Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fawn: 55 / Wounded Earth 3

I don't know why I should be surprised. Even though the uprising in Cairo last year was largely waged via Facebook (see Wael Ghonim's powerful book Revolution 2.0), in America we have not yet reached the boiling point. I know this. I work at tamping down my pessimism about the state of the Earth and my grief for what is happening to wild nature and loved communities, because I know people don't like to read about upsetting things.

Still, I was surprised. On May 28 I posted a comment on my Facebook page comparing wounded veterans who have served in foreign wars with wounded places that have been used up and abandoned. Three people "liked" it and no one commented. 

The next day, May 29, I posted a photograph of a fawn my husband had discovered sleeping under an apple tree in our orchard. Result:

Like: 43
Comment: 12

Fawns are nicer to look at than the damaged Earth.

I'm surprised. But I am disheartened. I founded Radical Joy for Hard Times because I believe we can't truly change the way we live on Earth until we're willing to encounter what's in our midst and damaged... and that we still love... and in the process find beauty, meaning, community, and even joy.

We can indeed experience beauty and innocence. Not instead of facing the broken places in our midst, but through the act of facing them, facing our grief and rage over what's happened to them, and offering attention and creativity. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Earth, Too, Is a Veteran

On this Memorial Day, 2012, it seems appropriate to consider how the Earth, too, has served in many battles.

In 1987, when I was living in New York, writing scripts and producing soundtracks for multimedia productions, I read an article in Winds of Change magazine about an Oneida Indian engineer, David Powless, who had received a National Science Foundation grant to research and develop a process for recycling hazardous steel waste. 

With funding from IBM, a few colleagues  and I made a short video about David that was later shown to international IBM employees at a conference in Palm Beach. The video explored his work, both as an engineer and as a member of the Turtle Clan of the Oneida Tribe dedicated to fostering the traditional ways of his people. While I was interviewing him for the production, he told me story of how he had come into relation with the steel waste.

When he learned that he had received the grant, David said, he drove out to an enormous mound of steel waste and scrambled to the top with two buckets that he had brought along to collect samples of the waste that he would analyze. Triumphantly, he declared to the black pile of waste, "I'm going to conquer you!" 

But by the time he had trekked back down the hill with two his buckets full, he knew that this approach was all wrong. "I realized that the waste was an orphan," he said. "It had been lost from the circle of life. My job was to bring it back to the circle of life."

I was deeply moved by this story. It seemed to me to offer a new perspective on ecological crisis: a way of not only dealing with, but actually loving parts of the earth that were, by most standards, unlovable, and even unlivable.

When I founded Radical Joy for Hard Times in the spring of 2009, I called David, whom I had not seen or spoken with in more than twenty years, and told  him how his words had inspired me. Then, when the RadJoy board of directors of the new organization and I started thinking about a Council of Advisors, experts in several fields who would offer us their expertise and support, of course we invited David. He consented.
Recently, David Powless reflected on how the Earth's wounded places have something in common with soldiers. “These places are like veterans," he said. "They’ve given a lot. You may not agree with the war, but you have to honor the warriors.”

So, as we honor the warriors who have fought, showed bravery, and died in so many wars, let us also honor the Earth, who has also served us so well.

Photo above: Omaha Beach Memorial, Normandy, France

Monday, May 21, 2012

Why Turn Toward a Breaking World?

"Why should we turn toward a breaking world or spend time with wounded and damaged places?" asks Dianne Monroe in her article, "Learning to Love a Wounded World," currently featured on the website Speaking Truth to Power. "Why open ourselves to pain, sorrow, despair and plethora of other difficult feelings? Isn’t it better – or at least more pleasant – to look at the good side of things?"

She tackles this question by interviewing me about Radical Joy for Hard Times and Jade Scherer and Annie Bloom, who created a program called "Turning Toward a Breaking World." Both have as their missions an honest and heartfelt admission of grief about the ailing and death of the natural world and the resulting font of compassion and action that results when we stop hiding from what we know all too well is lingering within. Monroe discusses the "relentlessly positive" attitude that people in our society believe they must foster and names some of the reasons that we as a culture are so loath even to acknowledge that all is not well with Planet Earth. She also describes the two Global Earth Exchanges she led at the headwaters of the San Antonio River in 2010 and 2011, the first of which took place as the southern states all along the Gulf were being slicked with oil from the BP well, which at the time had not been capped.

