

Well I’ve realized, as I pondered Beauty and the Beast, that it’s this last part of Hale’s argument that irks me. As humans, we have written a moral code for our species that helps us identify if an act is good or bad. As problematic as this dichotomy can be (evidence: the Beast is good and bad, so which one is he?!), it seems to be how we understand ourselves, and it’s the way we teach our children not to steal or punch or worse. But I am a firm believer that human-made moral constructs should remain within the realm by which they were constructed. In other words, “nature” never asked to be called good or wicked, so who are we to impose these human notions onto anything nonhuman?

Perhaps Hale would argue that, regardless of whether or not we should impose moral standards on nature, we do. His book is written for a broader audience than ethicists and philosophers, so in some ways I think he’s just trying to operate within the framework his readers will most likely understand. I’m all for making theories accessible to the general public, but I have to say that I’m still bothered by Hale’s argument. I can’t let it go.

So, here’s one last thought on what I think is bugging me so much about Hale’s talk

He began the afternoon by showing a series of photos. At one point, he showed pictures that were supposed to illustrate the many “bad” things nature has done. As a group, we cringed at the sight of dead bodies washed up from Tsunamis, dead bodies washed up from Hurricane Katrina, and more dead bodies from other “natural disasters.” The understanding, as Hale showed these images, was that nature was sometimes cruel, and nature was sometimes wicked.

Yet, I think about Hurricane Katrina. I think about a paper I read recently in my EAH Perspectives class written by Ashley Dawson. One section in the paper is titled: “There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.” Dawson writes specifically about Hurricane Katrina, calling out then-President George W. Bush for referring to Katrina as an “act of God.” Here, Bush places the blame on fate. Hale, it seems, places the blame on Nature. Yet Dawson points out that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was in fact a human problem, with humans to blame.

New Orleans was not prepared for the storm and the flooding, because, as Dawson points out, “repeated calls to stem wetlands erosion and to fix the failing levee system that protects the city were met with blank indifference by a federal administration more interested in tax cuts for the wealthy and imperial escapades in Iraq than in the South’s sole blue state.” As a consequence, New Orleans flooded. Those who suffered the most, on the whole, were poor and Black. They lived in the cheapest, most flood-prone parts of the area, because systemic racism and oppression had made it so. (Read Dawson’s paper if you’re interested in learning more.)

To blame fate or Nature is to remove responsibility from the abhorrent (evil?) collective and individual actions and inactions that led to so many deaths and displacements during and in the years following the storm.

Perhaps, then, evil and wickedness lurk amongst the seams of the complicated patchwork that is humanity. Perhaps good, too, is woven into our collective fabric. We are humans, so I suppose we can decide to use the terms “good,” “evil,” and “wicked” to describe ourselves. However, I would not extend those human moral constructs to nature, Nature, or “nature,”* and I suggest caution to those people who may feel inclined to do so.

*Along with my grappling with morality, I grapple too, more and more, with the concepts of “nature” and the “environment.” My inconsistency throughout this post in how I present the word “nature” is intentionally fluid to mimic the fluidity of a human-constructed concept.

I’ve been looking forward to this event all term. Finally, just like the sunshine, it arrived.

I woke up Friday morning bright and early to prepare my things for an overnight trip to the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. There was something unique about this trip, unlike most of my experiences in nature and research settings. It was a time to reflect on my experience in one of my many identities, being a Latina.

I arrived at Ana’s house at 9 am, and we were soon joined by several families who would also be coming along for our adventure in the forest. After a 45-minute choreography of rearranging our bags, coolers, and children, all the while gracefully dancing to the duet of Spanish and English, it was time to go.

We arrived at the forest close to noon and unpacked the cars into the cabin. You wouldn’t believe that we were only staying for one night by the number of things we managed to pack into the cars including, but not limited to, rain gear, food, and musical instruments. After sharing some laughs and sandwiches, it was time for the first activity of the afternoon: the story circle.

There is something about sitting in a circle that reminds me of the power of this sacred geometry. Many life lessons come to mind, including childhood memories of my favorite film, The Lion King. The circle of life, unity, the cycles that guide natural laws, all becomes clearer when we watch, listen, and participate. What a special moment for us all, students, professors, and professionals coming together to share what Latinx identity means to each of us. The circle began with Ruth and continued as we organically decided the order. Each person shared their experiences as Latinos. There were distinct differences and similarities within these short testimonies. Our prompt was as follows: What does it mean to be Latino? And what aspect of being Latino, your race, ethnicity, or nationality would you like to elaborate on? The responses were heartfelt and included diverse identifiers such as, passion, food, emotions, language, family, music, education, and being proud of our experiences and of those before us. Latino experiences with roots from Mexico, United States, Colombia, Ecuador, Cuba, and Chile were represented, and the stories shared were full of emotion, felt by both the speaker and listener. The conversation was extended to include the spouses of Latinos and discuss the experience raising a multicultural and bilingual family. The young children, all proud Latinas, were also included in the conversation.Their energy made us laugh and smile throughout this experience.

After our sincere conversation, there was some time to enjoy the beautiful weekend with which we had been blessed. Walking along Discovery Trail allowed us to reflect on our connection to nature. There is something about being in the presence of green giants that humbles the spirit. The group was amazed by the canopy structure and the strength of the river. After capturing a few beautiful nature photos, we began to discuss lessons that can be learned from nature.  Winter, one of the most difficult times for all life, is the most important season for renewal. It is the time where the rivers cleanse and prepare for the spring. It also a time to condition and test the resilience of creatures, humans and others.  Winter can be a time to test our persistence, molding us into all that we are.

Ivan reminded us that, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” As we headed back toward the cabin we reflected on our place in nature, the spiral of life and the universe, and about how we can start to bring other students with different experiences and backgrounds into the conversation.  We crossed over a small stream, and our memories from this visit to the HJ Andrews trickled into the water, down to the river, flowing outward. It was a time for cleansing, but we knew our stories would be preserved from that moment in time and continue cycling.

The rest of the evening we gathered around a large table with bowls full hot sancocho Colombiano. As the food simmered we shared some time together with a music session and dance party. I appreciated that we weren’t expected to leave the creative aspects of ourselves out of the conversation, it was encouraged. Conducting ecological research is often associated with being the quiet observer, allowing the environment to reveal secrets through careful measurement. Our interaction with the forest was different, it was a time for the celebration of who we are, our experiences, and an opportunity to create a living memory with nature.

