Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds: Empowering our Children with Ways to Protect the Environment while Cultivating the Earth

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Art of Engagement

When I read the following lines in Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, I nearly dropped the book:

“‘We choose to be occupied, which is quite different from being engaged. In America, time is money. In Kenya, time is relationship. We look at investments differently.’”

These words, spoken by Williams’s Kenyan friend, Wangari Waigwa-Stone, resound with the same contemplative, spiritual perspective that runs throughout Terry Tempest’s book. So why did these words, in particular, so powerfully affect me? I think the answer is, simply, because I am stressed out and longing for the sort of calm, quiet self-awareness that Waigwa-Stone and Williams share, for the state of being “engaged” that Waigwa-Stone describes.
In general, I feel so busy that everything, even the things I love, become chores. I am so over committed that I spend about twice as much time fulfilling my extracurricular duties, facilitating meetings and emailing administrators and practicing my cello and running; as I do completing my homework—which means that, even as I am playing a beautiful Bach cello suite, I am pondering in the back of my head how much work I have to do before I can go to sleep that night (and so you can imagine the quality of my musical interpretation.) I have to block out thirty-minute phone dates in order to hear my boyfriend’s voice streaming at me from Rhode Island; actually seeing him is rare. I struggle to find time to spend with my friends; and when I do allow myself to go out on the weekends I find myself suffering the consequences during the week as I scramble to write papers the nights before they are due.
And so when I read Refuge, I envied Terry Tempest Williams’s peaceful wisdom and seemingly simple life. As Williams describes, the suffering of her mother and the environmental destruction of the rising Great Salt Lake are difficult to bear; I do not envy her these experiences, of course. But I am jealous of her ability to process these terrible life events in a wise and measured way, spending days gazing at birds and thinking, and writing, and having long conversations with her loved ones. Williams has the time to ponder the meaning of the pain around her, and so she is able to emerge from it, ultimately, as a better and more “engaged” person.
Clearly, and thankfully, my life is not in such a state of crisis as Williams’s was when she wrote this book. But nonetheless, I want, and, really, need the kind of passionate engaged-ness that exemplifies Williams. When I am so busy, as I am now, my activities lose their worth.
For example: I have recently began to play the cello again after quitting for two years because I felt like I’d lost a part of my birthright and my self in quitting. My father is a professional musician and I grew up with my mother singing me to sleep every night, so for me it seems like music is in my blood. For me, to not play is a crime against myself. But when I’m in the midst of a stressful week, finding the time to practice is nearly impossible, and rather than enjoying the time I spend with a bow in hand, I find myself cursing my bad intonation (which is only bad because I have not had enough time to practice) and worrying that I should be doing my homework, instead.
And when I am doing work for my club, BarnardEarth, I find myself in an uncomfortable mode of self-consciousness. I think partly because I am not well-connected to the root reasons driving my involvement, I become preoccupied with an anxious over-awareness of how I seem to people when I am in a leadership position. Surely this impairs my relationship with the other club members and the administrators we work with.
In general, I feel “occupied” rather than “engaged.” I know the solution to this problem. It is simple: do less. But I want to do everything I am doing so badly. It all means so much to me, so so much; I don’t want to give up BarnardEarth, the cello, my tutoring, my writing work, or any of the things I spend my time on.
Yet something tells me that Terry Tempest Williams would tell me this is an unsustainable attitude. And if I envy her relative serenity so much, perhaps I would do well to imitate her. Perhaps I should spend a long time talking to my mother this weekend, and take a long walk, and look at the birds.

