The Peaky Mountain

This is a short essay on the origins of voice.
6 March 2011
ANE, LD Seminar

“We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower”. Genesis the band

A beautiful plant springs from the place where I gaze into my own beauty by the edge of a crystal pool. I am the first flower of spring. The icy fingers of the winter season strangle the earth with cold, and frigid mud. Hopeful, defiant even, a bright green shoot of a leaf pushes away the brittle crust and stands tall and present amid the dirty slush. Narcissus is the negativity of self-reflection that is predominantly outward, turned inward through death of the ego, becoming a yellow flower of self-knowledge.

All writing formats are available to me. I am not obliged to write as a scientist, I am able to write freely as a poet. I have no constraints or restrictions. As a transcisdiplinary environmental scholar I have no profession. What I profess is a deep and respectful love for the earth and all of her children. Children of jelly, and blob, toothed, clawed, fanged, winged, naked, feathered, furred, hairy, stalking, walking, swimming, slithering, shimmering babies, stone children, soup children, mammoth children, subatomic children, mountain children, river children, moon children. We all share the double helix of a star.

I paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois. A Harvard PhD who died on the eve of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963.

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh daughter, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yields her no true self-consciousness, but only lets her see herself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels her twoness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious humanity, to merge her double self into a better and truer self.” (Changed words in bold,)

I bless this legacy of longing and strife and the dogged spiritual strength it has gifted me. My life is a study in transdisciplinarity and multilingual translation. In that there is joy, and deep sorrow. Responsibility, and unending humor. How could I be afraid of expressing my voice at this point in the journey? I cannot. I need to say these things. I must speak. The world needs to hear what I have to say.

My dissertation voice? “I have been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and licked out all the pots,” my subject Zora Neale Hurston wrote of her life. “Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

What I hope and aspire for all of us for this coming work is to find the harp and the sword in our writing. To sheath the sword in our bejeweled scabbard, in clear sight of those who would not hear. And to sing to the accompaniment of the harp. To sing funeral dirges for the ego, to sing waking lullabies to the budding spring flowers. At the top of our lungs, to sing.


Beautiful Theory

RISD Foundation Studies Lecture Series

Beautiful Theory: Resilience, Ecology, Sustainability

Claudia J. Ford

16 November 2010

Chace Auditorium, Rhode Island School of Design

Providence, RI



I would like to begin tonight’s lecture with gratitude and thanks to a number of people who have made this event possible.  I would like to thank Joanne Stryker, Ken Horii, and Foundation Studies for inviting me to speak to you this evening.  I would like to thank Kevin McNulty and Andrew Grant for the logistical support in making this happen.  I would like to thank your first year student classmate, Kevin Cochran, for the design and technical support that a digital immigrant such as myself cannot function without.


I would like to thank my colleagues at the Antioch Resilience Design Group for the indispensible academic critique of a very rough first draft of this lecture.  I would like to thank RISD faculty, students, and staff in the RISE and Respond Design groups.  We are fortunate at RISD to have so many artists and designers doing cutting edge work in the field of sustainability.  I would like to thank Professor Robert Brinkerhoff for giving me permission to use his artwork. We build on the work of others and this lecture is no exception.


“What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you?”[1] Gregory Bateson



There are many things that are driving my exploration of tonight’s topic on adaptive cycles and the ecological theory of resilience, but two of them stand out.  First is what I have learned through my passion for global social justice work. I have spent my career, thus far, working with others to make another, different, world possible. I have done this by working in the fight against poverty, disease, discrimination, lack of education, and lack of political rights, around the globe. I have worked with men, women, and children in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and on my sojourns through refugee camps and squatter camps, war zones and rainforests I have been struck repeatedly by just how complex most people’s lives are.


The struggle to survive, for far too many of us in this world, is a struggle of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual complexity far greater than we realize, and far greater than it is for the few of us who have been fortunate enough not to face such daily exertions.  I was not prepared for this complexity and I remain enormously frustrated about it.  I feel that the solutions, the economic, social, and environmental solutions we have been working with are too simple to deal with the troubled conditions I have observed.  Our attempts to help are not working.  They have not worked.  Poverty and suffering remain in this world and by all measures are increasing.  We have not yet created the other world we desperately need, and in some cases desire, to create. We require ideas to match the size of our challenges.


I was very excited when I came across a different, new to me, way of thinking about intractable issues that might begin to point to the direction of a different and better world.  I discovered this in my doctoral program in environmental studies, and it is the outlines of this theory that I aim to share with you today.  In addition to being energized about potential ideas for addressing the pressing issues that are facing us, I was, as an artist, enthralled with the aesthetic promise of this work.  I believe you will be too.


Dutch software developer and social commentator Jurgen Appelo contends, “Complexity is that property of a system which makes it difficult to predict its overall behavior, even when given reasonably complete information about its components and their relations.” [2] If I had to sum up my first passion it would be an exploration of this concept of complexity.


I have another motivation for my interest in resilience theory.  The size of the environmental issues that face us is huge. G. Tyler Miller, author of 58 environmental science and ecology textbooks, names some key environmental challenges:

§  Rapid population growth

§  Unsustainable resource use

§  Poverty

§  Not including the environmental costs in the products we make and buy

§  Trying to manage and simplify natural systems without understanding how they work


When I returned to the United States 2 .5 years ago, after nearly thirty years abroad, I was struck with the requirement to move the environmental dialogue beyond reduce-reuse-recycle.  True that I had missed a great swath of the US discussion on environmental issues in the three decades I was away, and the conversation overseas, while similar, is not the same. Initially, I discovered myself a bit confused by all this “green” conversation.  That there are different kinds of greens? What’s that?  What does that mean?  More importantly how will this classification of our aspirations help us fundamentally change our behavior?


Well to generalize and stereotype, bright greens, it appears, are supposed to be enthralled to technology and think there is an engineering fix to everything. Dark greens, I guess, are meant to be looking for us all to live locally and become organic farmers as the only sustainable option. There are good initiatives on both sides of this debate — witness the Transition Town movement, local farmers’ markets, or green roofs, and LEED design certification; yes, good work is being done on all sides of this debate. However, I am not enthralled to technology; I do believe a paradigm shift is needed, and yet I am not a dark green pessimist; a “doomer.” Motivated by my sense of uncertainty about the creation of new ways to talk about environmental issues as well as a growing sense of urgency to address these issues, I am back in school to read[3] for my doctorate in what emerges to me as the most important collective issue we face today – humans’ relationship with Earth.


My second passion for this research, therefore, can be expressed as, “What does this all mean?”  What about the human behavior changes necessary to address our current environmental problems?  How does theory or practice address the fundamental difficulty of making the world a better place?  Of participating in a behavioral paradigm shift?


