The Radical Act of Hope

In the final Saturday panel at the Geography of Hope conference last weekend in Point Reyes Station, California, one speaker said something to the effect that “hope” was worthless in the face of the catastrophe of global climate change. That we couldn’t sit around and simply hope things would get better, we needed to act in bold ways, to make radical changes, and we needed to act now. I agree that we need to act in bold ways and now.

River of Hope created at the end of the conference. Graphics by Laurie Durnell & Kathy Evans of The Grove Consultants, Intl.; Sirima Sataman of Ink.Paper.Plate Studio

River of Hope Declaration. Graphics by Laurie Durnell & Kathy Evans of The Grove Consultants, Intl.; Sirima Sataman of Ink.Paper.Plate Studio

Global climate change is happening faster than we figured, and it urgently asks us to re-imagine our relationship to each other and to this earth. It asks, as did the “River of Hope” declaration created from words and phrases supplied by attendees, what/who we love too much to lose (a feeling), and what we will do to defend what/who we love (an action).

I do not agree that “hope” is necessarily a worthless concept, one that gives us permission to be complacent in the midst of the need for action. I couldn’t articulate why at that point though.

I thought about hope and why I believe it is relevant to our response to global climate change on my long trek home from western Marin County, first back to San Francisco to spend time with Molly and Mark, who are part of the family I love too much to lose, even as I am vividly aware from personal experience that their lives could end at any moment.

Louella, chalking ephemeral words….

I continued thinking about that rejection of hope as a useful response to global climate change as I drove south to meet my friend Louella at a park on the shores of an estuary near Redwood City.

Louella brought a box of sidewalk chalk with her so we could write haiku. We picked a prominent stretch of walking/biking path, composed our haiku, and proceeded to “write large.”

We ran the words of one haiku down a hill the way a stream of water would run.

winter that was not
rain comes late–dissolving
ephemeral words

Dissolving....

Haiku writ large….

Our scribing a haiku on the path in a public park was an expression of desire, an incantation for rain in the face of California’s catastrophic drought. On the surface, it’s hopeful in the sense the speakers at the Geography of Hope conference vocally disdained.

But if that haiku becomes a way to interpret the urgency of the drought and climate change, the urgency of our making changes in our individual and collective lives, then the haiku is a beginning, a catalyst. It becomes “hope” in the active sense.

I believe in hope as an active practice. A practice that allows us to create positive change in our lives through our actions, small and large. I believe in the enduring power of the kind of hope Emily Dickinson wrote about in “Hope is the Thing With Feathers (314)“:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -

Mojave Desert annual wildflower, another 'ki I love to much to lose.

Mojave Desert annual wildflower, another ‘ki I love to much to lose.

I believe in that never stopping, that persistence. That through the active practice of continuing to love this world and ‘ki community of lives, human and so many more, we can make the kinds of difficult shifts we need to respond to global climate change and other crises.

Love, as I wrote in The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes & Sandhill Cranes, my little book with photographer Glenn Oakley, is our species’ best gift:

What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life.

The new moon and Venus tonight--and I love this world too much to lose any of these kin....

The new moon and Venus tonight–and I love this world too much to lose any of these kin….

If acting in a hopeful way unleashes the fierce and radical power of that deep, never-stopping terraphilic love for this battered planet and the lives we share ‘ki with, let’s make use of it. Hope as a spur for action–bring it on!

Road-trip Report: Windshield Time and New Ideas

I left Salida 12 days ago, headed for the Central California Coast, and returned last night after driving 3,300 miles through parts of five states, six Indian nations (I may have missed some–my apologies), five national parks, and seven bio-regions.

Imagine Red and I following that squiggly pink line from southcentral Colorado south and west on the outbound journey to California, and north and east (the top line) coming back. (Map from Mapquest, line drawn in Skitch.)

Red and I followed that squiggly pink line from the intersection of US 50 and 285 in south-central Colorado south and west on the outbound journey to California, and north and east coming back. (I drew the line in Skitch.)

It was too much driving for twelve days, but that was the time I had to make the trip, and I did my best to use the windshield time (and the fossil fuel Red consumed) well and thoughtfully.