Exploring ways to confront what is wrong without being overwhelmed by it, Monroe concludes: "This is the first gift of our pain – of our willingness to turn toward a breaking world, learning to love and offer beauty to a wounded place – to show us our interconnectedness with the Earth."

Photo above: Cyntha Ben d'Aigle offering flowers to Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, after the BP oil spill


Monday, May 14, 2012

Funeral for the Gulf of Mexico

An article in the most recent issue of The Nation sets to rest once and for all any notion that all is well in the Gulf of Mexico two years after the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. 

"BP's Toxic Legacy" by Antonia Juhasz opens with the story of Nicole and William Maurer and their two daughters, aged six and nine. When the explosion on the Deep Water Horizon wiped out William's fishing business, he got a temporary job working on BP's clean-up operation, which operated under the outrageously euphemistic name of Vessels of Opportunity. The first signs that this was hazardous work came when William experienced vomiting and diarrhea. Later he started bleeding from his ears and nose and coughing heavily. Now the entire family, including the children, is plagued with health problems. They don't have money to go to a doctor and can't afford to move.

The BP spill released 210 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. Two million gallons of toxic dispersant were then pumped into the water in an effort to break up the oil. Although a class action lawsuit against BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and other companies involved in the spill is underway, many of the people harmed will either be excluded from any settlement or will not be eligible if (or when) their health deteriorates further.

Radical Joy for Hard Times was founded on the premise that when the places we love are damaged, people hurt too. The Gulf of Mexico is a place that has been hurt in every conceivable way—socially, economically, environmentally, physically, and psychologically. 
That BP, which ignored workers' concerns about the safety and reliability of equipment and deliberately took shortcuts in drilling the well that exploded, may end up escaping financial liability is an injustice and a tragedy. 

On February 29 Gulf Coast activists held a New Orleans jazz-style funeral for the Gulf of Mexico. People dressed up as skeletons or oil-soaked birds. They carried a life-size doll rag in a coffin. They bore signs reading "BP KILLS" and "DEAD PELICAN SANDWICHES—$11 MILLION EACH. (To read about the Funeral for the Gulf and see photos by James Robichaux see the NOLA Post.)

The procession started at BP headquarters and ended at the courthouse where the trial is currently underway. Combining beauty, theatre, spectacle, and the emotional spirit of an entire region, the mock funeral embodied both the despair of Gulf Coast residents and their ineradicable sense of community and creativity.

On Saturday, June 23, people all over the world will be going to wounded places and making acts of beauty there for the Radical Joy for Hard Times third annual Global Earth Exchange.

The people and land of the Gulf of Mexico are in desperate need of beauty. If you know someone who lives on the Gulf will you beg them, please, to join this day of attention and beauty and to honor the Gulf of Mexico?

Photo above by James Robichaux.


Monday, May 7, 2012

The Simple Beauty of an Earth "Exchange"

The signature event of Radical Joy for Hard Times is a simple, personal act called an Earth Exchange.

We call our events Earth "Exchanges" because they are opportunities for us to make an exchange with these places we love and where we live. We go both to receive and to give.

We receive by reflecting on what these places mean to us and what they have given, both in the past and now. In exchange we offer back a simple act of beauty as a symbol of our gratitude and our affirmation that all places are valued parts of the whole Earth.

People do Earth Exchanges formally or informally, spontaneously or after weeks of planning, alone or with a friend or in the company of a whole group. They happen throughout the year and in all kinds of places.

June 23 is our third annual Global Earth Exchange, when people all over the world will be going to clear-cut forests, polluted rivers, oceans where dolphins are threatened, lands pierced by mining and drilling, and other wounded places. They will:
  • tell their stories of what the place means to them
  • spend time getting to know the place as it is now
  • make a simple act of beauty
Please join us by visiting a place you love, rediscovering it, and giving it some beauty and attention. It's free, and we will post the photo of your event on our website after June 23. It's easy to join on our Earth Exchange Network (and you can always change the details of your event later).

