Science geeks and nature buffs: joining forces to protect the Earth and ensure our future

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This Earth Day I met with a small but fierce group of women writers determined to use our words to defend and protect our Mother Earth.

The grief and love that poured from us was as palpable as the tears and laughter we inspired in each other.

I read some of the scenes from the Childhood section of my memoir, revealing how I was “a strange child,” who was much more comfortable out in the forests and fields than with other human beings. Together we wrote about the natural places or non-human friends who inspired us and kept us company in childhood.

One woman wrote about a beloved cat companion, who, she found out later in life, had been taken from her by her parents and dumped out of a car miles from home. The grief and love that came welling up out of her, decades after this loss and betrayal, had all of us in tears.

Others wrote about remarkable trees who stood sentinel over their childhood homes, and how, all these years later, they can still tap into the solid power and majesty of those childhood tree friends.

Later, led by my friend Jana Laiz, we wrote letters to Mother Earth. This was mine (unedited, just as it came flowing out of my pen into my workshop notebook):

“Mother, I am so sorry that we have been so destructive to you. I am so sorry that we are such a cruel, savage and thoughtless species. I often wonder how a species that can build soaring temples, write magnificent symphonies and fantastically sophisticated computer code—a species that can love with such devotion—can also be capable of such wanton, cruel torture and devastation of the natural world and our fellow species, the plants, animals, insects, birds and fish.

“We could be so much finer than we are. That old story of the Garden of Eden got it right. We were fallen and unworthy—but not because Eve desired a bite of apple, but because we did not know how to live peacefully there with the trees and the snakes and all.

“I wish the Judeo-Christian myth included better instructions on what to do once we were out on our own in the so-called wilderness. The Native Americans got good instructions. The Buddhists understood. But the Europeans, my tribe—we were told “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the Earth and her creatures.” That is what we have done, and as a result we are now 9 billion humans on this planet, close to wiping out the other species and undoing the ecological life support on which all of us depend.

“I know you wished us to prosper, Mother, as you do all your children. But I wouldn’t hold it against you now if you decided that you’d had enough of us humans. I think we’ve had our chance; we’ve blown it; and it’s time for some tough love.

“Time for us to own up to the consequences of our actions. Time for you to push the reset button, perhaps, and start the process of creation anew.”

Viewed soberly, it’s hard to deny that we may very well be living in the end times for the human civilizations that began some 5,000 years ago when Gilgamesh killed Humbaba, the guardian of the forest, and cut down the cedar forest to make his city.

It’s also hard to argue that the end of our destructive era is a bad thing.

On an Earth Day that also featured the biggest Marches for Science ever assembled on the planet, it behooves us to acknowledge that Science has been a mixed blessing for the Earth community.

17991179_10212501290152317_3238751945848981883_nOf course, in so many ways, science, technology and engineering have been amazing boons for humanity. Who wouldn’t be grateful for medical advances that enable us to live longer and better? Who wouldn’t admire the technological prowess that enables us to communicate instantaneously with people on the other side of the world, and to fly there and talk in person if we so desire? Of course, we all love the conveniences of modern engineering: water systems, cars and roads, houses that can be heated with a flick of switch in the winter, and cooled just as easily in the summer.

The benefits of science are too numerous to list. And yet, I have to ask: what price have we paid for all these modern conveniences? What price will our children and grandchildren still be paying, far into the future?

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Robin Wall Kimmerer

I was really grateful to see the wonderful statement by indigenous scientists, including the ever-inspiring Robin Wall Kimmerer, pushing us to remember that “Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm by which we understand the natural world and our relation to it. Embedded in cultural frameworks of respect, reciprocity, responsibility and reverence for the earth, Indigenous science lies within a worldview where knowledge is coupled to responsibility and human activity is aligned with ecological principles and natural law, rather than against them.

“We need both ways of knowing,” the statement proclaims—indigenous and western—“if we are to advance knowledge and sustainability.”

This is truly the challenge of our time. Can we wed the simple and uncomplicated love for the natural world that we experienced as children with the ecological sophistication of indigenous science and the technological brilliance of western science?

Can we ensure that new generations of children will get their heads of out of their screens long enough to experience the wonder and magic of face time with the natural world?

Will we all—old and young, indigenous and settler, science geeks and nature buffs—join forces in the common goal of protecting and nurturing our common home, our Mother Earth?

We can—we must—and we will!

Stop Letting the Days Go By!

One of the soundtracks that has been running through my mind these last few days is “Once in a Lifetime,” by David Byrne and the Talking Heads.

The song was a 1980s anthem to the midlife crisis of a suburban man who has just gone with the flow and followed the usual cultural path, only to wake up “behind the wheel of a large automobile…in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife” asking with angst, “How did I get here?”

The answer, sung almost gaily, is: “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down, Letting the days go by, water flowing underground….Same as it ever was, same as it ever was….”

Right now our whole culture seems to be asking with alarm, “How did we get here?” The answer is, as Byrne intuited, about going with the flow.

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In my elemental framework for purposeful memoir, WATER is related to the teenage and young adult years, when we are swept into the cultural stream that surround us, and most of us just let the days go by, letting our culture carry us along.

Every so often we hit some kind of snag that causes us to lift our heads, sputtering, look around as if waking from a dream, and ask how in the world we got here.

img_0014We’re in such a moment now, as individuals and more broadly as a society. In my elemental lexicon, we’re in a FIRE moment now, a time of challenge and trials, but also a time when we can tap most deeply into our passions and beliefs.

The question “How did I/we get here?” is a fundamental one to be asking ourselves at this juncture.

That’s why I’m so passionate about encouraging people to undertake the elemental journey of purposeful memoir.

