Thinking Like a Mountain in Afghanistan


For the past few weeks two books have kept me engrossed in a saga that reminds me about the power of the ordinary citizen.

Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools take readers on the personal journey of Greg Mortenson as he follows his heart in the most remote places on this planet. The fact is, Greg’s intuition and inexhaustible determination, have made him such an effective U.S. diplomat that military leaders are visiting him to learn his secret.

Greg and his small nonprofit organization are building schools in rural communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan and making sure that girls attend them. He offers this proverb from Africa as his raison d’être: “Educate a boy and you’ve educated an individual; educate a girl and you’ve educated a community.”

Sleeping in his old Buick, living on food from street vendors, working through the night shift at a hospital— the journey of the warrior often looks like failure in our wealthy, modern culture. Where did his story begin?

In the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Greg spent happy days with his little sister and parents in a culturally diverse region of Tanzania where he learned to speak dialects of his local friends. He watched as his father struggled to build a hospital, declaring it would one day be staffed by Tanzanians (not wealthy expats who believed the locals incapable).

This was the framework of experience that set the course of Mortenson’s life journey.

But two tragedies would have to wet the stone of Greg’s resolve. His father’s death from cancer coincided with his sister’s premature death from severe epilepsy. Greg vowed to climb the highest mountain on earth in honor of her short, difficult life.

And he nearly lost his own life in the attempt. After begin rescued by local villagers as he wandered lost at the base of K-2’s soaring 28,000 ft. peak, Greg spent the winter months with villagers in  Korphe, a place few ever leave or venture.

In the house of Haji Ali, chief of Korphe, Greg met his life long mentor who taught him the wisdom of “three cups of tea.”

What is this wisdom? Haji Ali: The first cup of tea we meet each other. The second cup of tea we come to know each other. The third cup of tea we become friends. Then, we can do business.

It’s all about relationships. That was a lesson his father learned in Africa: to sit with the local people, pass the communal gourd of beer, tell stories and get to know each other.

In Korphe Greg learned the ways of the people and came to respect their simple, rugged lives. He was nursed back to health. One day, while out walking the landscape, he came upon a group of children sitting in the snow and rocks with thier teacher.

Haji Ali told him the children had no school house so they sat outside to learn. Haji Ali’s little daughter, Jahan was among the girls who shivered in the frigid air. She asked Greg if he could help them build a school. He promised her he would do what he could.

Since that promise, Jahan has become a graduate of medical studies, delivering health care to her village and the people of the region –  more than 130 schools pepper the rural villages on both sides of the vaulted Karakorum between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But more, Greg Mortenson has become known by the rural people of Afghanistan and Pakistan as an American who can be trusted, a man of his word.

State departments and military generals now read Three Cups of Tea as a way of learning how to do business in that part of the world.

In spite of wars, the convolutions of local fiefdoms, in spite of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake, and infrastructure obstacles that would defy the resources of even the most powerful nation on earth, Greg and his “dirty dozen” colleagues at the Central Asia Institute persist.

By drinking three cups of tea they are turning stones—stones that mark the locations of  land mines planted during the Soviet invasion, and among which unwary children play—into schools where they can make a better life through education.

Greg’s declaration? Every school must strive for an equal ratio of girls to boys. In Afghanistan and Pakistan that is a quiet revolution.

Simple but powerful in its message, many of the CAI schools are expressly for girls. Greg’s belief is that by empowering girls to become transforming agents of their communities, the fire of hatred flamed by extremists groups will be damped with hope.

One man’s journey reminds us once again that when we act from our own internal compass and follow the urgings of our heart, the path will be true…not easy, but straight as a piercing arrow into the heart of a problem.

There has never been anything more powerful than the individual to change the world.

Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools (VIKING, 2006, 2009)

Haiti in the Long Run

Most of us have been glued to the news about the immediate assistance to Haitians following the 7.2 magnitude earthquake and its continuing aftershocks. We all most likely contributed initially to the Red Cross and other humanitarian aid organizations. Aid is finally arriving but much is still in the emergency phase.

What remains is the larger logistical questions about how to rebuild a devastated infrastructure and how to rebuild entirely differently to provide people with the safety and resilient systems many developed countries are not only used to but expect. What does this massive restoration and innovation mean for the world community?

While there have been many preceding natural catastrophe’s to the collapse of Haiti’s infrastructure, this event has to become a kind of flag and marker for humankind about the much greater work we may share as climate change, entwined with nature’s natural furies, makes Haiti one of dozens of catastrophic events. We cannot let that happen.

While humankind cannot control the natural cycles of the Earth’s systems, we can control how we as a species add to the impact of them. As a Gulf coast resident in Florida, I am eying the predictions for an average of 11 Atlantic storms in the 2010 hurricane season. Haiti is right in their path as well. How will the people there, how will all the countries who are going to be there helping to rebuild Haiti, deal with major storms?

An article in Science Daily recently described how climate change could impact poverty, deepening it by virtue of collapsing food systems due to climate change.

I watch my countrymen and women and representatives in Washington and realize how easily distracted we are by seemingly more pressing problems like health care and jobs. But up the road we need to be charting our next moves to prepare for many more natural disasters. Resilience to them can be seen in a country like ours which has such a high standard of living, so much social and economic infrastructure, that we find it hard to imagine a place where there are no options and everything that could go wrong does.

