Respecting Our Elders

I was fascinated to learn recently that trees, especially big old trees, can communicate with each other and with their entire grove or forest of younger ones.

Apparently they do this through a network of fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots.  The larger the tree, the bigger the root network, and the more other trees the old one is in contact with.

What do they talk about? According to forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, trees share nutrients and chemical signals through the network.  A big old tree can help the younger ones who may be less able to withstand drought, for example, or an insect onslaught.

That’s what we know for sure now, but who knows what other wisdom the trees may be sharing?

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I was reminded of this forest phenomenon this week as two things happened simultaneously: the news broke that folk music giant Pete Seeger had died, and I started discussing with students in my Women Write the World class the first book of the semester, The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill.

juliahillLuna, you may recall, is a 200-foot-high California redwood that Julia Hill single-handedly saved from the chainsaw by obstinately camping out on a platform high in the tree, for more than two years.

In the book she wrote later, Julia describes how she came to regard Luna as a living consciousness, a kindred spirit with whom she could connect.

I thought the students in my class would pooh-pooh that idea, but many of them were willing to entertain the notion that there might have been some actual cross-species communication going on between the massive old tree and the young woman perched in its branches.

What is certain is that living in Luna taught young Julia Butterfly Hill many lessons that she never could have learned elsewhere.

If Luna had been cut down, as so many of the great old trees have been in forests around the world, all her accumulated wisdom would have been lost too, an incalculable loss to the younger trees around her.

We are fortunate that Pete Seeger and other great old ones like him—Nelson Mandela springs to mind, and Wangari Maathai and Rachel Carson, both of whom died of cancer far too young—have been able to leave a written and recorded legacy to us younger ones coming along in their wake.

We will be listening to Pete sing, watching Mandela give speeches, and reading the books of Maathai and Carson for years to come.

But when we cut down a wise old tree, we silence its network entirely.

Forests can  regenerate—if they are not sprayed with herbicides, if their topsoil doesn’t wash away and if they’re not turned into artificial factory-style plantations.

In many tropical countries the natural forest is destroyed and replanted like this.

In many tropical countries the natural forest is destroyed and replanted like this.

But even in the best of circumstances, the younger trees will be more vulnerable and less resilient without the oldest trees to shelter and guide them.

During the European colonial period, it was an accepted strategy for would-be conquerors to kill or enslave the tribal leaders first, under the theory that their followers would be less able to resist.

The Americans took a page out of the same playbook in their treatment of Native Americans, trying to demoralize the tribes by killing, imprisoning and humiliating their leaders.

It has been no different with logging.  The big old trees are the most highly prized, and are chopped down first, with longstanding and poorly understood consequences.

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Dr. Simard is arguing for a different kind of forest management plan, one that is respectful of what she calls “the mother trees”—those old survivors who can help the regenerate the forest after the loggers have moved on.

Just as we honor outstanding human elders like Seeger and Mandela, we should be honoring the most ancient living things among us, the old trees.

It makes scientific sense (older, larger trees trap more carbon and hence help reduce global warming) and it also makes moral sense.

It’s the right thing to do.

Photo by Patxi Pierce

Julia at the top of Luna
Photo by Patxi Pierce

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.

Occupy Wall Street, Day 10: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world

One of Wangari Maathai’s most powerful political actions was when she and a group of women occupied Uhuru (Freedom) Park in downtown Nairobi, to protest government plans to turn the tree-lined public park into a giant private office complex.

At first it was just twenty women with hand-painted signs, sitting down together in the center of the park in protest.  But as word spread, the protest grew, until soon hundreds of people, men and women, were sitting down in the park with Wangari, demanding the right to hold on to one of the last remaining green spaces in their city.

And you know what?  They won!

I’m thinking of that story tonight as I watch the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in Liberty Plaza Park, NYC.  Protesters have been sitting down there for the past ten days, and despite nasty police pressure and arrests, they are not moving–and the crowd is growing.

Their demands are simple: they want the Masters of the Universe who run Wall Street, and through Wall Street, the world, to pay attention to the ordinary folks at the bottom of the heap.

There are all kinds of people down in Liberty Park–students, housewives, journalists, activists, the unemployed.  What they have in common is a deep and abiding belief that the corporate capitalist system symbolized by Wall Street is not serving Americans well–other than the narrow top layer of financiers and their creatures, the politicians and corporate business types.

I am disappointed to see that my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, has treated the protest like a minor disturbance, not worthy of front-page attention.  Of course, the Times can’t risk angering its corporate advertisers and sponsors…so they have to tread carefully.

But it’s surprising to see that even more progressive publications like The Nation, the Huffington Post and Moveon.org are also largely ignoring the significance of this protest.

Maybe it’s because there’s no one famous in charge–although some celebs have started dropping by and addressing the crowd now, including Michael Moore, Cornel West and Susan Sarandon.

The truth is that this is a REAL grassroots protest movement.  There is no charismatic leader calling the shots and getting the glory. There is no fancy media kit or PR person fielding questions.

There’s just “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens,” seeking by their persistent accusatory presence to change the world.  As Margaret Mead said, we shouldn’t doubt their ability to do just that.

More than that–we should get out there and join them!

Wangari Maathai’s Canopy of Hope: remembering a warrior woman for the planet and role model for us all

Kenyan Wangari Maathai, who died last night of ovarian cancer, was a woman who took everything she learned and used it for the benefit of her local community and the planetary community as a whole.

As a girl, she used to sit by a certain fig tree that grew near her family village.  Beside the fig tree a clear, sparkling stream flowed, planted with arrowroots and hopping with small frogs.  Her mother told her that this was a “tree of God,” which wasn’t to be harvested for firewood.

