Standing for Love in the Forest of Sandisfield–A Microcosm of the World

Last week I went to a meeting of the Conservation Commission in the little hill town of Sandisfield, MA, which has many more trees than residents. Indeed, it has no “town” to speak of, just roads threading their way through forests, streams and lakes, making it ideal habitat for beaver, coyotes, deer, bear, and many other birds and animals, including the occasional moose.

But now, Kinder Morgan has come to Sandisfield.

For more than a year, the local Conservation Commission, composed of three residents who serve as civic volunteers, has been meeting with representatives of the giant multinational fossil fuel corporation, which has gas pipelines running for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles in my corner of the world: the states of Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine, and on up to the big commercial tanker port of St. John, New Brunswick.

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Kinder Morgan wants to clear a site in the Otis State Forest in order to lay a pipeline loop that will—as I understand it—be a kind of holding tank for liquefied gas, giving surges of gas coming through the pipeline somewhere to go besides down to the depot.

The Otis State Forest project is not about providing gas to local communities; it’s not even about creating increased ability to move gas from one place to another. It’s just about creating a back-up pipe.

And for this glorious purpose, Kinder Morgan proposes to disrupt land directly abutting a section of old-growth forest at the heart of the Otis State Forest, removing a beaver dam and withdrawing about a million gallons of water from beautiful Spectacle Pond.

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The case has been discussed at the EPA, by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and in court for months now. Local heroes Jane Winn of The BEAT News and Rosemary Wessel of the NoFrackedGasInMass campaign, now a BEAT program, have led the legal charge to stop this unnecessary invasion of state forest, and the case is still in court: Kinder Morgan does not yet have the last permits necessary to proceed.

According to Jane Winn, “We still don’t know if any toxic chemicals will be released from the lining of the pipe and there will be no testing of that water.” Jane adds that we do know that Kinder Morgan wants “to tear up and reconstruct a third of the 73 Ceremonial Stone Landscape features in Sandisfield – destroying the spiritual link and desecrating our native history. (Would FERC allow them to dig up part of Arlington National Cemetery and replace it afterward?) This desecration of the CSL features should not be allowed – and the agreement among the tribe, Kinder Morgan, and FERC has not been settled – as much as Kinder Morgan’s representative tried to mislead about that as well.”

Jane, who filmed the entire Conservation Commission meeting, says that the “FINAL 401 water quality permit won’t be issued until March 27 – and could possibly be denied, appealed, or require an additional Alternatives Study.”

Nevertheless, the conversation between the Conservation Commission board and the Kinder Morgan reps last week was chummy, with the main discussion points being what kinds of plans the company has made to contain erosion when—not if, but when—tree felling and bulldozing start.

Sitting across the table from the Conservation Commission folks, in the shabby basement of an old school, the Kinder Morgan rep never looked directly at any of the 60 or so concerned citizens surrounding him. He looked like a nice enough young man—an environmental engineer who had no doubt gotten his degree some 10 years earlier, and gone right to work for industry.

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Conservation Commission meeting, March 2017

As he talked casually about cutting trees and bulldozing wetlands, I had a vivid image of the quiet forest out there in the blackness beyond the fluorescent lights of the meeting room. The owls swooping about in pursuit of mice; the coyotes ambling in their pack, looking for rabbits; the beavers paddling contentedly between the wooded bank and their den, adding some more mud and logs to create a snug home for the new litter of young ones.

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As though it were a steel blade ripping through my own gut, I felt the pain and terror that will come when Kinder Morgan bulldozes over the opposition and starts cutting the trees, gouging up the roots, ripping out the beaver dam. They are in a hurry to start because there are some guidelines (state? Federal? I am not sure) that enjoin them to cut the trees before nesting season.

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American bittern

One resident spoke up at the meeting on behalf of two rare endangered species that he said he often sees at the very pond they are talking about destroying: the American bittern and the sedge wren.

What will they do when they fly in from their migration to find their usual habit a muddy, gaping scar in the forest?

They’ll fly on to some other pond, state officials and industry reps would say philosophically.

The problem is, there are fewer and fewer places for wildlife to go. Why do you think we have coyotes living in cities, bears hanging out in suburbia, moose strolling along highways and train tracks? It’s not because they want to be there. It’s because they have nowhere else to go.

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Snow geese

I thought about this recently when I heard about the thousands of snow geese that died painful, torturous deaths because they landed on a toxic pond in Montana left wide open to the sky by industry. This is a common occurrence; it was only the scale of this particular mass murder that brought it into the news headlines.

I am as complicit as the next person in all of this. I will get up from my desk to heat some coffee on my gas stove. I will drive my car into town for groceries that are produced and procured using fossil fuels. I live with this knowledge every day: that I am part of the problem. Look at this picture long enough, and you see the very clear strands of complicity linking me and my lifestyle with the chainsaws buzzing in the forests, the pipelines snaking over the countryside, the water taps on fire and the rivers, lakes and ponds choking with contaminants and algae.

While it is good to acknowledge the lack of innocence, it does no good to beat myself up with guilt.

The question becomes, what CAN I do?

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Environmental activist Jane Winn accepts an award from the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions

If I have money, I can share it with environmental groups like The BEAT News, 350.org, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, which are working hard through information, organizing and legal battles to hold industry accountable to the public good.