Monday, April 30, 2012

Even Rubble Is a Playground

In the photo above, Palestinian children have forayed into and area of their neighborhood that has been destroyed by an Israeli  bombing, and they have discovered that, out of the rubble, they can make a seesaw big enough for several of them to ride at once. (Hopefully the older kids will give the littlest one a chance!)

For children, anyplace can be a playground. Whether the scene of destruction was caused by war, tornado, hurricane, or poverty, all the world is fertile ground for exploration, fascination, and play. As we get older, we tend to see damaged places as so deplorable, so full of memories cut in half that we do not want to see them or even consider them. We fear we will break ourselves if we encounter them fully. Often we simply assume that there is absolutely nothing to be discovered there that can offer beauty or delight.

Radical Joy for Hard Times believes that both mourning and play are appropriate in wounded places. 

The first step of the Earth Exchange, our signature event, which any individual or community can create, is simply to go to a wounded place. Just finding the willingness to face a damaged place with openness and curiosity usually turns out to be far harder than  actually stepping onto that once whole, now broken land. Once there we tell stories about what the place has meant to us, both before and after it was damaged. We spend perhaps 20 or 30 minutes getting to know the place as it is now, looking for what calls our attention, what holds fascination. Finally, we give back an act of  beauty, usually a bird made out of found materials. 

Through this approach, we bring to wounded places both our honest feelings about what has happened and our willingness to be in healing relationship to the place in the future. We bring curiosity, the sense that there is a surprise to be had, something wondrous to be discovered, even under the most tragic of circumstances. And we bring our own spirit of creativity, the willingness to make something beautiful out of waste and destruction.

In this way do light and dark, play and mourning, beauty and destruction balance each other.

Monday, April 23, 2012

An Act of Sound Beauty for a Noisy Place

The Radical Joy for Hard Times Band (aka board) of Directors held our annual meeting this past weekend, April 19-22. Besides reviewing what happened during the past year and planning what we want to do in the months and years ahead, we took time, as we always do, to do an Earth Exchange.

The Earth Exchange is the signature event of Radical Joy for Hard Times. It's called an "Exchange" because people and the Earth both give and receive from one another. It consists of four steps:
1.    Go with friends (or alone) to a wounded place
2.    Sit a while and tell your stories of what the place means to you
3.    Spend time getting to know it as it is now
4.    Make some beauty out of found materials

This year our destination was Potomac Overlook Park, a small park in Alexandria, Virginia. Our intention was to spend some time at the Potomac itself, endangered, like just about every river in the world today, by chemicals of many kinds. However, as often happens when you go into the natural world with a spirit of curiosity and no fixed agenda, something else occurred to us instead.

We discovered that the park was right under the flight path of planes coming into and leaving Dulles Airport, one of Washington, DC’s major airports. Because noise seemed to be the dominant feature of the place, we decided to focus our Earth Exchange on noise pollution.

So we sat together in silence for about twenty minutes, reflecting on what we could hear (surprisingly, that included birds and breeze), what we couldn’t hear, how we were responding, and how noise affected our own lives. After we had shared our impressions and thoughts, the group spontaneously launched into a little percussive music, as you can hear in the video above. 

Left to right above are: Munro Sickafoose, Rachel Light, Christi Strickland, Joanna Burgess, Barbara Bitondo, and Tim Wolcott.

Monday, April 9, 2012

11,541 Empy Red Chairs

Thousands of Bosnians walked, lingered, held each other, and wept as they processed along half a mile of blood-red chairs stretching through the center of the city of Sarajevo. Many people lay flowers on the empty chairs. Some chairs were occupied by teddy bears or other toys, placed there in memory of children who had been killed. On a stage in front of the chairs a small orchestra and choir performed songs, many composed during the siege.

The 11, 541 chairs symbolized the number of people who were killed during the siege of Sarajevo that began twenty years ago, on April 7, 1991, and lasted three years and eight months, the longest siege in modern history. During that time, Serb gunners barraged the city from the surrounding hills, while the primarily Muslim citizens lived under constant threat. The war killed more than 100,00 people altogether, made two million homeless, and reopened old ethnic and cultural wounds between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. 

