I’m so pleased to have my poem, Prose Poem For After A Hurricane included in the Spring issue of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, which is published by Oxford University Press. The poem was written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, so in it’s specifics it is a tad dated, but such are the rigors of academic publishing, it is just being published now. Regardless, the sentiment of the poem is one that I suspect could/should be written about every climate disaster. The full spring issue is devoted to creative responses to the issue of climate change.
Archive for Environment
After weeks of subfreezing weather, the temperature finally climbed into the mid-30′s and the sun was shining. Knowing more bad weather was on the way, I jumped at the chance to get out for a bit of air and headed down the trail to our neighborhood pond, which had partially frozen over weeks ago.
I stood for a few minutes and watched the ducks and geese as they came down the bank and skittered onto the ice, doing hilarious web-footed slide maneuvers across the ice until finally plunging into the bit of water that had not frozen over. Smiling at their antics, I continued on my walk.
It wasn’t until I rounded the last turn on the trail around the pond that I saw her–a tall woman with short, white hair, and like me, bundled up against the blustery January wind. She was looking up at the stand of trees at the end of the pond and when she saw me, she held up a hand in greeting. As I arrived at the spot where she stood, she lowered her gaze and looked at me with bright eyes. Her hand reached up to wipe away a tear.
“I forget how beautiful they are,” she said, and then apologized for being so emotional. I murmured that no apology was needed and looked up at the trees swaying below the vast canvas of the bright blue sky. Just trees, lovely in spring and fall, but in their bare, winter state, they seemed rather ordinary to me.
There are many trees that are spectacular beauties even without their leaves, trees that have a particularly attractive shape, or trees that have interesting patterns in their bark. So often we don’t see that beauty until the trees lose their leaves in the fall, leaving branches and trunks exposed. But these trees seemed to me to just be trees, their winter selves unspectacular until spring once again adorned them with their leafy finery.
I stood with her for a few minutes looking up at the bare branches. She took a deep breath and nodded a farewell to them and to me. Her last words stunned me, “At least I’ll have one more year with them.” And then she turned and continued down the trail.
As I watched her walk away I pondered the meaning of her startling words. She had seemed quite healthy, but perhaps she was sick. Or maybe just getting ready to move to another neighborhood. I looked back at the trees again, still just trees, but somehow now majestic and a talisman to remind us to let even that which is ordinary take our breath away.
Walking home, I thought about other trees I have encountered in my wanderings, the ones that I have called Spirit Trees, that somehow manage to stay proudly upright, long after they are supposedly “dead”.
Later that evening, I curled up in front of the fire with Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Invention of Wings, in which one of the main characters, Handful, and her mother Charlotte continue a tradition of keeping their spirits in a tree. Fascinated, I stayed up reading, finishing as the morning light began to tiptoe around the edges of the blinds.
There is much that has been written about the spirit of trees, Mary Oliver, Hermann Hesse, Wendell Berry, to name a few of the more famous scribes who have visited this place in their own worlds. (For more wonderful writing about trees, click here, and for a fascinating compendium of writing about the spirit of trees, consider visiting this site).
Clearly, for the woman that I met at the pond, the little stand of trees holds deep spiritual meaning and I hope that she has many more opportunities to visit with them. But even when the day comes that she can no longer walk down that particular trail, they will always be with her.
The recent assault on West Virginia’s Elk River that left hundreds of thousands of people without usable water should give us all pause. We need to not only address the immediate disaster but also to examine the context in which it happened and the ways in which it is part of the global environmental crisis. As awful as this situation has been and continues to be, it should come as no surprise–the plundering of West Virginia for coal has been exacting an enormous environmental and human cost for many, many years.
And around the world, there are many places that have to cope with unsafe or scarce water supplies on an ongoing basis. As the impact of global warming continues to grow, this will only get worse. A lot worse.
We know this, but we continue to allow chemical companies, energy companies, agricultural companies, development companies and yes, military actions as well, to continue to endanger this most precious resource with far too little oversight and regulation.
When this story first broke, I saw a picture of water bottles being distributed to those in need, and I was struck by the irony that when you go through airport security, a water bottle is considered a possible weapon of terrorism, but tanks of toxins are allowed to sit upstream of our water supply with little or no regulation:
Downstream (for West Virginia)
What deep delusion
the body politic
that searches luggage
at airport checkpoints
looking for water bottles
that could become
weapons of terror
yet does not inspect the
tanks of toxic chemicals
that leak poison
into the rivers on which
so many lives depend–
incognizant that, in the end,
we all live downstream.
