Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Spontaneous Earth Exchange

Sometimes people tell me apologetically that they would love to do a Radical Joy for Hard Times Earth Exchange for a wounded place, but they just don't have the time.

The following story, which comes from Laura Staman, Director of Outdoor Programs at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, proves that anyone can do an Earth Exchange anytime at anyplace. All you need is a place, your own personal emotional attachment to it, and the willingness to bring those two elements together for a few moments.

I’d like to tell you about something that happened recently. It is related to the ongoing gift of hope and listening to the land that Radical Joy for Hard Times represents. In my neighborhood there is a wonderful section of woods I enjoy hiking through. It is a spot of wild in the city of Lynchburg. Well, when I was walking the other day I discovered that a patch of that woods had been cleared to build a home. Though it is not a terrible thing to build a home, I was shaken by the clearing of the woods and destruction of forest growth. At first I dropped my head, said a prayer and walked by sadly. The hardest feeling sometimes is helplessness.

But then I decided to walk back into the space and sit and listen. It was as if the land just needed to be acknowledged... like it was dissociated or something from the trauma. So I sat and listened. Moved into the space and then just prayed to bless this place and help the earth recover from the hurt and the dramatic change. I blessed the home that would stand there and hoped the Beings there could live in harmony. Then I created the Radical Joy for Hard Times bird out of roots that had been ripped from the earth.... and I felt like I had made a difference somehow to the place, and at least to my consciousness.

Change is inevitable, and sometimes destructive, and this time I felt empowered to acknowledge it and to offer peace. The bird, and the memory of the Global Earth Exchanges, gave me a vehicle for doing something. I felt I had a voice and was connected to something larger than myself, therefore not helpless.

As I think back over this simple act I gave to the land and the future home, I reflect on how it is much like the healing I am doing now from a childhood trauma. Facing it, bringing peace into my life, blessing myself, building art out of its roots, and creating a new home inside myself.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bioneers by the Bay

Creativity is all about putting things together and seeing what happens. The Egyptians invented soap by mixing animal fat and alkaline and noticing that the resulting substance cleaned things. Picasso stuck bicycle handlebars to a seat and made a bull's head. And the Marion Institute of Marion, MA does it each year by bringing together a wide variety of dedicated people who are determined to change the way the world works.

October 22-24 was the sixth annual Bioneers by the Bay, a gathering devoted to exploring ideas and action in the areas of health and healing, sustainability, green economics, environmental education, spirituality, and creative and equitable ways of living together on the planet. The event runs in conjunction with the original Bioneers, a large gathering that takes place at roughly the same in San Rafael, CA.

A few of this year's highlights at Bioneers by the Bay:

Diane Wilson, the Gulf Coast shrimper who decided to take on the oil industry that was polluting her homeland, gave a keynote speech that make everyone in the audience feel like they could triumph over injustice!

Steve Brown, Toni Saunders, and Cassandra Saunders, a white man, an Africa-American woman, and a young poet who has cerebral palsy presented a graphic, occasionally uncomfortable, and unforgettable workshop on how power and privilege affect our lives in many ways—most of them subtle and taken for granted.

Young people attended in large numbers, presenting programs, telling their stories, and sharing their visions. If you ever assumed that American youth think only about retreating behind their cyber screens, it's not so! They are planting organic gardens at their high schools, taking a long look at the future and their own parts in it, working to end coal-burning in their states, singing rap songs about justice and inclusivity, and fired with determination to take care of their world.

Antwi Akom, founder of the Wangari Maathai Center for Economic, Educational, and Enviornmental Designn, talked passionately about the need to revolutionize education in America, especially in the inner cities. He is heading numerous project to synthesize green jobs, climate change, and educational equity.

My own workshop on Radical Joy for Hard Times was held in New Bedford's Whaling Museum. We began with everyone in the group talking about some aspect of nature that they're worried about, and then launched into a discussion of how we deal with these difficult feelings of loss, guilt, and anger. I offered a meditation for coping with what often seems like overwhelming despair and discouragement. At the end, for our Act of Beauty, we formed a human snowflake under the giant whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling.

It is estimated that about two thousand people attended the gathering. What invariably happened was that when any two or more of them got together for a few minutes, ideas, partnerships, and possibilities quickly arose.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Call it the click response. The grotesque images we’ve been seeing for the past two months, of sea birds gripped in carapaces of toxic oil and dolphins expelling black muck from their blowholes, are so hard to look at that we want to click immediately to a different website, turn the page of the paper, or switch the channel.

