Poet Laureate Draws Inspiration from the Gulf Coast

Natasha Trethewey was named the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate today. Her volume of poetry, Native Guard, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, focuses on the black guard, a group of ex-slaves, who fought for Union forces on Ship Island offshore from Gulf Shores, Mississippi where she was born. These men were the first black troops to fight in the Civil War for the U.S.  Trethewey wrote about them because the Daughters of the Confederacy had eulogized the confederate POWs imprisoned on the island, but did not remember the Native Guard.  She explains how her poetry is about bringing “erasures” in history to the public’s attention.

Ship Island is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore which stretches to Pensacola and Ft. Pickens and on to Ft. Walton Beach.  All along this barrier island chain are remnants of forts that were the early U.S. coastal defense system.  When the Civil War broke over the nation, these forts were fought over for strategic military positions. From Ship Island the Union forces struck New Orleans and destroyed the city.

Threthewey is a thoughtful poet whose writing plays in shades of gray that define the present day South I have personally observed—a region where the civil war is not really over; the voices have just been subdued by law.  At the slightest provocation they emerge as rough and emotional as they must have been when the nation was openly divided. We are like a couple that has said too many bad things; making up is just a temporary truce because the wounds do not heal but smolder underneath the dry branches.

I am looking forward to a year of studying her poetry, and listening to her read hers and other poets works through the Library of Congress Poet Laureate pod casts and lectures. I will create a link on this site that you can grab whenever you next visit my blog, which I hope will be soon!

Ode to a Mountain Cabin

To find a mountain cabin.

To go there to listen, walk the trails, revel in its forest.

To sit among old logs, the musk of ashes from long ago

Winter fires in a large stone hearth.

To be…still.

Thunder, rain, rivulets running down the stones

Converging in pools; to know the rhythm

Of Earth again.

To want to give again,

To feel filled-up in heart as well as mind.

Body waits return of soul.

Reviving “Sense of Place”

When the education community was “atwitter” with the concept of a sense of place (1990s), I was an environmental educator in Arizona.  Much of the theoretical basis for this movement derived from studies that showed increased learning from experiential education (out in nature, hands-on, etc.)  Rachel Carson’s assertion that a child must first form an emotional attachment with nature before he is willing to protect nature is an assumption in the sense of place movement.  A National Endowment for the Humanities article by William R. Ferris (1996) is an excellent statement of the importance of place in human development:

Each of you carries within yourself a “postage stamp of native soil,” a “sense of place” that defines you. It is the memory of this place that nurtures you with identity and special strength, that provides what the Bible terms “the peace that passeth understanding.” And it is to this place that each of us goes to find the clearest, deepest identity of ourselves.

As Ferris explores the critical importance of the arts and humanities in education he offers a ten point plan that addresses the problems we face even now in 2012 (16 years later):

Those in politics have voiced their concern over the impoverishment of American life and values, but no one has found an answer to our problems. I suggest that the solution lies in the indigenous culture about which Alice Walker wrote, the familiar worlds into which we each are born. We must study and understand the worlds that make each of us American and through that journey we will renew American culture.

What is that postage stamp of place that makes you who you are?  Please share more and I also suggest that readers visit the link above to the Ferris article. Other resources to explore are:  Children’s Nature Network, A Sense of Wonder (film), The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich.

American Pubic Media “On Being”

I know that my discovery of “On Being” at 6 am on my local public radio station, WUWF.org, reveals just how out of it a person can be in a world with a cornucopia of media sources. Apparently the program has been broadcasting since 2008! However, humbly, I submit this link to this interview with Terry Tempest Williams.

The recorded podcasts on their main page are a treasure trove of some of our greatest spiritual voices and cultural innovators. This might be a very good way to “reset” your moral compass after a day or week out on Main Street.

Krista Tippett is the moderator. The link above to the unedited discussion with Terry includes many personal statements by both Terry and Krista that give additional insights into their focus and personalities.

I’ve been reading Terry’s books, blogs, and following her activities for the last 15 years. I am convinced that she is on the forward edge of an emerging sensibility that seeks to bring together divergent perspectives in American culture  for open dialogue and understanding. She gives numerous examples of how she personally is able to sit with people who hold opposite points of view and learn from them and stay in the dialogue….

If you read one book by Williams, read Refuge. You will understand then how Terry weaves the deeply personal, landscape, religion, spirituality, politics and the art of dialogue. This perspective might be similar to present and previous Earth – focused cultures  (e.g.  native cultures worldwide; ancient earth-based cultures.) However, what is evident in this interview and many others on the site, is an emergent blend of our best past and present thought. There is a heightened awareness of something much greater than ourselves, the issues at hand, and what we can perceive.

Listen and learn from a person who has learned to stay in the crucible of conflict and transform it into something of beauty….