I can work with the ACLU, the honorable news media and democratic political groups to bring down the Trump administration as soon as possible, before industry hacks like Scott Pruitt and Jeff Sessions have a chance to totally wreck the environmental standards in this country.

I can run for office myself, with the goal of putting my values and vision to work at the local, state or even national level.

Jane Winn suggests we all work on the local level to get New England off of fossil fuels.  “The latest study, she says, “points out that we have a legally mandated shrinking need for fracked natural gas. Massachusetts is adding off-shore wind and storage. Towns are starting to aim for 100% renewable. All of us can work toward zero net energy – buy fossil-fuel-free electricity through Mass Energy and add cold-climate heat pumps to stay warm. Use electric stoves. Buy an electric vehicle.”

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Julia Butterfly Hill at the top of Luna, the California redwood she singlehandedly saved from the lumber industry

All very good, productive advice. Nevertheless, what I most felt like doing, as I filed silently out of the school basement and out into the cool dark Sandisfield night, was putting my own body on the line–chaining myself to an old-growth hemlock, let’s say, before I let it be cut down.

I felt like pulling a Julia Butterfly Hill, becoming a treesitter who could save the forest.

I wish I had that kind of courage.

As it is, I sit with my grief and my rage as the Sandisfield scene is played out in small rural towns in every corner of our country and beyond.

Kinder Morgan, Energy Transfer Partners and the rest of the fossil fuel gang have been running roughshod over people and wildlife and the natural world for long enough.

img_1557Yes, we love our electricity, our cars and our warm homes. But now we know we can get all the power we need from the great Source of all of us, the Sun—with a little help from other elements: Wind and Water. We don’t need to rape the Earth any longer to satisfy our short-term human wants and desires.

The tragedy of Sandisfield is a tiny blip in the almost unimaginably huge devastation humanity has wrought on our planet. Still, it’s in my backyard and I care about that forest and the life it supports. If each of us cared and tended for the land around us, our world would be a different place.

The problem of the corporations is precisely that they are too big, too amorphous and unrooted. The managers, board members, financiers and shareholders live far, far from the places they are destroying. They don’t care.

So my heartfelt question is: how can we reach these human beings, who literally have the power of life or death in their tiny, grasping hands? How can we get to their hearts and make them care?

I think we need to get these guys out of their office towers and into the forest.

And I suspect that the strongest thing I can do, with the talents and gifts I have been given, is to try to communicate to them, and all their henchmen and enablers, why it is so, so important—indeed, critical to all life on Earth—that they reconnect with the natural world, open their hearts, and learn what love in action looks and feels like, and the true value of what it can produce.

Love is the simple solution. If we lived in love, and acted out of love, every single problem we face would melt away.

And what a beautiful world it would be.

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Moving from Anger and Cynicism to Gratitude: Thanksgiving in Dark Times

It’s Thanksgiving time, the time when we’re supposed to be counting our blessings and giving thanks. Given the current bombardment of bad news, it’s hard not to feel cynical.

Do I give thanks for the American justice system, which once again has valued the rights of a white man over the rights of a (dead) Black man?

Should I give thanks that a growing roster of universities are finally being pushed to take fraternity gang rape seriously, after years of turning a blind eye?

Maybe I should be giving thanks that the Kinder Morgan fossil fuel group, responding to public outcry, is thinking about routing its gas pipeline through “an existing utility corridor” rather than through backyards and recreational areas in the heart of Berkshire County, the tourist-friendly resort area where I live.

It’s easy to get angry about the injustice and casual brutality of our world. And one of the problems of modern existence is that when something bad happens, we know about it almost instantaneously, and have to grapple in our own hearts and minds with its disturbing reverberations.

Any wonder why so many people in media-saturated modern societies turn to drugs (prescription and recreational) or alcohol to get some relief?

I don’t think we should insulate ourselves from the reality of what’s happening in our world, even when the news is very bad. But we do need to find ways to retain our own sense of balance and inner resilience in the face of the constant heartbreak that characterizes contemporary life.

I try to remind myself, at Thanksgiving time and all year round, of all the things I do truly have to be thankful for.

I give thanks for the protesters who have been standing up to the fracking and drilling industry giants all over North America, and indeed all over the world. I am thankful that Sandra Steingraber has been released early from jail, so she can spend Thanksgiving with her family.

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

I give thanks for the many innovative scientists who are working hard to develop viable alternative forms of energy, from better solar panels to clean battery cells to geothermal, tidal and wind generators. I am thankful for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla, leading the way towards a clean-energy future.

I give thanks for the health workers who are at this very moment risking their own lives in order to bring the Ebola epidemic under control. I thank all the health workers, worldwide, who give so much to others day in and day out.

I give thanks for my family, friends and comrades—for all the good people who are working in their own spheres to be sources of love and compassion.

On dark days like this one, it can be hard to feel confident that the human capacity for love and empathy will prevail over the less admirable side of our nature; that our ethical intelligence and social creativity will succeed in tempering our greedy self-interest and destructiveness.

Every day presents opportunities to live in ways that elevate the human condition and spirit. Even the greatest events in human history always depend on the actions of individuals, each within our own sphere. All we can do, as human beings alive on the planet in these frightening transition times, is strive to embody love.

We won’t always succeed; no one of us is perfect. But as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let us place ourselves on that arc, with gratitude for being able to help it bend towards justice now, in our own time.

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