The Solutions are Hidden in Plain Sight–if you look through 21st century eyes

IMG_4806A lot of us in the Northeast are doing our share of grumbling this year about the Arctic air that just won’t go away.  Usually March is the time when the winds start to blow, the sap starts to rise, the snow melts into the thawing earth and our thoughts turn to snowdrops and crocus.

This year, we’re still in the deep freeze with a hardpack of snow on the ground, and no end in sight.

It’s all part of the erratic weather of our climate change era.  The question for all of us now is, how, beyond bitching and moaning, are we going to respond?

Most of us just shrug and turn the dial on the heater up a little higher, not thinking about what that very small, ordinary act really entails.

If your thermostat is wired into an oil burner or a natural gas furnace, like most homes and apartment buildings in the Northeast, then when you turn up the dial in response to the bitter cold you are, perhaps unwittingly, enabling, supporting and becoming an integral part of the very industry that is relentlessly destroying our climate.

The fossil fuel industry is not some demonic force outside of our control.  It’s just a human business that is responding to human needs for energy—lots and lots of energy.

We Americans are used to getting what we want, and what we’ve wanted, in the 50 years I’ve been on the planet, is ease.  What could be easier than turning a dial to make your house warmer in the winter or cooler in the summer, or gassing up your comfy car before you get on the freeway?

1_RussetLikewise in terms of agricultural production—we like to get our vegetables pre-washed and sometimes even pre-cut, all even-sized, no blemishes, laid out attractively in faux crates under spotlights in our upscale grocery stores.

When we buy that bag of potatoes or carrots, we’re not thinking about the tons of pesticide, herbicide, fungicide and fossil fuels that went into making it easy for us to throw these items in our shopping cart.

We’re not thinking about the bees, butterflies and other valuable insects that have been driven to population collapse by industrial agricultural practices; or the huge dead zones in the ocean at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where fertilizer and chemical run-off from the Midwest runs down to the sea; or the millions of birds that are affected each year by the toxic chemicals we spread over the landscape.

We’re just throwing that bag of veggies into the cart, or turning up that dial.

Well, the time of such oblivious innocence is over.

The curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard of Industrial Capitalism has been revealed—and lo and behold, he wears the ordinary face of each one of us.

Every step we take on this beautiful, battered planet of ours matters.

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

I am heartened to know that this very weekend, one year after the big climate change rally in Washington DC that I attended in the hopes of pressuring the Obama Administration to block the Keystone XL pipeline, thousands of activists, most of them college students, will be raising a ruckus at the White House gates to insist that the politicians stop gambling away their future.

Here in my backyard, in the Massachusetts-New York region, people have woken up to the fact that mile-long trains of crude oil and gas are being run through heavily populated neighborhoods.

We’re moving to block gas fracking in western Massachusetts as the sight of contaminated tap water in fracking regions brings the dangers right home.

We’re also starting to get serious about making solar energy accessible to homeowners and businesses.

UnknownThis week’s New Yorker magazine has a fascinating article about a little-known scientific program to create a controlled thermonuclear fusion power plant.  Unlike the current fission plants, which burn radioactive fuel and generate dangerous waste, the fusion plant, if it were successful, would run indefinitely on seawater and lithium, with no waste.  It would be ten times hotter than the core of the Sun.

Talk about an audacious plan!  You have to hand it to human beings, we are nothing if not hubristic.  It is our greatest strength and our most glaring weakness.

Why spend billions on creating an artificial sun here on earth?  Why not just learn from our cousins the plants, and start to use the sunlight we have more efficiently?

It’s time to take off our grimy 20th century glasses and start looking at the world and ourselves through 21st century eyes.  When we do, we’re going to find that the solutions to all the problems that beset us have been hidden in plain sight all along.

Infectious Hope

One of the things we are thinking about in my classes on social and environmental justice is whether it’s better, as an activist, to put your energies into a top-down or a bottom-up strategy.

Should we be trying to pressure governments, politicians and international organizations to do the right thing when it comes to, say, climate change policies?

Or should we be trying to ignite a whole series of grassroots, local, community-based changes?

Obviously it’s not an either-or proposition—it’s important to work at all levels.

But I notice that when I think about the big picture, I feel impotent and despairing.  Who is going to stop the massive deforestation of the planet?  How are we going to get the fat cats in corporations, governments and the United Nations to understand how critical it is to maintain forests and healthy agricultural soils so that they can function as the effective carbon sinks they are meant to be in our delicately balanced terrestrial eco-system?

It’s remarkable to note how my despair turns to hope when I turn my attention to the many local initiatives that I know are going on all over the globe.

When I think about how my hometown, Great Barrington MA, will be one of the first in the world to actually BAN PLASTIC BAGS in stores, my heart swells with pride.

