Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Certified: Science of Joy

I barely slept Friday night, and I had several nightmares. Someone was stalking people who were doing good works and trying to kill us.

Finally I got up and opened the blinds. No rat. Too bad. I'd been looking forward to seeing him again. The wren was there, though. Or another wren, inches from the window and looking straight at me, tail pointing straight up, looking like the half of a "W".

I had a frozen breakfast again. Something about microwaved food always tastes dead to me. We don't have a microwave at home, but I'm glad for them on the road. I figured a couple of days of microwaved food wasn't going to hurt me.

I took my sheets off the bed and cleaned up the room and bathroom. I had decided to leave a night early. After class I planned on driving home to see my sweetie.

I stepped out into another bright sunny day. It wasn't supposed to be as hot today as it had been yesterday. I looked at my google map and then I started on my journey to a park near the water where everyone from my integrative environmental science class was supposed to meet. After a couple of blocks, I couldn't follow the map any more: 45th street was closed. I was stumped. I had no idea which way to go. I pulled off the road and called Mario. He gave me instructions and off I went again.

The road that was supposed to take me through to the park turned into a different road. I drove around a neighborhood. Lost. I couldn't keep calling Mario. He didn't mind, but geez Louise, I felt like a big baby. I promised myself I would get a map of Seattle before the next residency.

Then I pulled off the side of the road, found my teacher's phone number, and I called her. She kept me on the phone and gave me instructions until I saw her in the near distance waving me toward them.

What a sweetie.

The rest of the class, about fifteen of them, stood in the shade of some trees. I parked the car in the bright sun. No trees in the parking lot. It was going to be a very sunny hot day. No clouds in sight.

The park had been a naval base until the seventies. Now the land had many uses with different venues, including several athletic fields and a wetlands project. We were there to explore the wetlands.

A couple people from my permaculture class said hello to me. That was a good start. I looked around as we waited. Huge brick buildings to the north of us. (I think it was north.) Must have been barracks. I hangar to the east of us. To the west stretched the various ball fields.

A bunch of us went into the hangar to use their restrooms. We had to walk down a long ugly hallway. Judging from this hallway, it didn't look like the place was in very good shape. I felt like I was one of the Ghost Hunters come to explore a haunted insane asylum. Near the bathrooms, a flea market filled a hangar.

I went back outdoors. I still wasn't very grounded, so my observation skills were shot. A nice breeze cooled down the day a bit.

Before long, we started our hike. We went around soccer practice fields where the grass was fake and plastic. I hoped underneath the fake grass wasn't concrete. That would hurt like hell.

Eventually we left the soccer fields behind and went by swales, some with water in them, some nearly dry. Before the base was built, the area had been a peat bog. But the bog was long ago destroyed and thousands of years of nature building the peat bog couldn't be replicated. Instead, they tore up the concrete and were now trying to build new wetlands. To me, the whole place had an artificial feel to it. But then I grew up at the edge of a marsh in Michigan. This was a new project and it hadn't had time to fill out.

I admire people who can look at a building, room, or a piece of land and be able to imagine what it could be like. I've never been very good at that. I hoped to develop those skills as I worked on my own designs, starting with the one in my permaculture class.

We gathered under a small pavilion with bleachers. The gardener for the wetlands and the head of one of the volunteer organizations talked to us about the long process of creating the wetlands.

As they talked, young crows called out all around us from the cottonwoods that surrounded us. I loved cottonwood trees. When I was sick many years ago, I used to walk to a cottonwood on state property near our house. It was so big I couldn't put my arms all the way around it. I had many long conversations with that cottonwood about the state of the world.

Then the state rented the land out to a rancher, and his cattle trampled the ground all around the tree, muddying the earth and making it difficult to get to the tree. I always wondered if the tree minded. Even now when I go hiking in that area, I stop and say hello to the tree. It's like visiting an old friend.

I saw a hummingbird whizzing here and there beyond the pavilion. On the path to the pavilion from the trail, an adult crow walked, lurching back and forth, reminding me of a bow-legged sheriff. "Hey, pardner, new in town?"

The breeze through the trees felt nice. I didn't really care what the speakers were saying. I just wanted to listen to the trees and birds and watch the interaction of the wildlife around us.