Tonight, I want to talk to you, briefly, about ecology’s resilience theory including the concept of adaptive cycles, and why this might matter to us in our search for solutions to the problems of a complex world and a troubled relationship between earth and humanity.  I want to set this discussion against the backdrop of the multitude of specific economic, social, and environmental issues we face, but which I will not discuss.  Climate change is just one, but one important piece of the overall challenge. New York activist-artist, engineer, and designer Natalie Jeremijenko names climate change as emblematic, “The climate crisis is a shared, collective, uncertain threat.  It is a crisis of agency.  We have to reimagine our relationship to natural systems.”[4]


The environmental challenges facing us are fundamental.  Our presence on earth is not a light one.  We walk heavily upon this earth.  We oppugn the earth, nature, other species, and our place in and on the planet. The solution to these challenges lies within our ability to shift our understanding of our place within nature itself; towards greater understanding, posits British curator Emma Ridgway, “The uneasy realisation of our current situation is that we are part of an ecological system that we influence more than we previously thought was possible. We are not outside observers, we are participants; we engage and affect systems whether we intend to or not.”[5]


It is my opinion that ideas about our relationship to and with the earth we inhabit are important to investigate at this point in your career. As student artists and designers, as practicing artists and designers, this is a key time for looking at these debates from all sides.  Towards the end of this lecture I will briefly explore the unique ways that artists have of looking at complex problems in general and environmental issues in particular.


John Maeda says that designers are critical makers.[6] He is right.  We, as artists and designers, are making and thinking.  Theory is always important to explore, however, for this juncture — the intersection of theory and action — is where paradigm shifts happen. How do we close the gap between human behavior and our desired environmental future?  This is the paradigm shift I seek.


These are the issues that motivate me.  My remarks are driven by questions.  Questions inform other questions in an iterative cycle.  Solutions are not answers, as some would have from other, older, and not, I would argue, entirely useful paradigms.  Solutions are found in the process and in the generation of more useful questioning. For this lecture, then, these are my starting questions:

w  What underpins an ecologically sustainable way of life?

w  What is design thinking?

w  What unique role do artists and designers have to play in creating a sustainable future?


I will not directly answer these questions, but I will present some of the roads we may usefully follow to find the responses. Let us turn to ecology’s resilience theory and the concept of adaptive cycles, and why this might matter to us in our search for solutions to the problems of a complex world and a troubled relationship between earth and humanity.


By studying ecosystems around the world, researchers have learned that most systems of nature proceed through recurring cycles consisting of four phases: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. Theoretical ecologist, C.S. “Buzz” Holling observed that ecosystems developed in what he termed adaptive cycles of exploitation (rapid growth), conservation, release and reorganization, which could be described in three dimensions – ecological ‘wealth’, connectedness and resilience.[7] In summarizing these changes in ecological thought, Dana Phillips, literary critic, asserts, “The old idea of the ecosystem as a model of order and equilibrium has become the new ecology that emphasizes indeterminism, instability and constant change.”[8]


We may briefly mention two well-known examples of these cyclical adaptations – fire and the economy. When forest management consists of fire suppression, as it has and, by and large, continues to, we also suppress natural cycles of fire and regeneration that actually serve to increase the resilience of the forest community.  We create a system that is paradoxically more vulnerable to fire and less resilient and adaptable.  In our economic system our recent and continuing crises indicated that we have become brittle and less resilient in our enslavement to unrealistic unending growth.  The hubris was partly that we could take the economic system and manage it in isolation from other systems.


Professor Garry Peterson, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center describes the management learning that accompanies the phases of the adaptive cycle:

The phase from growth to conservation is a phase of incremental change, a problem-solving phase, where foundational models of management and behavior are assumed to be correct and learning is characterized by the collection of data and information to solve problems.


The subsequent phase of conservation through release can be a time of abrupt change, where change is episodic and surprising, and learning is characterized by facing the consequences of the inadequacies of the underlying management models.


The phase of transformational change occurs from release to reorganization, a phase of cross scale surprise or novelty involving wicked and complex problems between different sets of changing variables.  The adaptive cycle can be shifted into another and different cycle, with new roles and/or new combinations of agents, and requiring new paradigms, not only new models.[9]


C.S. Holling introduced the concept of resilience into the academic world in 1973.  It was described as the amount of disturbance an ecosystem can withstand within a given state of stability. Resilience now has multiple meanings:

w  The ability to persist in the face of change.

w  The return time to a stable state following change (engineering definition).

w  The property of a system that mediates transition among different stable states (ecology definition).[10]


My exploration of resilience theory is driven by another question. How do we create sustainable human/nature systems when these transitions are driven by rapid and escalating human behavioral patterns? Holling, Gunderson, and Ludwig describe these behavioral challenges related to sustainability, “The complex issues connected with the notion of sustainable development are not just ecological problems, nor economic, nor social.  They are a combination of all three.  Actions to integrate all three typically short-change one or more.”[11] Holling and his co-researchers call this the Trap of the Expert (disciplinary hubris), where each approach is based upon a particular, partial, not integrated world-view.[12]


Adaptive cycles are the foundation of ecological, economic and social systems. Let us consider the adaptive cycle, the moibius strip of change, and look at the way this model might point to a holding of the opposing forces of growth and stability versus change and variety.  This tension between stability and change is the paradox of sustainability. Buzz Holling says, “Sustainability requires both change and persistence.”[13]


Holling, Gunderson, and Ludwig further assert, “In order to plan for sustainability, we need to know how new “knowledge” (is) created from competing information sources and incorporated with useful existing knowledge, Which processes create novelty which smother innovation, which foster it?  Neither ecology, nor economics, nor institutional theory now deals well with these fundamental questions of innovation, emergence, and opportunity.”[14] Novelty, innovation, and “questions of emergence, and opportunity” are foundational to what is known as design thinking.  It is this element of resilience theory, the adaptive cycles model, and the application of theory and model to sustainable development, that reaches out specifically to the visually rich, and pattern specific ways of knowing and creating that characterize the work of artists and designers.


