Which Side Are You On?

imagesFor the past few nights I have been putting myself to sleep by reading an advance copy of my friend Jan Krause Greene’s new novel, I Call Myself Earth Girl.

It’s not exactly a feel-good bedtime story, dealing as it does with rape, environmental disaster, death and bereavement.

But it’s also about empathy and love, between family members and also on a worldwide scale.

In Greene’s vision, the Earth and its denizens can be saved from catastrophe by mindful attention to what really matters: affirming life, both our own and that of the unborn generations to come.

Not since Starhawk’s 1994 masterpiece The Fifth Sacred Thing have I come across a book that so clearly matches my own waking nightmare of the terrible times that await us in the future, if we do not succeed in changing our ways now.

Let’s face it: it is possible that the kind of violence afflicting resource-starved places like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia will become the norm in much more of the world, as climate instability creates food shortages and accelerates the pace of natural disasters beyond our capacity to recover.

America is a tinderbox just waiting to go off.  Imagine what would happen if suddenly it was not possible to go down to the supermarket and get your week’s worth of groceries?

Such a scenario is more or less unthinkable to people like me, who have grown up cradled by the richest breadbasket in the world.

We are only beginning to realize the costs that have come with our cornucopia: the destruction of the virgin prairies in the Midwest, the poisoning of the earth, water and air with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; the grotesque factory farms of livestock and fish; the genetic alteration of seeds; the destruction of local farming by the huge predatory monster of American-style factory farms.

We have grown fat on these practices.  And now it’s time for us to accept responsibility for the outcomes of our heedlessness.

Those of us alive today have the privilege, and the responsibility, of presiding over what could very well be the end times for human civilization.

It’s somewhat analogous to the end times of specific human cultures, like the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Ottomans, the great Chinese dynasties….except that this time, we’re not just talking about the end of a single culture, we’re talking about the demise of humanity as a species.

It is possible to imagine, as Jan Krause Greene did, that our lush green planet could turn brown from environmental disaster, provoking a culture of armed militias surviving by means of ruthless violence—with women, as always, at the bottom of the heap.

Tornado bearing down on Moore, OK; May 21, 2013

Tornado bearing down on Moore, OK; May 21, 2013

It is already happening—just not yet here, in the gated community we call America.

Can we wake up in time to forestall total, worldwide environmental melt-down?

In the past week we had a deadly two-mile-wide tornado in Oklahoma, and the Russian science station in the Arctic Circle had to be evacuated because the ice was melting at an unprecedented rate.

Here in New England we are expecting temperatures in the 30s Farenheit this weekend—way below normal for what should be the start of the growing season.

What’s next?

We don’t know.  But I take heart from local initiatives like the rehabilitation of the long-dormant Great Barrington Fairgrounds into a vibrant community-supported agriculture site.

We are going to have to re-localize agriculture if we want to survive the shocks of the 21st century.  We need to re-imagine not just agriculture, but community along with it.

As I Call Myself Earth Girl shows well, the antidote to violence and fear is love and empathy.

We still have a choice. Which way will you turn?  Which side are you on?  How far will you go to protect the planet and the generations to come?


Commencement 2013: Questions for Ben Bernanke

Tis the season of college Commencement ceremonies, where speakers are invited to address the graduates, giving them some advice and words of wisdom for this major transition time in their lives.

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke

At my institution, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the Class of 2013 will be addressed by none other than Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, whose son and daughter-in-law met as Simon’s Rock students.

Of course I am curious to hear what Mr. Bernanke will tell these spanking-new A.A. and B.A. graduates.

I wonder if he will mention the touchy issue of student debt, which the eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz just called a contemporary crisis on the same order of magnitude as the housing bubble crisis of 2008.

Stiglitz doesn’t mince his words in responding to the news that “total student debt, around $1 trillion, surpassed total credit-card debt last year.”  While it’s possible to learn to control credit card spending, he says, “curbing student debt is tantamount to curbing social and economic opportunity. College graduates earn $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries.”

In other words, young Americans and their families can’t afford not to do whatever it takes—including going into debt—to get that college degree, and beyond that graduate degrees as well.

The students I know are increasingly aware of their place in the big picture of American society.

Those who must take out loans to afford their college educations do so with eyes open, knowing that these loans will form a ball and chain around their ankles for many years to come.

I wonder if Ben Bernanke will talk about this?