There are few ways to find beauty and make beauty under such horrendous circumstances. Acts of compassion and generosity and small natural gifts, such as hearing birds singing resolutely at dawn after a night of bombardment, are among them. A participatory memorial such as that of these red chairs, this music, does not assuage grief—in fact, it may even pierce the heart all over again—but it can transform it. Acknowledging together the grief, the lingering shock and sense of vulnerability unites people. Their common history and the extent of their suffering unfolds before them like a long, long block of empty chairs. Words are unnecessary; presence says all that needs to be said. And music, including music that was written out of the experience of war itself, testifies to the creative spirit that will not be quenched, despite the circumstances. 

11,541 people are missing. The empty places marked by 11,541 chairs both honor their lives and attest to the grief of those who loved them.
Wendy Steele will join others in creating beauty for Sarajevo and its people (and indomitable pigeons) in Pigeon Square on Saturday, June 23 for the third annual Global Earth Exchange sponsored by Radical Joy for Hard Times.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

What's the Story of the RadJoy Bird?

A friend asked me recently about our Radical Joy for Hard Times symbol, a bird, sometimes depicted flying into trouble spots, or a thorny graphic depiction of trouble spots. It's actually a wonderful story.

At our very first board meeting, right after RadJoy was formed in the spring of 2009, one of our members brought art supplies and we stuck pieces of paper together, then all worked together in silence for about an hour, moving around the paper, drawing, writing, adding to what others had done... with the intention of coming up with our collective vision in a non-verbal way. When we finished, we brought the painting outside to a little park across the street. We couldn't make any sense of it at all. Then one man stood on a picnic table, and suddenly exclaimed, "It's a bird!" And then we saw it: a crazy bird facing all the dark stuff of wounded places and flying into it, singing.

So that bird became our symbol. It arose out of our collective unconscious. On a more general scale, birds remind us of transcendence. They keep on singing no matter what's going on. They make their homes in all kinds of places. (Once in an abandoned weapons testing site in Florida, I saw swallows nesting in the artillery holes in the cliffs.) Also, the bird is a symbol that is recognizable and relateable to people of all cultures.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

One Thousand Arms of Compassion

Dominique Mazeaud is an artist and ceremonialist who works with natural materials to interweave art, peacemaking, and deep attention to nature. One of her current projects, pictured here, is One Thousand Arms of Compassion, a spiral of forked twigs. Dominique writes:

One Thousand Arms of Compassion* is an installation continuing my work that began in 1987 with Earth, Water, Peace and the Alphabet. Working with the visible relationship between letterforms and nature, this project consists of thousands of forked branches in part installed in concentric circles in the tradition of the mandala.**

It all began with a powerful encounter with a tree some years back. This tree, shaped as a Y, spoke of arms raised in praise. Later, I looked at my wood pile and there was a small version of the Y-shaped tree. From that time on, I found this new "material" (Ys) in my many hikes in the Santa Fe mountains. Earth generously supplies the forked branches that are perfect Ys in abundance. This is a message of importance that I must heed. The Earth is my teacher and guide. By providing material that doubles as a universal expression of prayer, She strengthens the connection I have for the metaphysical/poetic side of life: Y-shaped branches have become a deep personal symbol of meaning and healing.

In forms reaching across art and the spiritual, this project celebrates the wonder of creation while mourning what has been lost or destroyed. One Thousand Arms of Compassion offers the deep reconnection with the wondrous miracle that is our planet. By standing within the circles of branches, by placing our center in the center of the greater circle of Nature, we open ourselves to receiving Nature's creative force through her tree emissaries. We can expand our understanding of life to include more of the infinite circle that is the Universe. If we stand under, we understand.

Art is a prayer supported by the Earth. 
* One Thousand Arms of Compassion refers to Avalokiteshvara, the Boddhisattva of Compasion in the Tibetan tradition, who is represented by a thousand arms with which to help the suffering multitudes.

** In the present struggle of the planet the mandala presents itself as the seed-symbol of a more harmonized world-order. “Mandala” by Jose & Miriam Arguelles.
 To read Dominique Mazeaud's blog, click here

Monday, March 12, 2012

Now Lie on Your Back Underneath It!

This traffic maze, located in Birmingham, England, is called Spaghetti Junction, and it is sometimes known as "Britain's most famous traffic black spot." The 30-acre site, which covers five different levels of roads, consists of 18 roads, rail yards, two rivers, and three canals. An estimated 140,000 vehicles stream over it every day.