We wrapped up the long day gathered around the campfire. We made smores and continued to sing into the night, our songs and carried by the green giants and the night breeze. We had our fair share of laughs, as the children shared their spooky/comical stories with us. Wise words that resonated with all of us came in the form of song by Facundo Cabral, Argentinian poet and composer- also recognized by UNESCO in 1996 as the Messenger of Peace and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, shared a moment with the group as we chorused to the following lyrics (rough English translation included):

No soy de aquí ni soy de allá

I am not from here nor from there

“No tengo edad, ni porvenir “

I have no age, nor future

“Y ser feliz es mi color de identidad”

And to be happy is my color of identity.

As I reflect on the discussion of identity in the forest, I realize it was really a discussion about humanity and our connection to the world around us. A time to honor the winter, and a time to celebrate the sunshine of spring.

Juntos began back in 2007 as an OSU Open Campus initiative to increase Latino representation in Higher Education.  This program prepares students through a college readiness program that includes helping students navigate the steps toward entering and succeeding in college. Please visit the webpage to learn more and consider supporting if you feel inclined:

https://create.osufoundation.org/project/5826

Photo credits to our wonderful film crew: Rick Henry and Drew Olson

Participants: Ana Gomez-Diazgranados, Paul Navarra, Ruth Jones, Brooke Penaluna, Ivan Arismendi, Megan Patton-Lopez, Daniel Fernando Lopez-Cevallos-Ana Lu Fonseca, Carlos Fajardo, Natalia Maria Fernandez, and four beautiful and entertaining little girls (Hazel, Amaia, Chloe, Eva Lu)

Women, art, activism, protest, event.
By Melody Owen

I’m going to guide us back through the unexpected networks of art paths I walked this winter; through a deluge of rain and what seemed like books exploding in the air overhead, showering me with pages of text. This is a guided tour through some of the art I wandered through over these past few eventful months.

We started the term during a period of shocking transition in our government. A new faction is coming into power, an administration working to kill every government agency that protects the environment and supports the arts, humanities, libraries, public broadcasting, women’s health, threatened species, clean water, clean air, forests, press freedom, climate change research and on and on… the constant barrage of news reports have been interwoven with the dark, cold, grey of winter.

Pulsing through this cloud of gloom are bursts of light, moments of coming together with other people in solidarity and consolation. Yes, we are going through our daily routines; working or going to classes and meeting deadlines, always behind, but once in awhile an essential event will take place, whether it be through a performance, visiting a collection of objects, or listening to a person talk about their own path. In our time of screen living, half in and half out of the screen, when we meet together in a physical place for an event, a tangible moment of hope may be manifested.

About ten years ago, I lived in Quebec for a couple of months in a tiny cabin with no hot water all by itself in the middle of a giant field on the edge of the Saint Lawrence River. A short walk brought me to the rocky shore. The rock there was smooth in shades of yellow, red and copper. I hosted a small party one night on the shore for my comrades at the residency program, a handful of artists. We lay on smooth rock, watching the stars shoot through the sky and talked in French and English and joked. There might have been a campfire. And then, across the river, northern lights started shimmering in magnetic but very subtle blues and yellow.

The northern lights and meteor showers, the sparks of light in the darkness of my first winter in Corvallis were embodied mainly by creative women. I started the term by suddenly deciding to curate a show of some of the women artists who are on the faculty at OSU and U of O. I called the gallery Optic and the show Nasty Woman because galleries across the country and world were holding Nasty Woman events in response to the misogynist comments made by the incoming President and in an act of solidarity with the women’s marches. I wanted to contribute to this movement because I had both space and knowledge of a number of extremely talented women, all of whom teach in the area. It just made sense to bring the elements together. It took place at my studio on the night before the inauguration. (Meanwhile in the EAH program, we are reading ecofeminism. I discover Donna Haraway.)

Nasty Woman

We are coming together to protest against the misogyny of the incoming administration. We are coming together in solidarity with the women’s marches occurring around the United States. This show is meant to display the strength, innovation, talent, fortitude, unity, and excellence of women in our community.

Event photo: University of Oregon women’s basketball team taken in the 1910s. University of Oregon Libraries – Special Collections and University Archives

Corvallis Advocate preview by Johnny Beaver

Exhibiting Artists:

Amanda Tasse

Amanda Wojick

Anna Fidler

Anya Kivarkis

Jessie Rose Vala

Julia Bradshaw

Julie Green

Shelley Jordon

Tannaz Farsi

Terri Warpinski

In addition, we held an event on Not-My-President Day, which was also linked up with events around the world. There were many kinds of meetings and interventions, large and small, that simply made a gesture of solidarity or protest, even if that gesture was very quiet, just a whisper. Mother was just such an event. The artist’s 6 year old daughter, came dressed as Alice in Wonderland, prepared to recite from the Disney movie. We read the Pink Floyd lyrics which she handed out on scraps of paper. When one of us asked, while holding in our hands the cake of bacteria and yeast, “Mother, will they drop the bomb?” she delightfully shrugged her shoulders. The feel of the mother was cool and smooth and reminded me of the time I touched a whale.

Mother

Following is the event announcement, written by artist: Karin Bolender

In honor of Not-My-President’s Day, this intimate, improvisational ceremony, led by K-Haw Hart and hosted by Optic Gallery in Corvallis, Oregon, will bring some worried, wondering humans together to artfully question/resist the opacity and absurdity of present political regimes. As we gently pass around a Mother (the thick, fleshy, semi-translucent body of symbiotically cultured bacteria and yeast that brews an ancient drink called kombucha), we will ask the Mother questions sourced from the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song by that same name. Other questions and gestures are also welcome.

Jessie Rose Vala, mentioned previously, hosted an event on a full moon and an eclipse. This event occurred in the distant lands of Springfield, an hour away. I could see the lightning from where I was watching through the virtual world of social media. A woman sang while sitting on a horse in the center of Jessie’s marvelous installation of sculptures. I did stand for a moment in the room with those sculptures at Ditch Gallery, but the horse was not there. It was another day.

Ahab’s Mother

The next event at the Optic Gallery will also be themed around women and the environment. Julia Oldham will be showing her amazing drawing from the series Ahab’s Mother. This event will take place on March 25th, 2017. Please come.