Will he talk to this year’s graduating class about how, unlike with credit card or mortgage debt, it is almost impossible to discharge a student loan in bankruptcy court?

Will he explain why interest rates on Federal student loans are so much higher than the interest rates on the loans the Federal Reserve has made to the banks that caused the financial crisis of 2008?

As Mr. Stiglitz observes, “if the Federal Reserve is willing to lend to the banks that caused the crisis at just 0.75 percent, shouldn’t it be willing to lend to students, who will be crucial to our long-term recovery, at an appropriately low rate? The government shouldn’t be profiting from our poorest while subsidizing our richest.”

Besides the $1 trillion in student debt, there have been other major records broken in the past few weeks that Mr. Bernanke could address.  The Dow Jones has climbed above 15,000 this spring, a benchmark many thought would never be reached; and the carbon emissions rate has climbed above 400 parts per million, causing polar sea ice melt at rates and levels not seen in human history.

Will Mr. Bernanke talk about how and why it is that in a time when wealth disparity between the 1% and the rest is growing ever vaster, while the planet heats up and becomes ever more unstable and vulnerable, the stock market is soaring as never before?

I would be quite interested to hear his take on that.

Generally Commencement addresses are exhortatory in style.  Go forth, ye graduates, and conquer the world!  Or make it a better place!  Or do well for yourselves at least!

Today’s graduates need all the encouragement they can get as they make their way out into a society, a world and a planet where only the richest can feel secure—and even for those folks, climate change may make a mockery of that sense of stability.

The qualities most needed today are collaboration, creativity and resilience, along with a willingness to think outside the box and go for the roads less traveled.

Students at Simon’s Rock, a non-traditional early college for brilliant non-conformists, have all of these qualities and more.

I am proud to have accompanied some of them on a piece of their journey, and look to them to lead the way into the future we must all confront.

I hope that Ben Bernanke, who well knows the school and the type of students it attracts, will speak to them frankly and in good faith about the challenges ahead and how best to be not part of the problem, but cutting-edge leaders in the quest for solutions.

Mother’s Day Salute to my Mom

Throughout my childhood, my mother always spent a lot of time and energy tending and shaping the land around the house, following her own instincts of landscaping and working almost entirely with hand tools.

The little house; I am standing where the big thicket was

The little house; I am standing where the big thicket was

She started just outside the sliding glass doors in the living room, where she planted a small lawn, beyond which was an expansive swamp dogwood thicket, laced with black raspberries and bordered by a young maple forest on one side, and a few barely visible pine trees on the other.  Armed only with loppers, my mother began cutting down the thicket stalk by stalk, a project that took a couple of years of slow, patient labor.

Once the thicket was gone, and grass had been seeded in its place, my mom turned her attention to the huge limestone ledge that ran down alongside the house, part of it visible as mossy, grassy outcroppings, but most of it underground.  She set to work with her shovel, hand rake and trowel, her intention to create a rock garden out of that long, sloping rock ledge.  That project provided a focus for the long summers she spent with me and my brother in the country while my father went back to the city to work during the weeks.

The rock garden runs up the whole length of the lawn beside the house.  It's hard to see the rocks here, as they've been covered with plants, which my mom regularly scrapes off to reveal the contours of the rock again.   This big rock garden took years to accomplish.

The rock garden runs up the whole length of the lawn beside the house. It’s hard to see the rocks here, as they’ve been covered with plants, which my mom regularly scrapes off to reveal the contours of the rock again. This big rock garden took years to accomplish.

I can see her standing, sweaty and red-faced at the end of a hot morning’s work, with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying the ledge with a squinted sculptor’s eye.  She would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel gradually revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, a small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.

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She also dug out a vegetable garden, in which she planted her morning coffee grounds and eggshells, which yielded crunchy sugar snap peas and big shiny zucchinis and a tangle of tomato plants loaded down with plum, cherry and huge oxheart tomatoes.  In time, every contour of the ten acres or so around the houses on the property had felt the gentle touch of her hands, and yielded to the influence of her spades and trowels.  Every young maple or oak grew there because she had judiciously allowed it to advance past sapling-hood.

