The power of language

 

The Poet & the Patriot pub in Santa Cruz on St. Patrick's Day. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

The Poet & the Patriot pub in Santa Cruz on St. Patrick’s Day. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

Language and the stories we tell about our relationships to homelands and new found lands has been on my mind. Sitting in the pub on Saint Patrick’s Day surrounded by the din of good cheer, shamrocks, and a pint of stout, I heard above the fray, a few stanzas of my favorite Irish ballad The Maid of Coolmore.

The first time I met her, she passed me by, the next time I met her, she bade me good-bye. But the last time I met her, she grieved my heart so, for she sailed down from Ireland away from Coolmore. To the north of America my love I’ll search for, for there I know no one, nor no one knows me. But should I not find her, I’ll return home no more, like a pilgrim I will wander for the maid of Coolmore

Forced to flee their homeland because of famine, the Irish immigrated to America in the 1840s bringing little but the language in their songs. The great historian Oscar Handlin wrote in his 1952 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Uprooted “only in Dublin did I discover something and that not what I expected – not the documents in the libraries, not the sight of Bloom’s city, but the lilt of the Irish language everywhere adding a magical intonation to the words, so that never again could I read a line of the writing without hearing the resonance of actual speakers’ voices, without knowing the presence of persons long gone-by but real.” With this groundbreaking book, Handlin changed how we speak about and write our nation’s story and in so doing he changed how we see ourselves in and on this land. Regardless of origin, “the common experience was one of wrenching hardship and alienation and a gradual assimilation…that changed the country as much as it changed the newcomers.” The American story was no longer the myth of the Wild West, but the idea that we were a nation of immigrants. In Handlin’s words “once I thought to write a history of the immigrant in America. Then I discovered the immigrants were American history.”

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, charcoal sketch. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, charcoal sketch. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Last weekend, I had the great good fortune to attend Geography of Hope a biennial conference held by Point Reyes Books fostering discussion about the relationship between people and the land. The 2015 conference focused on Women and the Land, and the panelist’s made clear the power of language to assign status or empower the powerless. The keynote speaker Robin Wall Kimmerer insightfully connected the objectification of women and the land; “when language objectifies, ascribing the status “it” we loose all responsibility. It is a convenient linguistic imperialism” that allows us to exploit and destroy instead of learning from and living with a land and it’s people. Kimmerer, a scientist, member of the Potawatomi tribe, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, called for the restoration of sacred language protocols with values of reciprocity and stewardship. Reading  the Poem When Earth Became An It, by the Cherokee poet Marilou Awiakta, Kimmerer said

“When the people call the Earth “Mother,” they take with love and with love they get back, so that all may live. When the people call Earth “it,” they use her, consume her strength. Then the people die. Already the sun is hot out of season. Our Mother’s breast is going dry. She is taking all green into her heart and will not turn back until we call her by her name.”

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, watercolor. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, watercolor. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

One panel asked the question what are the gifts and responsibilities of women in the work against carbon catastrophe? Lauret Savoy, Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke spoke about Wangari Maathai, first Kenyan woman to receive a Ph.D., founder of the Greenbelt Movement, and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Recognizing that women are the primary caretakers of their families and their environment, Maathai established the Greenbelt Movement to plant trees and preserve watersheds, strengthening local communities’ capacity to take action against climate change; advocate for an end to government policies supporting land grabbing, deforestation and corruption; and advocate for gender livelihoods (recognizing that women’s work was critical to family survival – imagine that!). According to Savoy, Maathai’s work illustrates how cultural diversity and biodiversity are intertwined; because there is a wealth of knowledge to be tapped in people’s knowledge of the land, and their stories, their language about the land, restoring the environment goes hand-in hand with restoring cultural integrity.

Savoy also co-edited the book Colors of Nature: Culture Identity and the Natural World which features an essay by Jamaica Kincaid In History. Kincaid begins the essay asking “what to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history? If so, what should history mean to someone like me? Should it be an idea, should it be an open wound and each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again and again…or is it a moment that began in 1492 and has come to no end yet?” Kincaid’s essay clearly evokes the power of language as she describes Christopher Columbus’ discovery “he couldn’t find enough words to describe what he saw before him: the people were new, the flora and fauna were new, the way the water met the sky was new, this world itself was new, it was the New World…to have knowledge of things, one must first give them a name.” Botanists from the Old World quickly began to organize the fauna. “The plants…had two names: they had a common name, that is, the name…assigned to them by people for whom these plants have value; and then they have a proper name, or a Latin name…assigned to them by an agreed-upon group of botantists…the invention of the system has been a good thing. Its narrative would begin this way: in the beginning the vegetable kingdom was chaos; people everywhere called the same things by a name that made sense to them, not by a name that they arrived at but by an objective standard. But who has interest in an objective standard? Who would need one? It makes me ask again what to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history?” Language give us the power to reimagine our destiny and rebuild our world.

