Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Seven Generations and One Great Spirit Later...

It's that time of year when we recognize and celebrate "Earth Day," when companies like Clorox or P&G roll out new "earth friendly" products, Chevy touts its ginormous"hybrid" Tahoe, and we all reflect as we reduce, reuse, and recycle.


For my part, I get to reconnect in a semi-annual fashion with some very good friends who have been presenting Ohio's largest Earth Day celebration for 20 years. Twenty years! I've been working on this since I was pregnant with my son, who is now 14-1/2. My first EarthFest, 15 years ago, was a beautiful, stunningly warm Cleveland afternoon. It was overwhelming if a lot of work, especially at 6 months pregnant. The main musical act of the day was a little known vocalist named Sheryl Crow.


This past Sunday my friends and I pondered how things have and have not changed in 20 years since the first EarthFest--and the nearly 40, yes, 40 years since the very first Earth Day. In the mere months since the 2008 election, I have seen such a proliferation of interest in, literature about, and experts on "sustainable business practices" as to boggle the mind. Suddenly everyone wants to be green, whether it's easy or not. Not days after I suggested that we ought to be recruiting "Chief Energy Officers" I saw the term used in an article. Some of the municipal sustainability officers I talk to report that they get dozens of calls a week from recruiters or companies looking for people like them.


It's all moving so fast. Do we know why? What is the prize? What's different now that wasn't there 10, 20, 30 years ago? Doesn't everyone use Borax to clean their toilets, or lemon juice in their laundry?

Last night I turned on "We Shall Remain" in the background as I tried to organize my week. If you haven't seen it in your viewing area, watch for it. It's the PBS series that explores the histories and legacies of various Native American Nations. Last night's was, appropriately enough, about Tecumseh and the Shawnee, whose communities spanned the area from where I grew up in the Ohio Valley and west, all the way North to Michigan and Indiana before being obliterated by William Henry Harrison's hungry Kentuckians. It was said that they mutilated Tecumseh's body so badly that even those Americans who knew him could not identify him.

What Tecumseh was fighting for was a certain sovereignty, the dignity of his nation and the land they lived on. The Native Americans were our nation's first environmental stewards. The new Federalists, their country but a few decades old, saw no progress without dismantling the native tribes. Thomas Jefferson, for all his romanticizing of the "noble savage" and all his intellectual grace, ultimately regarded the nations as something of another educational project to roll out. He laid out his purpose in his second Inaugural Address: "....Now reduced within limits too narrow for the hunter's state, humanity enjoins us to teach them agriculture and the domestic arts, to encourage them to that industry which alone can enable them to maintain their place in existence and to prepare them in time for that state of society which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of the mind and morals." Righto. In other words, since we've taken all the land they used to hunt on, they'll have to get with our program mighty quick if we're going to be able to tolerate sharing space with them.

How is it that the human psyche can move so quickly from romanticizing a situation, to condemning it? And then, we return to romanticizing it. The values of living in balance with nature up until the early 1800s were supplanted by the values of progress and capitalism very soon thereafter. Now that our economy has disintegrated and we are embarking on Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society, suddenly less is more, balance is king, low-maintenance is cool, and everything green is good again. I would guess that we're the only species that possess this unique faculty of inconstancy.

We are living in times where we are observing indesputable scientific fact. Yet my own sister encountered in one of her organizations a blatant nose-thumbing at the well-evidenced climate crisis. To make matters worse, it's an organization purportedly devoted to horticulture. From my work, I was able to assure her that yes, her colleagues are indeed crazy, as a position arguing that climate change is hooey is entirely out of step with the entire discipline of horticulture and arboreta. But ultimately I'm not sure it was much of a comfort. People are human, and will work hard to preserve whatever reality works for them at any given time. History has proven this again and again and again. If it weren't proving it now, we wouldn't be in this mess.

I just wish that taking care of the earth, thinking critically, living more lightly, nurturing a healthy habitat, and protecting living things less capable of their own self-protection were less of a fad than it's become. Yes, I was impressed to learn that Wal-Mart actually convinced Betty Crocker to straighten out the noodles in Hamburger Helper in order to reduce packaging waste. Yes, I thought it was kind of cool to learn that the Empire State Building is going to get a green retrofit makeover from top to bottom. Sure, I think it is something of a delightful upset that Ohio is poised to make such a splash in wind and solar, given that we don't yet really have the bench strength to pull that off. Even then, while I am morally and ethically committed to getting myself off the grid, my interest in Ohio's wind and solar industry is also more than a little self serving: I have to lay bets that these companies will need the kinds of people I'm uniquely equipped to find, and I hope like hell that they'll pay me to find them.

Unfortunately, my position is not entirely in step with Tecumseh's Great Spirit. We have lost touch with our essentials as we scramble to create a new future where we are all healthy, prosperous, and less encumbered by stuff, not only because it's chic, but, because we can't afford to buy any more junk, and our landfills can't handle any more crap. Did you see the Disney sleeper hit, Wall-E? The movie's blobby, lazy skyship passengers float around on anti-gravity Lazy-Boy loungers in a prescribed and sterile world free of touch and human interaction, while the home planet collapses under the weight of consumer waste. All I can think of is that old public service message with the lone Indian overlooking the pollution and waste, the camera zooming in on the tear trailing down his cheek.

You know the saying--whatever we do today will still be felt seven generations down the line. Based on my own experience, I'm not sure humanity has seven generations left. But I'm willing to give it a try if we can somehow harness this critical mass of interest in the green craze and turn it from a mere marketing success into something truly sustainable. We have come so far and yet haven't moved. We need to take a hard look at the lessons left by our ancestral neighbors who tried hard to sustain a simple, grounded, meaningful way of life despite the machine of progress that rolled over them. We need to keep them near us, listen deeply, and redevelop our intuitive leadership. We need to think creatively and act wisely and respectfully with regard to the enormous yet simple resources available to us. Unfortunately this is harder than it sounds.

Simplifying life and lifestyles is not always popular. And it can be hard; one of my dear friends and favorite people lives even more purposely thinly than I am really capable of (that, and I could never give up cheese). It’s a path that can get pretty lonely at times, even when you are surrounded by people who are supposed to be supporting you.

When I stumbled headlong into Bluegrass during what was arguably the most difficult period in my life, bluegrass was a good companion. It was straightforward, unadorned, invigorating, and it goes with just about everything. It struck a chord at the deepest core of my origination at a time when I had completely lost contact with the values and vision that make me worth the oxygen I use on this planet. After all the education I’d had and the work I’d done and the children I’d begun to raise, bluegrass brought me back to basics, and back to me. From the friends I’ve made in Bluegrass, it seems to be a common experience.

So this Earth Day I wish for you the discovery, or rediscovery, of the most fundamental things that you treasure. Take a moment to pay some homage to the generations that came before and those ahead depending on you now.

Here’s a longstanding favorite tune of mine about the Trail of Tears, performed by one of the great Bluegrass spirits, Mr. Peter Rowan. His generous presence and beautiful, honest voice get me every time.



Trail of Tears


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