Refuge reflections and reconnecting

While reading our assigned book for this week, Terry Tempest Williams' "Refuge", I was reminded constantly of my own personal experiences with cancer and the experiences of friends. TTW's integration of wildlife and human life really impacted me, as she spoke of finding solace in solitude and silence. Her reflections on death and the death of her mother intertwined with her reflections on nature, both seeming to involve cycles (like the fluctuation in depth of fascinating Salt Lake). I definitely relate to her expressions of awe while birdwatching, and her family connection is so strong (what I assume is a tradition in the Mormon faith) that the bond between them seems to hold all their lives together and together with nature. The deep ties to the land that she described, as her family had been there for generations, are severely lacking in today's commuter, suburban society. I have lived in 7 different cities, and am only the second generation from immigrants. So, my roots are all spread out. I am not attached to a particular place because I have not spent enough time in one place to become deeply attached. I think that this is true of most people in my generation, and not only that we don't spend our lives in one place, but that we are not connected to the place. We are connected to the things- the material things that we use in that place, but not the land- not the dirt, the trees, the animal. I hope that through our "Planting Seeds" project, we can work towards reestablishing that connection with the Earth. It is difficult to imagine because we live in such a technology-dependent society. How is it that our internet connection is stronger and deeper than our connection with the planet, the entire system, that gave us and gives us life? I think we must work one day at a time, one conversation at a time, to form a new relationship with the earth; one of respect and reverence and appreciation. Other than those broad terms, I don't know what to do. I get very frustrated thinking of the state of the Earth and what seems to be irreversible damage that we humans have caused. But small steps made by many can make a difference, if only in mentality.

Communication: Planning and more planning

Hi bloggers. I am writing this message after an important group meeting this evening. We have finalized our lesson topics for our project:

-Lesson 1: LOCAL FOODS--Why and how can we support foods grown in our area? What are the advantages of doing so, nutritionally, environmentally, and economically?

-Lesson 2: ORGANIC FOODS--What are some of the chemicals that are used in our food? What does it mean for something to be "ogranic"? How did eating "organically" become trendy, and why is it good for us?

-Lesson 3: MAKING CHOICES--How can we be concious consumers? We will accompany the students on a field trip to the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn. The teacher with whom we are working, Matthew Gilbert, has been a member of the co-op for a number of years. We feel this will be a good opportunity for the kids to go out on their own and apply what we have learned in the classroom. We are planning a scavenger hunt for them that will call for them to locate different foods. For example, they may be asked to find something organic, or something grown or packaged locally. Check out the website for the co-op:

On a different note, our group is in the process of revising both our ACTION PLAN and our DRAFT for our paper. Amanda and I have reformatted the ACTION PLAN, and having honed in our our goals in the past 2 weeks, we are confident that our revision will be much more focused. Suzanne and Melissa are doing some more research and general ending to augment our paper. We are staying in close contact with one another, and are in touch with Diane frequently. I just sent an email to Matt Gilbert giving him an update. As a side note, we are realizing as a group the power of communication and organization in putting together any project. We hope that other environmentalists gain this perspective in their endeavors as well; it's an important life skill.

I'd like to conclude by adding that this project has taken us down paths unforseeable at the beginning of the semester. We are proud of the progress we have made and looking forward to engaging and inspiring our students next week.

All the best,

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Environmentalism Gets Personal

