The Things That Remain

I sat outside on Friday afternoon, home sick with a fever and sore throat, reading about civilization collapse.  I had been waiting for the right time to sit down with “Rule of the Pheonix” by Craig Childs, a new essay in Orion Magazine, and as I read how the rise of illness and disease prelude collapse, I reached for my chamomile tea to soothe my throat.  Next to my mug sat a rosemary plant, and as I brought the tea to my mouth, I breathed in the scent of rosemary and looked up to see tall grass moving in the wind, dandelions going to seed, the dense canopy of maples and birch shading the perimeter of the field, and a phrase entered my mind:

The things that remain

As Childs points out, civilizations have come and gone, risen and fallen, are always evolving, and are always left with enough people living past the “end” to create something new in a few generations.  Here are the things that remain through it all: grass and air, dandelions and trees—the natural world, which is also always evolving, changing, and living.  The plants, air, and water—these things remain.  Yet as I write this I think of fracking contaminating and decreasing the water supply; I think of deforestation, and of climate change pushing plants and animals beyond their native habitats; I think of paved roads and lost topsoil.

Still I have to believe these living things go on, just as we do, despite times of pressure and decline.  I have to believe it because it has always been so.  I have to believe it because I believe in life, in energy constantly moving and the fact that, though it may shift form and move in a new direction, energy never goes away.  This is what I believe, because I feel energy in my body, and my body is physical truth, solid and connected by bones and blood, in this physical world, solid and connected by roots and rivers.  The body holds truth.

Body as human
Body as animal
Body as earth

The body holds truth.  “When the land is strained, so are the people,” Childs writes.  If we are to see our civilization endure, we will return to the lessons of the body, we will slow the workings of technology and allow the body to rest.  We will remember what it is like to sleep deeply.

At the base of every civilization is water.  I gulp it, letting its coolness slide down my throat.  I heat it, letting its warmth soothe my throat.  I drink and drink until my fever comes down.  I make it past the part about illness and disease as a prelude to collapse.  I make it all the way to the end of the essay, which doesn’t feel like an end at all, but instead like a diving board into a blank page, empty and filled with every possibility.


Back to Alaska

“We’re taking a train to New Jersey, flying to Alaska from there, and then driving back to Vermont,” I told my friends.

Jordan paused for a moment and then asked, “Why?”

We all laughed at the blunt questioning in her voice.

“Well, Edge’s car and most of his stuff is still up there so we’re going to get it and visit everyone, too,” I answered.

But there’s more to it than that.  After a winter of renting a house and staying in one town, I am ready for a journey.  A week ago, as I was running in the spring afternoon, I thought about movement across the land, about travel and staying in one place.  My feet ran forward as fields melted and streams grew, and I remembered my nomadic ancestors–those perceptive, migrating people that we all come from.  What trace of them is left in me?  Is it their instincts that I feel telling me to walk, run, and to notice the world that keeps me alive?

It is a continual conflict within me: to stay in one place and know it deeply, or to travel and know the world as a great mosaic, all pieces making one place.  I like to believe that I can dig into a place even while traveling.  I like to feel that I can meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.

Terry Tempest Williams, in a talk she gave at the University of Fairbanks, said, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”  In this world of petroleum power, I believe this.  What do I love about staying?  Seeing the seasons through.  Working the land.  Growing my food.   The power of canning, freezing, pickling.

And this brings me back to the beginning of it all.

We have learned to celebrate agriculture and storage.

We have learned to reward ourselves with vacations.

There is a tension between these two things.

I am sitting in the Seattle Airport, waiting for a flight to Fairbanks.  In less than one day I am shooting across the country, and I will take just over two weeks to drive back.  So much oil.  And still I go.  It is a radical thing to stay home these days.  There is a lure to go far away, and since the advent of personal cars and cheap flights, we’ve all got the hook in our mouths.  There must have been a lure, too, for the nomads, to cultivate and rest through the seasons.  To stay in one place.

So I search for the convergence of these things, and I feel the churning within me as a river does when two tributaries come together.  I am going back to Alaska, back to the wild that forces you out of the car, the wild that asks your intention.  Is it to pass through, to get to the end?  Is it to discover?

I will dig into each place, meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.  My intention is to discover.

Losing and Finding Compassion

My political consciousness began to develop at age 13, when my middle school held a mock presidential election during the campaigns of George W. Bush and Al Gore.  Though it was a close race, if it had been up to the eighth graders at Barre Town Elementary and Middle School, Gore would have won.  The next fall, as I worried about braces, boys and being cool, two planes flew into the World Trade Center and began a cycle of fear that has fought to control the US political climate since.