Hope fills me to learn that Seattle is creating an innovative “Food Forest” in a city park, aiming to improve public health by regenerating public land into an edible forest ecosystem created using permaculture principles to reduce agricultural climate impact, improve local food security, provide educational opportunities, and celebrate growing food for the benefit of all species.

And when I hear that some of the incredibly powerful billionaires on the planet are using their money to try to turn the climate change juggernaut around—for example, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson—it makes me believe that all is not lost.

Both despair and hope are highly contagious.

It is easy to pay attention to the constant stream of depressing news and believe that the game is over, so there’s no point in trying anymore.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

imagesJust as green plants poke their way stubbornly through asphalt and even the most blighted landscapes are always striving to regenerate, our Earth always tends towards life.

Every single species alive on the planet today, from humans to microbes, has survived many cataclysms and tough times in the past.  Just as we have before, we can rise to the challenges that face us today.

It really doesn’t matter whether your preferred approach is lobbying Washington DC or starting a Transition movement in your town.

The important thing is to stay alert, stay active and engage with others who understand that the choices we make day by day can, cumulatively, have a critical impact on our planetary future.

We cannot afford to be complacent or ignorant, and neither can we afford the luxury of despair.

Put your hope into action, one day at a time.  I truly believe that the bridge of hope we build together can take us over these dangerous times, into a future bright with promise.

Coming your way: the first-ever Sustainable Civilization Olympics

I know I’m exposing myself to hailstorms of rotten tomatoes and eggs, but I’m going to say it anyway: I don’t care about the Super Bowl, or the Winter Olympics either!

Every time one of these big annual sports events come around, all I can think about is if only people would put the same energy and enthusiasm into sustainable living on our planet, what a beautiful world it would be!

It’s fine that people want to spend all their time and energy toning up their bodies and becoming world-class athletes.  Hey, whatever floats your boat!

But if you’re going to become a badass athlete, why don’t you put your strength and prowess to work for the planet, super-hero style, rather than settling for winning medals and giving your ego some strokes?

The bare truth is that if we human beings put our collective minds to it, we can solve any problem.

Melting-Glaciers_in_Himalayas_top-10-list.org_-300x198Global warming, water shortages, acidification of the oceans, clean energy, you name it, we can handle it—if we just focus our time, resources and energies behind being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Here’s an idea: why don’t we have a Sustainable Civilization Olympics, complete with livestreams in the labs and testing grounds so that we can all follow along as various teams make progress on solving our global problems?

For those who can’t get excited about anything unless competition is involved, well, go for it!  We can have teams, play-offs, Super Bowls, you name it!

Just let’s get the job done, for heaven and earth’s sake!

And then, once we’re back on an even planetary keel, maybe we can spare the time for the kind of mindless entertainment that floods our airwaves each year on SuperBowl Sunday.

We Are All Noah Now

We are all Noah now.

These words have been sounding in my head like a mantra these past few weeks, and this morning I woke from strong dreams of animals in trouble—a big lone fox, a frantically hopping toad—and felt the need to make my inchoate awareness of danger and responsibility more tangible by writing it down and sharing it with others.

Derrick Jensen asks with desperate, angry sadness how long it will take us to finally wake up and start resisting the accelerating extinction of species happening on our watch.

How can we love our pets so much (I ask with my purring cat on my lap and my snoring dog at my feet) and remain unmoved by the news that hundreds of sweet, innocent reptiles and amphibians, many of them from fragile, endangered species, were cruelly murdered by callous neglect last week, crushed into hot plastic tubs without food or water for days in a crate bound from Madagascar to the U.S. pet store market?

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How can we continue to give our children adorable stuffed lions and tigers and bears to hug and cuddle (my own boys were devoted to their respective stuffed animal friends, a gray kitty and a green froggy) while turning a blind eye to the fact that all of the large animals on Earth are staring extinction in the face?

Indonesian palm oil plantation.  First the forest was bulldozed.  Never mind all the fragile species that called it home, including our primate cousins, the highly endangered orangutans.

Indonesian palm oil plantation. First the forest was bulldozed. Never mind all the fragile species that called it home, including our primate cousins, the highly endangered orangutans.

How can we blithely talk about international agreements like REDD and cap-and-trade markets, ignoring the fact that when these lofty agreements are translated into action on the ground in the remote tropical forests that most need protection, they too often result in the worst kinds of greedy destruction—for example, so-called protected forests being bulldozed, sprayed with herbicides and turned into palm oil plantations, but still sold as “protected forest” in the international carbon market.

Americans spend royally on landscaping around our own homes, but fail to appreciate that if we don’t snap out of our trance and start acting forcefully on behalf of the planet as a whole, the storms and droughts that are coming will make short work of all our careful planting and pruning.

Wake up people!  We are all Noah now.  The Ark that will help us weather the storms we have brought upon ourselves is the Mother Ship, sweet Gaia herself.

