Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

With authors I value, like Barbara Kingsolver, the wait for a new work can often be lengthy. My wait was amply rewarded. In Unsheltered–2018 HarperCollins–she had created parallel narratives that articulate across two centuries in the American experience. Her device is a house and property shared by the characters in different centuries. The 21st Century Wilma and  19th Century Thatcher are adults navigating giant shifts in social paradigms. For Wilma and her family it is the economic collapse of the middle class and the dissolution of the ideals her generation pursued. Climate change knocks ominously at her door. For Thatcher it a pre-Darwin American culture in a panic to hold onto Christian perspectives by rejecting rational observation of how the world works (akin to today’s denial of science).

Wilma’s multigenerational family reflects at once a 1) disenfranchised, racist white America (grandfather); 2) boomer parents (Wilma and Iano); 3) grown kids who pursued differing paths–Harvard financial education (Zeke), and post-apocalyptic youth (Tig). Add Baby Dusty, Wilma’s grandson whom she is mothering after the death of Zeke’s wife,  and you have four generations, each navigating their own realities. The dialogue along the way explores the contemporary ocean of conflicting values and ideas of today’s American society with our economic, social, and environmental challenges.

Unsheltered is a nuanced conversation between Kingsolver, her characters, and the reader that is slow at times but never boring and long enough to examine previous and contemporary times for understanding the confabulations of collective memory–an existential wail of ‘Who are we?’

Twenty-something Tig exclaims to her mother, “The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re still applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”

For individuals like me, awash in Trump-a-Con,  Unsheltered is a beacon. Kinsolver’s Afterward explains her own journey to understand “the times”, explaining to readers how she wrote a novel about real historical figures and set the novel in South Jersey in a small town, Vineland. Along the way, she traveled many miles, including London where walked in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.

This book is a needed contribution to understanding our time as one when the “world as we know it” appears to be ending. It is ultimately a great story that takes us into the author’s creative mind. I am so grateful to Kingsolver!

Corn Tastes Better on the Honor System – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Robin Wall KimmererRobin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist who explains her knowledge of an indigenous worldview about plants with that of the western worldview. In that process, Kimmerer embeds whole Earth teaching along with botanical science. Here in this beautiful essay, ” Corn tastes better on the honor system” published in Emergence Magazine, is one of the author’s best teaching contrasting indigenous ways of knowing with western perspectives about the Earth. At this ragged time in American history, return to sanity. Listen.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

Replenishing the Earth – Wangari Maathai

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004

Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.

In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.

In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!

Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.

Listen to an interview with Wangari Maathai on OnBeing.org.

 

 

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a YA novel for our time.

It deals with injustice and racial profiling but in the most personal manner. Stone used newspaper articles, and stories from real teens who have faced similar injustices to develop her story. Stone writes a nuanced plot and characters as real as the people around you. Everyone is welcome in Justyce’s story because diverse perspectives are represented in the characters, their thoughts and responses to events in the story.

This is a national bestseller. Free copies were distributed by the Warren County, KY library in my home town of Bowling Green, KY. Nic Stone will be here in October and I cannot wait to meet her.

The novel is a short book (less than 200 pages) but it moves powerfully along to an ending that made me weep with joy, sorrow, and HOPE!

It is my wish for this coming year that Americans will read it because it shows a way forward in addressing injustice in our law enforcement as well as in society in general–what we must finally deal with to complete the Long Road to Freedom.

Some books are necessary. This is one of them. A brilliant achievement.

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate

Hidden in Plain Sight (2008 Princeton University Press) written by Barbara Bennett Woodhouse examines past and evolving perspectives on the human rights of children. Written for both students of law and the general American public, this book offers a solid methodology for how to think about the rights of children through the science of human development. It frames the rights of children by grounding them in basic human rights values of privacy, agency, equality, individual dignity, and protections.

Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is the L.Q.C. Lamar Professor of Law, and director of the Child Rights Project at Emory University. She is also the Donald H. Levin Chair Emeritus in Family Law at the University of Florida.

Woodhouse presents the stories of historical figures familiar to Americans (Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Frederick Douglas, and Ben Franklin) as well as children she has known in her work as a legal representative, a law professor, and a witnessing advocate for children and families.