 

 

green fire

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright Robin L. Chandler

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

In his essay Thinking Like a Mountain, Aldo Leopold recorded the moment his ecological thinking evolved. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and I have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.  I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because wolves meant fewer deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with me.”

Leopold spent a lifetime as a forester, a professor and an environmentalist developing his ideas and perspectives on the ethics of nature and wildlife preservation. Ultimately, his philosophy, evolving over years of observation and contemplation became known as his Land Ethic, which is at the core of his most beloved book A Sand County Almanac.  Aldo Leopold joins Henry David Thoreau and John Muir as one of our three great American wilderness visionaries and writers.

This weekend March 15 – 17, 2013, Point Reyes Books (near Tomales Bay) is hosting its 4th Geography of Hope Conference entitled Igniting the Green Fire: Finding the Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Typically held in March, these intellectual and spiritual gatherings are a gift to celebrate the coming of spring and rebirth encouraging us to think deeply about our relationships with the earth and our fellow living beings. At the conference’s center is the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, a wonderful film directed by Steve Dunsky, edited by Ann Dunsky, written by Stephen Most and narrated by Curt Meine.  It was announced at the conference that the film would be shown on PBS stations nationwide in April 2013.

Surrounding the film is a series of panel discussions with writers, thinkers and doers engaged the building of communities, the importance of stewardship and discussing our responsibilities to the land and to each other. One of the most compelling conversations has been with Michael Howard, Director of Eden Place Nature Center (part of the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation).  Inspired by Leopold’s belief in the importance of community and the land, Michael Howard has built a park and a farm for the African-American community on Chicago’s South Side.  “Eden” is in a place that was the former site of meat packing industry slaughterhouses, also polluted with lead poisoning which has impacted the ability of children to learn for generations.  Howard deeply moved me with his work to try to persuade a people about the benefit of having a relationship with the land; a people whose daily concerns are about having money to pay bills and feed their children and who have spent years running away from a specter of linking the land to sharecropping and slavery.  Michael Howard’s experience evoked for many conferee’s Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest about the emergence of non-profit and community organizations engaged in the environmental and social justice movement.

There is so much wisdom flowing from this conference, I will need days, weeks, perhaps a lifetime to really grasp and understand it all, and to see my thinking evolve as Aldo Leopold has demonstrated.  But what rings clear and true is this: we need to understand that change is something that happens gradually, and it comes by engaging in deep listening, exchange with and respect for both humans and the land. We must learn to “think like a mountain.”

Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free*

Marin Headlands on the Pacific Ocean. Created by Robin L. Chandler. Copyright 2010 National Park Service.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville described the Pacific Ocean as the “tide-beating heart of the earth that makes all coasts a bay in it.”   Describing the interconnectedness of the lands ringing the Pacific Rim he wrote “the same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday…..lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of the Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans.”  On Friday March 11, 2011, mankind was humbled by a 9.0 magnitude quake striking the northeastern coast of Japan and triggering a Tsunami whose force quickly silenced thousands of voices near Sendai and damaged harbors – including Crescent City and Santa Cruz –  5,000 miles to the east along the North American coastline.  Nature will always bind what man’s competitive psyche seeks to distance.  Hokusai’s woodblock print “The Great Wave” part of his  series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji has long been a favorite of mine; mesmerized by the beauty of the wave, it is only now, newly humbled, that I truly grasp the precarious position of the fishing boats depicted in the print.

Last weekend I attended the Point Reyes Book’s third Geography of Hope conference bringing together people, place and literature to discuss water as both a life-giving and a life-taking force.  As rain poured outside in biblical proportions, the Japanese people were never far from our consciousness in this community located on the San Andreas Fault so near the Pacific Ocean.   An inspiring  gathering, we listened rapturously to poets, writers and scientists – including Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, William Least Heat Moon, Tim Palmer, Philip Fradkin, Eddy Harris, Peter Gleick, Evelyn Reilly and Julia Whitty —  speak about rivers, lakes and oceans and their hopes and fears for the health of our planet.  The desire to teach children  – through art, literature and science – about the connections between humans and nature was a major theme, but concerns about the potential of social media and hand-held technology to disconnect society from the natural world was an undercurrent of the gathering.