Now artist Graeme Miller has created "Track," an experiential project in which visitors lie on a board beneath the junction. Assistants pull the boards, each of which is commodious enough to accommodate two people, along over a track, while they peer up at the mesh of concrete and steel above.

Miller, who has described himself as "a composer of many things that may include music," has transformed a blight into a curiosity, turned speeding straight ahead into an experience akin to gazing up at the stars, and introduced wonder into a massive feat of traffic and engineering.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Fracking Quilts

Virginia ("Gina"—pronounced Ginna) Kellogg, a life coach and founding partner of Leadership That Works of Troy, Pennsylvania, began quilting in 2006, as a way of expressing her deep grief after her brother died. Since then she has created dozens of what she calls "journal quilts," works in fabric that are creative responses to emotional states. Now she is sharing what she has learned with others.

Gina formed her "Fracking Quilts" workshops in response to the massive gas drilling that has invaded northeastern Pennsylvania in the past three years. Fracking is short for hydrofracking, a technique that entails blasting a mixture of sand, water, and toxic chemicals deep into the Earth, both vertically and horizontally, to release natural gas. The industry has invaded this quiet, rural area with noise, light pollution, contaminated water wells, exploding gas wells, and leaks in pipelines. It has also caused severe physical, psychological, and social damage to individuals, families, and communities.

So Gina decided to offer women in the area an outlet for their feelings through the process of making a quilt. Last weekend I attended one of her Fracking Quilt workshops. Caroline and I had never made a quilt, Lynne had experience quilting, and Leslie, who had already made a fracking quilt, assisted Gina and offered us guidance.

We began on Friday night by choosing a square of fabric from one of the antique quilts that Gina collects and had already cut up. We then "fracked" that one square and used it as the seed for the rest of the quilt. In the quilt pictured above, the seed pieces are the jagged green shapes that represent the fracking penetrating the land.

Gina has an enormous collection of fabrics that we could choose from. As we worked, she was there to answer questions and provide guidance, but as she frequently stressed, the point was not to make a "good" quilt, but to express our deep feelings . When we got stuck, she urged us to pick a fabric we "hated or would never consider using." It worked! An essential part of the process was to "frack" our quilts themselves—cut them up—after we had gotten the design just where we wanted it. Although most of us felt some reluctance to do so, cutting through the design helped us to realize that we did not have to hold on to what we were attached to.

For the backing of the quilt, which no one would see, we chose a fabric that represented what "has your back," what supports you. Most of us also took Gina’s suggestion to write words or prayers on fabric and insert them between the front of the quilt and the soft batting. Gina herself quilted our designs as we sat on the other side of her sewing machine, directing her about what kind of stitches to use and what color threads.

The quilt I made is above. It is called, "They are Piercing the Earth and All, All, All Is Falling into the Cracks." The yellow and orange bands represent the beautiful hilly landscape in this part of the state and the towns and farms nestled among it. The fracking process is cutting deep into the Earth, and the villages are collapsing. The large striped "crack" that runs from top to bottom symbolizes the extent of the fracking, which fractures not only the Earth but families and communities as well. The circular part on the lower right is still a bit of a mystery. It seems to token life and growth and wholeness, even at the depths, when everything around you seems to be irreparably broken.

All of us felt transformed by this remarkable event. We were able to express feelings about the gas drilling that we had been unable to articulate in any other way. Sharing our stories about both our experiences with the gas drilling and, as we moved through the process, the design of our quilts, made each of us feel less alone. And by transforming fear, grief, and anger into a creative act, we became empowered and ceased to be victims of an overpowering force.

For more information about Virginia Kellogg's Fracking Quilts, contact her.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Six Ways to Look Beneath a Wave

This wonderful image is from the Indonesian artist Ferdi Rizkiyanto. What it shows has a lot in common with Radical Joy for Hard Times:
  • It's important to look deep into the "hidden" places where ecological devastation often goes ignored or undetected.
  • When you do look there, it doesn't have to be with the eyes of an expert. You can bring a child's sense of wonder to the process.
  • Beneath the beauty, the Earth is wounded.
  • Beneath the wounds, the Earth is beautiful.
  • You never know what you're going to encounter when you look beyond the obvious.
  •  There are all kinds of ways that you can make beauty out of the non-beautiful.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How to Greet the "Enemy"

June 23, 2012 is the third annual Global Earth Exchange of Radical Joy for Hard Times. On this day, people all over the world go to wounded places to make a simple act of beauty: creating the RadJoy bird out of found materials. In this way, they give back to a place they love that has given so much to them and offer up a vision of wholeness, healing, and beauty.

