I have been so fortunate in the last couple of months - have lived a very rich life. Let's start with a recent event - attending the Conservation Psychology Institute in Pittsburgh, co-sponsored by Antioch University of New England and the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. It was four intense days of reviewing and talking about research related to the environment - the wonder of nature and all of her gifts, the crises we are experiencing, and, most importantly for me, the best ways to talk with and listen to people about these issues. The wonder was all around - I fell in love with the conservatory. Faculty included Louise Chawla, Carol Saunders, Wesley Schultz, Molly Steinwald, and Thomas Doherty. Thomas stayed over an extra day to talk to our doctoral course on psychology and sustainability - very grateful for his presentation as I think it resulted in a "click" for the students.
So the class - this is the third time I have taught the doctoral course, but the first time that psychology and sustainability have stood alone - in the past we had included lots of other stuff in the class which seemed to confuse students (not that they are not confused now!) and dilute the information. We have ten students, second years - bright, funny, and engaging students who work very very hard. Our task this semester has been to review the recommendations from the American Psychologist Association's Task Force on Climate Change, with an eye toward what they mean for practicing psychologists. I appreciate these students who are willing to talk about this when it often seems confusing and a little peripheral to their main responsibilities of diagnosing and planning treatment/interventions. We keep moving the lens further and further back from our primary focus on the individual and family to view ALL of the forces and contexts that affect someone's well-being in any direction. It could be contact with a rich and healthy natural world, and/or exposure to environmental degradation. Politics and religion get thrown into the mix, and there are so many social justice implications for these issues - think about how fracking and mountain top removal and tar sands projects affect communities. Again, I have been impressed with the civility of our students as they grapple with the ideas.
And politics.... I think one of the reasons I have not written much lately is because I have been hunkered down processing stuff leading up to the presidential election. I have often felt discouraged that our primary candidates seldom mention the environment as an important concern - much less climate change. Research suggests that the US is rare in this regard - other countries are well aware of these topics as very important for human health and well-being. Here in the US, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has identified "six Americas" - six perspectives about climate change and the environment held by American adults - these include, in increasing order of concern, Dismissive, Doubtful, Disengaged, Cautious, Concerned, and Alarmed. The Yale Project has conducted periodic surveys and has noted shifts in the proportions associated with the groups, often tied to politics - the most recent report - September 2012 - is an interesting read. If you plan to vote in November, I encourage you to read this before casting your ballot.
We have another couple of weeks ahead before the election - and one more debate. I am curious about what will happen....which brings me full circle back to the CP Institute and its discussions of "discourses about the environment." How do we talk about it so that we can figure out how to work together? Not only are there gaps between people who find environmental issues important and people who don't - within the "environmental" movement are multiple perspectives with diverse interests - see Dryzek's work describing the views of survivalists, prometheans, green business people, visionaries, green consciousness - inner work folks, pragmatists.... the list goes on.
And then, thank goodness, there is life beyond work and thinking about this. My baby brother David turned 50 this weekend - his wife Anne threw a surprise party for him that drew lots of friends and family. Val couldn't make the party but did get here late Thursday night for the rest of the weekend. Great great times down here in KY. Adding to the joy of David's celebration was our opportunity to attend one of dad's Young at Heart concerts - the average age of the band members is 75! The oldest man is in his 90s and still plays solos. The music was great - mostly big band music with a few tunes thrown in from the twenties and the fifties. Such fun! We took lots of pictures - my sister Jennifer sneaked in a video showing all of our feet ticking to the beats.
Here are a few photos - starting out with a pic of dad's garden and some from Raven Run in Lexington from September, and moving into the birthday scenes and the concert. Lots more pictures will probably make their way to Facebook.
I have been wondering about what's next. I want time to daydream, to think and plan. I want more time with my kids and other loved ones. I am applying for a sabbatical for January 2014, and am thinking about taking a little sabbatical now from the blog - will keep adding resources, but honestly? I have done lots of talking and opining here - sometimes a little wise, often a little weird and foolish. I have realized that I have many more questions than answers. I would appreciate a little quiet to think about those questions. But who knows? We will see what happens after the election.