Headlands, Puerto Rico. Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

Headlands, Puerto Rico.
Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

It’s past time to start focusing on doing all we can to conserve the living beings on this planet—ours to protect, not to destroy.

We are all Noah now.

Dark Universe, Brightening

Socrates had it right long ago when he acknowledged that to the extent that he was wise, it was because he knew how much he did not know.

During my lifetime, the trend has been for homage to be paid to all the cocky, smart human beings who think they know everything.

The slicker and more self-confident the guy (and this is mostly about guys), the more rewards and adulation he gets.

Collectively, especially in the United States, arrogance has been the name of the game.  I think this collective hubris may have reached its apex with the splitting of the atom and the knowledge that he who controls atomic energy controls the world.

Or so we thought.

Climate change is ushering in a whole new, and much more humble era.

imageIt turns out that just because we can bulldoze forests and mountaintops, change the course of rivers, drill beneath the sea and through solid rock, and completely saturate the earth with satellite, drone and in-home surveillance devices, we are still just as vulnerable as we ever were to the simple, earthbound necessities of food and shelter.

As the big, climate-change-induced storms continue to roll in from the ocean, so frequently that they all begin to blur into an anguished nonstop disaster montage, a slow but steady sea-change in collective human consciousness is beginning to occur.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

We are beginning to recognize how much we still don’t know, and how dangerous our ignorance, combined with arrogance, is becoming.

There is no doubt now that we who are alive today, along with our children and grandchildren, are going to be living through a remarkable transition time as the planet we have destabilized and plundered during the past few hundred years of industrialization seeks to return to equilibrium.

We must acknowledge that human over-population has played a major role in this process of destabilization.  Our very success as a species is what is driving the current unfolding disaster.  By reducing our numbers through disease, drought, flooding and the competition for shrinking natural resources that leads to war, the planet is doing what it must to return to a steady state where the ecosystem as a whole can flourish.

It is sobering to live with this knowledge.

Perhaps it is my sadness at knowing that I am going to be living through (and dying in) a veritable Holocaust of earthly creatures, that has me searching outside the box of science and common knowledge for signs of hope.

IMG_4150 copyI was not raised with religion, but I have always been an instinctive spiritual animist, seeing the divine in the beauty of the natural world, and in my unbounded love for all the elements of our Earth—rock, water, air and all the myriad living beings that inhabit every strata of our planet.

I have also been open, since I was a child, to the possibility that there is more to our experience than meets the eye.  I have always been fascinated by the occult, shamanism, and science fiction involving time travel to other dimensions of space/time.

I don’t know if it is just because I am paying more attention, but lately I have been perceiving a definite uptick in collective awareness that the key to fixing what ails us in the physical world may lie not in better “hard science,” but in a deeper connection to knowledge that can only be accessed through a different kind of perception.

The doors to this under-tapped realm of wisdom are accessible to us through what has poetically been called “our mind’s eye.”

There have always been humans who have been explorers in this realm—Socrates was one, the Biblical sages and prophets were others, and modern esoteric explorers like Rudolf Steiner, Terrence McKenna, Mary Daly, Martin Prechtel, Starhawk and many more.

Terrence McKenna

Terrence McKenna

In the 1960s psychedelic drugs opened the doors for many people who were not at all prepared for the “trips” they encountered.

Now we seem to be coming around again to a period where, as conditions in the physical world deteriorate, more of us are seeking understanding and reassurance in the non-physical.

The more we know of how bad things are here in the physical realm, the more we want to know that “another world is possible.”  And the more we look, the more we find that indeed, there is much more to the universe than meets the eye.

Even scientists are beginning to align with the spiritists they previously disdained. In our age of quantum physics, the whole idea of a “spiritual dimension,” accessible through human consciousness, is becoming much less far-fetched to rational hard science types.

The new Hayden Planetarium show, “Dark Universe,” ends with a graphic that could be right out of “Twilight Zone,” showing that roughly three-quarters of the universe is composed of “dark energy,” a term invented to represent in language something we know enough to know we do not understand at all.

It could be that waking, embodied life is to human consciousness what the physical, hard-matter universe is to the cosmos as a whole.  Just a tiny fragment of a much larger, and potentially much more interesting, whole.

What if the reason every living thing on this planet sleeps (whether in the daytime or the nighttime) is in order to reconnect with the non-physical realm that spiritually sustains us?  We know that if we are deprived of sleep for any length of time, we go crazy and die.

What if “the dreams that come,” whether in sleep or in death, are just as valid a form of experience as the waking hours of our day, and our lives?

What would it mean to be able to think beyond the brief timelines of our individual lives, or even the eons of evolutionary cycles on the planet, and know that we are all part of a much grander cosmic dream?