Here's a story from Meredith Little, co-founder of the School of Lost Borders, the preeminent wilderness rites of passage organization, about her 2010 Global Earth Exchange near her home in the Owens Valley, eastern California. 

What Happened: 1913 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) began draining this large alkali lake, formally a sea bed, diverting the water into their aqueduct for the growing city of Los Angeles. When the wind blows, which is often, it lifts one of the worst dust pollutants (PM-10) in the country through the long, narrow Owens Valley. Incidents of asthma and lung disease are high in the towns up and down the valley. For decades the Valley has taken DWP to court to do something about the situation. For decades DWP has delayed action by spending millions on “studying the problem.” In 2001 the courts ruled that water be sprinkled onto small areas of the lake. Alkali plants have been planted here and there. But when the wind blows, clouds of dust still blanket the valley.
Act of Beauty: After smudging and crossing our threshold, members of the group separated out onto the floor of the dry lake, strewn now with ditches, puddles of water around sprinkler heads, patches of salt brush, and vast areas of alkali soil crunching under my feet. I notice my inclination to quickly look for the beauty here … the signs of life.

Beauty. Look for beauty. Of course somehow everywhere. And then I begin to feel sick and nauseous. I sit down in the dust. What’s this? It is anger … not so much at “the wound”, but at the feeble, chaotic efforts to “heal it.” Pipes sticking through raised banks in vain attempts to spread the little bits of controlled water. Hedges of dense salt grass. Lines of sprinklers scattered across the distance.

I’m angry for the pretending and false promises that this takes the wound away. I hear myself inside saying … nothing can “pretty up” the wound. First we must acknowledge that this wound is real. No more lies, no more false promises of “fixing” it … and I am constantly connecting this with what we do with each other and our own personal wounding stories.

I’m sitting now on a cement block where the water is regulated, looking down on one of the small pools being spilled a bit of high sierra water from the mountains. A chant of sound begins to spill from my mouth, a rhythm that is new to me. I sit softly following its voice, and finally feel like I’m here, just sitting and witnessing, giving company, being in the truth of this wound. For the first time I feel like I’m really seeing what’s here, with curiosity. I walk to the puddle of water and want to put my hands in and see what’s in the dark clay soil just under the surface. Thousands of lava, wiggling, rising up. I see dead or shed exoskeletons that pile above the waterline. I see the little miracles of beauty clinging to what remnants there are of possibilities. I build a very small stone pile of pebbles, and bend a very old piece of wire into the Radical Joy bird to leave by its side.

I look up, and down the road a DWP truck is coming slowly, stopping to make adjustments at the water regulators. I stand, and the sprinklers stop. I walk slowly back to the road. I recognize my tension around the DWP driver. Is he the “enemy”? I feel my resistance to him as he drives closer, then passes me with a blank face. I let in this feeling of “us and them.” The truck turns to return up the road, and I wonder what I’ll do. I suddenly break into a smile, and wave. His face transforms into a very big smile, and a very big wave. We share this wound and this wounded area.

I think how very loud a wounded area speaks. I wonder why I have avoided walking here before.

Monday, February 13, 2012

RadJoy has a new website!

Radical Joy for Hard Times has a new website! Thank you to our genius webmaster and designer, Munro Sickafoose, of Diamondheart Studio, for his imaginative vision and meticulous attention to detail.

We're especially excited about our new Earth Exchange Network, an interactive space on the site where you can post your personal info and news about the places you love and worry about... upload photos, videos, and stories... and sign up for the 2012 Global Earth Exchange on June 23.

Have a look and let us know what you think!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Wooed by the Not-Beautiful

The following is from Mike Beck, Navarre, Florida. He took the photo above during a week spent with three others at Carmanah Valley, part of the vast clear-cut area of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The wounded places of the earth are great teachers, releasing us from the predicament of choices. They also have the ability to ruthlessly strip away your perfectly unfounded bias for ephemeral beauty and rip the words “ugly,” “unsightly” and “unattractive” right out of your mouth.