R.A.M.P.S. Activists - post release from jail
The election is only a couple of months away. These are ugly, ugly times. Grown-ups who should know better are saying ugly, hurtful, stupid things. People with power talk about ways to use that power to take even more from others, from more vulnerable people. I am not looking forward to the next few weeks of rancor and spite. Of seeing evidence of misuse and abuse of power.
I remember thinking and talking about power in high school, reading All the King's Men. Hearing for the first time -- "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Really? Does power always corrupt? I hope not - but sometimes it does. Are we helpless in the face of power that has gone bad, rotten, and rancid? I don't believe that we are.
Speak truth to power. In the 1950's, Quakers spoke these words as they advocated for international peace and alternatives to violence. Speak truth to power. That is what black people and their allies did in the Civil Rights Movement - this is wrong; we will not do this anymore; we will not tolerate this. We see it today in the actions of Pussy Riot in Russia and in the Occupy Movement across the world. We see it in all efforts to defend basic human rights to safety, security, freedom, health.
Speak truth to power. I heard these words many times this summer as I listened to young and not-so-young people put their freedom on the line to resist mountain top removal, most recently in the R.A.M.P.S. direct action at the Hobet Mine in West Virginia. Speaking truth to power requires us to search for and wield courage, to be willing to take risks.
In the last couple of weeks, here in Pittsburgh, I met with people who are trying to speak truth to power. Last week, I met Gretchen Alfonso who is trying to establish a Pittsburgh branch office for Moms Clean Air Force, a national movement lobbying for better government regulation of air quality to protect their children's rights to clean air, for the sake of their healthy development.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard some folks speak truth to power at an ALCOSAN community forum, where ALCOSAN presented its plans to deal with Pittsburgh's "wet weather" problem - when it rains or when snow melts, excess water can overload the sewer system resulting in sewage overflows into area creeks, streams and rivers, also carrying pollutants, grit, and debris with it. Community members spoke loudly and clearly about the need to include green infrastructure - green roofs, trees, rain barrels and rain gardens, permeable pavements - in the long-range plans, both to reduce costs of the projects and to find solutions that will add to environmental health.
These are courageous people working for the health and well-being of all of us. But speaking truth to power doesn't always involve being out in public, being part of large movements or organizations, risking arrest. In quiet ways, firm and committed ways, each of us can do our part to resist what is hurtful... by, in Albert Einstein's words, not participating in anything you believe is evil.
And in quiet, firm, and committed ways, we can counter power gone bad by building, growing, nourishing what we know to be good. Rachel Anne Parsons, a young woman from West Virginia who is the first to say that she doesn't like going out on the front lines in crowds, uses words to foster good and courage and to fight mountain top removal - beautiful words that inspire hope.
Others literally grow power. A couple of days ago, I re-visited the Hazelwood Food Forest and found a lush forest that is the fruit of careful planning and hard labor by the Pittsburgh Permaculture group - Juliet and Michele - and many volunteers - there are asian pears, apples, berries, peaches, herbs. I hadn't been there in over a year. On this visit, I got to help Bret and Don seal a bench made of cob, a mixture of straw, soil, sand, and water. Reclaiming abandoned lots in impoverished areas and growing food -- Chris Condello has also done this, done "guerilla gardening," passing along valuable life skills to children who may not even realize that food grows from the earth, is not made in a factory. Empowering ourselves and others to learn how to take care of ourselves and one another. My brother Ray does this in Louisville, KY, sharing his wisdom about farming and permaculture with his community, growing raised beds at nursing homes so that older people can continue to garden.
This is also speaking truth to power - to our own power - "I can do this. We can together do this" - and to that other power that is not always used in the interests of the common good - "We are not helpless - we are strong and will speak up to you from all fronts, with our words, our hammers and rakes and hoes, our votes, and our seeds."
