The Paddler’s Planet by Christian Wagley
Last week a group of us gathered on our local beach for Hands Across the Sand—an international event in which participants hold hands at the water’s edge in silent protest against drilling for oil and gas and in support of clean energy from wind and sun. As we begin the transition away from dirty fossil fuels, it was a great reminder of how people can come together to build the community of change.
Any event takes the work of lots of people to make it happen, and there’s great joy in seeing people work well together in all the little parts of a larger action. For the Hands event I was part of an advance team that arrived early and staked our claim to several beach pavilions and put out the signs marking the location. We then relaxed for a bit and enjoyed the crashing waves of a windy spring day.
The next group of volunteers came with more signs and food and beverage—staples of most any successful event. More people filtered-in throughout the morning, and we made sure to try to greet those we didn’t know so that they would feel welcome. A solar panel was setup as an iconic backdrop for the event that gave a big “YES” to clean energy.
Our good friends from Sassafrass–a popular Gulf coast folk duo—arrived to sing their very special songs about protecting our natural world. And these were special songs indeed, as lyrics flowed through phytoplankton, dirty coal, white pelicans, and tar sands.
About 60 people came—less than in previous years when the devastating BP oil tragedy was fresh on minds. But they still came, preserving an annual event that keeps the dangers of dirty energy in mind as energy companies move closer to seeking permission to drill off the Florida coast.
And they ate, talked, shared stories of environmental activism, and enjoyed the Gulf view from the shade of the pavilions. They made new friends, shared information, and strengthened bonds with those they already knew.
A spirited contingent from our local Democratic women’s club kept things lively, and an environmentalist family arrived with a toddler in tow—the next generation getting ready for action. The owner of a local solar energy company who always supports our events was given the stage to talk about the burgeoning revolution in solar energy. He told us he was a Republican and he hopes that’s OK with everybody. I reminded him that it takes people from every place on the political spectrum to transition our society to our clean energy future, so of course it was OK.
I had the honor of being the main speaker. I spoke about how we can transition our homes and neighborhoods to a clean energy future by building right-sized housing and bringing our daily needs nearby in communities that are made safe and pleasant for walking and bicycling.
A few minutes before noon we all walked together onto the beach, many carrying signs advocating for our clean energy future and warning against dirty fossil fuels. We gathered in a line a few steps from the edge of the Gulf. At noon we reached out to those on both sides of us and joined hands—a simple and beautiful act that brings people closer in a way that humans have done for thousands of years.
With joined hands we stood silently in quiet contemplation of our beloved Gulf and the need to transition to a clean energy future. There were young and old, musicians and artists, a county commissioner, paddlers and surfers, business owners, Democrats and Republicans—all in perfect unison.
My favorite moment came when an African American family enjoying a day at the beach rose from their towels and joined hands with us. It was a great reminder that as the many ethnic groups gain full access to the opportunity that made America the land of plenty, they are able to expand their concerns beyond the basic everyday ones to the longer term need to maintain a living planet.
After 15 minutes we released hands and let out a celebratory cheer. Everyone was smiling and festive as we walked back to the pavilions and shared more ideas about how to move our community forward.
While next year’s event is a year away, we will continue to build bonds and raise awareness about ending our addiction to dirty fossil fuel energy and moving to a cleaner and better future. And the memory of how we came together and worked together to join hands will sustain our hard work to build the community of change.
The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about nature, and he told me why he loved it, “Nature is filled with beauty, with art, with nuances that can evoke feelings of calm, hope, serenity, and is the handiwork of God around us. It offers us glimmers of the perfect paradise we have lost, and hope for a future where we can once more dwell in a perfect garden.” His answer was profound, and it got me thinking about why I love nature.
Nature is healing. The word heal comes from the Old English word hāl—which is also the root word for “whole.” To heal means to make one whole again. And how does nature heal? We humans come from nature, it is our original home. Ecology, the branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, was coined from Greek words that mean “the study of home.” When I am out walking through the woods or even just contemplating my backyard through a window-view, interacting with nature is a reminder of who I am and where I came from. It is also a reminder to me that I share the Earth with other species. When I see swallowtail kites soaring overhead, monarch butterflies flitting to and fro in my garden, and bug-eyed frogs staring at me from the porchlight, I realize that these species are part of my world, and I am part of theirs. Together we are made whole. The sum is greater than its parts, and it is through the great web of life that we all flourish.
Sometimes the world that we humans have built for ourselves stresses me out—causes little rips, tears, fissures; it is then that I turn to nature to heal my broken soul. Rocks don’t beep or honk at me. Flowers don’t yell expletives or slander me. I can walk up to a tree and sit down at its base and rest assured that it won’t reach down with a limb and intentionally strike me. The oldest consistent rhythm in existence is that of nature. The beat of the seasons, the beat of moonrises and sunsets. The beat of flower growing, trees dying, and of all the world constantly being born anew. This consistency is comforting and calming.
Nature also humbles me. Living in Florida, thunderstorms and hurricanes are both frightening due to their destructive force. And yet there is a paradox: out of the destruction comes new life. Thunderstorms bring rejuvenating rain; the parched Earth drinks heartily of this life-giving liquid and seemingly dead plants grow and become reborn. Resurrection ferns. A hurricane roils through an area and people call it an act of God. Nature reminds me of forces larger than myself, and I think of the lines from the old hymn:
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Truly, it is in nature that we see forces at work that are awe-inspiring. Exploding stars in the heavens above and rumbling volcanoes from the ground below put our tallest spires and most magnificent vessels to shame; mere tinkerings that they are.
Humility comes from the Latin root humus, which means dirt. To be humble is to remember where we came from—Dust Thou Art and Dust Shalt Thou Return. We Are Earth. When I love nature, I love myself. And this is how you heal yourself and become whole again.