As the reader follows these lives, learning new insights about familiar Americans, the author describes her own journey to understanding of the problems and solutions society faces in adjudicating the rights of children in numerous situations such as living in child intolerant times, slavery, abandonment, violence, and juvenile justice institutions.

As I read each chapter, Woodhouse gave me ways to think about each child or teenager, how she thought about it and has since changed her mind or confirmed her understanding. The basic premise is that children’s rights in the U.S. are tragically wanting for just policies and deeper understanding of the ecology of child development as we understand it today. Woodhouse compares America’s policies and legal record on children’s rights to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  It is the most rapidly ratified human rights convention in the history of United Nations, yet the U.S. has not joined the international community for fear that the rights of children might infringe on parents’ individual rights and undermine adult authority and control.

Woodhouse argues that the contemporary cult of individualism often contributes to harsh sentencing of children who have committed crimes and are held responsible for their actions by courts of law without due consideration of children’s developmental ability to understand the ramifications of their actions.

Hidden in Plain Sight asks readers to consider our American values in the light of the human rights of children. She evokes the language of the U.N. Special Session for Children:

A world made fit for children is a world fit for everyone.

With little personal foundation in legal study, this book read well for me as an unfolding argument by an experienced legal expert, a mother, and a legal guardian of children. I highly recommend this book to everyone who is concerned with the protection of children, and citizens who worry about the future we adults are creating for the children in our lives and around the world.

RELATED ISSUE: Juliana vs. U.S. – Children’s Constitutional Lawsuit.

Their complaint asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.

 

Why Reading is Essential to Writing

Half Price Books in Bowling Green, KY

Finding Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes (1996 Penguin Paperbacks) at Half-Price Books in Bowling Green reminded me again why reading great writers is an essential component of a writing practice.

Proulx’s research into the immigrant experience and  the historical setting  animates her use of language.

Hour after hour the noisy dragging mass shuffled up the gangplank onto the ship lugging bundles, portmanteaus, parcels and canvas telescope bags. ~The Accordion Maker, The land of alligators, Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx, Scribner’s Paperback Fiction.

Proulx’s novel is a textbook on originality in structure, use of language, and approach to the subject. Her writing reminds me of Vachel Lindsey and Carl Sandburg whose poetry about industrial America contains similar energy and rhythmic force I experience when reading Proulx’s work:

The din of commerce sounded in a hellish roar made up of the clatter of  hooves and the hollow rumble of wheel rims on plank, the scream of whistles and huffing of engines, hissing steam boilers and hammering and rumbling, shouting foremen and the musical call and response of workgangs and the sellers of gumbo and paper cones of crawfish and sticky clotted pralines, the creaking of the timber wagons and the low cries of the ship provisioners’ cartmen urging their animals forward, all blended into a loud narcotic drone.” ~ The Accordion Maker, Sugarcane, Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx, Scribner’s Paperback Fiction.

The Wonder of Fiction

The year the youth novel Wonder was published, I lost my father and was still grieving the loss of my sister. At the time I worked full-time at the University of West Florida, and somehow I missed the wonderment of Wonder.

Here is the 2012 NY Times Book Review.

I am about through and savoring its completion. The narrative, characters, and the real life circumstances of each middle-schooler, especially August, are true to life. The story has the effect of healing my own wounds from that period of youth that is so very difficult. It is the time when we truly differentiate from our childhood identities, our birth family, and move into the harsh realities of life.

R.J. Palacio, the author, put this book “out there” and it has since been translated into many languages, and used in classrooms, and other educational venues. Palacio created one book with a narrative for our culture, and cultures worldwide  about being “different”.

Auggie Pullman’s disfiguring genetic disorder causes conflicting feelings. Palacio provides personal narratives of Auggie’s sister and his classmates to sensitively show us how we deal with difference depending on our family, experiences, and personalities. Reactions to Auggie when he enters middle school range from fear to revulsion. When we learn more about each character, readers explore similar feelings in themselves.

Palacio takes adult readers on a poignant journey to our preadolescent selves when we asked, Who am I? We present ourselves to the world with our face and expression. We experience Auggie and his peers grow and change as they deal with Auggie’s condition and his bright, true persona which they discover over time.

Auggie’s facial deformities are extreme. Yet, he is a pretty normal tween and a cool guy once you get to know him. His experiences are tenderly created by a talented writer who was raising middle schoolers at home. She had once encountered a small girl with a similar genetic disorder at an ice cream shop. That encounter led to the creation of Auggie Pullman and her first ever novel.