Speak truth to power. Dig down deep inside and find your own power - look at it, bring it out into the light, share it - even when faced with those who don't share. Use that beautiful power for yourself and for the people around you. Use that power of heart and intellect when you vote - but take it further into the world of those who are falsely judged not to have power. You - and they - have power beyond your imagining. You have powerful powerful gifts that can build community, plant seeds of love, heal what is hurt.
What a summer. Changes all around me - at work, at home, in the world. My head is spinning.
Some good things that are happening...
I spent a wonderful Sunday hiking in Mingo Creek Park - an absolutely beautiful day that brought me peace and lightness.
Wednesday, I am off to Orlando for APA - presentations of our studies about health and well-being of priests, and about thriving and burnout among psychologists who work in college counseling centers.
Tonight - class. I am teaching the Psychology and the Environment class again to students in the masters counseling program. Wow, what cool people. We live all across the spectrum of environmental awareness and interest, political affiliation, experience with nature, attitudes and beliefs about climate change and global warming. I learn something new every night. I struggle because there is so much that I want to share, that I want us all to think and talk about, and that others have to offer - and there is never enough time.
Tonight we took a trip around the world, looking at different ideas about "well-being" - how do we define it? how is it related to one's relationship to the natural world? We started with an article about how children in Ethiopia define their own well-being - is it related to their access to education? to productive assets like land with water, cattle, and a boat for fishing? to parents who care? to one's own behavior and moral action as these affect one's community? We moved to the Netherlands to learn about a study that explores the relationship between "Vitamin G [green spaces]" and health, then to Alaska where there is conflict between the traditional Yup'ik ways of living harmoniously with nature and respecting elders, and the Western ways that are becoming part of the Yup'ik way of life.
On to a talk by Bill Davenhall, who encouraged physicians and other medical professionals to include information about an individual's Place History in one's medical records - he believes that information about what chemicals or toxic substances one might have been exposed to, or not, in the various environments of one's life can be helpful for making decisions about health care and behaviors. Then finally - a film about how proposals to do mountain top removal in a tiny town in Kentucky created tension among neighbors, and moral and ethical dilemmas for individuals who were offered money to lease their land to mining companies for MTR.
I am not sure what we could take away from tonight's journey except that humans are intimately connected to the natural world in complex ways that greatly affect their daily lives. We are constantly challenged by conflicting needs of business and industry, laborers, farmers, lawmakers, homemakers, and consumers - and we may each fall into one or more of these categories at the same time. We all come together to make a community, large or small, and struggle to make the "most right" decisions for the common good - very hard to do under the best of circumstances.
So our class traveled around the world tonight, thinking and talking about these important ideas. All weekend, around the world, citizens went beyond thinking and talking into acting - civil disobedience, nonviolent protests - but little of it made the national news. There were anti-fracking protests in Washington, DC, anti-nuclear protests in Japan, and an action in China that halted plans to pipe wastewater from a paper factory into the ocean. And there were Occupy actions all over the place. Didja know about all this?
Closest to my heart was the Mountain Mobilization in West Virginia spearheaded by the RAMPS CAMPAIGN during which many protesters effectively shut down a mine, leading to the arrests of twenty. Here is Dustin Steele, an activist I met at Blair Mountain and at the Mountain Justice camp, speaking before the direct action and his subsequent arrest (Junior Walk is in the background):
I don't have answers. As I said above, my head is spinning. I doubt myself at times, my growing curiosity about what is happening in the world, and my sadness and indignation about what feels like cavalier decision-making by large industries - decision-making that is not respectful of the importance of preserving our earth for the future, and of ensuring the earth's safety and well-being for the people and other living things who are here today. I doubt my passions.
Then I listen to Bill Moyers interview Chris Hedges about his new book co-authored with graphic artist Joe Sacco - Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt - about capitalism's "sacrifice zones" - "those forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed." And I decide that I have to keep learning and speaking up.
The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.
OK - here is a long rambling story, probably hampered by faulty memory and a bit of sentimentality. Fairly warned.
