This term, I was a teaching assistant for Parks and Protected Areas, a junior-level course focusing on the history, policy, and management of international areas protected for conservation, preservation, and resource extraction goals. The students learned about the philosophies that inspire different types of protection. I taught alongside Ashley D’Antonio, an assistant professor in Forest Ecosystems & Society, who studies recreation ecology. Her goal, and mine, was simple: challenge the students’ assumptions about parks and protected areas.
Throughout my first year in graduate school, it seemed that all the literature I read identified the same underlying cause of our environmental duress: the nature/culture dualism. The idea—grounded in thousands of years of western philosophy—that we humans are separate from nature. Some take it a step further, not only are we separate from nature, but above it, affording humans justification to exploit and utilize what we deem necessity.
American politicians and bureaucrats, through misinterpreted treaty agreements, quite literally separated humans from nature in order to “protect these places” and paradoxically encouraged humans to visit these places. According to western philosophy and fortress conservation, humans can visit nature, participate in recreation and tourism activities, and research ecological processes, but they can’t live with the land, move with the seasons, nor take only what is needed for survival. Living with the land, rather than controlling it, is in direct conflict with the human/nature dualism that grounds western thought. Mind you, not all humans were encouraged to visit; these places were meant to be enjoyed by a particular class and race who needed to escape from their taxing lives in the city.
However, the native peoples who lived in these majestic landscapes—now considered America’s crown jewels—knew that the land could belong to no person. How can the youngest siblings in creation, humans, claim land that belongs to all relations—all spirits, flora, fauna, rocks, and streams? The tribes of Turtle Island saw themselves, and continue to see themselves, as part of the interconnected web of nature and spirit, wholly integrated into the entire network of the physical and spiritual world. An ecocentric belief system and intergenerational traditional ecological knowledge guided the actions of tribes, like the Lakota and Kootenai.
While pursuing a degree in Environmental Arts & Humanities, I have analyzed the oppressive, degrading histories and philosophies of my ancestors. I pursued this degree to challenge the status quo and assist in the transition to a life-sustaining society.
Some of the parks and protected areas students are pursuing traditional forestry degrees, others are interested in intersecting socio-ecological systems, but all were shocked and appalled by the exclusionary practices embedded in the founding of so-called protected areas. In their final papers, the students expressed concern not only for degraded terrestrial and marine environments but also for conservation refugees who are continually excluded from lands that they help conserve and protect.
In this time of political polarization, we face mounting uncertainty concerning human and Earth rights. What keeps the fight alive in me is the outrage and passion I see in younger generations, of which I am part. How would our world change if we all humbly challenged our beliefs of right/wrong, good/bad and acted as students learning to seek justice and equity for all life on our magnificent planet?
6:30 a.m. – I hear a distant jingle gradually increasing in volume. The pestering sound means I have to drag myself out of bed. But today, it’s a little easier. I’m going to the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest for my first overnight trip.
7:20 a.m. – Kari calls to let me know that she’s arrived at Oak Vale Apartments. I walk outside with my breakfast, lunch, coffee, and two small bags in tow. The rain beats down on me, feeling more like winter in the Willamette Valley than mid-June. Kari hops out of the car, asking me to drive for a stretch so she can have some yogurt. An unexpected but welcome surprise. Not only does it give me a chance to test out a Prius, but also, the gesture shows how much she already trusts me.
9 a.m. – I decide to drive the whole way. We slowly creep up in elevation passing homesteads and tree farms along FM 126. The Willamette National Forest begins to engulf us in a sea of fog, dripping conifers, and fluorescent moss. As the road winds and curves, the McKenzie River peaks out to say hello, then goodbye. Clear water rushes down basalt, those parts of thousand year old rock that were annihilated to make way for human progress.
9:30 a.m. – The old growth forest greets us as we enter the H.J. Andrews headquarters. The logging trucks are hauling newly harvested Douglas Firs today. Brenda and Kate station themselves on either side of the one-lane entrance to avoid a school bus/logging truck stand-off.
10:15 a.m. – Our guests of honor arrive. Four teachers and twenty-two seventh and eighth graders from High Desert Middle School file out of the yellow bus. Students look around in awe and a new energy comes over this typically adult-dominated place. Six of us greet them; we’re all involved in various H.J. Andrews education programs, including Mike, Lissy, Mark, Kate, Kari and I.
10:45 a.m. – The students and teachers settle into Quartz Creek apartments. A few hundred feet away, we gather at Salt Salmon pavilion to orient everyone and explain the plan for the next two days. After hearing about safety procedures, Mike reminds everyone that this is a place of inquiry where humans study the relationships within complex, interconnected ecosystems. Kari emphasizes that the Andrews is a place not only for scientific inquiry but also artistic imagining. She wraps up the introduction by reading from John Luoma’s The Hidden Forest.