Ahab’s Mother, a series of ink drawings by Eugene-based artist Julia Oldham, follows a woman through the depths of the ocean as she drifts among schools of sardines and shivers of mermaids and alongside a giant white whale. Borrowing from both the visual language of graphic novels and the classic illustrations of Moby Dick by Rockwell Kent, Oldham creates dreamy images about longing for impossible companionship with animals and seeking the darkest and most mysterious places.

I visited Julia at an event that she hosted at the gallery Bison Bison. She was playing the entire audio book of Moby Dick as she drew and invited others to come and draw with her.  At another event she hosted yet another amazing woman artist, Mandy Hampton, who spoke about her recent work with portals.

Continuing down the street and around the corner, Bruce Burris is an artist who draws acres and acres of ink pathways, and also curates an art space in the storefront window of a huge old apartment building called the Benton Plaza. He sometimes features artists who live in the hotel itself. It is something of a small Oregon town version of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, with all kinds of quietly sparkling residents, self taught artists and craftspeople, writers and tinkerers making maps and scrolls, detailed plans for ships and volumes of comic books. Treasures be here.

Other Corvallis event makers and artists I met on the paths this season were Lainie Turner, Co-Founder/Owner at Darkside Cinema; Hester Coucke of the Art Center and Corvallis Art Walk; and Helen Wilhelm who is crafting an elegant and hidden gallery in a science building on campus. It is called the Little Gallery and is currently hosting a show organized by our very own Samm Newton on the subject of the microbiome.

Ava Mendoza hosted by Michael Gamble

Another unexpected fork in my path led me to, the incredible Ava Mendoza. She played a surprise concert organized by fellow musician, Michael Gamble, a teacher at OSU. They played together with a small group including Dana Reason, who reached right into the piano strings to play it. This amazing, spontaneous group assembled together on the top floor of the hundred year old music building to play for us, sending twisting metallic, discords lilting ribbons of electronica, and little bursts of fireflies up into the high ceilings and the wooden rafters.

Carson Ellis

This is where the path gives a sudden shake and I am at a lecture by Carson Ellis hosted by the Fine Arts Department. I sit at edge of a giant classroom filled with students. Carson stands at the front and tells the story of her life via a slide lecture prepared for a group in Romania… I think it was Romania, in my mind are Russian spires of buildings in inky backdrops to bundled children having snowball fights. Carson’s career is amazing and I won’t recount it here. You can follow her website (below) into that rabbit hole. She and her husband are both profoundly talented and accomplished. From time to time, in the midst of children’s book illustrations and album covers, she will create and share (via social media) a spontaneous image of protest or solidarity, like the paintings she did for the Black Lives Matter and the Queer Pride movements. She has done so much beautiful work, My very favorite is the collaboration she did with her brilliant son Hank, in which she illustrates some of his extensive creative research into alien life forms, as shown below.

Then, the path twists back on itself and time shifts. I am sitting in this same giant classroom, actually in the very same seat. Only now there is a different person sitting next to me. It is a young man. Wasn’t it a woman sitting next to me at Carson’s talk? Or is it the same person who has now simply shifted gender like le Guin’s Gethen in Left Hand of Darkness.

Ryan Pierce

The readings from school leak into reality and back and forth until I am so confused it almost seems as if I myself am standing in front of a slide screen with an image of my virtual avatar projected behind me and I fumble with my notes as she speaks or I put words into her mouth, words like gender and illusion and identity. Anyway, I am here again, in the chair in the classroom, with a girl or a boy sitting next to me, either one of them secretly checking his or her cell phone. But now, before  of the slide projector stands Ryan Pierce, another longtime Portland artist and colleague. He shares his story too, in fragments, talking about leading groups of artists camping  in the mountains and the desert in the summer, and about painting in his studio all winter. He shows slides of his paintings, many of ecological degradation, human impact on nature, paintings which in real life are almost as big as the projections. My favorites are his collections of treasures and delights, a little like the collection I offer you here. Who knew you could walk a path through a wood and find all these tiny treasures. (Well, the child knows this but shhhhh… puts finger up to lips) A Cabinet of Curiosities. Who knew you could walk a path through a small town in winter and scoop up all these shining stars.

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith shows slides with Ryan. She is a painter too. My favorite piece was the drum material she stretched over canvas. It is visceral, referential and reverential to a profoundly painful and simultaneously beautiful heritage as well as reflecting a contemporary presence of mind and place. Her work evokes the story, the moment the story is told, the retelling of the story. They both tell stories about Signal Fire. Ka’ila started on the trips as a resident artist and became one of the trip leaders. She shares a moment of revelation in which she met a small animal, I think it was a turtle, and she followed it around and studied it for hours, which makes perfect sense to me. We see so little of those creatures really.  They are in the wild, keeping their magic to themselves, unless we are lucky enough to come upon them, while walking those paths.

Ryan started Signal  Fire with his partner, Amy Harwood. Amy is one of the most hard working and innovative environmental activists I have ever met. She is full time protecting the wilderness and ancient forests with organizations like BARK in Portland. Signal Fire hosts artists in tents in the mountains and in deserts. They take groups of students on long hikes while making art and reading about environmental issues along the way. They take artists on canoe trips and on adventures along the borders between countries. I really admire the way Ryan and Amy have manifested this residency and have been watching it grow year by year. Talk about bright lights in the darkness… these two humans have added a warm campfire glow, complete with spreading sparks, to help us light the gloom we are currently navigating.


Freda by Anna Fiddler

Now we come to the end of winter term’s winding path. In the last few days, on every plant and tree in town, tiny  buds and flowers have started bursting from branches, all soft and fuzzy like microscopic lambs, like fallen stars.. I’ll see you when Spring explodes and future events mark our way.

No Ban, No Wall, On Stolen Land

Activist and social justice warrior Harsha Walia recently visited OSU addressing the present struggles with border imperialism. Visiting as part of the Transform/able Identy-ies conference, Harsha urged us to examine how identities become constructed around borders. We must examine how forces and systemic violences inscribe these identities upon people; not only of negative stereotypes of terrorist and job-stealers, but also of “positive” stereotypes of taxpaying migrants and model minorities. By understanding how people become a migrant, a refugee, or an undocumented, we can better address the systemic oppression that imposes this identity and creates the asymmetry between borders. By focusing too much on the worthiness of identity and where people come from, rather than our humanity and challenging notions of identity as worthy, we lose sight of interlocking modes of power and governmentality surrounding border policy: border imperialism.

No one is born illegal.