What hurt the Haitian people so much is poverty. How can we get to work to make sure poverty does not deepen but is turned on its head and becomes a solution? All the people without jobs…all the things that need doing…is there a bridge between these two realities that might create a third: better living standards by investing our time, talent, money, and sweat into GOOD WORK, and in quitting our bickering, deal playing and investment in wars.

For now, I plan to set up an affordable monthly withdrawal from my bank for Haiti relief, however small, and keep it there for the time it takes to get the job done.  What we are investing in is not so much clean-up as raising a standard of living so that whatever may come their way, Haitians will have the resources to protect themselves and to build structures with the latest safety standards and materials that we Americans have come to expect.

Every Haitian child is one of ours, our future in an increasingly connected world community.

Avatar and Mountain Top Removal Mining

Appalachian Voices and iLove are primarily battling mountain top removal (MTR) mining in critical watershed areas and communities in states where these mountains are under siege by the coal industry.

While viewing Avatar, I thought I was on their websites as the spaceship spans over a devastated mining area that looks suspiciously like the Appalachians where coal companies decapitated ancient mountains and their communities. See my review of the film on this blog and visit these sites to learn how the basic story of Avatar is happening on a huge scale right in America’s oldest and most diverse mountains. Go to iLoveMountains and put in your zip code to learn whether your power is emanating from coal mined by MTR methods. This is where the battle on Mother Earth is happening! Join in.

Wildlife Migrate North in Pacific

Kevin Schafer Photograph

See this article from TerraDaily Express about the California Sea Lions migrating up the coast to colder waters in Oregon.

As a teenager I remember the population of sea lions on the wharf in San Francisco, that blanketed every flat surface. They provided a lot of entertainment for us visitors.

This article describes a whole population migration to caves off the coast of Oregon where colder waters support the food sources seals typically consume. Other migrations include shorebirds.

The article suggests that the El Nino in the Pacific waters, which was very strong this year (bringing unusually warm waters) may be the reason for this dramatic migration. Climate change, causing the warming of oceans, is most likely a boosting factor to the El Nino effects across the Pacific and the planet.

Florida Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coastline both benefit from the El Nino with wind shear patterns that kept hurricane activity to an all time low for the past season.  Weather experts predict a stronger hurricane system next summer and fall but I wonder if ocean warming might institute a permanent El Nino effect???

The current winter season in the Midwest and Northeast also seems to be dramatic differences in our normal seasonal patterns. Again, we have to observe over time to know whether warming of oceans and melting of ice caps are responsible for these dramatic changes or these are the occasional flukes that happen from time to time with complex reasons we only decipher later (sun  or celestial events.)

As NASA reports on climate change patterns, scientists are convinced that the planet surface is warming even with patterns of cooling and heating which they say are part of the longer term warming.

In Gujrat, India agronomists report mangoes ripening well before the normal seasonal pattern. These dramatic shifts in both plant and animal populations are heralds of large scale changes now affecting human life as well.

What is most dramatic to me is the near lack of news about climate change on our national media networks. Do we have our noses to the ground on health insurance when the greatest threat to our health is happening right in front of our faces?

Brilliant Solutions to Implacable Problems

Frances Moore Lappe’s new book, Liberation Ecology, identifies six dis-empowering ideas and re-frames them with insightful solutions. This book was recently published in a limited first edition with an invitation from the author to write her back with comments, edits, and additional ideas.

1.  To save the planet, our economies have to stop growing.

2.  We’ve hit the limits of a finite Earth.

3. We must overcome selfish human nature to save the planet.

4. To make progress, we have to override people’s innate resistance to the rules.

5.  People are now so far removed from the natural world that they will never feel the connection to nature necesarry for an environmental turn-around.

6.  Given the magnitude and scope of today’s problems, there’s no time for democracy.

Go to the website to read more and to take a short survey of your perceptions before reading the book and how Lappe addresses each of these ideas that are holding us back from a world in sync with nature and on a road to sustainability.

Species on the run from warming temps

A Reuters article today describes reports on rapid changes in habitats due to warming temps. The article discusses the pressure on species, from plants to insects to animals, that will require migration north to cooler temperatures and whether many species will not be able to make the curve and eventually become extinct.

At issue is an important fact to remember: current rates of extinction far exceed the normal extinction rates of past millions of years. The  spike in extinction has occurred in the industrialization period of human history.

Anther key issue is to remember that each species is part of a community of species that are linked. Loss of one affects many others.

Reflecting on Copenhagen Accord

From TerraDaily Express this Associated Press article reviews attitudes about the Copenhagen Climate accords  that will be known for its historic failure to limit green house gas emissions., the organization galvanized by Bill McKibbens, posted this sober message on its front page: “We do not have the fair, ambitious and legally binding agreement that millions around the world hoped the world leaders gathered in Copenhagen would deliver. They are not done yet, and neither are we.”

Please read Archbishop of Canterbury’s address in my previous post for a deeper reflection and way for personal action. Dr. Williams may be more lucid than any world leader about a way forward in uncertain times.