English journalist Madeleine Bunting says, “The central assertion is that the crisis is not just one of climate change but of epistemology – of how we know the world and our place in it. That is not something a politician can ever stand up, say, and be understood. It is something that has to be experienced, and arguably, it is artists who can enable that experience.”[15] I would now like to share with you five examples of the work of artists and designers who are actively thinking and making around the idea of sustainability, and invite you, if you have not heard of them, to look up their work.  I see in their work an invitation to think and create around these difficult questions.  When looking at art and design thinking about complex problems of sustainability what becomes clear is that artists and designers are concerned with discovering and creating the patterns that invite both stability and change.  Buzz Holling calls this, “The way of the artist-scientist: and their nascent, stumbling ideas,” and the Royal Society contends that design has an essential optimism with respect to progress and change.[16]


This presentation looks briefly at the work of five artists and designers dealing in very different ways with the questions of sustainability and the environment:

1.     Nathalie Miebach

2.     Natalie Jeremijenko

3.     Matthew Mazzotta

4.     Bryant Terry

5.     Stewart Brand[17]


As we come to the end of this lecture let us think about the unique role of artists and designers in a sustainable world.  Artists and designers see patterns. We work with patterns; we confront and provoke patterns in intimate ways that others do not.  Others have their own ways of facilitating action at the juncture of theory. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Art describes designers’ potential task, “Ready to improvise and prototype, brave in the face of disorder and complexity, holistic and people-centered in their approach to defining problems, designers have a vital role to play today in making society itself more resourceful.”[18]


We cannot complete a discussion of resilience theory without acknowledging that the origins of resilience theory lie in the stories of our first nations communities.  Fikret Berkes is a Canadian academic who researched with Buzz Holling.  Dr. Berkes’ research focuses on indigenous ecological knowledge, and with first nations communities he examines the common roots of resilience and traditional ecological knowledge.[19] Traditional communities impacted their environment, without question, and sometimes destructively.  However, for many reasons traditional communities walked and still walk more lightly on this earth.  The Navajo cycle of spiritual sustainability, for example, is the way of balance, harmony, and hope. The Center for Ecoliteracy says, “When nature is our teacher, we can see that long-lasting change requires looking beyond individual “problems” to address the patterns that connect them.”[20] My dissertation research hopes to recognize and describe this traditional knowledge and the patterns that inform it; it is our collective legacy.


Vandana Shiva asserts that, “The act of living and of celebrating and conserving life in all its diversity – in people and in nature – seems to have been sacrificed to progress, and the sanctity of life been substituted by the sanctity of science and development.”[21] We are left, then, with the questions we started with. I wish you the bit of unease that having some unanswered questions may always give you.  It is the space in which personal and social change happens.  I count on the utility of unease.  It is a space of vulnerability that we share with each other.


Ultimately this is a beautiful theory.  Beautiful in its heroic complexity, and beautiful in its fragile simplicity. Resilience is not alone a characteristic of natural systems, or human systems.  Resilience is also a personal quality.  It radiates among humility and compassion as a quality that is a living mission statement.  Something we strive for.  Something that has more to do about relationship and community than it has to do about ourselves.


I desire to reclaim a coherent connection to nature.  I yearn to claim my responsibility to hold and maintain the natural world as sacred.  I aspire to use my unique position in the web of existence to fight for social justice and in so doing to champion a different, more flexible, respectful way of being of this world and not only in it.  To do this I must learn the ability to be wounded and to be an activist at the same time.  The environmental tragedies that we have created demand nothing less of me.


I finish this lecture tonight with a profound sense of urgency that itself is complicated by the teeter-totter of hope and concern. Technology, yes, will fix some of the environmental mess we have made by that same addiction to technology.  However, it will not be the ultimate answer.  It will be accompanied by a commitment to what is noble, good, and exemplary in humans.  It will require a spiritual “fix” as well.  Be still.  Discover what is sacred to you.  I suggest that this earth and all its creatures and features, animals and minerals, seas and skies, it is all sacred.  Thank you.


“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.” Albert Einstein



[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Cresskill NJ: Hampton Press, 2002), accessed from http://www.oikos.org/baten.htm

[3] I mean here the term “read” in the British sense of doctoral studies, which, indeed recognizes more accurately one of the more important tasks of obtaining an advanced degree.  I study at Antioch University New England in the oldest environmental studies program in the country and hope to be finished by 2014.

[4] Natalie Jeremijenko, “The Art of the Eco Mindshift,” TED Talks, October 2009, accessed from http://www.ted.com/talks/natalie_jeremijenko_the_art_of_the_eco_mindshift.html

[5] Emma Ridgway, “Rethink: a New Improbable Form of Life” accessed from Contemporary Art and Climate Change, http://www.rethinkclimate.org/debat/rethink-art/?show=doc

[7] C.S. Holling, “Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems,” Ecosystems 4 (2001): 395.

[8] Dana Phillips, “Ecocriticism, Literary Theory, and the Truth of Ecology,” New Literary History 30, no. 3 (1999): 580.

[9] Garry Peterson, “Ten Conclusions from the Resilience Project,” accessed from http://www.geog.mcgill.ca/faculty/peterson/susfut/rNetFindings.html

[10] Lance H. Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience–In Theory and Application,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 31 (2000), 426-427.

[11] C.S. Holling, L.H. Gunderson, D. Ludwig, “In Quest of a Theory of Adaptive Change,” in Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature, ed. L.H Gunderson, and C.S Holling (Washington DC: Island Press, 2002), 8.

[12] Ibid., 8.

[13] C.S. Holling, “Understanding the Complexity,” 390.

[14] Holling, Gunderson, and Ludwig, “In Quest,” 11.

[15] Madeleine Bunting, Art and Climate, Arts and Ecology, accessed from http://www.artsandecology.org.uk/magazine/features/madeleine-bunting/

[16] The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Art accessed from http://www.thersa.org/projects/design

[18] The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Art, accessed from http://www.thersa.org/projects/design

[19] Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecology (New York: Routledge, 1999) is one of Professor Berkes key works on this subject.  His biography can be accessed at http://umanitoba.ca/institutes/natural_resources/nri_about_faculty_profileberkes.html

[20] Center for Ecoliteracy, “Explore: Solving for Pattern,” accessed at http://www.ecoliteracy.org/nature-our-teacher/solving-pattern

[21] Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology & Development (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1989), xvi.

Butterfly, Sparrow, Eagle

The Chidambaram[1] Allegory: The Butterfly, The Sparrow, and The Eagle

In this world there are three ages of humans – the butterfly, the sparrow, and the eagle. When we are butterflies, we are new.  We expend enormous amounts of energy flitting from flower to flower, playing with other butterflies and insects.  Testing our wings with rapid flutterings.  Staying still in the sunlight for only the briefest of moments before flying off again to some new taste, delight, or experience.

When we gain responsibilities we become sparrows.  We soar on strong wings, we are busy.  We build nests.  We dive and soar and build in our busy-ness and responsibility.

When we are eagles we are thoughtful, searching, still.  We are purposeful.  Our wisdom is like keen sight.  We soar, but in soaring we are watching, hovering, still.


Grow up humans!  Although I cannot hope to rush us through a spiritual growth that is probably developmental, I am feeling compelled to shout at my fellow earthlings, ‘Grow up!”  We are flitting, and playing, and fluttering with seemingly little regard to the awesome responsibility that is demanded of us by our relationship with all earth.  We still use too much, do too much, drive too much, drink too much, eat too much, consume too much, purchase too much.  Are we ready to dive and soar and build?  Are we preparing ourselves for the still times?

I have only a short post today.  I am not inclined to theorizing, analyzing, extemporizing.  My reading is spinning back and forth between ecofeminism, political economy, research epistemology, ethnography, and being glued to the poignant scenes of loving and courteous gratitude that accompany Fenix 2 plunging in and out of the bowels of the Chilean earth more than 3 dozen times in 24 hours.