We must examine questions of those constructed identities of immigrant and refugee and instead look at migration and displacement. Focus on the process and not the person to discover how to overcome these destructive practices. With one billion migrants and displaced people worldwide, we begin to see some congruence in the processes: asymmetries between rich and poor, global north and global south, whites and “others”. For example, we see policies of “humanitarian intervention” that actually strengthen neocolonialist practices of ‘othering’ black and brown people in Afghanistan. If the US were truly to be humanitarian in that rhetoric, we would accept more than the 500 annually admitted refugees. There are further concerns about imperialized feminism in Afghanistan that aim to ‘protect’ brown women from brown men in those places, often exacerbating women’s risk in those countries aimed at being ‘helped’. The currently proposed travel ban is particularly violent as well because it relies on a process of bombing and banning: it bans the refugees from places the US military intervention has had direct violent actions.

Similar political and economic practices are closely related to World Bank funded projects. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is one such iteration that often obscures the global context of border imperialism by focusing on national economic policy advantages, ignoring the economic fallout across the border. Under NAFTA, the privatization of land is the essence of both colonization and capitalism. Common lands in Mexico were taken away and privatized, forcing elimination of Mexican subsidies, and displacing the workers farming indigenous varieties of corn. Meanwhile, the US maintains subsidies on corn, a non-indigenous crop, further instituting the trade asymmetry with Mexico. This is one tracing of such imperialism and has created an estimated fifty-million displaced Mexican workers forced into poverty, two-million having lost their lands, all of which are forced to challenge the U.S border for work, living in a state of migration.

Ultimately, instituting border policies implicates not only the construction and maintenance of borders—the othering of other peoples—but active measures that violate those borders (like NAFTA) that create migrants and refugees to challenge and strengthen border regimes. Further policies of military intervention and gentrification systems violate people’s sense of self-determination and create displacement while border regimes expect people not to move to find better conditions and opportunity.

We must focus on the inherent worth of all people, their rights to life, dignity, and support. We must care and lift up our people, ethically organize around our people and see less separation. We must have the expansive vision of being at home on our land, to be able to have a home in our communities, our gender identities valued and recognized, our vulnerability shared, and still be valued. To see that no one is disposable.

“The world was born yearning to be a home for everyone.” –Eduardo Galeano

Consumer Trixter (Ceramics by Cannupa Hanska Luger, from http://www.cannupahanska.com)

What is environmental art? Is it art that is connected to site or place? Does it come in a particular size, shape, or color? Medium? Craftsmanship? Is it a commentary on our relationship with the nonhuman world? Is it trying to say something about how we treat the Earth? Or each other? Does environmental art even need to reflect contemporary environmentalism?  What does environmentalism even mean?

These questions are important, some unanswerable at this moment, but still worth grappling with if environmental art is to be part of the work changing the fate of our home and the people who live here.

Art assists us as a society to explore tough questions, the in-between spaces where philosophy and science fall short. Art allows us to learn, to facilitate learning, and to better understand the incomprehensibly complex issues facing us as humans who share a finite planet with one another. There is art that reflects not only environmental thinking but also engages a public to have an opinion about it. Art inspires wonder but also action.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, well known for the mirror shields he created, promoted, and delivered to the North Dakota Standing Rock Water Protectors, is just one of many artists tackling environmental and social justice issues. Luger said in a February 2017 presentation at OSU, referring to the terrible realities of the Dakota Access Pipeline, that “the injustice isn’t happening to them, it isn’t going on over there, it is happening right here.” It is happening right now. To us.

We are a collective of humans on Earth, and when one of our communities suffer, we all suffer. Our shared source of clean drinking water is being ravaged. The morals and ethics we so proudly tout as being uniquely human are being dismantled. Our constant need for more, for better, for comfort at the expense of others’ discomfort, and disregard for the limits of our natural resources, haunts our society as the monsters described in our bedtime fables.

“As living beings, we all have myths and tales that describe our lives being abused by monsters. These monsters are out of natural order and heroes rise from their torment to defeat them. Today, we are once again plagued by monsters. It is time to be the hero, each of us must be aware of what we can do in the place that we stand. So that a far future that remembers this era of monsters can sing the songs and dance the stories of our mystic ability to come together and become Monster Slayers.” – Cannupa Hanska

The monsters that exist today aren’t associated with Standing Rock, or the Missouri River alone. As Luger said, “the river I’m most worried about is the one that flows through us all.” It is a river haunted by innumerable monsters: gluttonous extraction, environmental degradation, social injustice, corrupt politics, and a culture of capitalism.

Fortunately the people of Earth are making art and experiencing it too—those who call themselves artists as well as those who don’t—from the fine artists of academia, to the part-time crafters at home. In far off natural spaces, and in late night sketchbook doodles, we are creating objects, words, ideas, and practices that help us face these demons of despair.

Together we question the monsters. Together we reveal the monsters. Together we fight the monsters. Together we win.

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“Artists, we live on the periphery. But we are the mirrors.” — Cannupa Hanska Luger Protesters hold mirror shields devised by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. (The UnKnown Collective / From Cannupa Hanska Luger)
Artist and activist Cannupa Hanska Luger, a native of North Dakota who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation, gave a public talk titled “They Need Us More Than We Need Them” on February 16th, 2017 at OSU’s LaSells Stewart Center. “Luger creates socially conscious work interweaving his identity as an American Indian with global issues. Luger, who is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian and Norwegian descent, creates unique, ceramic-centric, multidisciplinary artwork that tells provocative stories of complex indigenous identities coming up against 21st century imperatives, including mediation and destruction. Luger’s studio is currently based in New Mexico.”

Our Earth—the enveloping atmosphere, vast oceans, life-giving soils, profusion of plants, and grandly varied animals—each aspect of our planet needs our care-filled attention. This whole-hearted engagement becomes personal and possible though direct experience. Whether we’re field scientists, rock climbers, photographers, writers, or anglers, each path of perception reaffirms our place on the Earth and Earth’s centeredness in us. Yesterday, when ice-glazed streets edited my original out-of-town plans, I decided to check out two artists’ attention to nature through a new exhibit in the Corrine Woodman Gallery at the Arts Center: “Connecting with Water, Journeying Through Art”, featuring local artists Abigail Losli and Diane Widler Wenzel. The small and intimate exhibit granted me a chance to slow down and appreciate the creative and significant messages about water, and to consider how water and humans inter-permeate the course of each other’s paths.