When I was a junior in college at Transylvania, I took an education course with Dr. JB -- here is where my memory may be a little creaky so fellow Transy folks, set me straight. Dr. B was a member of the local school board and was ultra ultra liberal. I on the other hand, at the time, wasn't sure where I stood about much of anything. So we did lots of cool exercises in this class -- you know, the kind where the professor asks an opinion/attitude type question and the students move to different corners of the room representing where they stand on the particular issue. I remember one question -- we were talking about some artists -- hippies back in the day -- who were being supported by welfare and the question asked was something like, "Should society support people who produce art but who don't have jobs or otherwise make money?" I remember moving to the corner of the room that probably represented "Somewhat disagree." I remember Dr. B looking at me with eyebrows raised.
A couple of days later, we were talking about our favorite books -- and I mentioned Atlas Shrugged, which I had just finished -- an epic, dramatic book with all kinds of political subtext which totally eluded me. Dr. B again looked at me, raised his eyebrows, and commented, "Why am I not surprised?" I was puzzled and a little hurt -- actually, I had no idea what he was talking about but his reaction did not seem positive and felt judgmental for reasons that I didn't understand. Looking back at that experience, I think he was indeed making judgments and assumptions about me, and what I wished he had next asked me -- and to my students if you are reading this, make sure that I ask this of you -- was WHY I liked the book.
What I think I would have said was that the characters in the book strove for excellence in what they did and were way big on independence. Again, I was 20 -- and I had just begun to really appreciate a couple of things. One -- I felt a real high, a sense of pleasure and satisfaction, when I excelled at or accomplished something -- a piece of music that took 9 months to master and memorize, an exam in genetics class, a thorny paper in sociology. It felt good. And two -- I was just realizing that, guess what, I was expected to become independent and self-supporting in a very short time, a pretty scary but at the same time exciting prospect. So of course, when I read Atlas Shrugged, the stuff about independence and achievement jumped out at me. And all of that other stuff about weak liberals who suck at the teat of the government fell away like chaff (insert sarcasm emoticon).
Why in the world am I remembering this now? I am not sure - but I think because, even while I still love to learn new things, to do well, to take care of myself, to be pretty independent, this is only part of the story. I of course did not follow Ayn Rand's philosophies when I chose to work as a psychologist with young children and adolescents and their families. I followed a calling that involved working toward excellence and a measure of independence, yes, but I also embraced a belief that I had something to give to others outside of myself, and a responsibility and need to do so.
And my experience at Mountain Justice poked at some other needs that often lie dormant in me, especially my very real need to be part of a community. A community with meaning.
My first night at Mountain Justice, I found myself elbow-deep in greasy dishwater, pre-rinsing dinner dishes before passing them on to the washer (Joe) and sterilizer (Jessica). Steve Earle blasted on somebody's iPod. The MJ folks, almost without exception, thanked me as they handed their dirty dishes to me through the pass-through window. Thanked me. I was hot and sweaty and smelly and sticky and tired after a first day of workshops related to organizing to fight mountain top removal. And I was happy.
I felt this way for 12-13 years when my children and I were part of a Unitarian Church community -- mostly when I was working with the kids and teenagers. When we had overnight lock-ins full of silliness and seriousness and song. When I watched the youth group plan and carry out, with only a little help, the annual ITALIAN DINNER (yes, that needs to be capitalized -- it was THAT important) that raised money for scholarships for other youth programs in the city. When I sat with the kids the Sunday after 9/11 and watched them grapple with the hugeness of what had just happened to their ideas about the world and fairness and safety. When I listened to middle-schoolers thoughtfully and energetically debate the question -- "Are the 10 commandments still relevant today?" And when I felt the anxiety and uncertainty of the youth who were soon-to-be-launched (was it their anxiety and uncertainty I felt, or ours, their parents'? hmmmm).
I often feel this way at work -- I am crazy about my work community of smart, funny, brave people who are committed to providing top-notch higher education. But I miss having an away-from-work community, particularly that special kind of community that is actively engaged with the bigness of life beyond ourselves in a way that is joyful and inspiring.