I suspect that any environmentalist reading Robert Sullivan's A Whale Hunt would be disturbed by the depictions of environmental activists contained within. I certainly was. Throughout Sullivan's casual but well-formed prose, environmentalists come off as violent racists at worst and spoiled, pseudo-spiritual fuddy-duddies at best.
For those who haven't happened upon Sullivan's book: A Whale Hunt describes the Makah tribe's two years of preparation for the revival of their key cultural tradition, the ceremonial hunting of the grey whale. Since the 1920's, the Native Americans of this west-coast tribe had voluntarily ceased their whale hunting, due to the near extinction of the grey whale from commercial whaling. But when the grey whale was officially cleared from the endangered list by government scientists in 1994, the Makah expressed their desire to hunt once more. For them, this was not a matter of mere sustenance. Their tribe suffered from the typical blights associated with the tragedy of the modern Native American tribe, including alcoholism, drug-use, and general apathy and depression; and it was hoped that the revival of the whale hunt would restore a sense of pride and communal identity that could bring the Makah back to their feet as the proud people they once had been.
As Sullivan describes, the Makah had little trouble securing the permission of the government; without resistance, federal officials honored those treaties dating back to the nineteenth century that secured the Makah's whaling rights off the Washington coast. But despite this official support, the general public, swayed by a legion of vehement environmentalists, severely disproved of the Makah's plans. The legendary Paul Watson, founding father of Greenpeace made notorious for his violent methods, anchors the huge boat of his organization, Sea Shepherd, a short distance across the bay from the Makah and persists in taunting and terrorizing the Makah throughout their preparations. Another environmental group, In the Path of Giants, attempts to convince the Makah to convert their whale hunting trip into a whale watching trip; and when they fail, they respond with extreme bitterness, publishing diatribes against the Makah on the internet. Both Sea Shepherd and In the Path of Giants, as well as other environmental groups, depict the Makah as disorganized, un-spiritual, and mercenary thugs to the media, and so the Makah suffer from widespread public prejudice and condemnation.
Following Sullivan's portrayal of the Makah plight, I could not help but loathe these narrow-minded, vicious environmentalists who seemed eager to steep to the lowest accusations and deeds in order to protect the grey whale. As Sullivan tells it, it seems as if the grey whale, as a species, was in no desperate need of such protection: with the whale having been taken from the endangered list, and the Makah promising to kill only a handful of whales, it seems that, ecologically speaking, the environmentalists' passion was somewhat absurd. Certainly, Sullivan portrays the environmentalists as emotionally-geared, animal-rights-oriented activists rather than clear-headed, practical ecologists.
Meditating on this after I read the book, though, it occured to me that, for the past few months, this sort of seething, emotional, and personal environmental interest has been my mantra and my goal. When our class read Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild, I readily agreed with his somewhat radical thesis that a more spiritual and passionate connection to the environment (and, importantly, to large mammals in particular) is essential to the environmental movement. And as I read John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, I found it easy to admire David Brower of the Sierra Club, who was intensely sentimental and paid no heed to facts, being more than willing to stretch the truth in order to persuade people to protect the environment. Having been in the mindset of these books, I have been willing to dismiss Turner's irrationality and extremism and Brower's sentimentality and outright lies as necessary, and perhaps even charming displays of love and visceral connection to the environment.
But this sort of deep-seated link to the environment goes beyond the mere science of ecosystem health, it seems, which can be rationally supported by arguments of the necessity of biodiversity and the continuity of evolution. Turner's passion stems, at least in part, from his relationship with individual animals; and Brower's zeal is derived from his sentimental attachment to particular places. And certainly, it is this sort of direct and personal relationship with the grey whales that drives the rabid and often disgusting environmentalists of which Sullivan writes.
And so I am feeling somewhat more timid, more circumspect about my environmentalism than I have been in weeks past. Is it really advisable to be an environmentalist of such myopic zeal? I am wondering. Is it possible to be passionate, and yet to be sensible and respectful, as well?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Teaching the ethics of environmentalism

Having to streamline our project has caused our group to reconsider our mission statement: what is it that we want to accompish in the classroom with these kids? As we stated in the first draft of our paper:

Saving the environment is about commitment. Commitment means every one—adults and children of all ages and identities—coming together to plant the seeds for change.

This says it best. If we are going to have any impact in the classroom, we must make our project a team effort. We have reaffirmed our committment to teaching our children about agricutlure and saving the environment, yet how are we going to reach the children? And having narrowed our focus to agriculture, we have reimagined the message we want to bring to the students. In addition to teaching the students about local and organic foods, we want to begin an ethics forum within the classroom. Specifically, we want the students to discuss why they think these issues are important? As humans, are we morally responsible for our fellow human beings and the environment in which we live? Does this obligate us to support local, smaller farms as opposed to corporate ones, or opt for organically grown produce in our diets as a means to deter pesticides and contaminants in the ecosystem?

We feel that these questions are central to our topic, for we cannot simply throw the students into environmentalism. We must teach them how to be passionate about the environment of their own--their own environmental moralists and advocates. We are confident that we have selected the appropriate school to carry out this message. When the opportunity to present our curriculum to students in the St. Thomas Choir School (located in midtown Manhattan) arose, we were at first skeptical. Are we comfortable teaching in a religious environment? Will they be open to our curriculum and ideals? But after discussing the issue as a group, we soon saw that this is a germane environment for the ethics of environmentalism to be discussed. Imaginably, the students at this Episcopelian school have been exposed to ethical and moral issues in the classroom. The atmosphere at a religious school may very well be conducive to our forum of environmental awareness.