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    Acrylic panels by Abigail Losli

The display that immediately caught my eye was comprised of Abigail Losli’s 16 individual acrylic panels, together entitled, One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen. Losli, who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from OSU, found her inspiration for these pieces through her repeated retreats to the Willamette River near her home, where she found time and space to pause, breathe, be still, and observe. Her work is alive with the river’s color and movement, each panel representing “a single visit, a moment of connection.” In her artist’s  statement, she admits that through her direct, meditative experience with the Willamette River, she gained an even greater awareness of all the ways people build their lives around water, affirming the rich connections and traditions that surround it. Her work exemplifies how environmental art can illuminate the outer and inner life of both artist and viewer.

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“From Silent Slack Waters” by Diane Widler Wenzel

The other featured artist, Diane Widler Wenzel, chose several spontaneous, non-objective abstracted paintings for the exhibit. (Non-objective means the painting’s purpose is to represent that which is not a thing.) Wenzel sees art as a journey—a way of thinking, learning, and growing. Her work has therefore become a journal of her life. With a painting and drawing degree from PSU supplemented by decades of close connection with the outdoors through camping, hiking, white-water rafting and boating, Wenzel strives to visualize her place in nature’s mystery, and encourages viewers to listen to the art itself. And indeed, I was struck by her painting entitled, From Silent Slack Waters, which effectively embraces the quiet lull and curve of watery silence. I was entranced by her success in capturing within her paintings not only the quality of emotion, but also that of sound, made possible by way of her keen journeying among inner as well as outer shorelines.

Wenzel and Losli’s art enriched my day immeasurably. My moments with their paintings confirmed for me the necessity of art for deepening our range of environmental expression well beyond the ordinary world of words.

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My flooded backyard in Alvin after a typical Gulf Coast heavy rain

Growing up, my mom, sister, and I moved around from apartment to apartment in the urban sprawl that I call home, Houston. We finally settled down in Alvin, Texas, just a half hour from the city, when we moved in with my great grandparents, one of whom was suffering from lung cancer and the other from Alzheimer’s disease. Our home sat on two acres, bordered on each side by a narrow country road, lush woods, a golf course, and a bayou. It was quite the adjustment for me to move from the bustling city, filled with people, covered in concrete, littered with strip malls, and towered by skyscrapers, to what seemed to be an endless expanse of natural wonders waiting to be discovered. I believe it was this abrupt change during my formative years—coupled with my mom’s insistence that we form our own belief system—that enabled me to consider myself a citizen of the Earth with a responsibility to care for all human and non-human life.

The belief system my mom followed was that of Unity, one originating in New Thought. Unity believes that God is the Spirit, which is everywhere, in all that exists. God is divine energy, forming all creation continually. Unity churches are non-denominational and accept all who wish to participate in prayer and meditation. Though we occasionally attended this church because it was the closest to mom’s beliefs, she actually formed her own belief system, rooted in some Unity principles and speckled with Buddhist and Hindu ideas. The only nearby Unity Church was in the city, so we attended even less when we moved away. Grounded in some of the thoughts my Mom held, I began developing my own beliefs while also exploring place: that of the Houston-Galveston Gulf Coast region, the coastal prairies, the post oak savannah, and the piney woods.

As I played in the edge habitats surrounding our home, I often contemplated the workings of modern society. I was enthralled by the outdoors, being among different plants and animals, feeling the warm sun on my face, digging in the dirt, and helping my Dad grow vegetables in our garden. Equipped with my own imagination and free time, I embraced my internal thought while observing natural relationships abundant in the areas around our abode. This coupling of inquiry and environment led to the formation of nascent bioregionalism ideas, specifically concerning the divisions between nature and culture as emphasized in Rediscovering Turtle Island by Gary Snyder1. I always returned to the same overarching question: Why did humans create their lives in such a way that deliberately separates us from nature, of which we belong? Why do we construct spaces separate from nature like office buildings, lavish homes, grocery stores, gyms, and more? Why do we insist upon exploiting nature and suffocating it in man-made materials, of items that are perverse reformulations of nature? Why do we kill non-human (and human) life to fulfill our greedy ends? Why do we fill our homes and businesses with so much useless stuff2 that requires precious resources?

Though these questions were not as well developed as they are now, they demonstrate some of the ideas that I grappled with while lying in the wet turf grass of my backyard, seeking solitude in the woods, and looking for artifacts on the banks of the Mustang Bayou. I especially was fascinated by the ways indigenous people had lived. Their lives seemed so simple, true, and connected to the land. I dreamed of a day when humans could live simply and honor the earth again. I now recognize that many scholars would criticize that romantic notion: the idea of the noble savage. Who was I but a curious girl seeking understanding about my place in the world and how I would like to live? Then, I began forming personal philosophies about spirituality and God. I didn’t consider myself a Christian nor part of any other organized religion. What I did believe was that all life is connected by some energy, that there is a piece of something in all of us: plants, humans, and animals. Some would call that energy God, but all I could bring myself to believe was that some spiritual connection existed between all living organisms. Now as an adult, I rarely contemplate the metaphysical, but that idea of spiritual connection has formed into something greater for me—a notion that guides how I live as a citizen of the Earth. Perhaps what I saw during my childhood, playing near the water and in the woods or growing food in our yard, was a thriving ecosystem—with me as a character wholly integrated in it.

In a world hinging on human action (and inaction), how can we begin to live as a members of a biotic community rather than members of a completely socially constructed, superficial existence? Depending on your traditions, ethnicity, upbringing, and place, your culture may likely be one of obsolescence—guided by the ever-pressing desire to amass fortunes that enable us to purchase the newest, material items, which we are artfully convinced of needing. In the United States especially, our culture reinforces the idea that humans are thriving when they make and spend money, and we are called to contribute to our society primarily by being consumers. Take food for instance: we fill our kitchens with gadget upon gadget to make cooking a little easier. Then we purchase pre-made mixes and processed food made in factories. Rather than empowering us to learn to grow our own food, to have connections with farmers, to care for our soil, we have stores that take the hard work out of it for us and that sell several different types of any one product. For those “enlightened” consumers, we spend substantially more for organic meat and produce because we believe that we are choosing the morally right action. In reality, many of those buying USDA organic still don’t have a relationship or connection with the farmer, the animal, or plant, nor do they understand what that organic label really signifies.3 We are empowered as consumers to be loyal to a brand, to a company with the number one priority of generating profit, not creating an ethical, sustainable or healthy product or restoring our relationship with the Earth. What information do we verify before making what we convince ourselves are ethical purchasing decisions? Most consumers don’t know how many years animals live before slaughter, how many gallons of water, acres of land, and pounds of feed were needed to produce that organic ham they use for dinner. We are still going to a store and purchasing meat that may have traveled several hundred to several thousand miles away. We aren’t respecting the animal nor understanding what it takes to raise them for consumption. We don’t know how many acres of habitat were destroyed to build the farm. What about that pineapple we bought to serve with the ham? Do we know how many “defect” pineapples were thrown out before the perfect pineapple that meets unnecessary aesthetic standards was selected for shipment?4