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Photo source: American Museum of Natural History, Rose Space Center, Hayden Planetarium, “Dark Universe”

Thinking this way does not give me license to let go of my focus on making a difference here on earth, now in my lifetime.

In some ways this imperative becomes even stronger, as it was for Socrates, Steiner and so many other visionaries who were also powerful initiators and guides during their lifetimes.

During this winter solstice season of introspection and questioning, I have been reading and re-reading the writings of one such contemporary guide, the Sufi mystic and spiritual ecologist Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.  I leave you with a passage to ponder:

In the book of life we can see the energy patterns of creation, the rivers of light that flow between the worlds.  We can see how the individual relates to the whole and learn the secret ways to bring light into the world; we can understand the deeper purpose of the darkness and suffering in the world, of its seeming chaos.  And the attentive reader can glimpse another reality behind all of the moving images of life, a reality that is alive with another meaning in which our individual planet has a part to play in the magic of the galaxy.  Just as there are inner worlds, each deeper and more enduring, there are also different outer dimensions whose purposes are interrelated and yet different.  The inner and outer mirror each other in complex and beautiful ways, and in this mirroring there are also levels of meaning.  As we awaken from our sleep of separation, we can come alive in a multifaceted, multidimensional universe that expresses the infinite nature of the Beloved.

–Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Spiritual Power: How It Works

Let it be so.

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia.  Photo by Eric  B. Hernandez

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia. Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

Blessings on the blossom…

UnknownWhen I compiled the anthology Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, I put an excerpt from the Puerto Rican-American writer Aurora Levins Morales right up front, because what she had to say about the invisibility of working women was so powerful.

“Let’s get one thing straight.  Puerto Rico was a woman’s country….Whatever there was to be cooked, we cooked it.  Whoever was born, we birthed and raised them.  Whatever was to be washed, we washed it….Whatever was grown, we grew it…We were never still, our hands were always busy….Ours is the work they decided to call unwork.  The tasks as necessary as air.  Not a single thing they did could have been done without us.  Not a treasure taken.  Not a crop brought in.  Not a town built up around its plaza, not a fortress manned without our cooking, cleaning, sewing, laundering, childbearing.  We have always been here, doing what had to be done.  As reliable as furniture, as supportive as their favorite sillón.  Who thanks his bed? But we are not furniture.  We are full of fire, dreams, pain, subversive laughter.  How could they not honor us?

I have to admit that never, in all my years of studying the history of the Americas, had I even noticed the absence of accounts of these women from its annals.

But it’s so true.  What famous explorer could have sailed the ocean blue without his mother and/or nurse giving him the loving care he needed to survive infancy and childhood? What town could have been built without the crucial work of women supporting its foundations?

Just as we are often blind to the crucial life-giving value of women’s work, we also have a tendency to arrogantly overlook the essential work done by the foundation of the planetary biosphere. I’m talking about PLANTS.

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Without the plants—from algae and seaweeds in the ocean to trees and grasses on land—our planet would quickly become a barren desert.

Without the microbes in the water and soil digesting decayed matter and nourishing those plants, the entire food chain would collapse, with humans falling along with all other “higher” species.

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This Thanksgiving, I want to honor and thank the marvelous plants of our planet, who silently, efficiently and ceaselessly convert sunlight and water to living tissue, and give themselves without protest to nourishing the lives of so many other species on Earth.

As we enjoy our Thanksgiving feasts, let’s remember that none of this abundance would be possible without our unsung plant kingdom heroes, and let us perhaps take a moment to sing their praises, as in this simple blessing I learned from my son’s Waldorf teacher many years ago:

Blessings on the blossom, blessings on the fruit.

Blessings on the leaf and stem, blessings on the seed and root.

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For a more extended version of this blessing, see the Mohawk Thanksgiving prayer.

Amen.

 

PHOTOS COPYRIGHT JENNIFER BROWDY DE HERNANDEZ.

A Milkweed Railroad for Monarch Butterflies

I will never forget that sun-washed September day back in the 1970s, when a Monarch butterfly landed on my finger and hung on there trustingly, resting its gaudy black-and-white polka-dotted abdomen on my warm skin.

close-up-of-monarch-butterfly-on-fingerA girl of about ten, dreamy and prone to tree-climbing and rock-sitting, I froze and observed the butterfly’s gorgeous gleaming wings, which beat back and forth slowly as it perched; and then, to my great delight, it unfurled its long, slim black tongue and began gently probing my skin, daintily sipping the beads of sweat it found there.

After a few minutes, it gave a carefree beat of its wings and caught an updraft over to a nearby stand of purple asters.  I watched it with delight, wishing it luck and Godspeed on its long migration south to Mexico, which I knew about thanks to my avid reading of Ranger Rick and National Wildlife.

Many years later, my son, also a keen observer of the natural world, brought a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that he’d found on a stand of milkweed home to munch milkweed on our kitchen counter.