Our next step is creating lessons that will speak to the kids. We are working hard on that front as we leave for our spring breaks. Expect an update with our progress the week of March 20th. In the meantime, please check out the following link for some interesting advice and readings relevant to the environment and ethics. And please take a look at the school we are working with: ! Looking forward to sharing more with you soon!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Learning to Let Go

As John McPhee describes him, Charles Fraser is a control freak. The creator of the prestigious housing development on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, Fraser requires all those who build on his property to sign a 40 page agreement overflowing with demands and limitations. He describes his control of the island as a dictatorship, and demands the right to make all important decisions alone, without the consultation of anyone else. Such personal freedom and power enables Fraser to make manifest a beautiful, comparatively sustainable development unlike any made before in which houses melt into the environment and the community is built around, rather than on top of the original landscape.
Reading McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, I was struck by how similar my attitude is to that of Fraser. Like him, I have the tendency to quest for absolute control. Typically, I hate group projects because I feel they require a sacrifice of vision and quality that is painful for me to concede. Of course, I am capable of completing things quickly, or haphazardly; but this is only possible if I do not really care about what I am doing. If I have determined that the goal that lies before me is an important one, I luxuriate in perfectionism and strive to make my end-product attain the high standards of my original conception.
Thus, when our professor for this course, Environmental Literature, Ethics, and Action informed me that we would be completing group projects, I was very disappointed. At the time, my mind was full of already extensively developed plans to initiate a composting system in the college dining hall, and to encourage other students to compost their own foodwaste within their dorm rooms, and I didn't really want to be flexible or to change my plans because I felt they were worthy and could be successful. However, taking a great breath and forcing myself through the discomfort, I allowed myself to be paired up with first one and then three other students and to develop an entirely different sort of project, one involving environmental education for grade school aged children.
I am so thankful that I allowed myself to be challenged in this way because, really, I think that I am now learning so many things from my group-mates that I would have been ignorant of if I had worked alone. Although there have been innumerable set backs, clashes of ideas, and points of contention, I believe that we have finally attained a skill in communicating with each other that is allowing us to make concrete and viable plans for the implementation of our project. My groupmates are laid-back but earnest, funny but intelligent, and I look forward to every Monday at 11, when we meet in the student center and discuss our ideas.
Thus, although I admit that I can be a controlling individualist as Fraser is, I have now realized that I am capable of being something else, too; I can be a part of a cooperative unit like my group, I can make compromises, and I can allow the occassional concession of my own plans so that someone else may have their way. I don't think that groupwork is necessarily a better system of accomplishment; but I am glad to know, now, that I can be successful and feel satisfied by both means of work.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Finally, Contact

We have arranged to meet with Diane's friend, Matthew Gilbert, Tuesday after class. Matt is a teacher at an all-boys Episcopalian boarding choir school (interesting, we know). They have a website, From what Diane has told us, Matt is very open to our invading his 5th grade classroom and will give us a lot of freedom, which is important to us. We chose this school, not only because of the pre-existing contact, but because of the flexibility the private school environment allows us with curriculum. We hope to take advantage (in a good way) of the religious environment and have important discussions regarding ethics and morals of food and agriculture.
In writing our first draft of our final paper, we've decided to focus on two main topics: Small, sustainable farming and Organic foods and farming. We hope that this smaller scope will enable us to dig deeper to the roots of these issues. Since we will be working with 5th graders, older than we had anticipated from the beginning, we will be more open to such activities as debates, and more independent activities. I'm sure the boys will know a lot already, so I hope to learn from Matt what has been covered and what will be of value to them. This is the goal of our project anyway, to create something lasting and valuable- for the kids and for us and for the planet.
We've changed our format slightly and will go into the class in pairs for two sessions and have a third session where all of us attend. This will be more of a celebration, maybe we will create a class mural and munch on organic snacks. Maybe we can write a song about farming (they are all singers after all) or perform a skit. Things are looking up for us, and we are happily moving forward with our stewardship project.

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