Since all life depends on nourishment and all cultures are deeply rooted in food, reminding humans that food is of the earth, not of the store, or the factory, or the industrial farm, may be one of the most direct ways to reclaim nature in culture. Considering principles of bioregionalism, we can start by understanding where the food that we currently eat originates and investigate its entire supply chain. We can continue reigniting this human-nature relationship via food by knowing which policies encourage wastefulness and pollution, by acknowledging how ecosystems may be affected by our consumption, by simplifying what we eat to locally grown, in-season staples, by reducing our consumption of animal products, and by growing our own food based on our local soil and climate.

When I read about the Lakota,5 I was reminded of the spiritual questions that I grappled with playing in the woods of Southeast Texas. Their worldview offers an example of how nature is culture, exemplifying that not only should humans be a part of nature, but we are nature. They see humans as those who exist within the natural world, as members of an earthly family consisting of children who represent all life on earth, who were given life by mother earth and father sky and who embody one Great Spirit. Again using the example of food, you see that what they eat and how they obtain their food comes not only from a place of necessity, but also a place of mutual dependency and sacrifice. The Lakota did not have a moral dilemma when they used plants and animals, their very kin, if their use was rooted in good will and necessity rather than wastefulness or plenty.

I am not calling for modern societies to completely abandon their ways of living and return to hunter-gather societies nor am I asking people to have a panentheistic understanding of the spiritual, like the Lakota or my childhood self. However, what we can learn from the Lakota—and other indigenous cultures—is how to live in place, how to prioritize healthy ecosystems over greed, and how to make ecological identity a prominent piece of our personal and collective identity.6 The Lakota, along with many others, continue to exemplify these ideals today just outside of the Standing Rock reservation where they are protecting the Missouri River—on which much life, including non-human, depends—from a proposed oil pipeline.7 The Army Corps of Engineers recently sent a notice calling for the water protectors to leave the corps-operated land where they have been engaged in direct action and have sacred burial sites.8 In response to this letter, tribal and youth representatives held a press conference.9 Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network of Turtle Island had this to say, “This is the land where our ancestors dreamed of our existence, of our songs and of our future lives, and in defense of those dreams, in defense of our ancestors, we stand strong to protect the sacredness of mother earth, we stand strong to protect our rights as indigenous peoples, we stand strong to defend our territorial treaty rights. This movement that you see before us is not a movement of hate, but a movement of our undying love of the land and the people, and the water.”

We are part of the biotic community, whether we like to admit it or not; however, we currently live as if we can control the biotic community—that it is at our disposal to use however we like, without any repercussive consideration to individual biota, to ecosystems as a whole, or to humanity’s own livelihood. We must decide if we are going to be respectful and productive members of that community or continue to be destructive and authoritarian. In order to live as members of the biotic community, we must eradicate the artificial and physical divisions created between nature and culture. We must understand that truly thriving ecosystems, with humans as members not rulers, will result in healthy, sustained prosperity for all life on Earth. We must replace the desire for stuff with the desire to use only what we truly need and do so in the least destructive way possible.

– Sarah Kelly

Context for subject matter: This paper was finalized on Dec. 1, 2016 for an assignment in Worldviews and Environmental Values taught by Tony Vogt. The following prompt was given: Consider what it might mean to learn to live in place, or become at home on the earth, or become citizens of a biotic community. How do these phrases, in the context of the course readings, call into question (if they do for you) the larger social arrangements of which you are a part — your workplace, household, community, campus, region, or your part of the planet? And in terms of the worldviews and values that accompany and often provide legitimization for these social arrangements, what (if anything) would have to change? 

References and Further Reading

  1. Snyder, Gary. The Rediscovery of Turtle Island. The Great New Wilderness Debate.
  2. Leonard, Annie. The Story of Stuff. Story of Stuff Project. http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff. 2007.
  3. Friedland, Michelle T. You call that Organic? The USDA’s Misleading Food Regulations. New York University Environmental Law Journal. 2005.
  4. Gunders, Dana. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. National Resources Defense Council. ccrrc.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/24/2014/03/wasted-food-IP.pdf. 2005.
  5. Callicott, J. Baird. Far Western Environmental Ethics. Earth’s Insights. 1994.
  6. Kimmerer, Robin Wall and Moore, Kathleen Dean. The White Horse and the Humvees—Standing Rock Is Offering Us a Choice. Yes! Magazine. yesmagazine.org/people-power/the-humvees-and-the-white-horse2014two-futures-20161105. 2016.
  7. Barajas, Joshua. Army Corps issues eviction notice to Standing Rock protest camp, tribe chairman says. Public Broadcasting Service. pbs.org/newshour/rundown/army-corps-issues-eviction-notice-standing-rock-protest-camp-tribe-chairman-says. 2016.
  8. Emergency Press Conference in response to Army Corps letter. Lakota People’s Law Project Facebook. facebook.com/LakotaPeoplesLawProject/videos/10154152749497029/. 2016

It’s been a long term.

Day one, mine started with environmental justice. Corvallis’ League of Women’s Voters sponsored a well attended Climate Justice discussion at the Benton County Library with Allison Davis-White Eyes and Robert Figueroa. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, ND (#NoDAPL) had intensified and was beginning to get more coverage. Both of these experts in social and environmental justice represented important perspectives from indigenous and scholarly calls to action. Our community can join in solidarity with indigenous peoples and address these environmental and social challenges.

For too long, indigenous lands have become national sacrifice areas. Tribal sovereignty has been challenged since the first treaties were broken. Tribal lands have become the other backyard people would have toxic and polluting fossil fuel extractive conduits threatening instead of their own.

Allison Davis-White Eyes suggests there is a way to keep things in balance by living in good relation to all beings and places, all the plants, rocks, animals and humans. It is a path of right action. Relationship, interconnectedness, regardless of species, regardless of bias.