–Lucinda Marshall, © 2014
Will the West Virginia disaster be a wake-up call? Maybe for the next ten minutes, but then something else will happen to distract us and we will go along our merry, delusional way until another inevitable result of our folly comes back at us.
The 24 hour news spin cycle is dependent on moving us on to the next big thing, time to absorb and react is truncated if not obliterated. Water crisis today, burst pipeline tomorrow, a military crisis somewhere, budget talks break down–sorry something else just came up and we have to move on, no time to think about why this happened or how these things are connected, let alone how to change this destructive paradigm.
We would do ourselves (and the planet) a lot of good if we just stopped for a moment and insisted on being with what has transpired, refusing to allow ourselves to be push me pull you’ed on to the next crisis without the chance to absorb the implications of what has happened into our experience and understanding of the world and our very lives.
The Sandy Hook massacre isn’t just about the need for gun control laws, it is about a culture that condones the killing of children and teaches children that killing is okay.
It is about a country addicted to violence on television and movie screens.
It is about cuts in education spending.
It is about giving the military free access to our schools where they regale our children with romanticized delusions of military righteousness.
It is about environmental and health policies that expose our children to all manner of toxins in the air, land and water.
It is about thinking we have the right to kill children with drones or by dropping toxic munitions on their countries that cause birth defects and miscarriages.
It is about saddling our children with crippling education debt and no prospect for jobs.
It is about telling boys (and men) they have to be tough and to fight and kill for what they want or think is right.
It is about a national policy that denies children basic rights and systemically teaches them that violence is okay.
And it is about a media so insensitive that it thinks it is okay to shove a microphone in the face of young victims in the name of sensationalized 24/7 cable “news” while under-reporting the root causes of this tragedy.
Sandy Hook did not happen because of a lone, disturbed young man and it is not an isolated incident. It is an epidemic and we are all to blame. And today (and tomorrow and every day after that) is the time to confront this self-inflicted tragedy.
For more than ten years now, I have devoted the overwhelming majority of my work as a writer and activist to shining a light on the many heinous guises of misogyny, especially on the impact violence has on women’s lives, and also on efforts to stop that violence and to empower women. Now and again I have also tackled other topics, including environmental issues such as global warming and climate change because as we confront environmental disaster after environmental disaster at a rapidly snowballing speed, the need to address these issues as an integral part of my work feels urgently compelling, yet words more often than not painfully fail me.
What precisely can one say about ocean acidification, leaking methane from the thawing Arctic, seas that are rising faster than expected, the loss of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, (and those are just stories that have crossed my digital desk in the last week alone)? And how precisely can one say what should be said about these overwhelming climactic disasters in a way that accurately portrays the proper measures of terror, and the tears that should be streaming down our faces as we see the result of our misguided dominion while offering hope or perhaps vision? On most days, I neither know or begin to feel adequate to that task.
Not being one to suffer writer’s block or despairing inertia quietly, I have floundered about trying to find inspiration and strength, a grounded path towards coherent expression. I have buried myself in the words of Terry Tempest Williams and tackled a lengthy biography of Rachel Carson. I cheer Sandra Steingraber’s call to action about fracking and Bill McKibben’s relentless tar sands pushback and the solar-powered Thanksgiving in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
And mostly I have walked away from the computer and staggered out into the natural world, needing to take in huge gulps of (I hesitate to say fresh) air. I have sat beside the Atlantic Ocean and watched the tides roll in and out, seagulls standing watch at the water’s edge. I’ve walked along the Potomac, visited pueblos and mountains and craters in the Arizona desert and high country. And some days, I simply walk the streets of my suburban neighborhood.
The community in which I live is perhaps the embodiment of a sub-urban design train wreck–houses crammed in every available space, open spaces in the wrong places, dysfunctional streets where people live isolated lives. But even in this embodiment of Malvina Reynolds’ little boxes on the hillside “all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same”, I have looked up at the trees, and found wonder and love and grounded strength in these branches of heart filling beauty.