Oil Spill Perspectives

Most of us have copious information about the oil spill (I think we can agree that GOBS MORE oil is spilling into the Gulf waters than we have been told by BP and by the EPA. Go to links on this blog for more accurate estimates).

The impacts are starting to show up in Louisiana and threatening Alabama and Florida. Things are not static this time of year with the tropical storm season and strong south easterly winds and thus currents. We can only guess what is happening to plankton and all the vulnerable life underneath the surface, out of site. It has to be devastating.

What has been growing in my mind is much greater than the stats on this spill, though important. What I am thinking about is how we make (or don’t get a chance to make) decisions about our technologies, even at the origin when inventors are “out there” thinking up stuff. Right now the values that underpin most of our biggest industries are based on providing a natural resource or product from it that has been evaluated to make a lot of money for its creators and sellers. Our principle is: if it can be made and make money, make it! Figure out later if it is harmful in which case the American citizen or the natural systems that support us will take the blows, and while down, have to wage a near impossible battle to bring the barons to court. Even then there is no certainty justice will be done.

What if there was much more thought on the front end of the process where we carefully consider the impacts on the health and well being of our people and all the wildlife and natural systems that produce health and wealth? And what if we did something revolutionary and base our decisions on a set of conditions that assures we don’t harm the Earth and thus ourselves since we are one community, interlinked?

Consider what Wendell Berry suggests are bad solutions to problems versus a good solution:

“A bad solution is bad because it acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained. It acts destructively upon those patterns most likely, because it is formed in ignorance or disregard of them.” ~ p. 137 The Gift of Good Land

“A good solution is good, on the contrary, “because it is in harmony with those larger patterns.”

Good solutions:

  1. Accept given limits
  2. Accept the limits of discipline (i.e. agricultural problems are solved by agriculture not technology, etc.
  3. Improve the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern
  4. Solve more than one problem
  5. Will satisfy a whole range of criteria
  6. Embody a clear distinction between the biological and the mechanical
  7. Have wide margins
  8. Answer the question, “how much is enough?”
  9. Should be cheap and should not enrich one person by the distress or impoverishment of another
  10. Exist in proof
  11. Imitate the structure of natural systems
  12. Are good for all parts of a system
  13. Preserve the integrity and pattern that contains it
  14. Are in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law~ pp 141-145 Ibid

In 1970 during the oil crisis of that day, President Carter was laughed at for his efforts to develop energy independence by switching to alternatives such as wind, solar, and geothermal sources. What stopped all that effort, removed the electric car from the road?

Simply, greed. Could that be why we have an incredible 3500 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and 1500 miles of pipeline criss crossing the ocean floor in a hurricane prone zone. Follow the money and you will discover the reasons why we do most of what we do in America. Our bottom line is STILL profit. Preoccupation with the market and belief in it, which is a metaphysical movement unnamed as such, is driving us to the edge of environmental degradation after which no one can really predict outcomes – exactly where we are with this oil spill.

See the Lindbergh Foundation website. They support innovative research that establishes a healthy balance between technological development and preservation of the Earth’s ecosystems. Click on each of the funded scientists and educators whose work they are supporting to understand the concept that Wendall Berry was getting at. We need a lot more of this kind of thinking!

Read Barry Lopez to understand what it means to live connected to everything around us, our own nature knit tightly into the fabric of all the creation.

For a very thoughtful article by Joshua Reichert of PEW Environmental Group published in the Miami Herald, “The Future of Oil and Water.”

Failure Is Not An Option


The Apollo Moon Program took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface in 1969. During the third mission to land men on the moon (1970) an explosion left the Apollo crew in grave danger.

The story of Apollo 13 offers an important message for humankind as we face up to climate change: “Failure is not an option.”

These words were uttered by Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director, when he addressed the engineers and scientists responsible for returning the three crewmen to Earth under what appeared to be impossible circumstances and limitations.

As we learn more about the daunting task of reducing carbon emissions well below 1990 levels even while the world’s population grows exponentially, the challenge feels every bit as awesome as that faced by Krantz on that fateful mission.

Kranz advised his team to not be emotional but to “work the problem.” It seems to me that is good advice. We have to cut through the arguments and individual beliefs that each of us holds to create a sustainable human enterprise on Earth.

And like Apollo 13, the clock is ticking for us, too. Beyond a certain point we will not be able to reverse the physical adjustments of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and of living communities most vulnerable to them.

So just how did these scientists and engineers “work the problem?” Well, to begin with they erased the previous flight plans and went back to the drawing board. Then, they looked at what was on hand that could be used in new ways to meet the needs of the moment: “We’ve got to take this square battery pack and make it fit into this round receptacle,” the engineer explained to his team.

And what were they attempting to solve? Chillingly for us, the crew was experiencing a lethal build-up of carbon dioxide on board their small craft, and the engineers were attempting to build a carbon scrubber with the stuff on board the spacecraft.

