Epiphanies from Semester in the West

On Semester in the West, my Whitman education that mattered most, twenty of us lucky kids spent three months on the public lands of nine states of the West studying environmental and political issues. On the program, we were assigned to write three “Epiphanies” to pithily summarize our experiential learning. Reading these drafts aloud was agonizing–but of course nothing encourages better writing than peer pressure.

Epiphany #1: “Learning to Walk Uneven Ground” – I tried to link momentary earthquakes to ongoing earth-shattering of climate change, all within the frame of having children. The question has intensified, and with it, finding purpose and peace in action.

We’ve met activists like Mike Prather of the Owens Valley Committee, and Nils Christopherson of Wallowa Resources, who are living – and most importantly – smiling examples that while sweeping optimism (like negativity) is absurd and useless, a daily practice of honest hope is pragmatic. And imperative. And tangible.  … I had an entire childhood to practice balancing on solid ground before a “temblor” hit me. The next generation might not have that time. Now, I access balance through action, and in this world that’s changing so quickly, action may be the inner ear and saving grace of our species. Still, I wonder how to explain this coming but yet unpredictable man-made earthquake to a child. Reassurances in the night may no longer suffice.

Epiphany #2: Conservation: The Politics of Sharing – Still super awkward. This one’s about cattle grazing on public lands.

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On the one hand, these public grass and forestlands have provided “great good” to people for a “long time.” However, 150 years of ranching is but a moment in the 10,000-year human history of these ecosystems. And only 20,000 permittees profit from these lands. Thus, Pinchot’s desire that public lands be used for the greatest good and benefit the greatest number is most certainly not met in the meat production industry that dominates our shared landscape. …. Sensible ideas, scientific evidence, and economic truths only go so far. Ultimately, everything comes down to politics, because our worldview and the way we manage are based on values.

Epiphany #3: Remembering Another Vocabulary

Our final epiphany, shared with a Whitman audience back on campus at the close of the program.Image

Navajo country was dry, scrubby, and flat; for many of us students, it was the first visit to a Native American reservation. We camped on a plateau strewn with tumbleweed thorns hardened from the long southwestern summer, and fell asleep to the sound of wind whipping a lone tarp shelter. Here, victims of a U.S. energy sacrifice zone tell the story of climate change in the cancerous language of coal. One storyteller we met was Dailan Long, a young community organizer for those Navajo who oppose the construction of a third coal-fired power plant on their land.  When we sat before him in a church foyer in Farmington, New Mexico, the last thing I expected to feel was jealousy. But when I stole a glance behind me at my fellow students pressed forward in their chairs with attention, I couldn’t deny the feeling. It was strange, because life as a minority activist, leading a poor community against the behemoth coal industry, is hardly enviable.

I come from the affluent, green town of Ashland, Oregon, where purple bumper stickers adorning every other car remind me to “Honor the Goddess Within.” Like Dailan, I’ve had to translate my hometown story into terms that contemporary America will take seriously.
On that October day, in a sure and meditated voice, Dailan told us how he turned the story of man-made climate change into the language of Navajo parables that his elders could understand. “The wind doesn’t operate as it used to,” he translated for us back into English, “and it’s going to affect everybody.” Was it the straightness of his spine, the even part of his short black hair, or the calmness of his expression that filled the room with silence? He went on to explain the advantages of renewable energy in nothing less than spiritual terms.  “When you speak,” he said, “you’re speaking from your soul, and when they come out your words have spiritual weight – so that spirit should not be polluted by anything with environmental harm.”  He finished, and not a student reacted with an incredulous scoff. I found myself wishing that I could also speak with such boldness.

But I cannot tell their story in my own language.  Even if the human relationship of dependence on nature and the respect for it that must follow is the most universal story ever told, experimented and proven time and again, I cannot utter the words “Mother Earth” without risking patronizing dismissal.  My conflict is born of a culture built on rationality and obsessed with the intangible idea of objectivity.  My generation is forbidden to employ clichéd slogans of the Earth Day movement. Instead, I explain the economic value of ecosystem services.  I perfect the custom of conceding to “the way things are” with politically correct elegance. My peers listened, however, riveted as Dailan defended opposition to the coal that fuels our country in his own terms. He said, “its about the seasons, about the breath…the earth, burning fluids, and the way it connects to the human body…it’s about our relations to one another.” Simple.  We won’t admit it, but I could see in my peers’ faces the hunger we have for this moral authority.  Image
The Navajo nation has one story; the U.S. nation that surrounds theirs on all sides has another. During our stay, we met a Navajo Park Ranger named Ernest. In a roaring, dented pick-up, he led us over the sandy floor of Canyon de Chelly as night descended over its ancient dwellings. Before petroglyphed walls, Ernest said that his old father has long known that new technology was the cause of global warming even though he was not versed in its science.  There, I connected the dots in the timeline of my life like constellations in the stars above. I realized that elders like Ernest’s father felt that something was wrong long before the fight to make climate change the issue that it never became in election debates, before NASA scientist and climate change herald James Hansen spoke out in Congress, before I was even born. Long ago, Navajo grandfathers noticed that the weather wasn’t right to plant corn, even when the stars that signal the growing season began to rise in the east.  So, the younger generation of Navajo, like Dailan, explain the twist in the ancient creation story by introducing the modern words that changed everything. They are the words of industry, the language of molecular science, and the notion of excess.

Our two understandings of cause and consequence, the simplicity of the Navajo and my own convoluted narrative, align so perfectly, it’s embarrassing. If a myth can predict that unwise resource use will result in global disaster, and if morals show just as well as science that environmental harm equals human hurt, then our culture has been wrong to brush our emotional reaction aside as nothing more than passing matters of the heart. I believe that our contemporary environmental discourse no longer speaks the language that delivered its greatest successes. Consider our lexicon: pragmatic, politically correct, and motivated are approved, but not passionate, enraged, or in love – those are the unmentionable feelings, not worthy of serious consideration because they’re insubstantial and unquantifiable.

In the end, we are wasting time agonizing over a false Cartesian duality. Alone, neither objectivity nor passion is the best framework through which to interpret climate change. Our culture did not arrive at the problems we face today on a path determined by one alone, and the way forward demands an appreciation for both. Debate in numbers, or plead with tears – it doesn’t matter, just act, quickly, on what you know is right, by science or by touch. “You always have to have everything in balance,” Dailan explained. I hope that we can take this to heart.

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