UnknownWe watched, fascinated, as the caterpillar hung itself upside down in a J-form from a branch of milkweed.  Overnight, the soft striped body of the caterpillar hardened into a glossy green cocoon, and its the rear feet solidified into a strong stem, firmly cemented to the branch.

The cocoon hung quietly, quivering now and then as the mysterious transformation took place inside.

One morning we began to see the familiar black and orange outlines of the Monarch wings coming into view just beneath the green wall of the cocoon, now turning translucent.

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“You’d better put it outside,” I told my son.  “We don’t want it to hatch in the house!”

He put the vase with the milkweed and the trembling cocoon out on the porch, and we left for work and school.  By the time we came back, the miracle had occurred—the cocoon had been abandoned, and the beautiful Monarch had sailed away regally, following its destiny.

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This year not a single Monarch butterfly visited our garden, although I planted two butterfly bushes for them, and a stand of Asclepias, a whole bed full of bee balm, phlox and asters, and even left a few stubborn stalks of milkweed growing up through my roses.

“Did you see any Monarchs?” my son and I kept asking each other, knowing the answer but still hopeful.

No.

This is how extinction happens.  One year, a beloved species just doesn’t show up.  Life goes on.  But a hole opens  in the tightly stitched fabric of the ecosystem.  When there are enough holes like this, the whole fabric begins to unravel.

Jim Robbins wrote last Sunday in The New York Times:

Monarch butterflies on tree trunks

Monarch butterflies turn the forest orange. They return to a specific mountain forest in Michoacan, Mexico, year after year.

“On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

“This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year.”

Why are the butterflies disappearing?  It’s not just the Monarchs, although these large, showy insects are among the most beloved.  I saw very few butterflies of any stripe in my garden last summer.

As with the precipitous decline in the wild bee population, the culprit is industrial agriculture.

Butterflies rely on wildflowers for their bread and butter during the summer breeding months.  For Monarchs, milkweed is especially crucial.

tam_map_webThe long route from the Mexican forest where they winter to their North American breeding grounds used to be lushly planted with native wildflowers like milkweed.  No single butterfly makes the round-trip from Mexico up to my garden in New England.  Rather, each generation lives long enough to lay its eggs on a convenient stand of milkweed, and those caterpillars hatch, eat their milkweed, cocoon and turn into butterflies to carry the migration on.

It’s a mysterious, miraculous process, the knowledge of the route handed down across scores, perhaps hundreds of generations each season, year after year for untold millennia.

And then human beings invented Round-up.

agriculture-impact-climate-change-monoculture-farm-photoThe tragic decline, not just in the Monarch population but in all our native insects, can be traced directly to the use of chemicals in agriculture.  The herbicide Round-up, sprayed indiscriminately on the ever-spreading farmlands of the American Midwest, kills everything except those seeds genetically engineered to withstand it.

That is, it kills everything a butterfly would need to survive.

Thanks to Round-up and all the other pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in American agriculture—combined with suburban sprawl, golf courses, lawns, malls and parking lots—much of the U.S. has become an ecological desert, from a butterfly’s point of view.

And without the butterflies and other insects, the bird populations crash too.

The bats die off.  The run-off from these poisoned fields kills the frogs and toads.  And before we know it, that one small hole left by the disappearance of the Monarchs has turned into a gaping, hemorrhaging wound from which there is no recovery.

What can we do?

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY--biodynamic & organic

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY–biodynamic & organic

One thing we can do as consumers is to support organic agriculture as much as we possibly can.  Yes, it’s more expensive, but think of those extra pennies as a donation to the Save the Bees, Birds and Butterflies effort.

You can also think of buying organic as an investment in your own health.  Pesticides and herbicides build up in our bodies too—we’re at the top of the food chain after all, just like the eagles and hawks who were dying from DDT back when that poison was still being sprayed on the fields.

It’s no accident that we have a cancer epidemic in America today.  What goes around comes around.

We can also be more thoughtful in how we compose our landscapes.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to have green space around our homes can get rid of grass lawns, which are green deserts to butterflies, and plant vegetable and flower beds instead.

05517F2I often find Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars munching away on my dill in the early summer, and I’m happy to share my crop with them.

Even the big tomato hornworm, which can chomp through a whole tomato branch in a single day, is cause for celebration in my backyard, especially now that I know they turn into the spectacular sphinx moth, a daytime moth so big and fast I’ve sometimes mistaken it for a hummingbird.

Imagine a Milkweed Railroad for the Monarchs, running from their winter home in Mexico all the way up to the far reaches of their breeding grounds in Canada.

Stands of milkweed would be planted in every park in every town along the way, so that wherever the butterflies spiraled down from the high updrafts that carry them along the ancient migratory route, there would be milkweed waiting to host their eggs, feed their caterpillars and provide sturdy stalks for their cocoons.