At a time in world history when fear of the other is strong, this book provides a way to understand how we react to difference but how our differences help us grow and make the world a more wonderful place.

Maybe it’s time for a National REREAD of Wonder.

Read about Treacher Collins Syndrome

See the movie after you read the book.

Healers of the Land

One of the best activities of my mature life has been an association with the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Land Ethic Leaders. In 2012 I traveled to Baraboo, Wisconsin to attend a training to become a Land Ethic Leader in my community.

Leopold’s now famous essay on The Land Ethic is excellent guidance for our time.

The Land Ethic_A Sand County Almanac

I’ve continued to learn from leaders and staff at the Foundation but mostly from my fellow Land Ethic Leaders. John Matel is one who is blogging about the restoration of the Long Leaf Pine Ecosystem on his land. He is doing the careful, long term work of bringing fire back to the land to awaken long dormant seeds for the sedges and grasses on the land, grooming the understory and the pines themselves.

Read his latest blog and explore others to appreciate that there is a man, and many others like him, who are working on the long term solutions to our environmental crises. For example, read about the Panhandle Watershed Alliance and the Bream Fisherman’s Association led by an intrepid water ecologist and friend, Barbara Albrecht in Pensacola, Florida.

So, take heart that there are these menders and planters, stewards of land and the human spirit OUT THERE working against the tide of destruction.

Spirits of the Mountains

Mt Humphreys at 12, 800 ft. in San Francisco Mts.

The spiritual nature of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff was an awesome experience for me. The sight of these sacred mountains took me off guard when they first came into view, and indeed, were the focal point of the sky all the way to Holbook, Arizona. I can see why so many first nations hold these mountains in such reverence, when from anywhere for hundreds of miles the shimmering white peaks are a beacon of light and orientation. The Hopi believe the Kachina spirits live at the top of the peak. Looking at this forested hillside on the way up the mountain to Snowbowl, I can almost feel the spirits there.

Birches and Pines on Mt. Humphreys on the way up to Snowbowl.

Following the Trail of Water

Mark Hainds, Border Walker

A friend of mine, Mark Hainds, is a forester and author, who has challenged himself to walk the entirety of the U.S. – Mexico Border. In doing so, he is noting the conditions of the landscape, meeting the people who live there, the people who are passing over the border in hopes of a better future, and experiencing the deep peace from long hours of silent walking. Be sure to visit his site above.

On Friday morning I dropped him off at mile marker 40 on highway 82 near Sonoita, Arizona. This is grasslands – basin and range territory – home of historic ranches, antelopes, and hardy people who love the land.

Grasslands of SE Arizona

To a visitor is can seem very still but to locals who know its subtle changes, it is an exciting place to call home.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Luckily, the Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management had foresight to preserve large tracks of riparian habitats (those areas where water flows near the surface of the ground, and in wet seasons, runs in streams and rivers). When you gaze out across expansive grasslands and see a line of bright green trees, you have found water.

Cottonwood Gallery Forest

Today I followed the traces of water across the landscape by looking for those trees. While I walked the fields and paths, small herds of tawny pronghorns on far hills bounded in the high grass, white rumps flashing in the sunlight.

At the historic Empire Ranch, I listened for the voices of families, ranch hands, and cowboys lingering in the old structures of the house, cottages, corral, and barn.

Old Barn
Empire Ranch Grounds circa early 20th century

Wandering the paths into a cottonwood gallery, I felt spirits walking next to me. A time gone but with lingering energies, whispering to us modern day visitors.

What are they telling us?

Would it be a cautionary tale? The ranch was passed through many hands, each family working it for 35-50 years, then to developers, and finally into the protection of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The ranch and 42,000 acres of riparian corridor and grasslands is now Las Cienegas National Conservation Area which we all can visit.

Yet these images show a time gone by, when the big cattle ranches reigned, and then died as water receded, and the demand of beef declined.

Perhaps we live in a more enlightened time. But, that remains to be seen. Will we remember the lessons of the past, or are we doomed to repeat mistakes with forgotten memories?

The ghosts of the land whisper to us. What are they telling us?

One whose spirit speaks to me is Aldo Leopold: “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

When the cows and the buffalo roamed…