An excerpt from the anthology Turning Points: Discovering Meaning and Passion in Turbulent Times
In the early ’70s, in an Earth Science class at Iowa State University, I found out that others were concerned about the health of the Earth. They essentially said that our planet was on the cusp of crisis. Ecologically we were out of balance and heading for worse. I had already intuited this; my soul had known it for some time, but it somehow helped to know that there were people out there not only demonstrating for peace but working to enlighten our culture about the Earth.
Scientists like Wes Jackson in Kansas, who founded The Land Institute, was working on perennial crops to feed our gargantuan appetites, and Francis Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, who spoke for the U.N. Health organization at a huge symposium, explained that there was enough food for all, that it was about what we ate and who had access to food for a healthful diet. Barbara Kingsolver put in her talent, and Edward Abby, Alice Walker, Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, Joni Mitchell — so many great talents — were taking up the fight. It was heady and it was right. There is a higher power than governments, a higher law, and social and ecological justice spoke to the journey I was already on.
In 1980 I was finally free to join wholeheartedly in the back-to-the-land movement, Five Acres and Independence, living simply, lovingly with the Earth and each other in community. For nearly 20 years I lived and worked and bartered. Stained glass or other artwork paid dentist and doctor bills for me and my family. We home schooled, and shared this undertaking with other families with similar life views. We traded our work for any food I couldn’t grow. We worked toward a 10-year moratorium against mining in Wisconsin; we worked for fair wages for all and for food that reflected the real price of freshly picked ripe, organic food. It was good and whole and right.
In 1998, my husband no longer wanted to be married and to keep the old house we had so lovingly restored to beauty. This was a major life-changing event, resulting in me moving back to Iowa State to finish a graduate degree, teaching a full load of three classes, living and renting in town, and becoming a single mom.
How did I combine my passion for the beloved Earth with my belief that for every act of social injustice there were acts of ecological injustice that laid the groundwork for all future abuse? (One only has to look at the coal and oil industries, the burgeoning power of Monsanto, the abuses of migrant workers in Florida and elsewhere. Desecration of the Earth for profit is killing us.)
As a longtime Quaker, I was comfortable with silence and self-questioning, with group discernment and testimonies of peace, simplicity and integrity, and with the belief that the sacred exists in each person and in all beings sharing this planet, so I started there.
I was so fortunate that educators like Peter Elbow and his famous “free-writing” and Parker Palmer were writing and lecturing. While there was the insanity of Bush-ites in education, there was also another revolution brewing in teachers’ hearts. I taught writing, all kinds of writing and literature, and while I seldom mentioned politics, I deliberately chose short stories by Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Louise Erdrich, essays by Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez, Sigurd Olson, Wendell Berry, Susan Griffin, poetry by W.S Merwin, Adrienne Rich and William Heyen. These essays were genuinely well written by well-respected authors and they were in the textbooks, so if I pulled them out to use as models of good description, good use of concrete examples, of balance with ethos, pathos, logos, of argument or persuasion, of whatever a particular course called for, who could fault me? I am a good teacher and I was doing my job.
If, on the other hand, there was a sub-text going on, I admitted it. Peter Elbow gave me — and all educators — the right to pull silence into our classrooms. We would start simply. I would tell my students that these exercises were graded according to ability to think critically, to be able to support an argument or idea with facts, good examples, with thorough reasoning. I did not take off for punctuation or spelling or even lack of organization. Just write, I’d tell them, without phones or music, starting at five minutes, eventually working up to 20 or more when developing more organized drafts.
We read “Sr. Flowers” by Maya Angelou. We analyzed her excellent use of description, i.e., lips the color of ripe plums, her house with gently blowing soft white curtains and the scent of cinnamon from the thin, crisp, lightly browned cookies sitting on the table. We talked about how and why Sr. Flowers was so important to this young child. Then we followed with the prompt, known in Quaker circles as a query. Have you had mentors in your life? Who? Write only what you are comfortable with having me and others read and no examples of drug use or explicit sex (I’d usually get a laugh with that). But what, I’d ask, did this person teach you and why does it matter now? Will you hand this on? Write down the prompts and go with any or all or bits and pieces. It’s your creative and critical thinking I am interested in.
Silence, writing, some groaning and moaning at first, a little outright rebellion which I told them to write about respectfully. Eventually this became an expected part of class and if other teachers weren’t doing things this way, well, I was heartily supported by any and all contemporary magazines and programs from on high. We did some incredible writing and it was an uphill battle because I had ended up teaching in a Bible-belt, shelled-out mining community, rife with orange, dead, clogged streams from mine run-off, lack of education or respect for education, almost a fear of it, along with high unemployment and unsafe, low paying jobs, no health insurance, the highest incidence of familial abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse in the state of Iowa.
I was accused of being a witch (a fireable offense there — it would just be called something else) and of being a femi-Nazi. I was backed against the wall of the Post Office and yelled at for putting up an Obama sign in my yard. Often I heard gun shots at night and my dog learned quickly who was on meth when they banged on my door at night. While I was respected professionally, my work to educate city councils was met with anger, the mayor calling me a “goddam hippy chick and outsider” to boot. He also accused me of using “professor language” and that I wasn’t a bit better than him, etc. Of course, I do want to admit, and with a smile, that after a year or two of dealing with me, and a little smokin’ out in my driveway, he actually asked me to be his running mate for city council, said I was probably the best one they ever had, and kind of hinted that he was sorry he had put up so much resistance at first. He added, “Who’d a thunk it? An old hippy chick and an old biker…and we’re a darn good team.” But by then I was ill and moving on.
So my journey took some radical, sometimes difficult, turns and changes. I had two wonderful years of teaching at a small private college where my colleagues were talented educators and writers, where they considered it part of the job to write, and we were given support in doing this. But I was having health issues and I’d had to commute too far, so I had ended up coming back to the little junior college where I had been before, where academic excellence was a phrase they might have heard somewhere but did not practice (pass the ball players, no matter what, or pass your colleague’s lazy son if you don’t want to be ostracized, and so on). Still, I had started a pre-school reading program that, last I heard, is still going. I had wonderful students that I still value. I had the most beautiful yards and gardens, had restored one acre of prairie, had met wonderful, laugh-filled gorgeous people who had few teeth, went barefoot (most often from choice), who gathered herbs and berries, put up preserves according to season, who invited me to their homes where there might be holes in the floor and a stock tank for bathing in the bathroom, who shoveled my walks in the winter, and who brought roses to plant or lilacs for the table, and who sat on my patio, drank wine, watched the stars come out, and who told stories.
I came to the conclusion over the years that wealth and beauty are inside of us, and that our testimonies are not what we say we believe in. They are what we live, the choices we make. They are what we do.