This is not a dream.  This is how it used to be, until the last few decades when human sprawl and wanton chemical use got out of hand.

What humans broke, we can fix.  We just need to set our hearts and minds to the task of repairing the holes in the fabric of our beautiful planet.  And in tending to the planet, we’ll be tending to ourselves.

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Of Oil, Honey and the Future of Human Civilization

do_the_math_image_1I have been reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, with a group of students in a course called Media Strategies for Social and Environmental Justice Advocacy that I’m offering for the first time this semester at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Oil and Honey tells the story of how McKibben founded 350.org with a group of his students at Middlebury College in 2009, and how together they went on to become the most visible American environmental organization of our time, leading the U.S. protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and creating an international movement to put pressure on governments and policy makers to quickly and decisively address the mounting threats of climate change.

Most recently, McKibben has been focusing on divestment as a tactic to push the fossil fuel industry to shift into cleaner forms of energy production.

Taking its cue from the successful anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s, the strategy is to awaken enough ordinary citizens–including college students, church-goers and workers of every stripe–to the perils of climate change, and get them to press their hometowns, companies, churches and colleges or schools to divest their endowments, retirement funds and other collectively held investment portfolios from the fossil fuel industry.

It seems like a good strategy, and yet it did not elicit much enthusiasm from the students in my class.

They were more interested in thinking about how to educate younger kids about the beauty and value of the natural world, and moving from that basic platform out into activism.

Kids today spend so much time indoors, in front of screens, that they have little sense of connection to nature, my students said.  And without that connection, it’s very hard to understand why it’s important.  What’s all the fuss about?

This is what it’s about.

Bill McKibben asks us to “do the math” and understand that if we were to actually succeed in burning all the fossil fuels that are currently in the ground, we would heat our planet to a level not seen for millions of years.

It would definitely be game over for human civilization, and it would take millions of years for the planet to restabilize.

What it is about this simple math that human beings today do not want to see and understand?

Part of it is simply that we’re so easily distracted.

The big news yesterday was that Federal Aviation Administration will now allow airline passengers to use their computers and tablets right through take-off and landing.  We can be in front of our screens to the very last second of the day!

Meanwhile, while we’re busy on our computers, not paying attention, the fossil fuel industry is going around the resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline by massively investing in railway terminals, lines and cars for carrying its tar sands oil down to refineries and tankers on the coasts.

B3029FCC-5228-4E57-B879-F8A83ABF036B_mw1024_n_sAnd up in the darkness of the Russian tundra, 30 Greenpeace activists are languishing in cold solitary prison cells, held without trial for the crime of trying to raise awareness about the destruction of the Arctic by Russian and international oil drilling.

Where is the outrage?

In the book Oil and Honey, McKibben ingeniously compares corporate behavior to bee behavior.  Corporations are like bees, he says, in being relentlessly “simple” and focused on their one crucial task—for bees, making honey; for corporations, making profit.

They don’t change their focus, no matter what.

But humans are more complex than that.  We can change and adapt to new circumstances.  We can recognize and act upon moral imperatives.  We don’t have to follow suicidal corporations blindly over a cliff of their own making.

Although it’s true that the alarming dependence of Americans on screens of every size can get in the way of a connection to the natural world, on the other hand, the fact that so many people are networked together through the media presents great opportunities for activism and change.

With my students this semester, I’ll be thinking about how to harness the power of the media to create a different kind of swarm—not following our current corporate leaders, but moving in an entirely different direction.

We’re not alone—there are many groups working on this now, from the Transition Town movement to the Pachamama Alliance to even such formerly mainstream organizations as the Sierra Club.

The task: to awaken a critical mass of people, worldwide, to the reality that we are living in an end-time of biblical stature; and to get them to understand that we have the power to change the storyline from doom-and-gloom cataclysm to a positive shift into a whole new relationship of humans to our planetary home.

Working cooperatively, bees are able to turn small grains of pollen into vast tubs of honey.  Human beings can do that too–when we work together for a common cause we can do almost anything.

So what are we waiting for?

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A message from the wounded heart of our magnificent Earth

This week, as in the foreground Washington politics continued as usual, a remarkable animal came like a messenger sent to remind me of the state of things in the background, where what’s really important is going on.

I’m using Mary Daly’s terminology here: she calls everything that mainstream society generally focuses on part of the “foreground,” which distracts us from the deeper and more significant issues and events going on in the “background.”

Instead of worrying about how the “snools” are jerking the country around from their headquarters inside the Beltway, Daly urges us to pay attention to the bigger, deeper picture of what’s happening on a global level to the ecological systems that keep us all alive.

Sometimes it’s hard to wrench my attention away from all the grotesqueries going on in the foreground.  This week, I had help.