I watch for the crowning of the capsule every time as if I am easing a small head out of crowning at a mother’s perineum.  I am giddy with an inexplicable happy sadness. I, too, experience that heady recognition of our common ability to be noble, good, exemplary.  The technological fix for the consequences of our addictions to earth’s minerals is ironic and yet sorrowfully beautiful.

Technology, yes, will fix some of the environmental mess we have made by that same addiction to technology.  However, it will not be the ultimate answer.  It will be accompanied by a commitment to what is noble, good, exemplary in humans.  It will require a spiritual “fix” as well.  Be still.  Find what is sacred.  This earth and all its creatures and features, animals and minerals, seas and skies, it is all sacred.


[1] Chidambaram is the location in Buckingham, Virginia where Sri Swami Satchidananda is interred.  I sat on the hill, in peace, and composed this in 2004.

Wattle and Daub

Wattle and Daub[1]

A Three-Day Ethnography, Thoughts on Vandana Shiva, and True Confessions from the Development Fast Lane.

(Another Version of El Último Pueblito en el Río Santiago:  This time I may even have outdone myself.  Imagine a remote, humid, tropical country.  Close to the equator is good.  Little visited by tourists is even better.  Drive at least half a day from the capital city.  Then go into the bush by four-wheel drive, boat, horseback, walking…there is where you will find Claudia.)

Day One, Evening: On this trip I have my Discovery Channel/National Geographic/Margaret Mead moment in a canoe speeding upstream and running rapids deeper into the Choco Andean rainforest corridor for an hour.  The river is serpentine, swift, boasting white water on every curve. Rocky banks are dotted with small villages of ten, twenty shacks, which banks shortly give way to steep vertical shores of dense green impenetrable jungle dotted with waterfalls.

In between overhanging vines and palms as tall as three-story buildings I glimpse a flash of neon blue that I assume is a bird.  It’s a butterfly the size of a bird. Our driver reads the water and threads the rapids with the skill of experience and the high-speed freedom of youth.  Over our heads dart more butterflies.  I glimpse one the color of lemon curd.  Another is fire engine red.

Playa de Oro is a village of families.  Children under five play on every available dusty space and tree.  A not at all shy 5-year-old, Mercedes, establishes herself as my welcoming committee after boldly watching my clumsy disembarkment from the canoe parked now at the stone and cement, manmade dock.  Older girls and women are washing clothes, slapping large wooden paddles on top of soapy mountains of laundry, on the quiet shoreside eddies of the swiftly flowing, grey green river. Adult men, and some women, have walked out to their fincas with their bright yellow gumboots on, to tend to plantings of cocoa and bananas amidst the rainforest.  An old man sits in the middle of our conversation, attentive, quiet, diffidently smoking a cigarette.  Even the chickens come to fuss over our arrival and introductory conversation.

Bernardo, my driver, guide, and travel companion has become very solicitous and protective now.  True, I am exhausted from the altitude sickness in Quito, dizzy from the twisting mountain curves descending 9,000 feet in five hours.  I am probably dehydrated and I am definitely bone tired.  I find out after we have left Playa de Oro that Bernardo is also concerned with me as a way of hiding his own shakiness from posttraumatic stress due to a previous encounter in this same village, fifteen years ago, which left him terribly distressed.

In the meantime, Bernardo arranges that the ‘ecotourism cabins’ are quickly outfitted with clean sheets, and stained but clean towels, and most importantly, mosquito nets.  Think lovely, but No Star Accommodations. The cabins that rarely see tourists are constructed like the village houses, on four foot stilts and made of wood with zinc roofs.  There is an internal bathroom that is not very clean, but with running cold water.  I wash off the quite dried evidence of the last occupant’s bout of diarrhea from the toilet, and then drink as much bottled water as I can, as quickly as I can.

We meet in the village for a hot lunch of squash soup with cheese, stewed chicken, and rice, made by Doña Elena.  We eat to the hum of the electric generator in the yard.  The local “restaurant” allows itself all day electricity when there are guests.  Neighboring children trickle in and out to play with a ten-month-old scooting around the linoleum floor in a walker.  The older children ask politely for ice from the freezer, which is freely given. Based on the quiet, bashful stares from the children, some of the errands seem like good excuses to check out Claudia and Bernardo, the strangers in town.  The lunch is sumptuous.

The morning’s coffee and hot chocolate prevent me from a nap, but the headache and dizziness are leaving.  In the afternoon I listen to the river, which I have a clear view of from the porch of my cabin, flowing swiftly past the village houses.  I observe the birds flitting in and out of the palms, and I sink deeply into village life tranquility, watching barefoot preadolescent boys climb trees and race back and forth inside of their own ready-to-hand dramas.

Day Three, Daybreak: I’m sitting under the tented mosquito net on a double bed.  It’s too hot for blankets or covers, and I wrap myself with a damp sheet of indeterminate color.  Day Two began with the insistent crowing of the village roosters, who had been importantly strutting around the village impotently attempting crowd control with their respective hens.  Judging by the stewed chicken we again had for lunch these free ranging chickens are well cared for.

Now I am sitting under the mosquito net, altogether awakened by the moon shining full and bright on my face. The moon had left me alone all night in her bed of clouds, giving me a three minute blessing just before daybreak. I am bathed by moonlight coming in at an angle through the netted ventilation at the top of my cabin. Night falls and day rises with the speed known only at the equator.  Twelve hours of daylight, twelve of darkness.  Always.

Last night’s meeting with the village council, 13 men approximately ages 18 to 40, went seemingly well.  At lunch yesterday the village headman sat with us and exchanged the pleasantries and bantering teases with Bernardo that seem typically permissible with long and amiable acquaintance.  In the last two days I have felt mostly reactions of warmth, welcome, curiosity, and a reserved respect.  Judging by observed interactions between the village’s children and adults I assume the deference is due to my age.

Right before our official meeting I had been watching, from my porch, an entertaining, humorous thirty-minute reality drama involving four young girls and two pigs.  I also had a chance to ask Bernardo if there were alligators in the river (no) and if the name of the village meant there was gold in the river (yes).  Black Ecuadorians, Black Gold, who knew?  The almost magical legend of this village, nearly 500 years old, riveted me.  I have collected stories already.  There are more to come.

Day Three, Late Morning: I awoke feeling happy and healthy for the first time in many days.  The good, fresh, simple food, a warm vibe, the cold bucket baths, rest, the hum of the river.  I watched carefully at the restaurant, which is also the cook’s house, as Doña Elena, her husband, the village headman, and the cook’s daughter took turns nursing the daughter’s 10-month-old son who seems to have a stomach bug and is vomiting breastmilk after every feed.  I cannot help intervening to give my opinion on the medications the baby has been given by the doctor.  The family agrees to go back to the clinic and get something more appropriate.  I notice the ease with which the baby is passed around, especially back and forth to the men, who seem happy and comfortable with this bit of nurturing.