This was my favorite climbing tree in childhood; a sugar maple named Cricket

This was my favorite climbing tree in childhood; a sugar maple named Cricket

What had once been a rocky, harum-scarum cow pasture became, over the course of many years, an orderly oasis of verdant green lawns, perennial flower beds and raised vegetable gardens, with the long ridge of the rock garden sloping down through the middle of it all to the elegantly landscaped pool.  Now, more than forty years later, she’s still out there with her shovel, trowel and hand tools, tending and stroking her gardens into ever more radiant beauty.

The view from the "new" house (c. 1989), down towards the pool

The view from the “new” house (c. 1989), down towards the pool

This Mother’s Day, I salute my mother, whose outstanding gardening talents I have admired and learned from all my life.  I can only hope that in some small way her greenest of thumbs has rubbed off on me.

Jenny and Sue 1

Did I mention that my mom is an outstanding potter?

Did I mention that my mom is an outstanding potter?

She is as talented at architectural design as she is at landscape design

She is as talented at architectural design as she is at landscape design


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Innumerable shrubs, trees and fruit trees have been planted over the years, most often by my mom and her trusty spade.


Making plans for the next project with grandson Eric.  The work of a gardener is never done....

Making plans for the next project with grandson Eric. The work of a gardener is never done….


This is one of the most recent gardens, just outside the pottery studio, next to the oldest tree on the property, a venerable sugar maple

This is one of the most recent gardens, just outside the pottery studio, next to the oldest tree on the property, a venerable sugar maple



The jig is up for military sexual assault

No fewer than 26,000 sexual assaults were reported by U.S. military service men and women in the year 2012 alone.

You read that right.

According to The New York Times, “Pentagon officials said nearly 26,000 active-duty men and women had responded to the sexual assault survey. Of those, 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men said they had experienced sexual assault in the past year, which the survey defined as everything from rape to “unwanted sexual touching” of genitalia, breasts, buttocks or inner thighs.

“From those percentages, the Pentagon extrapolated that 12,100 of the 203,000 women on active duty and 13,900 of the 1.2 million men on active duty had experienced some form of sexual assault.”

These numbers are simply unacceptable, especially when contrasted with the small number of sexual assault cases that were officially reported (ie, not via anonymous survey)–3,374—and the abysmal rate of actual conviction: only 238 assailants were convicted in 2012.

Lt. Col. Krusinski; booking photo

Lt. Col. Krusinski; booking photo

Most embarrassing for the military brass was the arrest last Sunday of the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who was accused of having sexually assaulted a woman he did not know in a parking lot.

Way to lead, Air Force!  Just when we thought the Tailhook scandal was becoming a distant memory.

I’m glad to see that some members of Congress—especially the women—are hopping mad and on the case, as today’s column from Maureen Dowd details.

Women who put their lives on the line to serve in the U.S. military deserve nothing but respect from their superiors and peers.

The question is, how is the military going to re-program its entire culture, from raw recruit to brigadier general, who have been raised to believe that “all women (and all gay men) want it,” that might makes right, and that superior officers can act with impunity towards those under their command?

How is the military—and, indeed, American culture at large—going to counter the billion-dollar American porn industry, that thrives on presenting women as objects of desire, yes, but also as objects of violence?

The truth is that what we’re seeing in military culture is just the tip of the iceberg of a much more deeply-rooted cultural problem.

Just as the military stood up to become the model for racial integration in the 1970s, it must now trailblaze the path to gender equality for us in the second decade of the 21st century.

Women who are now going to serve in combat, just the same as men, should not have to worry about “friendly fire” from male supervisors and peers.

To be honest, the idea of women breaking glass ceilings in the military does not thrill me.

I’d rather women work to create and broker non-violent institutions and solutions to problems.

But there is no excuse, ever, for sexualized violence against women or men.

The Lt. Col. Krusinskis of the world need to get their rocks off some other way, and the old-boy networks that have stood in the way of change on this issue have got to go.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, plans to introduce legislation that would take the adjudication of sexual assault cases outside of a victim’s chain of command. According to the New York Times editorial board, which supports the measure, “It would end the power of senior officers with no legal training but lots of conflicts of interest to decide whether courts-martial can be brought against subordinates and to toss out a jury verdict once it is rendered.”

President Obama said the right thing in response to the Krusinski arrest scandal, but it remains to be seen whether he can follow up his words with actions.

“If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period,” Mr. Obama said.

Got that, all 26,000 of you who committed sexual assault last year?

The jig is up.

Playing hardball with the fossil fuel industry: if not now, when? if not us, who?