Along the way I camped and stayed with friends (thanks, Doris & Bill, Terry & Steve, Sharon & Jeff, and Laura & Sarah); interviewed people who work with, write about, and think about plants for the next book; spent time with Molly and her sweetie Mark in San Francisco, and in one very long day, Molly and I drove to Monterey and south along the Big Sur Coast with friend Laura, spreading some of Richard’s ashes in two spots he loved on our favorite stretch of ocean coast.

"Watch for the onshore breeze!" says Laura, just as some of Richard playfully blows back toward me at Otter Cove, near Carmel Highlands.

“Watch for the onshore breeze!” says Laura, just as some of Richard playfully blows back toward me at Otter Cove, near Carmel Highlands. Photo: Molly Cabe

As I do when I drive anywhere, I thought about the landscapes I passed through from the perspective of a plant ecologist who considers and writes about the relationships that interweave humans and the rest of the community of the land–nature.

That swath of yellow in this Mojave Desert basin is a carpet of annual wildflowers abuzz with tiny native bees, even though the flowers will only last for a few short weeks and may not appear again for years.

That swath of yellow in this Mojave Desert basin is a carpet of annual wildflowers abuzz with tiny native bees.

For instance, while crossing the Mojave Desert, I wondered how the native bees know to find those annual wildflowers during the two weeks they bloom every several years. (It’s an important question, especially in light of how global climate change could break these critical natural relationships: no bees, no pollination and thus no seeds, which provide food for the desert songbirds and other lives as well as flowers the next time the winter rains come, resulting in an impoverished desert.)

An important reason for the timing of the trip was to participate in Geography of Hope, a conference put on every two years by Point Reyes Books north of San Francisco.

Driving across the Golden Gate bridge on the way to the conference, a bridge named for the "golden" slopes of the hills that once glowed with billions of California poppies in spring. Let's replant the poppies and re-gild those hills!

Driving across the Golden Gate bridge on the way to the conference, a bridge named for the “golden” slopes of the hills that once glowed with billions of wild California poppies in spring. Let’s restore the poppies and re-gild those hills!

I am still cogitating about what I took away from the conference, which included talks and panels by some of my favorite writers and thinkers, including Potowatomi scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer (Gathering Moss), philosophy professor and author Kathleen Dean Moore (Holdfast), poet Robert Hass, eco-feminist writer Susan Griffin (Women and Nature), filmmaker and author Gretel Ehrlich (a fellow Wyomingite), author and cultural geographer Carolyn Finney (Black Faces, White Spaces), eco-literature scholar and professor Priscilla Solis Ybarra, among others.

Robin Wall Kimmerer responded to the conference question “What does Earth ask of us?” (especially related to the crisis of climate change) with the idea of reciprocity, working at restoring both our relationship with the earth and restoring the planet itself.

As a beginning to restoring our relationship, she talked about the troubling grammar of the English language, which refers to Earth and the other beings we share this planet with through the dehumanizing “it.” (Read more of Wall Kimmerer’s ideas around that question, and also of Kathleen Dean Moore, here.)

Indian paintbrush on the Big Sur coast, some of my plant kin.

Indian paintbrush on the Big Sur coast, some of my plant kin.

Wall Kimmerer proposed a new word from a Potawatomi root, ki, which she pronounced “chee.” (With a hard ‘ch,’ so maybe closer to ‘key’ or somewhere between the two.) Instead of calling the chickadee I just watched flit by, “it,” for instance, I’d refer to the small songbird as “ki” and the plural, she suggested, as “kin.” I wanted to stand up and clap right then. I’ve always struggled with having to refer to other beings and the Earth itself as the de-personal “it.” You can trash an “it,” but it’s harder to lay waste to a planet or being you call “kin.”

It seems to me that it’s more than time for a reciprocal relationship with the earth, for a radical rethinking of our bonds with and our gifts to our mother planet and its web of lives, starting with language. I’m resolved to abolish “it” from my lexicon related to living beings and the earth, starting now, and adopting ki and the plural, kin.

This could make for interesting conversation with my editors, but that’s okay. As Richard would say, it’s a teachable moment. Any crisis is.

And speaking of kin, here's Molly and me in San Francisco. Love you, sweetie!

And speaking of kin, here’s Molly and me in San Francisco. Love you, sweetie!