At one point, one of the students (who lived on a reservation near Seattle) told us that to his people, the cottonwood tree "is the tree of life and it never dies."

"If it falls down," he said, "other trees grow up from it. It never dies."

I thought he was talking about a nurse log. When a tree falls and dies in the forest, the log acts as nourishment for saplings to grow up from it. It's remarkable to walk through an old forest and see fifty year old trees growing up from the decomposing body of another tree. A visible testament to the cycle of life.

We eventually went for a walk through the wetlands. The gardener talked. I couldn't hear what she said most of the time because I was far back. After a while, I didn't care what she was saying. It got hot, and she and the others stood out in the sun. I backed away and found shade whenever I could.

I kept wondering why we were out here on such a hot and sunny day. Shouldn't we have rescheduled this? Not be so tied to a timetable? Everyone was miserable.

We got off the trail and walked through tall grass. I kept hearing a red-winged blackbird. That sound always reminds me of home. The marsh started at the edge of our property out in the country near Brighton, Michigan. When you look out into a Michigan marsh, you typically see tall blond grasses and cattails, particularly near the transition between forest or field and marsh. And then like an amazingly beautiful black light with a spot of red are the red-winged blackbirds perched on the swaying cattails.

The gardener stopped to talk about something--I couldn't hear what--and someone asked about pesticides or "invasive" plants or something. I heard the gardener say they did sometimes use pesticides at the park. I thought, shit, have I been walking around somewhere they've used pesticides? (Later someone told me they'd seen signs warning of pesticide use. I had somehow missed them.)

Chemical pesticides are a line drawn in the sand for me. The amount of damage these chemicals do, along with chemical fertilizers, cannot be underestimated. Last time I checked 60% of the air in the United States was contaminated with pesticides. Up to 75% of homes may be permanently contaminated with pesticides (from termite treatments).

People and pets regularly bring pesticides into homes and buildings, even when the homeowner doesn't use pesticides, just from walking in the neighborhood past homes or lawns where these chemicals are used.

Many pesticides contain neurotoxins. This means it poisons the nervous system. Pesticides are most damaging to children and pets. (Because they are smaller and their systems run faster, so they get more into their systems quicker.)

In homes where chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used on the lawns, studies show that animals have dramatically higher incidences of cancer.

I could go on, but the research is so mindlessly depressing. Knowing what we know, why do people still use them? How did everyone get so sold on these harmful chemicals?

Over the last thirty years, I've heard every argument for using them. I don't buy any of them. If they worked so effectively, THEY WOULDN'T HAVE TO KEEP USING THEM.

So when I heard this park gardener used pesticides, I lost interest in her and in the park. I didn't want to be judgmental, but come on. Saying you use a little bit of pesticides is like saying you're a little bit pregnant. Or more accurately, it's like saying, "I'm only going to use a little neurotoxin."

We finally ended up at a small copse of trees. I could see inside darkness, coolness. The gardener let us go inside a few at a time. I was at the end of the group so I stepped into the shade and semidarkness and stayed for a bit with a couple of other people. A huge root grew above ground from one of the cottonwood tree. It lay on the ground like a downed tree. From this root grew several cottonwood saplings. Just like the man had said. I stood next to him and his friend and we marveled at the sight. The root was acting as a nurse tree. The cottonwood tree itself looked healthy, growing so close to another cottonwood that they looked like conjoined twins.

For the first time I felt connected to the place and to the few people who had stayed behind with me. I was sorry to leave this little nursery.

After a while, after hours of the heat and the sun and not being able to hear the speaker, I was ready to leave. I had to get my packing done and get out of my room during our hour lunch break.

I left the group a few minutes early and hurried back to the car. I got more directions from Mario. And I got lost several times. I finally ended up on the right track. I found a food co-op and went inside. I was wobbly from the sun and lack of food or water or something--hopefully not from pesticide poisoning--so I went back to my car and just drove to my room.

I got some food and took it into my room and stripped down again. I was so hot and sweaty. I felt depressed, tired, sad. Alone.