Bittersweet sadness fills me this morning as I read an excerpt at Women’s E-News from Eve Ensler’s new memoir, In the Body of the World, about her long, determined, agonizing battle with uterine cancer.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Her TED talk, “Suddenly, My Body” is one that I have returned to watch several times over, and have recommended to many friends as a pulsating, powerful performance that makes perfectly clear what many of us are coming to realize: that there is no separation between our bodies and the world around us.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Not only is it true, as Joanna Macy and Brian Swimme tell us, that we are the most recent emanations of the stardust that created the life on our planet eons ago, it is also true that our fragile bodies are porous and open, made of the air, earth and water that we move through each day.

If we poison our environment, we poison ourselves.

So many of us are learning that the hard way.

Warrior lionesses like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Wangari Maathai and Eve Ensler—each one snared by her own body’s encounter with the internal malignancy of cancer.

How many powerful, active, full-of-life people do you know who are no longer with us, felled by cancer?

A quick look at the cancer statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control shows cancer rates soaring, especially for Americans 50 and older, and especially in the South, Midwest and Northeast of the country.

In the South and Midwest, they make and use those toxic chemicals—the ones that lace our food supply and flow into our waters, creating a dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey at the mouth of the Mississippi River; the ones that ride the prevailing winds east to fill the skies of the eastern United States and Canada with sooty particulates and airborne toxins.

None of us is immune from this.  No matter how careful we are to buy organic produce or grow our own, to keep BPA plastics out of our kitchens, even to pull up stakes and move to an area of the country that appears to be cleaner—we cannot hide from the reality that we live in a contaminated country, on a planet that is crazily out of balance and on the verge of a major correction.

When the colonizers came to the Americas, they were careful to try to pick off the leaders among the native peoples they encountered, knowing that if you deprive people of their most charismatic, powerful leaders, you will demoralize them and leave them open to takeover.

Although there is no devilish intelligence at work in the cancer epidemic, this dynamic still applies: when cancer takes from us leaders like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Eve Ensler or Wangari Maathai, it leaves the rest of us stricken and reeling, spinning like a rudderless boat.

Sandra Steingraber

Sandra Steingraber

There are those, like Sandra Steingraber, who have been fighting cancer for a long, long time, and using it as a spur to work harder to save our planet/ourselves.

Steingraber was recently put behind bars for two weeks as punishment for her protest of the fossil fuel companies’ plan to hydrofrack for gas in her home territory of upstate New York.

She wrote from prison that it was her love, for her children and for all livings beings on the planet, that drove her to civil disobedience:

“It was love that brought me to this jail cell.

“My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a stable climate. “They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon gases buried underneath.

“The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door. Can you hear me now?”

Yes, we hear you Sandra, and we’re with you!

And yet, so many of us do not act on what we hear and know.

A low-level depression seems to afflict a great swath of the American public, and I would wager that the feelings of powerlessness that come with being unable to control the health of our environment or our selves may have something to do with it.

No matter how many times we go down to Washington D.C. to protest, it seems that the fossil fuel and chemical industries have the U.S. Congress sewn up tight.

Even someone like me, living in what appears to be a clean, leafy rural place, has to contend with farmers who still spray Roundup on their cornfields every spring, or rivers, including the Housatonic, just blocks from my home, heavily contaminated with PCBs from the upstream General Electric plant.

Since there is no way to play it safe, what we need to do is forget about safety now, in these end times, and play hard.

It’s time to give everything we’ve got to the fight to preserve the capacity of our planet to support life on down the generations into the future.

If humans are to be part of that future, we have to rise to the challenges we face now.

Like Eve Ensler, wracked with cancer and yet still leading the charge of One Billion Rising to fight violence against women this spring, we cannot afford to take time out.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai

Like Kenyan Wangari Maathai, felled so quickly by cancer even as she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in preventing the desertification of her country by teaching ordinary women to raise and plant trees, we have to be creative in our approaches, working at the grassroots when those at the top won’t listen.

Like Sandra Steingraber and so many other activists, we have to be willing to face the consequences of our disobedience to those in power.

Playing nice, following the rules, being polite—where has that gotten us?  When the polluters of the planet are playing hardball, we have to respond in kind—although our life-affirming version of hardball might involve planting trees, or raising flash mobs of dancers, or forming human chains of resistance at the boundaries of old-growth forests.