My first experience with attending to a wounded place was one of sadness at the grotesqueness of a clear-cut old-growth forest, followed almost immediately by free-floating anger, without adequate tools to catch it and ground it in reality. A perfectly reasonable response for a person without access at the time to what Mary Oliver calls the “heart’s little mind.” Four short days later, with the stump-studded hills and debris-strewn fields disappearing in the review mirror, I was surprised at the tug to go back: “Don’t leave, not yet, just a little longer.” 

Where had the grotesque gone and why were the barren hillsides passing from view unfathomably, wonderfully and perfectly—“not beautiful?” The only explanation I still find satisfactory is that someone had come while I was sitting quietly in the clear-cut one of those days and staring at an eagle-head shaped stump and that “someone” had rearranged all the environmental furniture in my head, graciously taking away my sense of quilt at not being able to do something big to save the natural world. 

An unfortunate side effect of that hooligan’s shenanigans is that now, I’m forever being wooed by the “not beautiful.” 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Nipun Mehta's Gift Economy

One day Nipun Mehta and his friends were sitting around talking about pranks. What is a prank composed of? “It’s challenging, it’s creative, it’s collaborative,” Nipun reflected in an interview with Richard Whittaker in Parabola Magazine. “We went through a whole list of motivations for what, at the end of the day, is essentially destructive. So we said, how about we reframe this? We leave all these motivations in, but we make pranks constructive. What if you just blew somebody away with kindness?”

That was the beginning of a remarkable organization called Charity Focus, “an experiment in the joy of giving.” Charity Focus, which recently changed its name to Service Space, depends entirely on the work of volunteers. It does no fund-raising, but relies upon the generosity of people who are moved to help. Services include website design, collaborations with other organizations, daily emails containing positive and inspiring messages, and weekly stories about people who have taken an unusual approach to some problem or seen a delightful possibility where most would see business as usual.

One surprising result of what Mehta calls the “gift economy” is an upsurge of honesty in the way bills are paid in Indonesian cafés. In the past, widespread corruption meant that customers, especially young people, would walk out of the café without paying for their meal. Now “honesty cafés” invite customers to determine what the meal and the service were worth and to pay that. Some of the cafés don’t even have cashiers, just boxes in which people can deposit their payments.

The gift economy starts with single, selfless acts, says Nipun Mehta. “I’m going to support you just because you’re a fellow human being and someone else comes and supports me in the same way.” In the long run an attitude like that results in “generosity entrepreneurs.”

Monday, January 16, 2012


The steps of an Earth Exchange are simple to describe:

1: Go to a wounded place

2: Sit a while and tell your stories

3: Spend time on the land and find beauty in surprising ways

4: Make a simple act of beauty

However, since we encourage each community to enact these steps in ways that reflect their own place and people, the events themselves and the ripple effects are very different. Steve Brown, an active member of a conservancy group dedicated to protecting Red Lily Pond in Craigville, Massachusetts, recently described a couple of interesting ramifications that their 2011 Global Earth Exchange had for both people and the pond. 

One of the participants at the event, Avis Strong Parke, is an artist. After the Global Earth Exchange, she was inspired to invite other local artists to join her every Tuesday morning at 10:00 to paint the pond. For several weeks a group that ranged in size from nearly twenty to about eight regulars set up their easels at different sites around the pond and created a variety of water colors, acrylics, and oil paints. At the conservancy’s annual dinner and auction, one of these works sold for $900, and in total the group raised thousands of dollars more than they ever had before. (The painting above is by Avis Strong Parke.)

The second surprise came about from an unexpected source. A man who was known to be vocal about his conservative political leanings arrived at the pond for the June 18 event, but immediately made it clear that he didn’t like the word “radical.” Steve suggested he read the Radical Joy for Hard Times manifesto that was taped to a card table on the dock and that explores our philosophy that damaged places are worthy of attention and beauty. A few minutes later, the man returned to Steve. “Well, I believe those things,” he said. “That’s right up my alley.” He ended up staying for the day’s celebration.