I put on clean clothes, loaded up my car, said goodbye to the place, and headed to school. I got lost. But instead of calling Mario, I just kept driving. Eventually I found the highway. It was packed with cars. It was Saturday. Where was everyone going? I made it to school. Parked in the shade and went into the building. It was hot and stuffy inside.

I asked someone at the desk if the AC was still broken. She said, "No, it's just a hot building."

I said, "I didn't sign up for that."

I was paying a lot of money for this experience. I expected the building to be in good working order.

I don't remember a lot of what we did that afternoon. It was hot. Everyone was uncomfortable. Was this how the world was going to end? Our brains fried from global warming?

We got into groups and talked about our experience at the park. I didn't want to start out this class or these relationships by being critical, and I told the teacher this. I hadn't been thrilled with our jaunt in the park. Since coming out West, my experience had been that people did not like hearing the truth if it sounded critical or what they called "negative." People generally wanted to pretend everything was great.

How could we make changes for the better if people didn't acknowledge the truth?

The teacher wanted me to tell my truth.

So when it came around for us to talk about our experiences, my group said that the park didn't seem like a true wetland. It was almost more like a tourist stop. A zoo for wetlands.

And then I mentioned the pesticides.

People around the room began defending the gardener. "She doesn't have enough help so she has to do that." "Maybe she's only using them for a little while." "She's regulated. She has to do it." "She only uses a little bit." On and on.

I was surprised. We were in a program to bring about change, creative change and to figure out sustainable ways to be in the world; yet most of them seemed to have swallowed the "we must use pesticides" mantra hook, line, and sinker.

The teacher said, "Look at it from the viewpoint of the people who go to this place. My child sees that sign and I have to explain what a pesticide is and then she wants to touch the plant or the place and I have to tell her she can't because that's a neurotoxin." And a neurotoxin could fry her little brain and nervous system.

I said, "And this isn't about this particular gardener. I've been doing this work for thirty years and I've heard all of this before. What we need to be doing is looking at things from a different perspective. Imagine you are running these wetlands and chemical pesticides didn't even exist, what would you do? Re-envision choices and methods."

The teacher backed me up. It was the first time in decades, maybe ever, that I felt like someone in the know was on my side about the pesticide issue (besides Mario). Most people react about pesticides the same way all the students in the class did. The teacher very adroitly pointed out that there was no "little bit" that rendered pesticides harmless. By their very nature, they are harmful.

We were all supposed to team up to do an environmental project together. Since I lived so far away, I decided to do it alone. That separated me from the group again, but trying to coordinate a project like this from two hundred miles away seemed like too much work at this point.

I was glad I'd come. I felt like I'd made an ally. But I was ready to go home. While the other students talked about their projects, I left.

I was soon in my car heading for home.

I reflected on the weekend as I drove.

I was surprised how hard it had been. How isolated I'd felt. How strange the city felt.

I was also surprised to find out how much I already knew. Because I've felt like I've failed at so many causes (because I hadn't made any big changes), I figured I must not know very much. Or not enough.

And yet I did know a great deal. I already instinctively tried to garden and live my life in a very permaculture way--trying to build relationships and guilds, trying not to cause harm, trying to create sustainable abundance.

I had been viewing myself as a failure for so long that I wasn't able to see what extraordinary things I have done.

In my novel Jigsaw Woman, the inquisitor says to Keelie at one point, "One day you will be on your knees before me!" She says, "Never!" even though she knows he is right. She keeps standing up. She keeps doing the work. She keeps doing what she thinks is right for the greater good.

I do that. That is my great strength.

I fail and I try again.

I fail and I try again.

Maybe I don't even fail. Maybe it just doesn't work out the way I think it should.

I am flawed, but I don't let it stop me. I am ridden by my fears, but I am trying to learn to ride them.

Mario once said to me, "You feel like you're a failure because you haven't won the Nobel peace prize or something." He was exactly right. He just shakes his head. It would never occur to him that he could change the world or do anything so meaningful that someone would give him a Nobel peace prize. Or something like that.

When I was nineteen, I was suicidal. In fact, I tried to kill myself. Took a blade and tried to slice into the veins on my arm. Fortunately it hurt, so I didn't get very deep or very far. The scar is gone now, and I can't remember which arm it was. But I did it because I felt that I hadn't achieved enough. I was nineteen and I hadn't won a Pulitzer.