All day today, I have been reading Facebook updates from my new Mountain Justice friends involved with a big action today in D.C. -- many brave souls traveled to D.C. to attempt to meet with their Congress reps to urge them to support The Clean Water Protection Act (HB1375) and to fight to end mountain top removal -- and many more of us participated in a call-in day to our representatives to ask that they support the bill. Some activists have recently been able to testify before Congress -- Maria Gunnoe, winner of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize, spoke to the House Committee on Natural Resources. I encourage you to read Aaron Bady's column for his take on her talk -- and click on links in his article to see Maria's slides depicting MTR and describing its horrible effects on the entire ecosystem, including human health.
Several more folks shaved their heads in mourning for all that MTR has taken away from communities, continuing a symbolic action that began on Memorial Day in Charleston, WV. And a number of people from WV, VA, Tennessee, and Kentucky were arrested, including Stanley Sturgill, a veteran Kentucky deep-miner whose story is told by Jeff Biggers. Check out these amazing sites for more information... Appalachia Rising, iLoveMountains, Center for Biological Diversity.
Next week, I hope to travel with a group to Harrisburg, PA to talk to people about the importance of supporting clean air and clean water regulations, to ask that the energy companies engaged in fracking and mountain top removal clean up their acts.
I am a baby in this growing community, a baby (even though many of the folks are younger than me by 20-30 years). I feel privileged to begin my journey with this well-established community of very strong and grounded and wise citizens. A community focused on excellence - excellence in living with integrity and courage, and the best kind of independence - a self-sufficiency that is supported by interdependence with and generosity toward others.
This is for Sophie, Julia, Carol Judy, Matt and Billy P., Wendy, Rachel, Dave, Lou, Patty, Joe, Matt Landon, Stacey, Larry, Jason, Gabby, Junior, Sid, and Dana, and many many others. Thank you for sharing your ideas hearts and minds with me and so many others over the last week.
Creature Comforts - oh so important
Our natural world breathes - miraculously alive, ever-growing and changing.
What a week. I am not sure where to start - or even if I should start. My week at the Mountain Justice Summer Camp has been - inspiring, confusing, disturbing, mind-stretching, soul-feeding, humbling.
I have been trying to figure out how I ended up at the camp, what led me to sign up for this week in Pipestem, WV. The best that I can recall - about a year ago, I read the Post-Gazette reports about the investigation into the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, and it made me ill - the callous disregard of coal mine owners, particularly Don Blankenship, for the health and well-being of the miners and the mining communities and the "look the other way" practices of publicly funded regulatory bodies made me ill. Shortly thereafter I decided to participate in the March on Blair Mountain, wanting to understand the issues better, wondering if and how they might connect to Western Pennsylvania's own fracking controversies. So I went to Blair Mountain, and then continued to read and listen, and somehow ended up at the Mountain Justice camp in the heart of the Appalachians.
My parents grew up in Harlan County, KY, in the small US Steel-owned coal-mining town of Lynch. They shopped at the company store, and lived in company-owned homes on the clearly socially-stratified main street of town (an old story - it was a little scandalous that my mother, who lived in the No. 6 block, married my father, whose family lived in No. 5). As a child, we visited Lynch often - the smell of the mountains this week took me back immediately to Lynch.
None of my grandparents or uncles worked in the mines, but my dad's cousins and uncles did. I remember stories about black lung disease, and mine injuries. I also remember what I heard a lot about this week - the boom and bust cycle of being a miner. Boys I knew became miners as early as possible - this was in the boom years - and had big cars and married young. A few years later, they were poor. Back and forth, up and down.
My parents lived in Lynch for awhile after they married, then left when my dad decided to go to the University of KY to study engineering. But to my mom, Lynch was "home." So learning - or re-learning - about mountains and mining has pulled at me over the last year in ways that I can't quite understand or explain.
The camp took place at the Appalachian South Folk Life Center - a pastoral setting looking out on breathtakingly beautiful mountains. Each morning, I sat at the top of a hill looking out over the misted mountains, listening to the birds. And all day into the evening I attended workshops about mountain top removal from all angles - Appalachian culture and history, rural vs urban activism, facilitation practices, solidarity economics, non-hierarchical organizing. I was one of only a few folks older than 40 (okay, I was probably the oldest person there), and I had the privilege of learning from much younger people who were either born in some part of Appalachia or have chosen to live and work there, all serving as social justice activists. I don't know what I expected - I don't know that I had any particular expectations - but what I experienced was unexpected.