Climate change is a macroscopic symptom of materialist epistemologies. Western knowledges have their uses, but we can see their disastrous colonizing and extractive patterns too. We must object to its myopic and monetizing narratives.

We must embrace being one human family, and living on one Earth, and only having one Earth’s resources to share with everyone. We can eco-manage in a way that is just, honoring and sustaining.

Climate justice is a meeting between social, environmental and ecological justice. Each line of this thought is actually inseparable from the others, each relevant, impactful, value overlapping and processing simultaneously. We need all three to achieve any one of them.

Figueroa suggests we need reorientations. We need better resource distributions. We need better equity compensations and dispensations. We need intergenerational considerations and obligations met. We need cultural heritage and representation honored. We all suffer together when pollution becomes distributed—and we all benefit from removing the obstacles to its proper use and remediation with the Earth.

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It’s a heavy curriculum.

Following on the heels of Trump’s election, anxiety over hateful and divisive rhetoric, the increasing climate of white supremacy in the alt-right, the environmental and social justice issues has been on the forefront of media concern and attention.

Director of the Environmental Arts and Humanities program Jacob Hamblin introduced a further panel on Fracking & Resistance: the Dakota Access Pipeline, with his usual calm, wry demeanor. (His article about the Regan administration’s ‘antienvironmentalism revolution’ is a telling tale of potential portents in the current political climate.)

Perhaps we don’t need to have balanced and fair discussions. Perhaps we are charged to have tough, civil conversations because that’s what we do at University. To pretend that there ever will be balanced discussions is to ignore history and critical social perspectives, and we’ve run out of patience in pandering to balances that were never there.

Allison Davis-White Eyes, Robert Figueroa, Hilary Boudet, and Luhui Whitebear-Cupp contributed to our panel. There are many concerns and reactions on the table: bewilderment, anxiety, calling of sides, strange bedfellows, native and community rights, past-wrongs and future rights, energy choices, policies undeclared, environmental effects, fracking and energy transport, slactivism on facebook and social media. What kind of victories happen if the pipeline is delayed? Will it only move to another front? Will it change from the black snake above ground to a black hydra below?

For over six-hundred years this crap has been happening—a long history of colonization and climate change interrelation colors all of this discussion. Energy policies that rely on extractivism and fossil fuels implicate the corporations that carry out the process as political entities. If industrialization can only function in growth modes, it is antithetical to self-sufficiency that tribal lands strive for.

This is not only a tribal issue, or a rights issue, or an environmental issue. It is all of them, and a call to an American issue. A call to national awareness, and an important political opportunity for everyone to get on board. And it is a call to understand a spiritual way of being. We don’t want this happening in anyone’s backyard, and so we must all fight for our collective backyard.

We can respect tribal cultures, even if we are not from those cultures or identify with them by respecting the local community, protocols, and rights established by treaties and political structures already agreed upon. Consciousness about support and where those donations and profits go is important. Watch how the elders work.laduke-2016_006

We must listen to our elders.

Intensifying the discussion, we then heard from Winona LaDuke. The Spring Creek Project hosted the tribal leader, writer, pipeline protester, and previous Green Party vice-presidential candidate at the historic Whiteside Theatre.

Winona spoke beyond supporting Standing Rock. We need supporters to go to Bismarck, talk to the people there that are afraid and concerned. Afraid of a pipeline in their backyard, and help them understand why other people, their neighbors, might also not want that pipeline in their backyard. To talk and find out what concerns everyone has to share. This election has told us that at least. We must realize, recognize and connect with the fly-over zones and the many people that are being forgotten in our modern world—and then being burdened with the pollution and aftermath of that carnage.

DAPL will provide little local economic support and little to look forward to in energy self-sufficiency. We could use those pipes elsewhere; Flint, MI needs some better pipes. We need infrastructure growth in the right places and at the right size—at the level of community and engagement.

Our European-centric style education system may not be a strong enough model to understand and embody the kind of paradigm shift necessary to foment the change and provide the education we need. Our democracy’s founders borrowed from the Iroquois confederacy to inspire U.S. democracy—as our founders all largely came from monarchical mindsets and might likely have repeated it without careful revision. Women were responsible for appointing and removing chiefs in tribal societies. Condolences were given for those chiefs and the responsibilities they were burdened with.

We must all recognize that our burden of the fossil oil party is shared. We must call it a night and walk each other home, make a graceful exit together. We will all be the designated drivers home, be it home from copyrighted seeds, blowing up mountaintops, or pipeline construction. Recognizing that the party is winding-down already: more pipeline is built than oil from the Bakken fields to fill future projects. The fight is over control of our own lands and the sovereignty to have them. When all of those lands are seen as collective lands, no lands should be flown-over, forgotten, or abused as they would be.

What we do is create economies of scale. We learn from Zapatistas: do not be an island of political correctness unto yourself; organize in a place where neoliberalism is not. Talk to Bismarck. Talk to everyone, bring them into the rights of nature. Talk to them the rights of people instead of corporations. Talk to them about old ceremonies and new ones happening at Standing Rock now. We listen and work.

Please see the entirety of Winona’s talk of Economics for the Seventh Generation.

And we rise up.

My friends and I are all listening to Hamilton these days (the Mixtape is awesome) to feel something important and revolutionary about politics again. I find it wonderful and strange that a musical written, produced and staged by people that were originally marginalized and controlled by the founders of our nation is inspiring. It is telling, educational, that we face many of the same issues of abolishing racism and discrimination against women, immigrants, and so many others. Its popularity is about caring again, recapturing that passion for a new country and making progress on our past mistakes. I cringe at the fact that Hamilton’s banks are part of the problem, though capitalism and post-depression finance reform and a lack of oversight and regulation is a complex conversation. But the musical is critical of everyone for the time, and brings the messages in art that we can and must understand.

We rise up to the challenge, to the level of our elders and peers and community. We bring all our friends, bring all our relations, all of our lands, spaces and places. We have a world to heal together, and we’re going to need the all the help.

(The views expressed here are those of the author, though inspired and contextualized through many of the perspectives and authors referenced above.)

(Photo courtesy Samm Newton.)

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Photo credit: Corvallis Arts Center

I approached the church-like structure and hesitantly opened the tall, wooden door to the Corvallis Arts Center. The floor creaked as I walked toward the open room where all the guests were mingling. The chairs were placed in the center, intimately arranged with the podium just a few feet from the front row.

A wave of nostalgia hit me as I walked through the entrance of the First Presbyterian Church of Mankato. Memories of my grandmother taking me to the church filled my mind. I would’ve never expected to be here again, especially not for his memorial service.