***

On Tuesday, as I was walking along a trail by a small river near my house, in the gathering gloom of dusk, I looked back to see my dog Loki standing stock-still near a large object that I couldn’t immediately identify.

Afraid it might be a big and potentially dangerous animal, like a raccoon, I hurried back, and was astonished to perceive that Loki was standing nose to beak with an enormous eagle-like bird.

osprey

Both animals were calm, and Loki came to me at once when I called.

The eagle, which I later identified as an osprey, turned and looked at me keenly, with a gaze I can only call commanding.  Its huge, hooked beak was intimidating; this was not the kind of wild animal I would consider going anywhere near.

And yet here it was, down on the ground, strong and well-fed, clearly in its prime, but immobilized by a badly broken right wing, which was hanging twisted and useless at its side.

A human being in that condition would have been writhing and crying desperately for help.

The osprey merely stood its ground, calmly and regally, waiting.

It was still there the next morning when I went back to check on it.  I had called the state Fish & Wildlife Service, and as I stood there by the eagle, a wildlife biologist called me to ask directions to the bird.  He was going to bring it to a veterinarian to have its wing set, and then bring it to a shelter.

Wild raptors with broken wings almost never fly again, but there are raptor rescue centers that maintain them as ambassadors for their kind, educating the public about the beauty and importance of these magnificent birds.

 ***

I don’t know how that bird came to break its wing. There was a house not far away from where I found it; perhaps it flew into a window at full tilt?

I do know that if it had come down elsewhere, away from the trail, it would have certainly died of starvation or been eaten by a coyote, which I have seen in those woods.

In this case, human beings could be of use to this osprey, and indeed I felt very strongly, when it trained its sharp, steely gaze upon me, that it was demanding my help.

More broadly, I take my encounter with the eagle this week as a reminder to keep my focus on the bigger, deeper picture of the continual wounding of the natural world.

For every damaged osprey there are literally millions of creatures I can’t see personally, who are wounded and dying all over the Earth.

I can’t afford to lose myself in the busy-ness and distraction of foreground concerns—the headlines of mainstream media outlets, the daily housework, the struggle to make enough money to pay bills and keep my family going.

Those concerns will continue and as a functioning member of human society, I have to keep my eye on them.

But my inner eye–my third eye, my most deeply aware sense of vision–must be ceaselessly trained on the slowly unfolding planetary tragedy that is occurring relentlessly in the background.  I must stay alert for opportunities to be of help to those who cannot help themselves.

I thank the beautiful osprey for this reminder, and wish it, most fervently, Godspeed.

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Turns out “Crazy Mary” isn’t crazy after all: Homage to Mary Daly’s Green Philosophy

In my quest to drown out the drone of the mindless Republican obstinacy-for-its-own-sake that is currently taking up so much of our media bandwidth, I have been reading the work of Dr. Mary F. Daly, someone I’ve known about for many years, but never actually sat down and read.

You may have heard about Mary Daly too—she was a professor of philosophy and theology at Jesuit-run Boston College, whose first three books, Beyond God the Father, The Church and the Second Sex, and Gyn/Ecology, were runaway bestsellers among women readers, but so infuriated the powers that be at her institution that they mounted campaigns to discredit her, first trying to deny her tenure and then harassing her to step down from her tenured position.

Who was this oh-so-threatening gadfly on the flanks of the Church and Academia?

Mary Daly wielding the Labrys

Mary Daly wielding the Labrys

Daly called herself by many names—one of her projects was to take back the English language from the patriarchy that she saw used language as yet another misogynist weapon against women and the natural world.  She was a self-proclaimed “Radical Lesbian Feminist Philosopher,” a “Wild, Wicked Woman,” a “Postively Revolting Hag” who “proclaimed that Laughing Out Loud is the Virtue of Crackpot Crones who know we have Nothing to lose.”

“As an Offensive, Tasteless, Haggard Pirate,” Daly wrote in her 1992 memoir Outercourse, “I was inspired to acquire the Courage to Leave the doldrums of Stag-nation, Sailing off with as much loot as my Craft could carry.  I tried to foster in myself and in Others the Courage to Live Wildly, that is, to refuse inclusion in the State of the Living Dead, to break out from the molds of archetypal deadtime (a.d.), to take leap after leap of Living Faith, becoming Fiercely Biophilic” (198).

Biophilic as opposed necrophilic, which is how she described Western society—a society built on and organized around sucking the lifeblood from the planet.

Although the dominant feminist movement has resisted the eco-feminist tendency to link women and nature “essentially,” Mary Daly saw women as having a special role to play as bearers and defenders of life—not in terms of the conventional “right to life” type of discourse, but in terms of the right and indeed the responsibility to protect and nurture the planet and other life forms on it from the predations of patriarchal society.

