Carol A. Hand
It was a July morning in 2011. An odd group of faculty, mostly from the English and art departments of a university, gathered for an in-service to learn how to use art as a vehicle for unlocking people’s stories. The instructor began.
“You have two minutes to draw the first thing that comes to mind for each of the words or phrases I mention. Don’t worry about technique. That will just interfere with your ability to tap what is most important to you.
“Draw the ‘safe place when you were a child.’ Draw ‘pressure – the pressure you feel from all of the demands that you deal with in your life.’ Now, draw a ‘monument.’”
For me, the images I drew that day were all linked to nature, to the natural world. That has always been my source of balance and solace in times of challenge and uncertainty. And now, as nature is threatened ever more by forces of exploitive disregard and destruction, it’s hard to hold on to a sense of hope and peace some days.
Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t draw an edifice of marble or concrete, I drew a tree – a living monument of what helps us survive on this planet. If Jared Diamond’s (2005) thesis is accurate, could it be that one of the final death knells for societies is the destruction of the forests that blanket the earth and give us all oxygen to breathe?
Photo: My beloved old willow tree after it lost a huge branch in the wind – June 5, 2015
“The process through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people” (Diamond, p. 6)
“The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of Earth’s photosynthetic capacity” (Diamond, p. 7)
I believe that many people feel the risks we face, but don’t know what they can do. I ask myself what I can do in a world controlled by the intensifying invasive tentacles of psychopathic corporate environmental destruction. I don’t have an answer. I ponder this question as I work on saving what I can in my own yard first – the years of neglect and expedient solutions – burying garbage (old concrete slabs, glass, nails, and shingles) and covering the landscape with a variety of invasive plants and trees that have been neglected for decades by people who were simply doing the best they could with the knowledge and resources they had.
Often it feels pointless and selfish to spend my days trying to preserve what I can and clean up messes. As a retired change agent, I often feel I should be doing something “more important” on a larger scale – on a community, state or national level. But I don’t have answers for others. I need time for healing and reflection. (For now, I have the luxury to do so, if I’m willing to live very simply. I can’t remove the storm windows by myself or afford to replace them, but I can plant flowers in the flowerboxes beneath them.)
Photo: July 10, 2015
As I work at grueling physical labor,
I watch my thoughts and feelings,
I sweat and swear,
Laugh at myself and my struggles – and find peace,
Sometimes present and other times floating in memories of past times and places,
Talking to plants and earthworms,
To the robins that are watching
Eagerly waiting to explore the earth I’ve just uncovered
And swatting at mosquitoes (I’m sorry to say).
I arise the next morning knowing there are still new jobs to be done. There is no ego or allure of fame and fortune involved. I know what I am doing will not save us from the future, but it gives me comfort to know that around the globe, people are tending the earth with hard work and loving care. Living simply and breathing love into the work we do whatever it might be – it’s what we can do for ourselves and the future of our grandchildren and our world.
“Actually, while it won’t be easy to reduce our impact, it won’t be impossible either. Remember that impact is the product of two factors: population, multiplied times impact per person.” (Diamond, p. 524)
The trees and the gardens we tend and the love we breathe into the world around us are the most important monuments we can leave.
Jared Diamond (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.