Now, at 23, I am still learning the repercussions of 9/11, still trying to understand the massive shift it caused, still trying to comprehend the fear, hatred, and loss that has ensued as a result.  Because of both this act of terror and my country’s reactions, which have caused more terror, I have grown up in a time of fragmentation that would have us believe that conversation and compromise are for the weak, and the “other side” (whether it be republican or democrat or any religion that we are not) is inherently wrong or evil or both.

My personal experience holds a different truth.  Despite my encounters with division, more often I have found connection.

In the fall of 2006, when the newspapers were filled with threats of North Korea and battles in Iraq, I found peace in the Adirondack State Park’s Massawepie Lake and forest trails lined with red and white pine, tamarack, hemlock, maple, birch and spruce.  As a few people prepared for war in one place, a few more people prepared for ecology lessons in another.  When the weight of the media began to push me down with sorrow, I’d paddle into the middle of the lake and sit quietly, listening to the chickadees, squirrels, osprey and insects.  In these moments, there was no doubt that this part of the world was in harmony and kept alive by the interconnections of species.

Who is to say that war outweighs ecology?  Who is to say that violence and division trumps happiness and harmony?  Why must the news of our world be filled with the negative extreme?

Looking back at all the moments in my life that held confusion, anger and sadness, I see that the places I escaped to are what brought me back to peace.  I wonder how this world might be different if everyone had a place of wildness to retreat to with enough space to breathe clean air and hear the rhythms of nature.

When I was in Hobart, Tasmania last December, I saw the Dalai Lama speak.  The University of Tasmania hosted him, but the Chinese government prohibited the University from bestowing an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama, and since such a large population of its students are Chinese, the University complied.  When His Holiness sat in his chair on stage, he smiled and laughed, and to a group of 2,000 people this joyful being who lives in exile from his country said, “It is a very serious danger to lose compassion.”  What happens when we lose it ?  Hate, anger, and all those emotions that arise out of fear take hold and build walls to keep out any voice that may offer something different.

The news this week showed us what happens when one has lost compassion.  The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, her staff, and bystanders is a consequence of extreme fear.  A commentator on the BBC World News Report on NPR said that this act of violence differs from those of the 1960s, a time of multiple political assassinations and violent riots, because the American people do not have a promise of hope to balance it out, like the promises of equality or money or jobs that the 1960s held.  This comment may weigh us down more.  I see hope.  I see hope for Giffords, for the families of the victims to heal, for the political climate to shift towards communication and bi-partisanship, for finding space to grieve and forgive, and for transforming fragmentation into connection.

In her book Finding Beauty In A Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Social change depends on love.”  Let us look for love as we heal.  Let us change not with blame or fear, but with love and consideration.  This event offers us the chance to reunite our country as a community—not necessarily one that agrees on every bill passed by congress, but one that is willing to truly listen and communicate openly.  As the healing process begins, I offer this:

Standing quietly by ourselves may help us remember the sanctity of silence, the power of unity, and the strength of compassion in the midst of an ever-changing world.

School Gardens and Social Change

Earlier this spring when I was doing outreach for the EATinG program, I found myself annoyed and disappointed with the language used to encourage students to volunteer.  In each classroom I visited, the main motivation used was the fact that volunteering can be used as a resume booster and a way to put you above others in the competitive world of college and job applications.  It seems as though it isn’t enough to say you can help your community, and as a result volunteering becomes an act only to propel oneself onto something better, rather than an act to better one’s community and environment.

On one hand I wonder, is it so bad to do a good thing for personal gain?  After all, creating a stronger, healthier community does have positive affects on the individual, and perhaps one will go on to enjoy volunteering for reasons other than resume building.  On the other hand I wonder, what it is that creates a society that so often views acts done without the motivation of personal gain as unusual or as something to be put off for when we have more time, which we never seem to have.

As I was growing up, my parents took my brother and I to nursing homes to pass out Christmas presents, involved us in “Green Up Day” every spring, and enrolled us in a school with classes that emphasized community service.  I learned through doing that interacting with my community in a positive way is fun, and a desire to help grew in me because of that.  Now I want to teach my students the importance of serving one’s community and environment, and the value of giving without the expectation of receiving.

On Monday I held a discussion with my student gardeners called “Charity versus Change,” a workshop from the Food Project’s Growing Together, by Greg Gale.  I wrote the words “charity” and “social change” on the blackboard and asked the students to call out words that come to mind for each category.  They had no problem with charity, shouting out things like helping, donating, sharing and giving.  When we switched to social change, they fell silent, with one girl throwing out the word donating again.  I helped them along by explaining how charity is an act done by a person of greater wealth for a person of lesser wealth, and is often a singular event that must be repeated in order to have a lasting effect, whereas social change is altering policies and laws in order to create a community that operates on equality, inclusion, and diversity.  It’s like the saying “give a person a fish and he/she will eat for one day, teach a person to fish and he/she will eat forever.”  Giving a fish is charity, and teaching to fish is change.