11 a.m. – We walk about a half mile to complete the final orientation before the students explore the Discovery Trail. Each of them will finish 4 to 5 stops, ranging in activities like drawing canopy critters, grappling with natural and personal disturbances, or mapping forest sounds. Engaging with students through scientific practice and creative reflection, their guides for the day are iPads and their own curiosity. The Discovery Trail iPad program records their answers and will later be analyzed to assess learning, sense of place, and empathy.
11:15 a.m. – I walk ahead of everyone to place clipboards on certain stops where students will draw and write what they see. I open an umbrella to protect the paper, reformulated flesh of the majestic giants around me. The next moments will forever be enmeshed in my memory and seemed to happen in a flash. Bending over to place the materials on the ground, a loud whooshing sound fills the air. I felt the energy of a large being looming over me but looked up to see nothing. My gaze traveled to the forest floor where 10 or more chicks scurried hastily in all directions. As if I had no bodily control, my head jolts to the right and what looked to be a grouse ran ahead of me on the trail. A dozen questions flooded my brain. What flew over me? What was it doing there? Did I disturb a special moment? Did the grouse fly at me then magically appear at my side? Or was a bird of prey on the prowl for a young, delicious snack?
11:30 a.m. – After my moving wildlife encounter, I return to the trailhead and hear the chattering of middle schoolers and adults. I still need to make it to three stops before they start. Jennifer, one of the teachers, graciously took some clipboards to stop 7: canopy critters. I posted up between stop 8 and 9 to give students some space.
12:15 p.m. – Lissy approached me with an iPad. One of the groups were having issues submitting information for stop 6. I find a temporary work around but don’t figure out how to send the answers to the server. I shared my grouse story with Lissy and Kari and later learned that news on the trail travels fast; others waited for their chance to catch a glimpse of the grouse.
12:30 p.m. – Now on stop 8, I loom a few feet away from the students who experienced technical glitches on stop 6. Feeling a bit creepy, I tell them to let me know if they have any issues with the program again. But the awkwardness lingers as I wait for the girls to land on the final screen and try the submit button.
12:35 p.m. – The two girls on stop 8 work through content about forest management and ecosystem services. One of the final questions is: why do you think forests are valuable? Wood, beauty, habitat, recreation, replenishment. Another question asks them to consider a memorable moment in another forest. One girl recites a memory about a trip that her family took to Belknap Hot Springs. She shares how beautiful and fun the experience was but also struggles with some human-nature relationships. She enjoyed her time there but didn’t like that there were so many people; she was expecting a more remote experience. She recalls a serene, beautiful garden but discounts her connection to this kind of nature because it was man-made. Her struggle is one common in many of our views of nature: as something wild and without humans.
Is nature still nature if humans are involved? Or is there no nature without humans? Perhaps nature isn’t so cut and dry; things are typically more complex than we conceive.
12:40 p.m. – I spend the rest of the time on the trail checking in with students but keeping my distance. I soak in my surroundings knowing that I will soon return to my electronic-saturated life. My Pacific Northwest spirit animal – the banana slug – crawls on the trail near my foot while the red cedars and western hemlocks stand stoically around us. The chirping of birds and dripping of rain fills the soundscape, along with the inquisitive dialogue between humans hoping to discover the forest’s wonders.
1:30 p.m. – We reconvene at the pavilion where Lissy asks the students to reflect on three final prompts. 1) Close your eyes. Imagine one word that describes your experience on the trail. 2) Close your eyes. What on the trail inspired your one word? It can be an interaction, moment, observation. 3) Close your eyes. Think about what else you would like to learn.
1:35 p.m. – Magical. Lush. Beautiful. Like wow! Life-changing. Inspirational. Fun. Green. Peaceful. These are a few of the words that the students share as they reflect on their Discovery Trail experience at the H.J. Andrews Forest. Why did these words come to mind? One student says thinking like a scientist rather than a citizen led to a deeper level of understanding. Another shares their new goals to work in field ecology. Another draws artistic inspiration from the towering trees for their budding interests in architecture. What more do they want to learn? One student’s answer hits me right in the feels. “I want to know more about how to just be. How to be part of this place, part of nature,” he says. “I want to better understand our impacts on this place.” Lissy reminds everyone how the Andrews is connected to other places, to their own communities in Bend and beyond.
As I reflect on the day so far, I think about humans’ obligation to recognize our place in nature and to acknowledge our impact as the most consumptive beings on the planet. For each of us on the trail today, and those in other places, we need to continually discover, to probe, to ponder, to challenge. Discovery of the unique, awe-inspiring organisms and relationships in nature is on-going. We, humans, have the unique ability to contemplate our place in nature. We have a responsibility to act as empathetic members of the biotic community, doing so is to challenge what we consider necessity. We must reduce harm to other living things for the greater good—not just for our global society, but for the globe.
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.
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.
Here are my main take-a-ways to help you in your journey to create change:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MoveOn.org has daily actions to stay informed and engage in the political process.
Call in to your representatives when you disagree with policy. (5calls.org)
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
Snyder, Gary. The Rediscovery of Turtle Island. The Great New Wilderness Debate.
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”
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.