And where words come sometimes only haltingly, I have taken to letting my camera portray the extraordinary that we all too often fail to see, let alone honor in the ordinary of our days.
The words will continue, we must talk about what has been, what is and what will be. But we must also see the tree branches above, and feel the breezes from the sea, the hot desert sun and the path below our feet.
Of all the searing images in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the one that I find most disturbing is this picture of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which remained throughout the storm at great personal danger. That we must honor our military dead even at the risk of completely unnecessary loss of life speaks volumes about our priorities in this country.
I rarely watch cable news, but I found myself obsessively switching between a local news channel, CNN and The Weather Channel for much of the storm. There was much valuable and urgent information shared although much of it looked like a contest between reporters to see who could report while standing in the deepest water and stay standing (and I absolutely need to say that throughout the storm, I consistently found critical information being disseminated on Twitter well before I saw it on television). But not once did I hear any mention of the many nuclear power plants in the storm’s path, or a discussion of what to do if your house is flooded with toxic waste or the lack of plans to protect oil and gas facilities. No analysis of what climate change denial and inaction has cost us.
Nor was there mention of the fact that we’ve known that storms like this have been an event waiting to happen. Instead, as I pointed out a few days ago, we have continued to beat the drum in the fight against “terrorism”, pouring billions of dollars into destroying other countries, killing innocent civilians and creating conditions in which terrorism ferments and while we’re at it doing an ace job of brainwashing ourselves into being perpetually paranoid and terrified while at the same time allowing the infrastructure of our own country to go to hell.
As Chris Mooney pointed out in Grist, NASA warned about an event like Sandy in 2006:
Scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York have been studying that city’s vulnerability to hurricane impacts in a changing world, and calculated that with 1.5 feet of sea level rise, a worst-case-scenario Category 3 hurricane could submerge “the Rockaways, Coney Island, much of southern Brooklyn and Queens, portions of Long Island City, Astoria, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, lower Manhattan, and eastern Staten Island from Great Kills Harbor north to the Verrazano Bridge.
And of course, that wasn’t the only warning. WE KNEW IT COULD HAPPEN. And we did nothing. As a result we are now contending with this:
The New York system, although there are some components that have been upgraded over the years, has a lot of antique components where the vendor has been out of business for 50 years. (emphasis mine)
Under the Clean Water Act, there is something called the Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule which includes requirements for oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response to prevent oil discharges to navigable waters and adjoining shorelines…Sounds like a no-brainer. But in Fiscal Year 2011, EPA officials visited 120 sites oil and gas development sites and found 105 were out of compliance– 87.5%…Almost every single oil and gas site inspected lacked a mandatory spill prevention plan meant to protect our rivers and streams. (emphasis mine)
Internet, cable and phone services were also significantly disrupted and yet two days later with thousands of people still without access, I heard a report of a FEMA official telling people to file claims on the internet. And he expects people who are stranded in flooded buildings to do that how?
…The best officials could do was urge residents to steer clear of the contaminated waters.
Incidentally, they sent that warning out by email. To people who obviously were going to have trouble accessing their email.
The storm also precipitated numerous problems at various nuclear power plants, all of which are aging quickly past the lifespans they were designed for and some of which are the same design as the Fukushima facility in Japan,
Storm-related complications were blamed this week for forcing three nuclear reactors offline – Nine Mile Point Unit 1 northwest of Syracuse, N.Y., Indian Point Unit 3 about 25 miles north of New York City and the Salem plant’s Unit 1 on the Delaware River in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, rising waters along the Barnegat Bay prompted officials to declare an “alert,” the second-lowest in a four-tiered warning system, at Oyster Creek in New Jersey…
…NRC officials reported that other plants continued operating but reduced their electrical output as a precaution, including the Millstone plant’s Unit 3 reactor in Waterford, Conn., Vermont Yankee south of Brattleboro, Vt., and both reactors at the Limerick nuclear plant about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The storm also appeared to knock out emergency sirens used to notify residents who live near the Oyster Creek and Peach Bottom plants in Pennsylvania, according to NRC reports. (emphasis mine)
These are the kinds of issues we need to confront if we are to stand a prayer of survival. They aren’t theoretical or in the future. They are real and they are right now. We need to see this as literally the moment for a sea-change in attitude. It is not acceptable for the media to continue to ignore climate change,
Last year at least 7,140 journalists and opinion writers published some 19,000 stories on climate change, compared to more than 11,100 reporters who filed 32,400 stories in 2009, according to DailyClimate.org…
…Particularly noticeable was the silence from the nation’s editorial boards: In 2009, newspapers published 1,229 editorials on the topic. Last year, they published less than 580 – half as many, according to DailyClimate.org’s archives.