I am intrigued and hunger for more tales.


My friend Stan, from Brooklyn, coined the term “Development Fast Lane” which expression he and I sometimes traded for “Expatriate Fast Lane” as terms of endearment and derision for the life we shared for four years in Dhaka.  Our children were in the same class in the international high school, and Stan and I were in the same development line of work – family planning, reproductive health, and girls’ education.  Both of us were directors of two of the dozen or so multimillion dollar projects being financed by the US government and the World Bank in 1989 in Bangladesh.  Stan, his wife and daughter lived within walking distance of where I stayed with my three sons.

I have no embarrassment for the role we played at a unique time in Bangladesh development history.  The USAID mission was dynamic and knowledgeable and inclined to say yes to any good ideas.  Our Bangladeshi colleagues were well educated, superbly skilled, and along with key partners in the Bangladeshi government they were committed to the work of bringing reproductive freedom and reproductive health to the multitudes of their fellow citizens in abject poverty.  We listened to our hosts, explored with them the farthest reaches of this beautiful, water-soaked delta, and ran interference with the bureaucrats in the Embassy, USAID, Washington DC, and our respective NGO headquarters.  It was a heady time.  We had huge projects, large budgets, fleets of four-wheel drive Toyotas, we were accountable, we worked hard.

Bangladeshis and expatriates, both, we felt we were making a difference to the intolerable and unnecessary injustices of hunger, poverty, ignorance, disease. In the midst of doing such interesting, important work that, it seemed, was what development work was meant to be about, it was impossible not to get caught up in the politics of The Development Fast Lane. Soon after completing my post in Bangladesh I moved on to Southern Africa and Stan moved back to the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia.[2] During my time in Bangladesh development work started to change in form and process if not in intent.

I would maintain that the intent of development programs was always more than a little suspect. Development had to be seen, at minimum, as the neocolonial project of assuaging Western guilt for the plunder of natural and human resources that fueled the incessant demands of colonialism and post-WWII capital for production and growth while leaving the cultures from which these resources were pillaged in social, economic, and environmental tatters.  It was always that way, and Stan and I, along with many of our colleagues, were aware of this.

Development was never solely a project of the benevolent sharing of resources.[3] It was ever a political project, an economic ideology that supported the core beliefs and aims of Western, twentieth century capitalist globalization.  Indian scientist, activist, and feminist, Vandana Shiva, in her book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, has said, “The ideology of development is in large part based on a vision of bringing all natural resources into the market economy for commodity production.”[4]

However, in the early 1990s development work definitely started to change in form and process.  The change started gradually, as a seemingly benign demand for project efficiency and effectiveness.  Underneath arguably useful structures and requirements for program evaluation lurked an insistence on development projects’ role in the opening of markets to global corporatization and commercial capitalism.

In the new efficient development, services, communities, and the environment were increasingly commoditized and privatized rendering ironic and futile the very attempts to lift the poorest out of misery so that they might be made consumers of their basic needs – health care, education, agricultural commodities, fuel, and water.  Lifting the standards of living of all communities maintained a veneer of humanitarian feel-goodery, while simultaneously attempting to hide the real scheme which is the necessity under neoliberal economic growth models to expand consumerism beyond the already saturated commodity markets of the West and North, along with the insatiable demand of commodity capitalism for natural resources.

The marriage of development and business led to increasingly bureaucratic, imperialist organizational structures in the headquarters and field operations of the government and large non-government institutions that were leading the organization of these corporate-friendly development programs.  Non-government agencies’ boards of directors became less influenced by charitable interests and more business dominated, with the promises of funding that new types of board members could bring to governance and decision-making.  As boards became co-opted, so too did the structures, staff, and projects of these agencies.  One need only examine the history of American conservation and environment NGOs and their cooptation by government and big business funding to see an example of the direction these alliances assume.[5]

Over the last two decades the forms and processes of development program management moved from an emphasis on bureaucratic efficiency in development projects and institutions, to an insistence on alliances with the corporate sector in managing development work, and finally to the management of development projects by global corporations and their consulting divisions, funded by government/corporate partnerships that epitomize development program implementation today.

By necessity the corporate project of development is at odds with the basic needs of the communities that are the “beneficiaries” and victims of development projects.  Global capital demands production and consumerism while the poorest communities continue to struggle with unmet basic needs of food, water, and shelter.  Perhaps more important under the development/corporate alliance it is impossible to create an incentive for a fundamental shift in thinking that would make it possible for a still, but barely, resource wealthy world to realize success in improving the lives of all of nature, including humans.  Shiva has described it as, “Their (the poor) new impoverishment lies in the fact that resources which supported their survival were absorbed into the market economy while they themselves were excluded and displaced by it.”[6]


I’m back in the field teaching the fundamental principles of entrepreneurship and small business management to unemployed women in the poorest rural community in South Africa.  We have been diverted from the lesson plan on cash flow and balance sheets and are talking about the politics of development instead.  I’m well known in the community, but I am and always will be a representative from another world.  “Mom Claudia, Baba Tutu says we Africans had the land and the Europeans had the Bible, and after colonialism the Europeans had our land and we had their Bible.  What do you think about that?”

I know a loaded question when I see one and my usual strategy is to walk right into the fray with some shred of courage.  I recount the story of the land and the bonnets.  When European missionaries and colonialists entered Africa they came bringing their cultural and religious baggage with them.  The intruders often encountered southern African women toiling on their large subsistence agricultural plots, exposed to the unrelenting African sun.  They found the men waiting at the community tree, occupying that space between the timing of the hunt, construction projects, and governance issues.  This greatly displeased these Europeans.  They convinced African men to take over agriculture and introduced land tenure for commercial and export intentions.  They clothed the African women in European printed cotton, taught them how to curtsy to the monarch back home, and made them sit in the shade of the village tree weaving baskets, sewing bonnets, and reciting the Bible.  It was the best the immigrants could do to bring their idea of the superior project of European womanhood and economically motivated gender relations to savages.

A moment of ponderous silence is rapidly terminated by uproarious laughter and a cacophony of voices in English, Shangaan, and Sotho all shouting to make heard their opinions of development, colonialism, and tradition.  “Mama Claudia, it’s traditional for us to curtsy when we serve our men!”  I shoot back, “Yes, but where did that tradition actually come from?”  We never make it back to our scripted curriculum on small business accounting

I will end, with something that Vandana Shiva said that demonstrates how we have gone astray.  “The act of living and of celebrating and conserving life in all its diversity – in people and in nature – seems to have been sacrificed to progress, and the sanctity of life been substituted by the sanctity of science and development.”[7]

I have much more to investigate regarding Vandana Shiva’s brand of ecofeminism.  I am going to move from this brief exploration of Shiva’s critique of development, through an examination of her deconstruction of science, and on to an analysis of Shiva’s and other ecofeminist writers’ ideas on the ontology of the feminine in achieving balanced living.  It’s too much to explore in this one, rambling, essay.


