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.
alvin-tx-yard
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
Image result for corvallis art center photo
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