I saw a few people who I knew, Carly Lettero, Charles Goodrich, and some other familiar faces who I couldn’t quite place. I walked around the perimeter of the room, viewing Dawn Stetzel’s I could live there exhibit on its last day. Then, Michael Nelson walked in, and he, Carly, and I exchanged some pleasantries. I was ready to get to the poetry and was a bit wary of how I might respond to Alison’s works given my recent loss.

Surrounded by six of my family members, I walked up the church’s lobby steps and greeted the few people I didn’t know, those who saw enough good in him to pay their respects or who wanted to support the family. As I smiled and shook their hands, each of them just couldn’t help but say, “Wow, you look just like Bill.”

Everyone was seated, ready to hear the latest from the well-respected author. After a quick introduction from Spring Creek Project’s director, Alison prefaced her Stairway to Heaven reading with a few comments about the book, then, to my delight, she broke into song:

“There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Ooh ooh ooh ooh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”

Just a week ago, I was listening to Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poetry, engaging in someone else’s brilliant and creative way of coping. Now, I sit in a smaller room with fewer people, and a slight air of solemnity for my father, a man with whom I spent less than a few hours of my life. His high school friend approached me and said, “I’ll be sharing a few stories about your father, good ones before he lost his way.” A single tear fell from my right eye as I thanked him.

Alison explained Robert Plant’s intent behind those lyrics—it was a commentary on consumerism, our incessant need to amass fortunes, and our obsession with the material even after death. Not only did the inspiration behind “Stairway to Heaven” tie into her work, which shines a light on how we, as humans, live on Earth within vast ecological systems, but using “Stairway to Heaven” as her book’s title referred to the loss of her mother and brother whose passing inspired many of the poems.

My cousin Paula and Bill’s best man at his first wedding shared a few good and many honest stories about him. Bill was addicted to gambling and alcohol, spending much of his adult life betting on sports in Vegas. The work that he did was to find the short cut to success, thinking that he could outsmart anyone and constantly looking for a way to “work the system.” He had an affinity for material things and wealth, perhaps because he felt more connected to money and stuff than people. He aspired to reach the highest rungs of society, always coming up short. For all of his faults, he had many positive attributes, but even those traits could get him into trouble, like his charisma, his humor, and his intelligence, especially because he couldn’t push his ego aside.

To my surprise, I didn’t hear a lot of grief in the poetry that Alison selected for the night. Not to say that grief and healing weren’t evident in what we heard, particularly in “Castalia” and “The Drowned Man.” But, more than anything, I felt a deep connection to place, to those settings that her words so vividly described. Of the works that she read, my favorite poem was “Mosquitoes,” mostly due to her depiction of an experience shared by all in the room but also because of the perspective she offered: that we sacrifice our flesh for their survival. Laughter filled the room as each of us was transported to a time that we were swarmed by mosquitoes.

Tears unexpectedly rolled down my cheeks as I listened to stories of my father as a young man, one full of promise and drive, who worked hard and even was voted most likely to succeed in high school. Tommy and Joye’s tragic deaths flashed before me, causing me to experience that grief all over again, and intensifying the emptiness that I felt with Bill gone. The idea that one day I may know my father, a constant desire throughout my life, was squandered. As much as I love and care about people, animals, and plants—those who I’ve never met or witnessed—I never could muster the courage to forgive him, to accept him, or try to connect with him.

At the end of the poetry reading, I went up to the podium to talk with Alison about the recent loss of my father and the other unforeseen losses of people whom I loved. I spoke with her about the cyclical nature of experiencing grief and whether she experienced this phenomenon while writing “Stairway to Heaven.” Specifically, I asked Alison, “Did you have any profound moments of clarity or crushing moments of grief? If so, did those moments inspire any specific poems?” I could see in her expression that my question provoked a deep emotional response. She referenced “Luminous Mother” as the poem that resulted from a low point of grief and experienced some clarity while writing “The Drowned Man.” Then she said that the writing process itself was healing, but she emphasized the great benefit of doing physical work. Trail clearing, which she wrote about in “Castalia,” was one of the most effective coping mechanisms for her. Alison ended our conversation with this piece of advice, “We have to heal bit by bit. What you experience after a loss shows your capacity to be human, to experience these emotions and embrace them.”

I approached the podium to reassure everyone there, and perhaps more than anything, convince myself, that I was OK, that I have a good life. I understand who he was and that he put himself before everyone else, but I was grateful for him and the way he lived. Without him and his selfish decisions, I wouldn’t exist—not just as a human but as the person I am today. Also, for as much pain that he caused other people, he never, for one second, departed from who he truly was. I think that there is something quite freeing in being true to ourselves, for better or worse. In that moment, I said goodbye to the father I never knew.

“I’ll know whatever I suffer is small on the scale of what people are made to live through. A net of words holds a place together and those who are broken are lifted home.” – Alison Deming Hawthorne, Excerpt from “The Drowned Man”

Epilogue 

Over the summer, I traveled the country with my husband. During this time, I had a lot of time to reflect and finally felt at peace knowing that I had no relationship with my father. Even if he didn’t think about me or want to hear from me, which who knows if he did or not, I persevered and found happiness. I have so many people in my life who care deeply about me, including the family he and I shared. I also find comfort in knowing that for all the demons he faced, he lived a full life and shared some happy memories with the people I love. I met him once during one of the toughest years of my life, and our encounter left a lot to be desired for me. For as angry as I was for being 100 percent blindsided by his visit, I’m eternally grateful to my grandmother for arranging it. Who knows if we would’ve ever met otherwise. Growing up, I often fantasized about our conversations and wondered what was stopping him from reaching out. Recently, I planned to contact him and try to clear the air. At the very least, I wanted to let him know that I harbor no ill will against him, that I’d be happy to learn more about him and his life, and if he was interested, I could tell him about my life. Once my husband and I were finally settled in Oregon, I got the news of his accident and felt like I missed my big opportunity to connect or at least bring him some peace. I hope that he somehow intuitively knew how I felt, but I wish that I would’ve contacted him sooner since I found out late last year that his health was declining. I have a lot of complex emotions that I’ve grappled with my whole life and am still trying to make sense of now. For those of you who have faced or are facing similar circumstances, who are scared, unsure, or reluctant to act, I encourage you to do what your heart tells you, whatever that may be, and make peace with your decision.

– Sarah Minette Kelly