Later, Wangari realized that “there was a connection between the fig tree’s root system and the underground water reservoirs.  The roots burrowed deep into the ground, breaking through the rocks beneath the surface soil and diving into the underground water table.  The water traveled up along the roots until it hit a depression or weak place in the ground and fushed out as a spring.  Indeed, wherever these trees stood, there were likely to be streams.  The reverence the community had for the fig tree helped preserve the stream and the tadpoles that so captivated me.  The trees also held the soil together, reducing erosion and landslides.  In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these cultural and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity” (Unbowed, 46).

Wangari came of age as the traditional wisdom of the village people was giving way before the onslaught of Western epistemologies.  A girl who excelled in her schooling, she educated by Catholic nuns, and was fortunate enough to be chosen for the so-called Kennedy airlift of 1960, under which the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation provided scholarships for promising young African students to study in America—the same program that brought Barack Obama’s father to the U.S. to study.

Wangari ended up at Mount St. Scholastica, a Benedictine women’s college in Kansas, where she majored in science, and she went on to earn a Master’s in biology at the University of Pittsburgh. She continued her studies in Germany, and in 1971 earned a Ph.D. in biology from the University College of Nairobi—the first women in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree.

Like so many other highly educated women who join the workforce, Wangari experienced plenty of gender discrimination as she tried to advance her career. Frustrated with her lack of advancement within the university, she joined the National Council of Women of Kenya, which was a group of educated women who sought to improve the living conditions of all Kenyan women.

“We could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in,” she said.  “This was not a remote problem for us.  The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived.  We owed it to them to do all we could” (124).

For Wangari, the problems were clear:

“The connection between the symptoms of environmental degradation and their causes—deforestation, devegetation, unsustainable agriculture and soil loss—were self-evident.  Something had to be done.  We could not just deal with the manifestations of the problems.  We had to get to the root causes of those problems.

“Now, it is one thing to understand the issues.  It is quite another to do something about them.  But I have always been interested in finding solutions.  This is, I believe, the result of my education as well as my time in America: to think of what can be done rather than worrying about what cannot.  I didn’t sit down and ask myself, ‘Now let me see, what shall I do?’ It just came to me: Why not plant trees?’ The trees would provide a supply of wood that would enable women to cook nutritious foods.  They would also have wood for fencing and fodder for cattle and goals.  The trees would offer shade for humans and animals, protect watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they were fruit trees, provide food.  They would also heal the land by bringing back birds and small animals and regenerate the vitality of the earth.

“That is how the Green Belt Movement began” (125).

 The Green Belt Movement mobilized thousands of ordinary women in Kenya to start tree nurseries, and to plant trees near their homes.  It also became a forest conservation movement, with Wangari leading women in protecting Kenya’s remaining forests against the loggers hired by giant transnational conglomerates.  She made plenty of enemies in the government when her agenda threw a wrench in their greedy plans, and she was often afraid for her life.  She was thrown in jail many times, and frequently confronted violence at the hands of police and goon squads.


 Through it all, she remained, as the title of her memoir suggests, UNBOWED. She would not be browbeaten into submission to authority.  She knew that her cause was not only righteous but right for Kenyans and for the planet she loved, and this gave her the courage to stand firm against intimidation.

Wangari’s activism cost her her marriage: her husband, a Kenyan Member of Parliament, divorced her after she earned her Ph.D. and became more financially successful.  She could have chosen the easy way and lived a very privileged, comfortable existence in Nairobi, if she had been willing to bow her head and put her husband’s needs and career before her own.  Instead, she went through a humiliating public divorce trial:

“It became clear that I was being turned into a sacrificial lamb.  Anybody who had a grudge against modern, educated and independent women was being given an opportunity to spit on me.  I decided to hold my head up high, put my shoulders back, and suffer with dignity: I would give every woman and girl reasons to be proud and never regret being educated, successful and talented.  ‘What I have,’ I told myself, ‘is something to celebrate and not to ridicule or dishonor’” (146).

The divorce trial ended, incredibly enough, with Wangari being sentenced to six months in prison for “contempt of court”; she was hauled off to prison without even having the time to say goodbye to her children. It was clearly an attempt to put this uppity woman in her place, but it did not work: Wangari would not be intimidated, and emerged from prison determined to put her talents to work for her people, come what might for herself personally.

Her Green Belt Movement became a model for sustainable, grassroots-driven development throughout Africa and beyond, which worked not only for environmental sustainability, but also for women’s rights, human rights and participatory democracy.  Wangari consistently provided an upright model of honest, steadfast leadership, leading by example in speaking truth to power and and refusing to be cowed.

“What I have learned over the years,” she said, “is that we must be patient, persistent and committed.  When we are planting trees sometimes people will say to me, “I don’t want to plant this tree, because it will not grow fast enough.” I have to keep reminding them that the trees they are cutting today were not planted by them, but by those who came before.  So they must plant the trees that will benefit communities in the future.  I remind them that like a seedling, with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky” (289).

Wangari Maathai herself grew that “canopy of hope” for all of us.  May the seedlings she planted be nourished with care by those of us who aspire to walk in her footsteps, for all those who deserve a better world in the future here on our precious planetary home.

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 – NYTimes.com

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 – NYTimes.com.

Truly a great leader, I can’t believe she is gone.  So fast!  I can’t help but think that had she been living in the West, the cancer would have been caught earlier and she would still be with us.  A great loss for the world.  More later.

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