The people in Mountain Justice, and related groups such as Radical Action for Mountain Peoples' Survival, Coal River Mountain Watch, Larry Gibson's Mountain Keepers, and others, work with community members to understand, monitor, plan, and act to stop the practice of mountain top removal. The movement to stop MTR is based upon the devastating destruction to the ecosystem of the mountains and related long-lasting harm to the physical, communal, social, and emotional lives of community members. There is a substantial body of research documenting the damage done to water systems, wildlife, human health, economic stability, community life.
And yes, the opponents of MTR are allies with others involved in fighting extractive industries, those involved with extracting coal, gas, and oil - with a particular focus on opposing the manner in which the industries operate, again with little regard for the immediate and long-term damage to human life and the ecosystem. So yes, this movement to end MTR is related closely to the efforts in Western PA and elsewhere to stop hydraulic fracturing for natural gas - better known as fracking.
What else did I learn? I got to spend time with people who defined themselves variously as radicals, activists, and anarchists, who question and are committed to swimming upstream against mainstream ideology and against business as usual, when this business hurts people. Today, two groups of campers participated in direct actions - one involving five people who chained themselves to a coal-carrying barge in Charleston, WV (yes, they were arrested) and another involving dozens of people who blocked a road leading up to an MTR site, making it impossible for the trucks that transport coal and other materials to pass through.
And I also learned that I have a whole lot more to think about. Not sure where I fit into this whole scenario, or where I go with what I learned. More later... about people, and food, and music, and stories...
I am in Princeton, WV tonight -- preparing for my week with Mountain Justice that starts tomorrow. I don't know what to expect but I do know that much of it will be new to me.
I am humbled that I get to do this, that I have the time and the means to come here to learn from others about mountain top removal and how it affects people in the mountains -- in terms of health, physical security, jobs, sense of home, faith and spirit, politics. I am grateful that I will be spending time with people who have done so much work in this area, people of wisdom and courage, some of whom have put their own security and freedom on the line. I am a little nervous -- will I get it? can I contribute in any meaningful way? and basically the age-old - will I fit in? For real! Almost 59 years old, and still wondering about that!
In July, I get to teach Environment and Psychology again to the masters students, then I will do a related course in the fall with the doctoral students. I feel such a responsibility to understand these ideas -- How is our well-being affected by the natural environment? How are we affected when we unplug and spend time in nature, or have access to whole healthy foods and safe water? How are we affected, physically, emotionally, spiritually, by environmental disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil spill or the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan? How do WE affect the environment? Can we learn to make really good choices, each day, so that the world that supports us stays clean and safe and viable? In the classroom, these questions sometimes seem so abstract. I suspect that they won't seem so abstract this week.
We will be visiting some mountain top removal sites, so I will see, smell, hear all about it in a very concrete way. I will be learning about what the mountains have meant and STILL mean to the families they have sheltered and supported for hundreds of years -- and what it feels like to have these centuries-old guardians threatened.
I don't live here and I cannot really know what it is like to live in such precarious circumstances, but what I hope to bring home with me are some universal stories and truths that I can share with others. I am humbled and grateful.
Unplugging for the duration.... talk to you soon.
Lou Martin is an assistant professor of history at Chatham. I have known him for a bit, but have gotten to know him more in the last year as we have started to talk about his work related to mountain top removal resistance in his home state of West Virginia. We both participated in the March on Blair Mountain a year ago - Lou for the entire march, and me for the last couple of days. Lou has said that he began the march as a historian, and ended it as an environmentalist. And, in a few days, we will both be attending the summer action camp sponsored by Mountain Justice.