And it is not acceptable for our politicians to continue to chest thump the drums of war while maintaining a deafening silence on climate change. Protecting symbols of military prowess while our cities drown isn’t honorable, it is an act of national suicide.
The Day Before The Day After Tomorrow–Meditations On A Storm And A Young Friend Who Wants To Serve His Country
In the pre-hurricane calm before Sandy hits, I am sitting by a window (where I probably don’t want to sit tomorrow), watching the skies darken and thinking of a young man that I’ve known since he was in diapers. After high school, he joined the army and last week, he left to serve in a war zone. All we can do now is pray that he comes back alive, hopefully without his body or mind broken.
They are now saying that 10 million people could lose power from Hurricane Sandy. One of the reasons that may happen is that for decades now, we have done far less than we should to protect our utility grids. Water may be compromised and communications systems too. Some of that would be inevitable with a storm this size, but proper upgrading and maintenance along the way might well have mitigated that.
What few are talking about and which may be a far larger worry is the potential danger to the 16 nuclear power plants that are in harms way. After Fukushima, we should have no illusions that these plants can withstand catastrophic weather. And we should be mindful of the massive amounts of toxic materials that may blow into our water and onto our shores as the storm blows through.
I began by mentioned the young family friend now serving in the military, in a continuing war that serves only to continue to destabilize the world. Yes, there will always be a few that will want to bomb and destroy us, and perhaps they will get away with killing some of us. But no terrorist can ever hope to accomplish what climate changed weather has and most certainly will continue to do when it comes to wreaking havoc and destruction.
Yet throughout this presidential campaign, it has been business as usual with the war talk–why we must use drones and must fight terrorists without even a peep about climate change or the environment.
My young friend is a patriot. He wants to defend the country. Imagine if instead of fighting wars of empire that serve only to destroy and bankrupt, we brought our soldiers home and asked them to help secure our aging and dangerous nuclear plants as best we can? What if we asked them to install solar and wind installations? What if we asked them to help trim trees off power lines and replace aging water pipes and roads. What if we put the formidable force that is the U.S. military to work doing things that would actually protect the country? And if we still wanted to send some of our troops overseas, we could help other nations do the same, making them safer and less likely to hate us.
It is too late for this storm, but how many more times does this need to happen before we finally say no more to business as usual and start using our resources to address the real needs of climate change and stop the destructive foreign policy that drains us of our economic resources, destroys other countries and puts our troops in harms way?
There has been no shortage of media confusion in DC this week regarding the OccupyDC and October2011 Stop The Machine actions. I got into a conversation yesterday with a reporter from a local television station who was interviewing people at OccupyDC, she seemed to genuinely want to understand the difference. I pointed out that it seemed like very few members of the Mainstream Media had bothered to check the websites for the two groups which would clarify quite a lot.
Isn’t this sort of like the opposite of the Tea Party, she wondered. I pointed out that these movements represented people who were out of work, had lost their homes, had no health insurance, and wanted an end to militarism without end and the number of people impacted by those issues is a lot larger than the number of people who identify with the Tea Party.
But the most idiotic media confusion in DC this week has been who was where. It wasn’t so complicated–OccupyDC at McPherson Square, Stop The Machine at Freedom Plaza. Yet in Sunday morning’s Washington Post, with OccupyDC at McPherson for over a week and Stop The Machine in place since Thursday, the caption writer for this photo still got it wrong.
And the headline–hello? It isn’t the same as the one used online, but, “The common man”? Really? Which century is this? They also apparently didn’t look at the photo which rather clearly shows the common woman.
With this kind of media, no wonder many people are confused about what is happening in the streets.
The best way to understand the movement that is taking root everywhere is to go find out for yourself. Yes, there is an Occupy near you.