Yet those reactions of horror, revulsion, and pity actually indicate that we have a healthy capacity for compassion. Compassion means, literally, to feel with another. When that other is suffering, the compassion response that arises in us is painful, so we seek relief by turning away. And it’s hard to convince ourselves when we see the effects of BP’s non-stop gusher that those creatures aren’t suffering.

Some relatives of the eleven men who were killed when the Deep Water Horizon rig exploded on April 20 have complained that the media is focusing too much attention on the environmental impact of the accident, while ignoring the human victims. Said L.D. Manuel, the father of one of the men killed, “Everyone talks about the birds and the damage to the Gulf and everything, but they never talk about the guys that got hurt. That really bothers me.”

It is unquestionably tragic that innocent people died while simply doing their jobs; they were the first casualties of this calamity. We feel compassion for their loved ones, as well as for the many residents of the Gulf Coast whose lives and livelihoods may be changed irrevocably as a result of this spill. But we also feel sorrow about the destruction of the animals and fish, the wetlands, and the ocean itself. And that sorrow is not only for the natural world, it is also for our human relationship with it.

Frequently, those who express regret about the loss, or potential loss, of some wild place or species are accused of caring more about nature than about people. Someone who objects that proposed industry or development in a place will adversely affect an owl, a snaildarter, or an ash tree is criticized for “anthropomorphizing.” Afraid of being thought over-sensitive or “soft,” the ecologically incriminated hasten to excuse themselves (as I just did above) and try to temper their concern about the natural world with hearty assurances that, no, no, they really do care about people, too.

It’s time to accept that, as sophisticated beings capable of compassion, we humans are touched and saddened not only by assaults on people but by those on nature as well. It’s time to acknowledge that regretting loss in nature does not mean that we are indifferent to people. It is time, finally, stop apologizing for loving the natural world.

Nature—the rocks, waters, plants, fish, birds, and animals that surround us, or environ us—preceded us humans onto the planet. They are, quite literally, our ancestors and they have been a constant presence throughout our entire evolving existence. The biologist E.O. Wilson speculates that the propensity our prehistoric ancestors developed to get along comfortably in nature eventually evolved into a genetic trait Wilson calls “biophilia,” or “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”

The ways humans love nature are infinite and individual. A hunter sitting in a deer blind on a cold fall morning, a skier skimming down powdery slopes, a biologist peering at microbes through a microscope, and a backpacker trekking through remote Alaskan wilderness are all absorbed in and by that partly familiar, yet always somewhat unknowable presence we call nature. Nature inspires us with its resilience, gives us solace when we’re sad, mirrors our joy, and lifts our hearts in unexpected and surprising ways, when, for example, we look up from work into a blazing sunset or hear a robin singing in the pre-dawn darkness. Nature fascinates, in our own backyard, at the far side of a scenic overlook on the highway, and as we imagine it in remote places. An estimated 100 million Americans watched the eleven-part TV documentary, "Planet Earth" last year. Nature gets along fine without us humans, yet it is often in trouble because of us.

And so our hearts break when we see these Gulf Coast birds and animals dying of oil, because we know that an ineffable source of meaning, beauty, and inspiration is being destroyed in us as well. That is heartbreaking. Knowing and accepting so makes us human.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Seven Continents!

On June 19, 2010, about sixty groups, on every one of the seven continents of the planet, met at ecologically wounded places for the first annual Global Earth Exchange, sponsored by the non-profit organization Radical Joy for Hard Times.

They gathered at polluted rivers, clear-cut forests, and the sites of abandoned factories. They went to coal mines and the sites of gas drilling. They honored endangered bats, dolphins, and wild horses. In Antarctica a scientist focused on the glacier that is retreating farther and farther each year rom the window of the research station. In New South Wales, Australia, Glenn Albrecht, the philosopher who coined the term solastalgia, meaning "the pain one feels on recognizing that the land one loves is under assault," did an Earth Exchange on the hill above Hunter Valley, where open pit coal mining has wreaked constant noise, light, and pollution on a community.

The size of the groups ranged from one to 36. In Boulder, Colorado a woman had private a Earth Exchange at a house she bought that had been a meth lab and where a murder had taken place. In southwest Washington, a group (pictured above) gathered at the site of a forest that had been cleared. And three people met at dawn to drum on the beautiful white-sand beach at Navarre, Florida, where the first oily globs from BP's broken rig have begun washing ashore. When a passerby asked if they were members of a band rehearsing for a show, one member of the Earth Exchange responded, "Oh no, we're not a band. We just came to be with a sick friend." There was a pause, and then the man who had asked the question said, "Thank you for doing this."