Plus I was living in a house with several other women who barely spoke to me. It was quite isolating.

I felt like I hadn't achieved enough. I wasn't good enough. I let all these opportunities for greatness slip away.

Afterward, when I didn't die, I moved into a little attic apartment in Ypsilanti by myself. I went for weeks barely saying a word to anyone, even though I was going to school and working. One night I dreamed a watery nymph (who looked like Carol Kane) came and made love to me. When I woke up, I knew I had started to heal. (Maybe she was the first Old Mermaid.)

I have always had high expectations for myself. I think when you are given much, much is expected. If I am so lucky to have this amazing life, I want to do whatever I can to give back.

Now as I drove away from Seattle, I thought it was pretty good that I had completed my first two residencies, even though it had been extremely physically uncomfortable and emotionally isolating.

I called nearly everyone in my family from the car. I don't usually use the telephone while driving. I did so now with both hands on the wheel and a bud in my ear. I couldn't get a hold of anyone except one brother-in-law. My sister was sleeping, so he and I talked for a long time.

I told him about my permaculture class. We talked about gardening. When he lived in Michigan, he'd made part of his yard into a garden. He remembered years ago when someone in Michigan had made their whole yard into a garden and his neighbors took him to court because they didn't like it. They all wanted the manicured lawns (which are an English invention--a way for the poor person to emulate the lord's manor). Fortunately the man won the court case and kept his food garden yard.

I told my brother in law that if people turned their lawns into food gardens, we could probably end global warming over night. Do that and overthrow the corporatocracy and we'd be laughing.

I talked about all the social and environmental good a food garden instead of a lawn would do, and my brother in law said, "It's just a lot of fun."

I thought, oh yeah, I gotta remember the fun part.

By this time I was about an hour from home. The sun had started to set and the light was golden all around me. I breathed deeply as I looked at the sun on the trees. I was nearing home.

I told my brother in law that the battery was almost out on the phone. "I better get going," I said. "I love you."

"You, too, kiddo," he said.

I hung up and turned on the radio. I sang to some rock 'n roll song as I drove. I felt peaceful and happy.

Soon I was heading East down the gorge. I grinned when I saw Mount Hood. Home, home, home. The mountain was encircled by pink clouds. For some reason it reminded me of the rings of Saturn.

The road curved, the mountain disappeared from view, the trees grew up on either side of me. I felt joy rising in my bones. I was nearly home. I felt a lump in my throat. I loved the Columbia River Gorge. I loved the huge regal stone faces on the south side of the gorge. I loved Beacon Rock on the north side, the inner remnant of a long ago volcano. It felt like a beacon for home, every time I saw it, resting on the edge of the Columbia River. "This way home, Kim; this way home."

At Cape Horn, above the gorge, the river faded away into the east, with Beacon Rock, the trees, and rock faces all becoming almost blue, like silhouettes in a Japanese painting.

Coming down the hill, I was driving too fast. A sheriff's deputy stopped me. She must have seen I was tired. Or something. I apologized and said, "I'm just coming back from Seattle and trying to get home to my husband."

She let me go with a warning.

And then I was home. There was our little yellow rented house. The daisies were drooping from the heat. The poppies were all closed up. The white morning glories had started twisting up the poppies, choking them. The edges of some of the blue hydrangea blossoms were scorched brown from the heat and sun.

Mario came down the steps with his arms open. We hugged.

I was so glad and grateful to be home.

Late that night, my brother in law had a brain bleed. My sister rushed him to the hospital where they immediately did brain surgery.

After I got the news, I kept thinking of my last conversation with him and hoped it would not be my last conversation with him. All that I had endured that weekend--which was fairly minor compared to so many things--seemed trivial. All I cared about now was that my brother in law was all right. That my sister was all right.

And I wanted to remember to have fun, to be joyful.

That's what my brother in law had said about it all. "It's just fun."

Perhaps that was the best kind of environmental science: the science of joy.

I could learn to be a scientist for joy. And then when my brother was well, I'd show him what he had started. That would put a smile on his face.

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All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.