Cutting through all preconceptions, the team put their heads together and managed to build a new scrubber with a square end that fit into a round hole.

Without being simplistic, much of what we have to do to come together as communities, nations, and international bodies seems just like that: a square peg in a round hole. So far nothing fits very tight.

But here is a simple example of how a great accomplishment was achieved:

  • Work the problem, skip the rhetoric;
  • Gather what is on hand and if necessary use it in new ways that can get us the solutions we seek;
  • Failure is not an option – we do not have the luxury to try this another time, therefore our leaders, social institutions, and citizens must all come to the table with sobriety and willingness to think anew.

Apollo is the Greek god of reason, morality, and maintenance of society. Perhaps in our cultures these have not always been united. Just as the Apollo crew was buoyed by the worldwide prayers and hopes of people and nations, we could look at the human community, and all the living communities that keep us alive and happy, as a crew on an endangered spacecraft that we have got to bring home safely.

Let’s work that problem.

Duma, Ghost Cat – Part I

Yareen made her way down a jagged escarpment on the Sierra Madre plateau, not far from Luis Munõz’s boyhood home. Her ebony and tan flanks rippled through the pale green of manzanita and scrub oak. Falling pebbles, pushed from their earthen beds by her great paws, scattered noisily down the slope ahead of her.

Her mate was roused from an afternoon nap in a tree above her. They greeted each other with low, rolling hellos as she bounded up the tree. Yareen rubbed her head against her mate’s with her golden eyes wide open. They had been together for many sunrises and sunsets. Soon, he would leave her and she would return to a solitary life to birth their cubs. It would be her second time.

They climbed down the tree and followed a path to a big, rock-lined bowl in the stream for a swim. She caught a trout and they shared it. Later they lingered by the water’s edge, where a nearby deer stood immobilized in the brush, caught unawares by their silent arrival. Its breath was barely discernable until the large cats moved away, saved by being upwind of its natural predator.

Earth changes were indeed affecting the sky islands of the jaguars’ home, but this spring it had brought more frequent rain. The streams ran full and cold, and the oak woodlands were a riot of activity as the oaks produced an abundance of acorns on which a host of creatures feasted.

For Yareen, it meant easy access to plumb deer, and plenty of milk for her young cubs when three months later she gave birth to four kittens.

Among them was a large, white cub who startled his mother each time she looked at him. Following her natural instincts, she gave Duma little access to her teats until the cubs she saw as normal had suckled, and often, there was little nourishment left for the largest baby.

And so the white cub weaned earlier than the others and began foraging to survive. Oblivious to his difference, Duma frolicked in the woods that first season of his life, reveling in the joy of being alive on a great, good planet.

Soon, he learned to imitate their mother’s low whistle and practiced the hissing scream that immobilized trembling quarry, though with his were more a yip and a squeak. The furry ball loped over rocky terrain, following Yareen and his siblings at a distance through the scrubby wooded forests, pouncing on the prey his mother wrestled to the ground in a fury of claws and fangs.

Duma’s markings afforded him little camouflage in a region of emerald, umber, and black. Unknowingly, the young cat developed stealth and discernment beyond even the ability of his kind. He would have to be faster, stronger, and develop cunning beyond that of his siblings and mother to survive.

With clear, blue eyes rimmed in red and a ghostly white pelt with telltale rosettes, the pale cat later earned the name “ghost cat.” And so it happened that as the jaguar went about the business of eating, sleeping, and traveling sightings of Duma would spark many colorful legends among the two-leggeds of his time.

The Center of My Heart

I wonder at life’s myriad opportunities to keep learning – from others’ stories, from friends and family, from our own experimental, risk-taking steps.  What prompts us to move beyond ourselves: that glob of preconceptions and messages from the “outside” that we either accept or not? Something pure – the bedrock of who we truly are, that cannot be changed no matter how terrible or traumatic (whether torture drop-by-drop from a critical parent, spouse, or boss nor by one horrendous accident of time or nature) – the deep, authentic soul of us cannot be touched.

We can, at any time, align with the true self. This is a lesson I am learning for myself and it is a good practice to occupy my days and nights.  What I understand is that by plumbing my real feelings,  observing the thought streams and how I respond to things and people around me, I come to truly know that deep self.

Most of us engage in this kind of self-awareness at some point in our lives because it is impossible to live well without the essential knowledge of oneself and a life in accord. Like me, you may have many interludes over your life during which you plumb deeper and reconsider how its going…this Earth Walk.

Albert Schweitzer, a man whose life has been a compass for my own, said this about a person who achieves respect for life: “We come to understand that this life is a precious thing and that to develop it to its fullest is the work of the conscious [person].” ~ Out of My Life and Thought (Henry Holt & Co. 1939)