I knew this could be a difficult workshop for them—one girl is going into eighth grade while the other four are going into seventh, and I didn’t know what kind of community service experience they have had—but I wanted to challenge them to think about and understand the broad affects of this school garden and their work in it.  Since the garden started in 2009, vandalism at Hunter Elementary has sharply dropped.  Last summer there was only one instance of suspected vandalism, which turned out to be kids catching ladybugs in the garden late at night, and this summer there has been none.  As a result, the sense of community pride has soared.  Everyday passersby stop to compliment the garden, ask what’s growing, or just say hello, and our Thursday farm stand had people lining up before we opened for business this week.  Most importantly, though, this school garden has increased access to local, fresh food while teaching students the values and skills of organic growing, selling produce, and making community connections.

After we defined charity and social change, I asked each student write down their talents and passions and then identify ways they could use these things to create positive change.  As we went around the circle, the girls talked about using the internet to connect with others; drawing flyers to post around neighborhoods to create awareness about an event or issue; writing speeches, stories, or articles; teaching others how to rock climb and learn to interact with the environment in new ways, thus increasing an appreciation for the natural world.

We ended the discussion with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Everybody can be great.  Because everybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.  You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.  You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.  You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

I told the students, “This garden is an incredible thing to have in the community, and you are making it grow.  You could be doing anything this summer, and maybe this is just a way for you to make some money, but despite the reason you chose to be a student gardener, the fact that you are working here is making a difference, and you can feel great about that.”

Maybe they will go on to volunteer later in the summer, after their four weeks of work are up.  Maybe they won’t.  But at least they have heard it from me: their work matters, the food they grow and eat and sell matters, and this small piece of land in Fairbanks has transformed from an unused lot to a place of learning and growing because of them and all the teachers, community members, and Calypso farmers who support it.

Wildness, Wilderness: What is Wild?

I’ve been thinking about wildness lately.  What does it mean?  One of the most famous (and misquoted) Thoreau quotes is “in wildness in the preservation of the world.”  Many people confuse wildness for wilderness here–but what are we missing when we think that wild is only in the wilderness?  William Cronon’s essay The Trouble With Wilderness addresses the problems inherent in the way Americans view untouched forest and mountains.  We essentially separate ourselves from nature, seeing wilderness as a place of escape rather than as a part of the landscape we inhabit.  The entire English language is filled with different ways to voice separation.  Sometimes I find it impossible to think in words while trying to fuse together nature and the human society I am a part of (see, even in this sentence I imply that they are two separate things, rather than part of the same whole).

In The Abstract Wild, Jack Turner dissects Thoreau’s statement.  Upon establishing Thoreau’s interpretation of wild as “self-willed” and his view of the world based in the Greek word for beauty or order, Turner concludes that Thoreau’s quote “is about the relation of free, self-willed, and self-determinate ‘things’ with the harmonious order of the cosmos” (82).  Part of wildness is that harmony is formed by both destruction and creation, and sometimes order grows from chaos.

Do we need to be wilder in order to preserve the world?  If we are to reconcile the imbalance between the human and natural society, and if we are to meld the two together, then perhaps we do.  Turner goes on to say, “To create a wilder self, the self must live the life of the wild, mold a particular form of human character, a form of life…If we want this wilder self, we must begin, in whatever ways we can imagine, to rejoin the natural world” (91).

Many people tend to see themselves as a part from rather than a part of the natural environment, but rarely is nature viewed with antipathy.  On the contrary, there is a tangible romanticism in the way wilderness is described.  Even though we are past the Manifest Destiny era, we still want to believe the west is wild, the land is endless, and there will always be open space for us to run to, if we ever find the time.

So my question is this: how do we find the time, and how do we learn to see the workings of a vegetable garden with the same wonder as we see national parks, because wild lives not only in untouched wilderness, but also in each sweet basil leaf and strawberry blossom.  If we can answer this question, we can erase the void our society has built between people and nature, and live in the harmony of wildness that Thoreau wrote about.  The amazing thing about finding a solution is that mine may not be the same as yours, but our own ways of walking can still lead us to the same place.  My journey to wildness leads me outside, into the garden, covering my hands with soil and watching a seed fall from my fingertips, find its way into the earth, open and shoot up, and eventually sustain me.  My journey also leads me to the forest where streams wind through birch, maple, and beech trees; to cold, dark lakes in Vermont and the Adirondacks; and to my front yard where a 90-year-old maple lends a branch to a swing and lets me fly.

In wildness is the preservation of the world and of yourself, for the two are inextricably intertwined.  The important thing isn’t knowing the answer right away, but letting yourself delve into the adventure of finding it.