“There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for some people’s greed.”  Mahatma Gandhi


[1] Wattle and daub (or wattle-and-daub) is a building material used for making walls, in which a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. Wattle and daub has been used for at least 6,000 years, and is still an important construction material in many parts of the world. Many historic buildings include wattle and daub construction, and the technique is becoming popular again in more developed areas as a low-impact sustainable building technique. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wattle_and_daub

[2] Thailand, Burma, Laos area.

[3] Cartoon by Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: http://www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au/cartoon_2842.html

[4] Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London:  Zed Books, 1989), 9.

[5] This is a fascinating story that is beyond my experience or expertise and I will not discuss here.

[6] Shiva, Staying Alive, 13.

[7] Shiva, Staying Alive, introduction, xiiii.

Grandmother of Plants

Grandmother of Plants

A longish story about hope in the face of these large and looming ecological problems and Grandma’s ecological ontology, epistemology, and methodology.

My African American Grandmother, Elsie Hill, was the Mother of her church.  Now, to be the Mother of a small African American church in the integrated and yet still very racist North of America of the 1940s in New York City was no small duty.  It came along with the tasks of full time housewife, mother to a high strung, creative, exuberant, loquacious, flirtatious Colored Girl (my mother), Harlem and then Bronx urban gardener, Big Sister, entrepreneur, landlady, Keeper of White Ladies Houses, Confidences, and Used Clothing (maid), and, by the 1950s, full time Grandmother to two rambunctious, overly intellectual, and probably spoiled children of the same rambunctious, and now Negro Daughter (me and my brother).

In case this is hard to follow let me supply the dry facts.  My Grandmother was the oldest of six, southern born and bred.  She had one child, my mother.  My mother had three children, two who lived – my elder brother and me.  One person called my Grandma “Mom” and two called her “Grandma Hill” and one called her “Elsie” (my Grandfather) and the rest of the world knew her as Big Sister (even her parents), Sister Hill, or Mother Hill.  Because she was, as I am explaining, the Mother of her small, charismatic (before fundamentalist) Baptist church.

Being Church Mother I invoke Grandma’s spirit and example in a number of wisdom tasks that will become important to this essay on, well, on the ecological significance of plants and the epistemology of Grandma’s traditional knowledge.

First and foremost Mother Hill knew about prayer.  Grandma Hill had a PhD in Prayer.  It was common knowledge in the extended African American nee Black nee Afro American nee Negro nee Colored communities of Harlem and the Bronx, that if you were fortunate to know Mother Hill and unfortunate enough to find yourself in some sort of trouble of a spiritual, mental, or emotional kind then all you had to do was beseech her help.  Grandma Hill would listen carefully and non-judgmentally.  She might clasp her hands together and offer a few well timed, “Lawd, what’s this world comin’ to!” to make it easier for you to get through your story.  You would ask her to help you and she would go from warm, soft, bosomy Mother to steely-eyed CSI investigator.  “Are you SURE you want that?”  Grandma would ask.  “Cause if you REALLY want it, I’ll PRAY for you.”

What was left unspoken was the awesome, you-better-mean-it-and-be-ready power of Mother Hill’s direct Hot Line to God. It was personal.  It was potent. She had a lot of satisfied customers and repeat business.  Even among the extended family.  Especially among the extended family.  There were a great number of daunting spiritual, emotional, and mental challenges for people of color in the 1950s and 1960s to keep Grandma busy in prayer.

As Keeper of White Ladies Houses, Confidences, and Used Clothing, Grandma Hill knew just how to swing things.  She scrubbed many a floor and cleaned many a bathroom, but no one who she worked for would have imagined herself superior to Miz Hill for even a nanosecond.  Grandma Hill would trudge back home to the immaculately maintained apartment on the third floor of the apartment building that she owned (!) with brown paper bags and shopping bags full of discarded clothes, shoes, and kitchen items.

“Lawd knows I don’t need this junk!” Grandma would declare, as she made known that she was accepting the castaways for the benefit of the good feelings of Her White Lady.  Then Grandma Hill would arrange that clothes found their way to the cousin who needed them or the church member who was doing without.  As she was parceling out items and simultaneously mediating the internecine squabbles of her younger brothers and sisters – half of whom lived right next to her in the Bronx, and half who maintained the family legacies in Virginia – I would hear Grandma muttering under her breath, “Imma pray for these nice white ladies now.”

When Grandma went back to the still segregated South to look after her family and traditions, we often went with her.  Still there was many a time when Grandma and Grandpa Hill were away and their only daughter and only granddaughter had the herculean task of looking after the apartment’s forest of house plants.  Hundreds of house plants.  All carefully grown from cuttings that were arranged on the kitchen window ledge in clean jelly jars.

Watering the plants was not a task my mother relished, oh no.  She would mutter and fuss before, during, and after the house plant watering operation.  There were plants on shelves, in windowsills, on the fire escape, and in the bathroom and it would take the two of us well over an hour to water all of them.  My favorite was the Century Plant that dominated the kitchen window.  My mother kept telling me it only bloomed every one hundred years and that I would get to see it bloom (eventually I did).  My mother did her daughterly duties, but could not hope to match the care my Grandma lavished on those plants.  The plants were Grandma’s other children – which may have explained my mother’s jealous mumblings about them, and Grandma washed their leaves, shined the succulents with a little bit of mayonnaise, and sang hymns to them.  They were a green thumb’s delight of riotous, leafy, exuberant growth.  The country in a city apartment, the oasis amidst the bricks and mortar.

After caring for the apartment full of plants we would go downstairs and water the back yard garden.  A similar riot of fruit, herbs, tomatoes, vegetables, corn, a grape arbor.  “Good Lord, she should just move back down South,” complained my mother meanwhile I played at watering while running under the hose with my brother.

What do these ruminations of childhood have to do with environmental studies?  As I come to understand the debates in ecological feminism, a seminal tenet is the importance of questioning the currently dominant models of science, technology, and economics in their claim to objectivity when in fact they are part and parcel of a consciously value based and culturally derived Western, patriarchal process of development, destruction, and domination.

As Vandana Shiva has pointed out, “development” is actually “maldevelopment” and, “Maldevelopment is the violation of the integrity of organic, interconnected and interdependent systems, that sets in motion a process of exploitation, inequality, injustice and violence.  It is blind to the fact that a recognition of nature’s harmony and action to maintain it are preconditions for distributive justice.  Maldevelopment is maldevelopment in thought and action.”[1]

The Grandmother of Plants comprehended, and taught me by example, the unity and holistic ecology of another way of knowing. Grandma understood, in the mean years of the 1950s, that even Her White Ladies needed the gift of being able to give, along with the gift of unasked for prayer, as she rightfully grasped they were oppressed by their own perpetuation of oppression and discrimination.  Grandma understood and enacted the social benefits of community and maintained the redistributive sustenance needs of her community and family.