Last week, Lou spoke at the opening of Reflections: Homage to Dunkard Creek, an art exhibit at Chatham. In 2009, Dunkard Creek in West Virginia was the site of an enormous fish - creek kill when the 43 mile long creek and its wildlife were poisoned and killed by golden algae. The algae bloom was reportedly related to high chloride levels associated with discharges from a Consol Energy mine treatment facility (PGH Post-Gazette, 3-16-12). Google "Dunkard Creek fish kill" for photos of the disaster.
The Reflections art exhibit, sponsored by the Mountain Institute, consists of artwork depicting 90 species of life decimated in the Dunkard Creek fish kill. If you are in Pittsburgh, I encourage you to check out this exhibit, live through May 25. In any case, browse through the slide show on the Reflections web-site.
So back to Lou -- he offered some very thoughtful remarks at the art show opening last week, and generously agreed that I could share these with you. We are fortunate to have him at Chatham - West Virginia is fortunate to have him in its corner. I so appreciate his wisdom.
Comments for the Dunkard Creek Exhibit, May 10, 2012, by Lou Martin
Dunkard Creek winds along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, not too far from Morgantown. In grad school, I used to commute from Washington County down to Morgantown, and I would cross over Dunkard Creek near where is empties into the Mon River.
In the process of driving an hour to school nearly every day, I became less and less aware of the environment as I drove. After a while, I scarcely paid attention to the built environment, driving past houses, stores, and old factories without paying any attention to them, let alone the natural environment hidden from sight, like Dunkard Creek.
It is cliché to say that we have been divorced from the natural world in the so-called modern era. Along with this is a belief that we have mastered nature such that we no longer need to think about it. But I am reminded of something my friend Larry Gibson says: “People misunderstand their relationship to the environment. Our mothers gave us birth, but it is the land that gives us life.”
As we become less aware of our environment and all that gives us life, we run the risk of destroying it and ourselves. Who among us knows where all the articles and items they have with them today came from? Not me. Who knows where their clothing was assembled, let alone where the cotton, dyes, and bleach came from. I submit to you that the less we know about the origins of the things we consume, the greater the risk that harm is coming to those places as a result of production.
Electricity is perhaps the product we as a society consume the most but whose origins we know the least about. Electricity itself is ethereal and fleeting. It does not carry labels that tell us where it comes from. Yet, it is central to most of our lives and about half of it—as most of you probably know—comes from burning coal. That coal comes from the Rocky Mountain states of Wyoming, Montana, and Utah, and from the Appalachian Mountain Range, where we live. Our mountains have been exploited for their coal for 120 years. As a society we have never questioned whether those resources should be used, only how best to use them and sometimes how best to extract them.
One thing that as a nation we decided forty years ago was that our waterways could no longer be used as wastewater dump sites. At that time in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act and President Nixon signed it into law. A confluence of factors produced that law: fear of chemicals that humans could then create but whose effects on the human body were unknown; a sense that humans were despoiling the natural world; and a confidence that we could have jobs and a clean environment. At that time, General Motors and U.S. Steel—two of the nation’s biggest polluters—were also two of the most profitable companies in the world.
That law was designed to prevent the kind of events like the 2009 release of wastewater from Consol’s mine into Dunkard Creek that resulted in a massive loss of wildlife as golden algae took over the stream. But how is this law typically enforced? Often it depends on residents’ complaints. Yes, those complaints are then filtered through distant bureaucracies in Harrisburg or Washington DC, but it is the people themselves who must often sound the alarm. This system then demands that we remain engaged in our environment and know what it is like on most days and know what it is like when the health of the ecosystem is threatened.
I recently talked to a lawyer about the 2000-2001 floods in southern West Virginia. They sued the coal companies for improperly reclaiming the land, arguing that the flooding was caused by too little topsoil and vegetation. The companies responded that the floods were an “act of God” because those two years had seen much more than the normal rainfall. Luckily for the residents, one family living at the top of a holler had recorded the daily rainfall on their farm…for over 100 years and could testify that the rainfall was not out of the ordinary. It was the changes to the land that had resulted in the flooding.