In looking back over our life experiences, and understanding them more deeply in the context of the political and planetary tapestry into which our personal lives are woven, we not only come to understand “how we got here,” but also to start envisioning where we would like to go next.

wif-cover-ebookIn my memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered, the journey was circular, as I ended up back on the childhood ground of my being (symbolized by the element EARTH) understanding that I had to get back to my original passion for the natural world, which had been worn away by the ceaseless current of the heedless American culture into which I was born.

Here comes the AIR of reflection:

We come into our lives with a purpose that we don’t always understand or fulfill. One thing for sure is that it is never too late to begin, or begin again, to become aware of what it is we are here to do, and move ourselves further along the path towards our destination.

Purposeful memoir is a tool that can help you on that journey of self-awareness, particularly when you investigate your personal life in its full political and planetary dimensions.

elemental-journey-cover-new-smI am excited and honored to be offering my new Writer’s Companion guide for purposeful memoirists, along with in-person classes that will provide the space for shared reflection and insights about the elemental journey.

Neither my book nor my classes are prescriptive. My aim is to open up possible avenues of inquiry, and to get the creative juices flowing, helping you put together the jigsaw pieces of your own life to find your own unique sense of purpose.

Here in the Berkshires I’ll be offering a monthly class, following the book, aimed at cultivating creativity and building community while sharing highlights from our life journeys. You can find out more about those Saturday afternoon classes, offered under the banner of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, here.

Soon I’ll be announcing an online writers’ circle for purposeful memoirists, for those who can’t get to the Berkshires for an in-person class.

I also have various readings and other kinds of workshops coming up, which you can find out about on my website.

And though I’m certainly no Meryl Streep, here is a little video my son and I made, where I talk about what purposeful memoir means to me, and why it matters.

Truly, now is the time, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Are you ready? Let’s go!

Writing to Right the World

“I’m coming out with two books next year,” I announce, with pride but unable to keep a touch of defiance from my voice, in automatic anticipation of my interlocutor’s next question: “Who is your publisher?”

I’ve got my response down: “I’m pulling a Virginia Woolf—I’m publishing with my own press, Green Fire Press.”

Raised eyebrows, a nod that implies surprise and a touch of disdain. “Oh, so you’re self-publishing.”

No, not really. With a partner, I have created a publishing company that publishes high-quality work in alignment with its mission of encouraging positive sGreenFirePress-LOGO-vert-pen copyocial change and well-being. We have three titles in print so far, and my two books will bring our total to five.

Self-publishing has a bad reputation for a few good reasons.

First of all, self-publishing is often seen as self-indulgent, arrogant and vain (hence the old name, vanity publishing).

“Just who do you think you are, bypassing us?” the agents and big-publisher editors snap. “You know your book won’t pass muster with us, that’s why you’re not taking the traditional route.”

To which I would reply: I have the highest standards of anyone I know—as a publisher and an editor as well as a writer. Yes, it’s true a lot of dreck gets self-published, but that is not the case at Green Fire Press, where we will only publish books we believe in and work hard to make as perfect as possible.

The truth is that I have declined to explore traditional publishing because:

  • I don’t have time or energy to go through the whole get-rejected-by-25-agents game;
  •  I want control of the production of my book;
  • I know I will have to do most of the marketing myself anyway, so
  • I might as well reap the rewards of the hard work I’ve put in, by actually making some money every time I sell a book.

I published my first two books through traditional publishers. Neither paid any kind of advance. On the first, I literally never made a dime in royalties, even though the book sold fairly well (several thousand copies). On the second, the royalties were meager in the first couple of years, and soon stopped coming altogether, although the book remains in print and in frequent circulation in college courses.

Unlike Virginia Woolf, I do not have a husband or a trust fund income. I need to make money with the work I put in to my writing. With my next two books, if the books make money, I will too.

Creating a good book takes tremendously hard work and careful attention to detail, not only by the author but by the editor, proofer, designer, marketer and distributor. It’s a team project, and there are very few authors—maybe none!—who can successfully fulfill all these roles. Even Virginia Woolf had the faithful Leonard by her side, along with the whole Bloomsbury Group functioning as her marketing team.

At Green Fire Press, we have an outstanding team of publishing professionals working together to create polished, professional books. We’re part of the new “gig economy,” in that all the services offered by traditional publishers in-house are being performed at GFP by freelance specialists.

We could no doubt debate for a while whether this trend towards freelance publishing services is positive or negative—for the authors, for the publishing companies, for the freelancers, for the economy overall. As someone who has worked off and on as a freelancer or “independent contractor,” I know that it’s a precarious way to make a living, and I strongly believe that our tax structure and social safety net (ie, health care, unemployment, disability, etc) should be amended to support the millions of players in the new “gig economy” (for more on this, see the current issue of YES! Magazine).

But that’s a topic for another day’s column. Today I simply want to thank and acknowledge the excellent work of our Green Fire Press team in producing my two forthcoming books, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered: A Journey to Environmental Awareness and Activism Through Purposeful Memoir and The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir: A Writer’s Companion. As an author I feel in such good hands, and I am excited to roll up my sleeves and work on getting my new books out strongly into the world.

Not just to make money, although that would be nice. My memoir and writer’s companion book are both aimed at fulfilling my mission of “writing to right the world.” I write “purposeful memoir,” and I want to get more people doing that too, through my workshops, online writing circles, author coaching and editing and yes, through Green Fire Press itself.

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As I say in the Writer’s Companion, purposeful memoir asks us to look back at our lives in order to understand where we are now and to envision the future we want to create, not just for ourselves but also for human society and our beautiful, beleaguered planet.

If that sounds like something you want to do too, join me! In sharing our own experiences, we can help light the way for others, and come together to write our way towards the positive changes we want to see in the world.

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