Rachel, Audre, Wangari, Eve, Sandra…we’re right behind you.  Fighting all the way.

Is the time ever right for suicide?

dsdepression_550pxWhat does it say about American society that more middle-aged people now die of suicide than of car accidents?

While I wouldn’t say that suicide rates are soaring–the suicide rate for middle-age men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000, according to the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—these numbers do represent a dramatic increase from previous norms.

For men in their 50s, suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent in the decade from 1999 to 2010. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent during that decade.

A few weeks ago I was stunned to hear that an old friend of mine, a woman in her 50s, had committed suicide by hanging.

I have bad days too, when I just want to lay down my load and become a lily in the field.  We all do.  But to actually plan and execute a self-hanging?  That I find hard to fathom.

Apparently most men commit suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, while women are more likely to take their lives through overdoses of prescription medication.

According to the CDC report, poisoning deaths were up 24 percent overall from 1999-2010, while hangings were up 81 percent.

Whenever I find myself feeling too despairing, I remind myself that I have to hang on at least until my two children are independent and self-sufficient.

The truth is that if you have children, there can never be a right time to commit suicide.

Your children are always going to be counting on you to be blazing the trail ahead, setting the example, holding the fort.

It would be terribly selfish of me to give up and take my own life.

I believe that people should have the right to make their own end-of-life decisions.  If I were diagnosed with a terminal disease, I would want the ability to dictate the circumstances of my death.

And it’s true that in some ways, we are all living with a death sentence.  All of us will die sooner or later—of that we can rest assured.

For some people—for instance, the hunger-strikers at Guantanamo—courage wears a suicidal face.

All in all, it’s what we do with this short, precious lifetime that matters.  What do we want to be remembered for?  What do we want to leave behind?

I want to be remembered as a woman who confronted the challenges of my individual life, and my zeitgeist, head on.  Who did not give up, ever.  Who looked on the bright side and tried to see the glass as half-full.  Who blazed a trail for those behind me to follow.

There are some desperately serious situations to which suicide is a rational response.  If I were to come to such an impasse, I hope I would have the courage to do the right thing.

But in the meantime, I will continue to embrace all the challenges life throws at me, and meet my own expectations for being a stalwart mother, daughter, sister, friend and teacher.  It’s the least–and the best–that I can do.

This May Day, A Special Salute to the Humble, Hard-working Honeybee

This May Day, I want to give a special shout-out to a segment of the working population that may be small in stature, but is huge in productiveness and dedication.

Let’s hear it for the much-beleaguered honey bees!


It is no secret that honeybees, particularly in the developed world, have been in trouble these past few years.

If you’ve been paying attention, you have probably heard by now of so-called “colony collapse disorder,” which first surfaced around 2005—not at all coincidentally, just around the time that a powerful new class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, was introduced to Western commercial agriculture.

Neonicotinoids are pesticides that are incorporated into the plants themselves.  According to their patent-holders, they only harm the kinds of insects that actually chew on the plants.

But growing scientific evidence suggests that these highly toxic chemicals also harm bees, who have to stick their heads into pollen-laden flowers and tassels in the course of their day-to-day work routines, and who bring back to their hives  insecticide-laden pollen to feed the next generation of workers.


European bees just got a huge concession from the European Union, which, as of this week, will be restricting the use of three of the most prevalent neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) for the next two years, while more stringent studies are conducted.

The United States, where commercial beekeepers are reporting the loss of 40 to 50 percent of their colonies, must do the same.

Not only could the loss of the hardworking honeybee be a total disaster for agriculture, but we also have no idea what the effects on humans may be of eating chemically engineered plants.

Where health is concerned, the burden of proof should rest on the chemical companies to prove their products are safe.

Instead, what we are living—and dying—with now is a deeply flawed version of “innocent until proven guilty.”

imagesHow many billions of bees have to die before the federal agencies responsible for the health of humans, our agriculture and our environment get the message that something is seriously wrong with the toxic brew being inculcated into our crops?

It has been suggested that exposure to such chemicals may be playing a role in the explosion of autism that is plaguing American society, with neo-natal exposure and toxic breast milk a major concern.

Do you want really want to give the chemical companies the benefit of the doubt?  Or would you rather play it safe with the next generation?

This May Day, I serenade the humble honeybee.  If you care about this mighty little worker, and all of us who depend on her production, you can take individual action on her behalf.

Buy organic.

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