My work as a digital archivist working in academic libraries fosters my belief that social media can be leveraged to enhance our connections with and understanding of the natural world.  If any good can be drawn from the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, it is the knowledge that this is  likely the best documented disaster in recent history, and this information will be repurposed for constructive use. Numerous digital images and video recordings of the Tsunami’s destructive power were captured by survivors of these events and uploaded for sharing on social media sites. This week a BBC article published on March 21, 2011 “Japan Tsunami to Help Predict Future Waves” reported  how scientists will use this data to study Tsunamis. At the 2011 Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Webwise conference, Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President for Research at the Rennslaer Polytechnic and Dr. Joshua Greenberg, Director of Digital Information Technology and Dissemination of Knowledge Program at the Sloan Foundation delivered keynote addresses making several complimentary points: the role of the “crowd and the social network” in the generation of observational research data; the need for a macroscopic approach to gather comprehensive data sets and analyze and visualize data at scale; and the need for archivists, librarians and museum professionals to be central players in data curation workflows to appraise, manage, preserve and provide access to data supporting ongoing research.  Its important to note that this kind of work is underway.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded DataONE a multi-institutional and cross-discipline collaboration of universities and organizations including the California Digital Library to lay the foundation for a distributed framework and sustainable cyberinfrastructure that meets the needs of science and society for open, persistent, robust, and secure access to well-described and easily discovered Earth observational data.

Webwise also featured workshops and sessions on Libraries and Museums engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Learning.  STEM is part of President Obama’s program “Educate to Innovate,” a campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in these disciplines.  Teachers, librarians and museum staff are developing many fun and engaging learning modules using social media and technology.  One particular module — Habit Tracker – caught my eye; I saw a demo of the prototype at the conference.  Using the Apps developed for iPhone and iPad2 technology, Habitat Tracker will help students learn about the nature of science by learning to ask their own questions about the natural world, recording observations, performing analysis and participating in peer review with fellow students.

A humble respect, enjoyment and love of the natural world and a belief in the utility of social media technology and services are not mutually exclusive.  They can be symbiotic and when so joined the resulting analysis can support greater understanding of the natural world and our place in the cycle of life.  It is my hope that technology advancements – like social media –  will bring individuals greater engagement with nature and help humankind shoulder the stewardship responsibilities required to ensure the natural world survives for future generations.

*From the poem At the Fish Houses by Elizabeth Bishop read by Eric Karpeles at the Geography of Hope Conference

The Jewel of Turtle Island – Part Two

Another winter day at Lake Merritt. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

Last week we began the new chapter in our community history, Jean Quan was inaugurated as the first Asian and first woman Mayor of Oakland!  Quan brings over twenty years of experience on Oakland’s School Boards and City Council as well as the strong belief that communities and neighborhoods can work together to face the city’s challenges.  We find ourselves in challenging economic times: a deep gap exists between our expectations of government and society and the funding resources to realize these expectations.   We face tough choices in the years ahead, but we must trust and work together as a community to find the right balance. With the shooting of U.S. Congressman Gabrielle Giffords yesterday in Arizona, our society has received a startling wake-up call, and the dawn appears bleak, fueling trepidation about our abilities to discuss painful choices and work together to bring about non-violent change.  We must continue to engage each other in civil discourse to resolve our societal challenges. Our rallying cry will be a recommitment to our community, to our Turtle Island, because the alternative would be a geography of no-hope, and that simply is not an option.

Gary Snyder wrote in his book A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds “Bioregionalism calls for commitment to this continent place by place in terms of biographical regions and watersheds.  It calls us to see our country in terms of its landforms, plant life, weather patterns, and seasonal changes….before the net of political jurisdictions was cast over it….it doesn’t mean some return to a primitive lifestyle or utopian provincialism; it simply implies an engagement with community…..some of the best bioregional work is being done in cities as people try to restore both human and ecological neighborhoods……such people are becoming natives of Turtle Island.”

The Jewel of Turtle Island – Part One

Winter day at Lake Merritt. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

Glen Echo Creek flows through Oakland’s Rockridge and Piedmont neighborhoods meandering from the East Bay Hills into Lake Merritt.  We first discovered this creek on a December Sunday afternoon after an IPA and a good game of scrabble at Catos our local pub. Glen Echo Creek daylights briefly paralleling Broadway and Piedmont for a mile before being channeled through underground culverts resurfacing to flow into Lake Merritt near the Veterans Memorial Building on Grand Avenue.   Walking home we traced the creek’s path and final destination, enjoying the reflection of Oakland’s twilight skyline and the “necklace of lights” in the water.   It was beautiful.