Grandma’s ontological paradigm was at once constructivist (multiple realities), transformative (shaped by social, political, cultural, economic, racial, and gender values) and pragmatic (what is useful determines what is true).  Grandma’s epistemology was formed around the interactive, interdependent, and complex links between herself, her family, her community, her church, her employers, and her North/South dual and historically constructed geography of Jim Crow Era America.

And her garden and house plants. Grandma was a dedicated researcher of the interconnectedness of people and plants.  Grandma understood the ecology of a successful organic urban garden.  The Grandmother of Plants was, methodologically speaking, an Activist Gardener.  The Grandmother of Plants knew, firsthand, the power of prayer.


kitchens dominated by Formica tables

with stainless steel strips around their edges

yellow tables, the color of freshly churned country butter

glass topped butter dishes

gold-rimmed sugar bowls

plastic paper napkin and matching salt and pepper shakers

marvelous shakers labeled P and S

fat bellied enigmatic short white men

with big red painted smiles and white bakers hats

punctuated on top with tiny holes

yellow Formica tabletops freshly scrubbed

matching chairs pulled neatly up

a little girl with her nose just barely above the table top

served a snack of hot cocoa

and thick slices of freshly baked lemony pound cake

from hand painted flowered china plates and teacups

kitchens dominated by my grandmothers

the toasted brown Cherokee one lived quietly down

a steep flight of stairs in the duplex below us

endless hands of Gin and Rummy and Old Maid

until I revealed my strategy of beating her

through the reflection of her cards in her glasses

and we switched to silent games of dominoes

the chocolate brown African one chit chattering chit chattering

in the third floor of a solid brick apartment building

a riot of noise and plants and knick knacks

always ready to lull me into a heavy child’s sleepiness

climbing high on top of the wooden bed with the high headboard

mountainous cushiony mattress and pillows

smelling of starched linens, mothballs, furniture polish and afternoon sunshine

a deep mahogany voice explaining yet again

about Brer Rabbit fooling Mr. Fox

with the help of the mute but dangerous Tar Baby

[1] Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Development, Ecology and Women (London: Zed Books, 1989), 5-6.

[2] Claudia J. Ford, Unpublished Poetry, 2002.

Not Dominion, Not Stewardship: Reflections on the human relationship to nature.

(This essay is modified from a sermon I gave on Sunday 8 August 2010, at First Unitarian Church of Providence directly after a three-week trip to Belize, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador.)

Feminist author Susan Griffin writes, “A deep and continuing relationship with all other forms of existence is an ancient aspect of human consciousness.”[1] Unitarian Universalist principles state, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
I began to contemplate these ideas with a series of questions.  How do we remain hopeful in the face of environmental challenges like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?  What responsibility should we take for ourselves, for each other, and for the planet in this age of global warming?  If we are committed to respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, what exactly hat does that mean, and how can that be made a part of our value system and spiritual practice?

In this essay I will raise many more questions than I can possibly answer.  In fact I have no answers to most of the questions I am about to raise.  The only answer, in summary, that I can safely give is, “It’s complicated.”   I feel uneasy.  I write this with a profound sense of urgency that itself is complicated by the teeter-totter of hope and despair.

I grew up a Baptist in a Unitarian Church in New York City and now I’m comfortably settled back into being Unitarian since I can neatly stuff the additional learnings from Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism, and Islam into that one satchel. The Christian part of me has always been a bit confounded by the 8th Psalm. Here is the Jewish version:

1 ADONAI! Our Lord! How glorious is your name throughout the earth! The fame of your majesty spreads even above the heavens!

2 From the mouths of babies and infants at the breast you established strength because of your foes, in order that you might silence the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place –

4 what are mere mortals, that you concern yourself with them; humans, that you watch over them with such care?

5 You made him but little lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor,

6 you had him rule what your hands made, you put everything under his feet –

7 sheep and oxen, all of them, also the animals in the wilds,

8 the birds in the air, the fish in the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas.

9 ADONAI! Our Lord! How glorious is your name throughout the earth!

What, really, could be meant by dominion or rule over all things?  Humans have lived by and made a total hash of this dominion paradigm.  We have trampled the animals, birds, and sea creatures that were given to our care. Dominion, dominance, power, control; the origin word is the Latin dominus.  Humans are the “god” of domesticated and wild animals, birds, fish, and other sea creatures?  Given our track record so far what a troubling notion this is.  Let me set the idea of the 8th Psalm aside, then, and look at the equally problematic notion of stewardship.

“Historically, stewardship was the responsibility given to household servants to bring food and drinks to a castle dining hall. The term was then expanded to indicate a household employee’s responsibility for managing household or domestic affairs. Stewardship later became the responsibility for taking care of passengers’ domestic needs on a ship, train and airplane, or managing the service provided to diners in a restaurant. The term continues to be used in these specific ways, but it is also used in a more general way to refer to a responsibility to take care of something owned by someone else.”[2]

In the process of investigating the foundations underlying a Western idea of the human relationship with nature I am left feeling confused and inadequate.  Aldo Leopold admonishes us, “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.” (Land is what Leopold names the natural environment.) “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect….that land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”[3]

The 8th Psalm idea of dominion and the notion of stewardship seem both to be saying that we should have control over that which does not belong to us and a duty to take care of the same. I’m not happy with this.  I suspect that our relationship to nature is far simpler and far more complex than this. We are an inseparable part of nature. It is our alienation from this certainty that is causing unimaginable misery for ourselves and our environment.

Annie Dillard reminds us that Hasidism has a tradition that one of man’s purposes is to assist God in the work of redemption by making holy and sacred the things of creation.[4] I’m going to a river in Ecuador, and a beach in Colombia, to see if I can tell the stories that will get at this sacred responsibility, this covenant that I think is the essence of our relationship to the Earth.

In Ecuador I find myself in the last village on the River Santiago.  The equatorial rainforest drips, humid and green.  The river is clear, swift, blue grey.  Cerulean blue butterflies the size of birds cavort over waterfalls careening down mossy rocks.  Lemon curd yellow and fire engine red butterflies dance over the wake of the canoe.  A bird mocks us by flying alongside as we dash upstream through the twists and turns of the rapids.

The village of stilted wood and bamboo cottages appears around the next bend.  It is much as it always has been, and only the fall of night, the drone of TV sets, bare light bulbs, blaring salsa music, give way the degree of modernization.  It is a village of African Ecuadoreans.  Forced in slavery by the colonial Spanish to extract the gold that lies in the sand of the river, they eventually killed their Spanish masters and remained at the farthest end of the inhabited part of the river. They have outlasted the Spanish, the English who came and took the rest of the gold, the Ecuadorean military, the ecotourists.  They plant cacao and bananas and protect hundreds of hectares of rainforest.

