Where Are We Going? ... and Why Am I in this Handbasket?
Notes from the "Fire & Grit" Conference
By Hugh Rogers
Weíre still full from the feast. From the evening of June 21 to late at night on June 24, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest
Williams, Pattiann Rogers, Scott Russell Sanders, Robert Hass, Rick Bass, Peter Matthiessen, Bill McKibben, Gary Paul Nabhan, Ann Zwinger and others fed several hundred activists, all the while claiming we were feeding them! They called us "patriots for the American land" as they stuffed our minds and eased our spirits.
But we couldnít forget the hunger that had sent us. Between courses, we met in "collegiums" and dialogue sessions to talk about where, what, how, and why. Big picture and close-up. Burnout and hope. It got very emotional and at times confrontational, particularly when the retired president of the Atlantic Richfield oil company spoke.
One funny, stubborn woman in my group used the back of her name card for notes. Others filled whole pads of lined paper, but she heard only a few lines she wanted to remember verbatim. What can I do but follow her example on this page of the Voice?
First, the facts: the conference organizer, The Orion Society, is an environmental education and publishing outfit. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) is a member of Orionís Grassroots Network -- Janet Fout was there from OVEC, and Denise Poole from the West Virginia Environmental Council. We met at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) outside Shepherdstown. Fire & Grit was four times larger than any conference that had met there, but we didnít use all the buildings. The NCTC is worth a visit (if you can get past the federal security): beautiful campus, admirable buildings, no expense spared. The last night, we moved to another national property, Antietam Battlefield, to sprawl on the grass uphill from a bright tent where performers, poets, and prophets danced with quantities of bugs.
One participant called our movement a "non-prophet organization." Not! We have heard their voices in the desert calling out cold truths; in time, weíll see them as biblical.
"It is impossible to separate good from evil without tearing out part of our own heart."
That theme ran through the conference; Solzhenitsyn, the hairy prophet who said it, is an odd conservationist, recognized by some who spoke to us.
Wendell Berry wanted to show that a hankering for certainty was as foolish as the desire to control, even overcome, nature. He read, in his careful Kentucky drawl, lessons from King Lear. "Thy lifeís a miracle. Speak yet again." We must make our work an answer to despair.
Richard Nelson lives among a thousand brown bears on Baranof Island, Alaska, but he has felt "the vast oppressive loneliness inflicted by extinction."
Rick Bass has found so many comic, desperate, dramatic ways to plead for wilderness protection in the Yaak Valley of Montana, he finally admitted, "I want my life back." Yet he knows that activists must emulate glaciers: calm, steadfast, always moving.
Barry Lopez gave three pieces of advice. First, seek out "senior" people. We are ruled by a "puerarchy," obvious this year, and in many ways besides the sexual our country has "dallied in adolescence." Seniors can be recognized by their seriousness, the way they enter into creation, their tender openness -- a senior would never say, "Been there, done that" -- their accessibility, their bravery, their willingness to disappear into the woodwork. We are fortunate to have seniors in the Conservancy.
Second, and by the same token, care for our children and make ourselves available to them. Third, stay local; going deep, we develop authority.
Lopez said, with a dismissive wave, "The earth will let the others go." He professed to be hopeful. Ecology, coherence, how communities sustain themselves, will become, more and more, the way we make sense of the world. We are working out a mythology to explain the end of the capitalist era. Without stories, we donít know where we are. As the Inuit say, a storyteller is a person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.
The prophets told us in different ways that our separate fights were part of a larger campaign. Like their writing. To call them "nature writers"
misunderstood their reach, for they were able to wrestle with the profoundest questions -- life, work, love, survival. Scott Russell Sanders read an essay about the death and decline of his wifeís parents (beginning with the wifeís name, Ruth, the story was eerily mine) and then told us why he had brought it to the conference instead of something more obviously relevant. He fit the Inuit description; we wonít forget the atmosphere around him.
Terry Tempest Williams, the writer from Utah, introduced a young woman she had met at a college graduation who put together a surreal silent giant-figure drama, "The Table of Restoration." It made us think of Carol Jackson. We had music in the evenings before more helpings of words. Too much sitting was my only complaint.
My rough notes, like the ones on the back of a name tag, donít give credit for every remark. Anyway, many remarks werenít original; people quoted from each other and from everyone else. For instance: "Jazz and wilderness are the two great ideas produced by this country in the 20th Century." The quoter (Bill McKibben?) went on to imagine a wilderness ideal that could "riff" like jazz, and be as inclusive of the long human influence on the land.
"The earth and I are of one mind." Chief Seattle.
"The bear can outmind you." A Koyukan teacher to Richard Nelson.
"There are some things we need to learn slowly." Ann Zwinger, comparing natural history to foreign languages.
"This man wants to live among us as an Indian." Emerson on Thoreau.
For a few days, we lived in a democracy of prophets. Now we have to digest.
Hugh Rogers is on the board of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and has been very active in Corridor H Alternatives. R