Walking on this cold January morning, the fresh water creeks and salty tidal flow create a flux where brown pelicans, snowy egrets, herons and cormorants seek fish and seagulls dive for mussels amongst the creek and sewer runoff, and stream of trash – a beer can, a plastic water bottle, a tennis shoe, a Christmas wreath, oil residue and the carcass of a possum – deposited after the heavy rains of December. Passing a homeless gentleman just beginning his day’s journey, I imagine this space two centuries ago when coho salmon and steelhead trout entered the estuary on their journey to spawn in one of the watershed’s four creeks** then sheltered among the redwood trees but now largely hidden, paved over with asphalt.

Ishmael Reed in his book Blues City: A Walk in Oakland describes Lake Merritt as the “largest saltwater lake in the United States….and before it was dammed it was part of the larger San Francisco Bay.”  In his discussions with Malcolm Margolin author of The  Ohlone Way and with naturalist and historian Stephanie Benevides, Reed learned the lake was originally an estuary and part of one of the largest marshlands on the Pacific Coast, a major stop of the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds coming south from Canada and Alaska for the winter. The marshlands were part of the larger ecosystem of grasslands and oak trees rising to hillsides with crevices cradling creeks and redwood trees.  Wildlife included grizzly bears, mountain lions, condors, bald eagles, deer and wolves.  In 1869, Dr. Samuel Merritt worked with the California State Legislature to make Lake Merritt the first wildlife refuge in North America.

Many an early morning, I have circumnavigated this body of water andcontemplated what an amalgam the estuary is and how this mixture serves as a metaphor for the City of Oakland.   Literally the lake is a mixture of fresh and salt water, their balances dictated by tidal influx and watershed creek runoff; and it is an urban park which merges the sublime natural beauty of  migrating winter birds, such as canvasbacks, goldeneyes and scaups, with the urban discharge of trash and waste.   Figuratively, Oakland’s jewel is a dynamic public space – a cultural estuary – where mingle peoples of many cultures, races, creeds, gender identity and sexual preference: rich and poor, young and old, the fortunate and desperate, those with homes and those heartbreakingly homeless.  They come seeking a safe harbor in which to play, exercise, rest, and draw inspiration from the tranquil beauty of the lake and its surroundings.   As Wallace Stegner wrote in his Wilderness Letter “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of measuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope. “  Lake Merritt is Oakland’s geography of hope.

In November 2002, more than  80 % of Oakland voters passed measure DD, a $ 198.25 million bond measure to improve and restore Lake Merritt including reducing traffic, improving pedestrian and bicycle access to the park, renovating historic buildings such as the Boat House, landscaping and improving water quality through the upgrading of creek culverts and opening of the channel to the Oakland estuary.  Work has been proceeding the last several years, and we are benefitting from the fruits of these labors. New life is breathing into the lake and it’s surroundings.    But the story doesn’t end with the completion of the project — it is just the beginning of a new chapter of our community responsibility for this jewel of Turtle Island.

*for many months this homeless gentleman employed a car battery to power his television and a hotplate, setting-up camp near the Alameda County Courthouse

**the four creeks are Glen Echo, Pleasant Valley, Trestle Glen and Park Boulevard

To feel the earth beneath my feet….

Grazing near Tomales Bay

Grazing near Tomales Bay. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

In the Spring of 2009, we returned to Marin County  just north of San Francisco to visit what I consider to be one of the most heavenly places on earth — the region near and around Tomales Bay — a land preserved by a mixture of sustainable agriculture and state and national parks.  A place of peace where thoughtfulness comes as easily as breathing.  It is always a homecoming of sorts for me.  It has been the site of many adventures  over the years: the kayak trips to Hog Island, the hikes through Bear Valley to Mt. Wittenberg, the cycling past Nicasio and hours spent painting and sketching the area from many vantage points.  The watercolors posted here are two of my attempts to capture the beauty of the place. It also brings to mind for me Wallace Stegner,  a writer who always opens my mind to the landscape through which I travel.  In 2008 the Point Reyes Books sponsored the “Geography of Hope”  conference focusing on the environmental writings of Stegner.

In his “Wilderness Letter” dated December 3, 1960,  Stegner wrote  “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”