How does nature relate to poetry? How does the world around us relate to the words of poetry and prose? In a sense, words aren’t “real.” Instead, they are like maths: Can you smell the square root of 9? What does pi taste like (I guess it depends if it’s cherry or apple!)? Words are symbols, hieroglyphs, the penultimate metaphors. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
When you interact with the world around you there are any number of ways to relate to it using words. On the one side of the spectrum, you can reject the words in lieu of experiencing nature directly. This is the Way of Zen Buddhism.
For example, when you see a spray of jasmine, the Zen Buddhist will encourage you to walk up to it and cast aside the terms you have for the object in front of you. Don’t think “jasmine.” Don’t see “white.” Don’t smell “sweet.” Cast these words aside and sense the objects and the world around you for yourself.
On the other side of the spectrum are writer and poets who encourage you to use words to understand the world for yourself. In a sense, both are encouraging people to sense the world for themselves using different means. When you experience nature—what do you feel? What does that flower smell like? What does that sunset look like? How would you describe the leaf you are holding in your hand?
For me, when I walk through the garden and see the jasmine, I am admiring the beauty of the flowers before me, and also using words to capture that beauty and press it into my heart. A word cloud appears on the horizon of my mind and my thoughts billow and swirl with words concerning jasmine:
Is this a flower or is this a woman? Jasmine is the name of a beautiful Persian woman who has been transported, transposed, transmogrified in this sticky treacly and wet Floridan environ and is sweating with the heat, the likes of which don’t exist in her desert home. I reach out to touch her and she leans in—her skin is soft and I move my lips close and kiss the flower and rub my nose over her soft and pliable tendrils. Love.
In Leaves of Grass, Whitman calls on us to leave the world of pure symbols gathered in books and to come outdoors to breathe in the original hieroglyphs and experience the world for ourselves and not through the lens of others. In his poem, he disregards the poetry conventions of his age and experiences pastoral New England for himself:
“The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white
and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,…
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads, all
became part of him.”
Nature and Whitman comingle and become one, and the beauty of the poem mirrors the beauty found in nature (and within Whitman himself). Writers use words and the magic of language to cast a spell on objects and pull them closer to our hearts. Words allow us to see the mundane and ordinary world around us as magical and extraordinary. Bippity-Boppity-Boo! Why must a pumpkin be a mere vegetable? Why must a blade of grass be merely a plant in the dirt? Even the most ordinary thing can inspire awe if we but see with our mind’s eye. So go now—shoo! Rediscover the world.
Last week I asked my friends on Facebook this question: What’s your mantra?
Some of the responses were humorous:
“Don’t be a stranger…at least don’t be stranger than me!”
“Happy Wife, Happy Life.”
“Oook oook kachook!”
“There are two types of people in this world: tractor drivers and tractor riders.”
Others used mantras as a way to remind them of the shortness of life:
“Live each day with as few regrets as possible because there is no promise of tomorrow.”
“Every story must have an ending.”
Some people’s mantras were sayings to give comfort when life doles out challenges:
“This too shall pass.”
“Endeavor to persevere.”
“Go with the flow, and ride with the tide.”
And, for some, it was about love:
“Our job as humans is to help one another. It is not to judge whether they are worthy of the help or not.”
“Inhale love, exhale gratitude.”
The reason I asked my friends to share their mantras with me is because I recently changed mine and this topic has been on my mind. For a long time I was focused on logic and wordplay, and the word that I held closest to my mind was “Mu”—no, not like a cow’s moo, but as in the Japanese word that means “nothingness.” I need to provide some context: There is a Zen Buddhist story about a monk who asked the Zen master, Joshu, whether or not a dog has Buddha-nature. Joshu responded with a one-word reply, “Mu.” Literally, the answer could be taken as “no”, but it comes with the connotation of un-asking the question. The whole point of this koan is to shake up our conceptions and ways of thinking about the world. Is that the best way to ask a question? Or is there a better way to ask it? Or should the question even be asked at all? The reason why I relate this anecdote to you is that my Mantra of Mu helped me to discover a new phrase that I now see as being my new mantra, or core guiding principle.
A few months ago I was taking a bath and thinking about who I wanted to be, and what I wanted out of life. I was asking myself that perennial classic question of seekers, “What do I want out of life?” And as I sat there, marinating in the sudsy water, the question struck me as being inherently wrong. “Wait…maybe I should un-ask the question. Why should the life that I have be about me? That’s a rather selfish way of finding meaning for life, isn’t it?” I thought a bit more and splashed some water on my face and wiped my eyes. “Instead of asking what I want—what if I ask what can I give into life? Then what will the answer be?” A lightbulb popped on in my head, and I felt like the path was now illuminated. That’s it! I found the question—or, rather, it found me—what can you give into life, Nic? With that question I could now look at the world around me in a new way and think about how create meaning not just for myself but for others, as well.
The whole reason to have a mantra is to constantly remind yourself of your values and what you want to achieve. Perhaps you need reminders to be more grateful (“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens”), more caring (“Love is patient, love is kind”), or that life is short so each moment is to be treasured (“Carpe Diem” fits that nicely).
So, what’s your mantra?
Standing Up for the Planet by Bob Purdy
Just walking in the door from this weekend’s road trip to Pemberton and the race at Deep Cove! Put on a lot of miles and every one of them I kept thinking how beautiful British Columbia is! I also found myself thinking what lengths we are going to have to go to keep it that way!…
World Paddle for the Planet Day is July 25th. Join us wherever you are in the world or in Enderby British Columbia, Canada! Paddle begins at noon in all time zones.
Be sure to like us on Facebook and check back often for further details.
This year will benefit the Shuswap River Ambassadors