I’m enchanted, yes, but more interested to know how they feel about the road that may soon reach their village that has always been unreachable except by canoe.  The village headman tells me this is progress, a necessary evil.  The grandmother who cooks our meals listens and shakes her head.  No one is sure.

My fleeting thoughts as I leave the last village on the Rio Santiago? For some inexplicable reason I am reminded that the tragedy of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is related to the purity of the rushing water of this river.  Does one herald the end of the other?  Alternatively, does the river promise redemption, healing?  If we destroy ourselves in the pollution, violence and war of our teeming filthy cities, and this village, these people, are what remains, perhaps we can count ourselves fortunate.  Perhaps this is a life we should strive for.  I vow to come back and learn more of the good and the bad of this heaven on earth.

My next story is dark and powerful, more questions abound.  I am two days into the La Guajira peninsula of Colombia, not far from the Venezuelan border.  We have spent most of the day bouncing around in a four-wheel drive jeep driven by Don Salustio over the dirt, potholed roads as if it is a prize wild stallion.

My head hurts with trying to grasp the size of the coal mine we have visited.  We have now been from the deep coal pits in the mountains along the 150 km to the Caribbean port city of Puerto Bolivar where gigantic coal barges lie in wait to be filled so they may ferry the coal across the Atlantic to the electric plants of Europe.

This coalmine is the largest open pit mining operation in the world.  It started thirty years ago when the Arawak indigenous people, the Wayúu, were forced off their ancestral lands to make way for the mining operation – the mines, the mining compound as big as a large military base, the port for storage and loading, the railroad that carries the coal from pit to port.  The Wayúu are still here.  Marginalized, poor, resentful, living and breathing amidst the coal dust on the outskirts of their homelands.

Coal generated electricity is the single most polluting and dirty source of climate warming carbon in the world.  I struggle to grasp what I am witnessing as the coal passes through long snake like chutes to the ship waiting at harbor.  A lone worker sweeps coal dust that falls to the ground

Don Salustio tells us that when the railroad was first constructed young Wayúu men and women would regularly lie down on the railroad tracks and be run over by the 120-car coal trains.  The mining company would pay the families of the victims.  Don Salustio says, “They stopped that payment.  It seemed to be encouraging the Wayúu to commit suicide.”

I gaze out the car window at the dusty, dry, beautiful land and wonder if the Wayúu, living in their own and very different paradigm, were not in fact desperately trying to tell us something about the environmental tragedy of coal.

Susan Griffin states, “Yet, I do not find the loss of forests, the loss of a way to make a living, and a sense of meaninglessness unconnected.  There is a resemblance in the look and feel of a field that has been polluted with chemical waste, a neighborhood devastated by poverty and injustice, a battlefield.  And this resemblance is not coincidental.  The alienation of human society from nature has led to many different kinds of destruction, not the least of which has been the fragmentation of consciousness.”[5]

I went to South America looking for partnerships, for answers.  I leave with questions and uncertainty.  Is that not the reason we set aside a time for reflection, contemplation, worship?  I know for me it is.  If I had all the answers, if I had certainty, I would not bless certainty with faith.  I prefer to practice my uncertainty.  I prefer to make a personal covenant with the space of Not Knowing and to share that lonely vulnerability and fragility with others.

Back home, I am drawn to the videos of the oil spill with unreserved fascination and reluctance.  Like witnessing the catastrophe of a crash, I watch the Earth bleed from our rapacious and utterly unethical actions.  Morals crushed, destroyed by profit and greed.  The Earth hemorrhages black death and destruction.  I cannot watch.  I tune out.  I don’t want to know.  It is too awful to contemplate.

In the West, once, religious doctrine placed the sacred above the profane in all things.  Now technological authority, the might of science wielded by corporations and governments, has placed the profane, the scientific, above the sacred.[6] I am not okay with this.

I turn again to the words of Susan Griffin,  “If one would create an egalitarian society, nature must be restored as the common ground of existence.  Yet this common ground cannot be reclaimed without the transformation of an unjust social order.  And every aspect of this transformation demands reflection.  The task is to study the nightmare that has driven us to self-destruction.  The process of such a profound change may not be easy.  Yet old ideas of self, familiar maps of existence which have come to feel like life itself, are already dissolving.…And beneath familiar ideas of reality there lives perhaps an older sense of self tied to an older connection to the cosmos, a sense of being and place that holds a coherence one has all along desired.”[7]

I desire to reclaim this coherent connection to nature.  I yearn to claim my responsibility to hold and maintain the natural world as sacred.  I aspire to use my unique position in the web of existence to fight for social justice and in so doing to champion a different, simpler, respectful way of being of this world and not only in it.  To do this I must learn the ability to be wounded and to be an activist at the same time.  The environmental tragedies that we have created demand nothing less of me.

[1] Susan Griffin, The Eros of Everyday Life: Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1995), 84.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stewardship (I will always confine my use of Wikipedia to that of a dictionary, a definition of terms.)

[3] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1949), xviii.

[4] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974), 94.

[5] Griffin, The Eros of Everyday Life, 9.

[6] Ibid., 35.

[7] Ibid., 46.

Movements of Compassion?

It seems that I have spent the last thirty years of my life engaging directly in the practice and praxis of observing, encountering, engaging, and inquiring about women, their bodies, their lives, their families, and their communities. It is exactly what I have seen, experienced, and facilitated of women’s relationships to nature, and how those relationships are expressed, that I feel compelled to explore in this blog.  This curiosity comes directly out of my experience of being a cultural nomad and cultural observer. These peripatetic experiences have taught me that women as a category do not hold shared experiences or practices of nature or of life, but I am interested to know if they hold shared beliefs within what Marti Kheel calls, “movements of compassion.”

I am concerned about the differential impacts of global environmental change on women, the poor, the marginalized, and the peripheries of the globe.  I am concerned with how the voices of those who are disempowered, impoverished, or marginalized will be heard and represented in the current policy debates on the solutions to what are described by adaptive management theorists as ‘wicked’ environmental problems.[1] Ultimately, what is at stake is the urgent requirement to heed concepts of human and societal resilience from sources that are too often muted. The hope is that these ideas can be steps on the arduous journey of global transformation of human-environment relationships that most environmental theorists would agree lie close ahead for human society.

I am aware that indigenous and gendered global movements to effect and influence change run deep and strong – the communities at the margins of world society do not need anyone to speak on their behalf, and I would not presume to do so regardless of the amount of time I have spent as a cultural learner in so many peripheral societies and countries. I am also aware that indigenous communities, and especially women of these communities, hold on to views of nature and people that are different from those of the majority of current decision makers.

How will localized, different, and gendered environmental knowledges contribute to resilient solutions to global environmental and social challenges?

[1] “Environmental scientists describe these issues as being wicked problems, not in the sense of having malicious intent, but rather as obstinate or intractable dilemmas. From William P. Cunningham and Mary Ann Cunningham, Principles of Environmental Science. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002)