This art exhibit is one way—and a very dramatic way—for me and maybe some of you to learn more about our environment in western Pennsylvania. It is both a reminder of the damage that we in part cause as consumers of coal as well as a reminder of the life that surrounds us—the life that the environment gives us. Let’s not let these species be the harbinger of our own destruction but a reminder of the importance of maintaining a close connection to world around us to ensure a healthy, happy future for all. Thank you.
Thank you, Lou, for reminding us to be more aware of our world - the natural world - and of the decisions and choices we make each day that can have an impact, positive or negative, on this beautiful world, our source of life.
I feel so lucky! I was able to trade in my cool-looking retro style, but oh so heavy, bike for a new one - so light that I can lift it with one hand. So I have been going, going, going for the last few weeks, riding various rails to trails and commuting to work (while trying to find a route with no hills and no traffic - impossible!).
When I start pedaling, whoosh! the worries and stresses of the day are gone with the wind, just like that. Yes, they are still alive, back at the office, but they don't travel home with me. It is so liberating.
I remember my first bike - a 20" green Huffy. I distinctly remember the day that my dad took off the training wheels and then let go of the seat as I wobbled off, finally finding my balance. I. FELT. LIKE. I. WAS. FLYING. That feeling persists today - makes me feel like I can do anything.
My next bike was a blue 24" Schwinn. It was my companion throughout the summers, taking me to the pool and friends' houses and shopping centers. One basic gear, foot brakes, no baskets bells helmets or whistles. But trusty and reliable.
I had another bike - a 3 speed I think - when I was in college and grad school. In college, I used to ride it through the Lexington Cemetery and past horse farms - beautiful rides. I also rode it from my apartment in Gardenside over to Eastern State Hospital where I worked, going through lots of traffic and not very safe parts of the city - my dad got worried and eventually offered to sell me what was my first car - a boxy olive green Plymouth Valiant. The car was safe and serviceable and lasted several years, but I still rode my bike.
In grad school in Louisville, I rode my bike through back streets to get to campus. My favorite part of the trip was going through Germantown. In the early morning, all the grandmas would be scrubbing their front porches. The smell of coffee and frying bacon, left over from breakfast, lingered in the air.
For my 40th birthday (almost 19 years ago - yikes!), I treated myself to a new bike, 21 speeds. At the time, I didn't think I was much affected by turning 40, but I do recall that I became uncharacteristically irritable, snapping at service people at the Honda dealer or the grocery store or at the kids (I'm sorry!). The bike was a gift to myself, nurturing possibilities of adventures. I did a 35 mile Mon-Yough ride through small hilly towns, through rain - that was a big accomplishment for me. On his 13th birthday, Michael and I participated in Pedal Pittsburgh which took us through the city and parks. If you know Pittsburgh, you know that this involved many hills. Big ones. The ride was advertised as a 25 mile one, I recall. But Michael, ever the "quant" guy, indignantly noted that, based on my odometer, it was actually closer to 29.5. Michael and I did another ride near Settler's Ridge, uneventful except for the fact that I didn't know where Settler's Ridge was and first landed in Sewickley (both DO start with SE!). We did eventually end up in the right location and joined the group of riders.
A couple of years ago, I discovered Facebook. One of my first experiences on FB was reconnecting with old high school friends and acquaintances. Mary Pat Wheeler, former cheerleader and tennis champ and overall athlete extraordinaire, had posted photos from 1976, the bicentennial year, when she rode her bike from Wyoming (I think) cross country to Kentucky. By herself. Carrying her gear and camping along the way. There were more than big hills on this trip - there were BIG mountains. MP told me that she told her parents back in KY that she was doing the ride with a big group of people, so that they wouldn't worry. I think she has since 'fessed up. Anyway, MP's photo story inspired me - made me dream new dreams, made me ask myself - what do you want to do in this life? what big challenges lie ahead? if not now, then when? why not now?
I am still asking these questions, and have made small inroads in a few new directions that have stretched me and added meaning to my life, if that makes sense. I am hoping to ride from Pittsburgh to Washington DC next summer over the Great Allegheny Passage. And next week, I will be leaving for the Mountain Justice Summer Action Camp in Pipestem, WVA, where I hope to LEARN. Period.