A few weeks later, when the development corporation that owns a condominium at one end of the pond put forth a proposal to construct a giant illuminated dock over the water, Steve and other activists were present in force at a State Commission hearing to discuss the plan. They were surprised when the conservative neighbor walked in the door, especially since he did not usually get involved in local issues. The man stood before the commission and announced, “I’m a Republican and I don’t believe in regulations, but this pond is too valuable to destroy.”

All kinds of people love the beautiful places that  they live amidst. And often we have more in common than we might suppose.

Monday, January 9, 2012

What Do We Do Then?

You know very well how many dedicated people are working hard to save the Earth. They're fighting Congress to protect the deserts, enforce clean air standards, make corporations disclose the toxic chemicals used to blast deep into gas-rich shale. Talented, passionate people are writing books about climate change and polluted seas, rivers, soils, and air. They take children on hikes and offer to adults wilderness trips in pristine places so people will remember how much the natural world means to them.

And still the forests are being cut, the oceans are being clogged with oil and scarred with plastic. Still mountaintops are being exploded and wetlands filled in.  Still wilderness is plowed up to make housing developments and malls. Still poor communities of color are the ones slated for the most toxic projects of incinerators and mineral extraction.

Still, people who are proud to be environmentalists tell themselves they need the latest iPhone and iPad and have to dye their hair and use beauty products to make themselves young. and going on vacations to eco-paradises like the Gallapagos.

Still babies are being born, here, there, and everywhere, and when they grow up they too will want a place of their own and they will believe that they need the newest gadgets to survive. And how will they survive?

It is not going to get better. The places we love are going to continue to disappear.

Then what? Will all the work of the environmental educators and litigators and preservers be for naught? Does their success depend solely on staving off the inevitable?

Or does real ecological activism come from a new kind of realism? Not just realizing the world is changing and "we're to blame," but the realism of being with and attending to the places in our midst that are a part of us still, no matter what has happened to them?

Radical Joy for Hard Times says: When the places we love are damaged, we humans hurt too. And tempting as it is to ignore both damaged places and our own difficult feelings of loss and grief, it is by encountering these places and feelings with openness, compassion, and curiosity that we blaze the way forward. It is by telling the stories of our relationship with the place and above all making beauty there until we fall in love with the place all over again... that we become citizens of the future of Earth, not just surviving, but loving where we live and empowered to live with it with wild, bold creativity and community.

Monday, January 2, 2012

"Wounded Places on Earth Are Like Wounded Places in People"

“We have physically created wounded places on the Earth, and that is exacerbated by us ignoring them. Becoming whole in ourselves and in the way we approach existence is the beginning of healthy, dynamic systems. It’s exactly a parallel to our own inner psyche. The parts we cut out and don’t want to look at are the ones that cause us the most trouble. And if we look at them and pay attention to them, they shift.”

This comment by Kinde Nebeker (standing in the center in the photo above, at her 2011 Global Earth Exchange in Salt Lake City) of Salt Lake City zeroes in on one of the subtle but vitally important aspects of the practice and the path that is Radical Joy for Hard Times Earth Exchanges: that actually going to wounded places strengthens the bond between person and place, brings new life to the place, and empowers people to act with more energy and more compassion on behalf of what they love.

We all wish, naturally, not to be uncomfortable. Hence we avoid the things that we fear will make us sad or angry or embarrassed or guilty—or any of a host of other emotions we’d rather avoid. Avoidance, of course, doesn’t make the shunned thing vanish. It only makes it grow and fester there in the dark where we try to hide it. It grows bigger. It pops out of its hiding place when we least expect it, causing problems and making us even more determined to keep it hidden.

When we decide, once and for all, to take a look at what’s wriggling there down unseen, we’re often surprised to see how mild it is. How, instead of sinking us in despair, the attention we give it actually liberates us. Dealing consciously with what we discover enables us to bring to the problem new understanding, peace of mind, and creative solutions.

As Kinde observes, the same is true about wounded places. When people go to polluted rivers, eroded hills, farms torn up for gas drilling, or abandoned industrial sites like the one Kinde and her friends honored in the 2011 Global Earth Exchange, they discover that, far from depressing them, the encounter fills them with a sense of community, creativity, empowerment, and even joy.