By Kirsi Jansa
What can we do? Is there any hope? How many of you have been waking up to these questions, before or during this pandemic?
Those are also the top two questions people ask of Richard Powers, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Overstory. (If you have not read The Overstory yet – seriously consider reading it.)
Richard Powers gave a brave and deeply inspiring talk as a part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series in December last year. He did not shy away from telling us, about 1800 people, about studies that show increasing global temperatures correlate with increase in aggressiveness, violence and suicides. “Talking about hope becomes increasingly difficult. How to talk about this without increasing anxiety and yet be hopeful, useful and true?”
Earlier in the day about 25 educators gathered at the Frick Environmental Center for a meet and greet with Richard. “We have internalized that humans and nature are separate and different. Yet we are starting to realize that we did not win the war against nature. The rules are changing.” Mary Ann Steiner, a friend and colleague of mine, and I shared our personal tree story with the group: On Arbor Day 2019, a 40-foot black cherry tree fell on top of the car we were driving. The car was totaled, we survived unharmed. The author confirmed what we had assumed: People share their tree stories with him all the time. He finds them essential. “Trees operate on different rules than we do. They challenge our beliefs. Yet, they are living beings and it’s time we start taking them as living agents. Once you let go of the human-nature binary, a rich new view opens.”
In the evening, from the Carnegie Music Hall podium, Richard spoke about an awakening and transformative experience that revealed to him just how “plant-blind” he had been. Until then, he had bought into our collective story that excludes a huge part of the living Earth – non-humans. “I had our story all wrong: plot, character, moral. It all seemed to be faltering. There was life out there.”
His conclusion does not put all at ease: “If your definition of hope is to get past the finish line with all the stuff, then I’m not your man.” Richard Powers is convinced that even if we are able to end our carbon emissions, but don’t examine our deep held beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves; we and our systems will remain in trouble. “How badly we have mistaken the survival of the fittest. Each survival is caused by many acts of collaboration. The fittest is the most connected individual.”
This ‘Tree Whisperer’ has found a new kind of hope: Inter-being, co-arising and co-evolution. “Trees have been around for about 300 million years and survived many extinctions. It’s not the world that is ending, but our failed human experiment.” He invites us to a life of connections and meaning. “Reside yourself with the Earth and become part of the community.”
With The Overstory’s wisdom lingering in my mind, I took a morning walk in Frick Park and it dawned on me: Maybe those in denial or disconnected to our crisis are dormant, like trees in winter. Maybe they are so overwhelmed, they forgot what it means to be wildly and vibrantly alive? It did not take long before the second insight landed: When I let my fear and anger turn into resentment towards those who don’t see and feel the same urgency as I do, I, too, become less alive and more disconnected.
So how on Earth are we to be on this Earth? Paradoxically, this global Gap Moment brought to us by the pandemic adds a new layer of urgency to our questioning. We have a vision and a to-do list for a better future. We see pathways to get there. The clock is ticking.
Sherri Mitchell, an attorney and activist, writes in her book Sacred Instructions, Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change: “Conquest is the vehicle that drives colonization. It has been the modus operandi for seventeen centuries. It has infiltrated all areas of our lives. The tendency to overthrow runs deep. The goal of much of our activism has been to topple one system and replace it with another. This practice perpetrates the cycle of domination….”
Maybe the best thing we can do is to pause, even if it means short snippets of time here and there. Pause before we speak, pause before we act on behalf of all we hold dear. We can let go of only what we are aware of. When we let our body and mind settle, a new clarity arises. Maybe it’s the clarity of trees.
Kirsi Jansa is a documentary filmmaker of Sustainability Pioneers and Gas Rush Stories, a Creatives for Climate artivist and an informal climate educator. She offers Tara Rokpa Healing relaxation courses and is in training to become a Work That Reconnects & Active Hope facilitator. More info: http://www.kirsijansa.com.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.