Several people have said to me, oh it is just a bunch of kids. No, it is not. And it’s not just a bunch of hippie peaceniks either. It ranges from toddlers who are there with their parents (there was a little area with toys and crayons at OccupyDC yesterday) to elders with plenty of folks in between. I talked for a bit with a young man in an army uniform. It was very courageous for him to be there. He had been to Iraq once and was due to ship out again soon, but he said he wasn’t planning to re-deploy, what he had experienced on his first tour had made him realize that militarism was deeply flawed. He looked sad and wise beyond his years.
And do not underestimate the numbers, it isn’t just a hundred here and a thousand there, it is far, far larger than that.
This isn’t about one issue, it is about the American people connecting all the issues and finally saying enough. There are those who have criticized what is going on for not having a clear statement of purpose or intent. What they miss is that people everywhere have decided to take back the commons, and that is intention enough.
There is more to say, much more, the time I have spent on the street this last week has been transformative. I have re-connected with old friends, made new ones and for the first time in a long time felt genuine hope. Don’t be afraid, come out and join us.
Addenda: The amount of inaccurate reporting involving Occupy DC and Stop the Machine is becoming epic. Today the Washington Post reports that OccupyDC may stay in Freedom Plaza past the time time they have a permit. Sorry, wrong group. Yahoo News is now calling the pepper-spraying of protesters at the Air and Space Museum on Saturday a riot and ABCNews7 tweeted this morning that at least one person planned to stay past the permit time in Freedom Plaza although the article they linked to actually says a number of people plan to stay. And that is just today. The amount of media stupid when it comes to reporting what has transpired over the last week plus in DC is to the point where it is hard to see it as anything but deliberate.
Epic Days are becoming far too common place, and not in a good way. From today’s headlines–A no fly zone in Libya that seems to be taking out about as many civilians as targets in order to support rebels of uncertain political aspirations (perhaps on the assumption that they could hardly be crazier than Gaddafi and dammit, we need that oil). Memo to the good people of Sudan, Ivory Coast and other places where innocent civilians are under siege–sorry, your lives aren’t worth jack unless you’ve got something we want.
And while everyone is totally distracted, Israel starts in on Gaza again. Meanwhile existing home sales skidded, well actually nose-dived would be a better adjective, the NRC says no changes needed in the U.S. nuclear program while the Japanese figure out how to deal with radioactive lettuce and milk and still smoking reactors not to mention the significant percentage of their country that just got trashed by Mother Nature.
The World Bank says no worries though, the Japanese disaster won’t have a long term effect on the global economy. Oh and trophy pictures have surfaced of U.S. soldiers gloating over dead civilians in Afghanistan, which couldn’t possibly be true because Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples.
I probably missed a few things, but truly that is enough, and that was just today. Dear ones, we cannot continue like this. Kurt Vonnegut warned us about becoming what we pretend to be. But we seem hellbent in doing just that and it is a very sorry sight.
Early Saturday evening I decided to just ignore the fact that President Obama decided to start another war on a weekend after we’d just spent a week being totally traumatized by the disaster in Japan. I mean really? This couldn’t have waited until Monday? So I selfishly took two hours off to watch a cheesy movie without my laptop at my side. I know, you can see this coming– the second the credits are rolling I tune back in and bam! Now we have an oil slick too? I need to join a union, didn’t they bring us weekends?
But let’s go back to that morally uplifting idea of helping the Libyan rebels by enforcing a no-fly zone because the dude in charge is bombing his own people. Yes, I’m all about supporting people who are overthrowing dictators. Especially dictators that are bat-shit crazy. But guess what–that isn’t why we’re there and anyhow, we bomb innocent civilians all the time–think Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it actually was the reason why we’re now lobbing missiles, don’t you think maybe we might have possibly put in an appearance in other countries with violent ruthless leaders? The Congo and Sudan come to mind. Burma, Indonesia Uganda. I could keep going.
And doesn’t this sound scary familiar–shouldn’t take too long we’re told, it’s about taking out strategic targets, not bombing civilians. Oh yeah and there is an Al Queda connection. Only a matter of days until we’re there to rescue women too. But guess what, it’s not about that either–the reason we are really there–one word and it isn’t plastics–OIL. Oil that we lust after that has the unmitigated chutzpah to be under their sand.
But hey it’s March, how are your brackets working out? We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality show.
Rant over, feeling much better and looking forward to whatever tomorrow’s crisis du jour might be.