“By being the originator of my own Green Philosophy,” she wrote, “which is the tabooed woman-identified/nature-identified philosophy, I have uttered a Great Refusal of the patriarchal prescription of Self-lobotomy for and by women” (326).

The truth is that most people I know automatically turn off and turn away when a woman dares to utter the word “patriarchy.”

It’s a word-bomb wielded by feminist terrorists, and “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” do we?

Maybe it’s time to remember that one man’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter.”

Maybe it’s time to be honest about the fact that the rape and pillage of our planet has in fact been a male-dominated project.

To criticize the patriarchy as a system of knowledge and action is not to condemn any individual man.  All individual humans are free to choose how they will act in the world, and many individual men have acted honorably and with loving care towards women, animals and the planet as a whole.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh

But in general, I have to agree with Mary Daly that since the advent of patriarchal human civilization–say, around the time when Gilgamesh defied the gods and cut down an entire cedar forest to build his city—humanity has lived by extractive, exploitative, often cruel and extremely destructive frameworks of ideology, policy and praxis.

Women in power, or women close to men in power, have often gone along for the ride and enjoyed their entitlements.  For example, in education: education for centuries was the exclusive prerogative of men, and when women were finally admitted to the august halls of higher learning, they tended to conform to whatever it was the authorities expected of them.

A woman like Mary Daly, who was able to think for herself outside the box of patriarchal philosophy, and who dared to criticize the masters, would be undercut by whatever means possible—dismissed as a lunatic, ignored and disdained, exiled and excommunicated.

Mary Daly was gutsy enough to survive all the attacks that were lobbed at her, and come back swinging.  Each of her books is more radical and free-thinking than the last, and she never wavers from her central insight, which she credits to her interchange with a clover blossom at age 14, that every form of life on the planet has intrinsic value, meaning, and a purpose on the planet.

Unknown-1“There was the Moment…when one particular clover blossom Announced its be-ing to me.  It Said starkly, clearly, with utmost simplicity, ‘I am.’…The encounter with that clover blossom had a great deal with my becoming a Radical Feminist Philosopher.  If a clover blossom could say ‘I am’ then why couldn’t I?” (23).

Daly takes a great leap here away from the artificial structures of the kind of “post-structuralist” philosophy that I, for example, spent countless hours studying during my years in graduate school in the 1980s.

Like Derrida, Daly is interested in words and language and how the “binary oppositions” of Western philosophy, starting with the mother of them all, Good and Evil, have played out in socio-political frameworks that conspire to maintain the patriarchal status quo.

But she is not interested in staying in the labyrinthine worlds of textuality; she is very much engaged with how these linguistic issues affect real, flesh-and-blood women and other beings.  She not only dares to call out the patriarchy, she also dares to discourse with other species in her writing—not just clovers, but also cats, cows, and trees—and to raise what she calls “Fore-Sisters” of earlier times to engage in philosophical dialogue.

Daly was not afraid to call herself a Witch, and to reclaim the demonized power of magic to confront the necrophilia of dominant society.

For instance, in Boston in 1989, she worked with friends and students to create a multimedia performance called “The Witches Return,” which would “expose the gynocidal/biocidal atrocities [of patriarchy] and the connections among them.”

On Mother’s Day, 1989, the group acted out with intense emotion a Witches’ Trial that culminated in the symbolic beheading of those who were accused of “the massacre of women’s minds, bodies and spirits.” Daly wrote, “Our dramatic indictment was created with utterly Fiercely Focused Rage and Elemental, Creative Power” (398).

The performance was a rejection of what she called the “foreground,” ordinary day-to-day life so totally saturated in atrocity that people became numb to it—and a reaching into the “background,” the deeper truths that, if accessed, could light the way to real change.

Daly’s description of the difference between the foreground and the background makes so much sense to me, now in 2013 even more than in 1989.

In our media-saturated lives, it is so easy to spend most of our waking hours tuned in to someone else’s vision, listening to someone else’s insights, digesting information packaged for us by someone else.  And most often, that someone else is—let’s face it—a white man, or someone who is reacting to the dominant white-male patriarchal vision.

How often do we allow ourselves to simply sit down in a field and commune with a clover?  How often to we allow ourselves to listen to ideas that seem radical or weird or crazy?

Isn’t it interesting that radical ideas coming from white males get plenty of press time and are entertained with great seriousness by the entire world (I’m referring to the crazy, weird, radical ideas of the Republican Tea Partiers) while when a woman dares to utter the taboo word “patriarchy” she is immediately not only dismissed, but completely ignored and excommunicated?

In the last book she wrote before her death in 2010, Amazon Grace, Mary Daly called on women who understand the connections between gynocide and ecocide to come together and dare to, as she phrased it, “Sin Big”—dare to call out the patriarchy and insist that, as Arundhati Roy memorably put it, “Another world is possible. On a clear day, I can hear her breathing.”

Yes.

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