At each location, people talked about or reflected on their feelings about the destruction of lands and animals and spent time sitting or walking on the land, bearing witness to it in its present condition.

Each Earth Exchange concluded with an "Act of Beauty," something given back to the place or species that has given much to humans. In most cases this act included the construction of a stylized bird, the Radical Joy for Hard Times symbol, made of found materials.

Said one woman who participated in the San Antonio River Earth Exchange in Texas, "I will remember this day for the rest of my life."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Barry Lopez to Join Global Earth Exchange

Barry Lopez, the acclaimed author of many books, including the Arctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award; Of Wolves and Men; and the recent anthology, The Future of Nature, will participate in the Global Earth Exchange sponsored by Radical Joy for Hard Times.

On that day, people around the world will gather at ecologically wounded places to share their stories about what the place means to them... spend time sitting, walking, and "listening" to the land... and give back an Act of Beauty (a song, a dance, a prayer, a sculpture, etc.).

Lopez, who last month was the featured guest on the very last show of Bill Moyers's forty-year career, will participate privately in rural Oregon, where he lives.

Here's what he wrote about the Global Earth Exchange: "It's wonderful of you, and important, to sponsor and encourage this work."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Is Nature Anyway?

A person who calls him- or herself an environmentalist is presumed to love nature. More than that, you could say that an environmentalist is someone who perceives a threat to nature (e.g. extinction, pollution, clearcutting) and wants to alter circumstances that are creating that threat.

But what is nature anyway? The dictionary defines nature as the physical or material world and its phenomena, in other words, that which is not created by humans. Most of us think of nature as the world of plants, rocks, hills, seas and beaches, and animals, entities that “surround” (environ means to "surround") human beings and exist independently of them. The Norwegian ecologist, Fern Wickson writes that, if “nature” is a place that is uninfluenced by humankind, then, really, there is no nature on the planet at all. “However, even if one sees nature as including humanity, the concept becomes so all-encompassing as to be practically useless…. An atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill.”

Culturally, we live with two contrary depictions of nature. On one hand nature is a fragile, tender thing that needs protecting from large, brutal forces that would destroy it. This is nature as the cute baby seal on the rock, imminent victim of cruel hunters with harpoons.

On the other hand, nature itself is the brutal force. This is the version Hollywood favors. This nature can—and will—get out of control and wreak havoc. People are going about their ordinary lives, rather like the seal on the rock, when relentless nature swoops down upon them in a terrible and deadly form: volcano, tornado, plague of insects, forest fire.

Nature is like that famous image that tests your ability to perceive dualities: look at it one way and it’s a vase, rearrange your gaze and see it as two profiles regarding each other. Nature swings back and forth: victim/villain, victim/villain. Cute and cuddy/ugly, terrifying, and out of control. What the current ecological crisis presents us with is an image of nature that is both these visions at once: Nature about to go amok and destroy the world because of climate change, and nature victimized and killed because of climate change. Nature is the perpetrator of disaster and nature is the victim of the disaster.

What do you think nature is?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Barry Lopez Reflects on Nature, Horror, and Beauty with Bill Moyers

As he prepared to retire after four decades in broadcast journalism, Bill Moyers thought long and hard about whom to invite as his guest on the last broadcast of his Bill Moyers Journal. In the end, he decided that the honor should go to author Barry Lopez, whom he described as "someone whose curiosity about the world, and pursuit of it, have set the gold standard for all of us whose work it is to explain those things we don't understand."

During the thirty-five-minute interview Lopez, the award-winning author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, spoke eloquently about nature as what he called "the full expression of life," the whole picture of the earth and its inhabitants, not simply a collection of majestic landscapes like those that appear on the pages of calendars.

Despite the fact that the phenomena of the natural world play the starring role in all his books, Lopez insisted that "I'm not writing about nature. I'm writing about humanity. And if I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold way in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life."

Moyers and Lopez also talked about the relationship of beauty and horror. Lopez began by saying that, even though he has lived for forty years in the Oregon wilderness, he loves New York City, especially when the sky is a particular shade of blue, as it was on this April day in 2010 when Moyers was conducting the interview.

Moyers replied that the sky in New York was that very color on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the two airliners were crashed into the World Trade Towers. What does that do to any idea of beauty? Moyers asked his guest.

Lopez responded: "Real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness in order to understand what beauty is.... What you must do is build a system of civilization that is as aware of darkness as it is of beauty."

Click here to watch the complete broadcast of Bill Moyers's interview with Barry Lopez.