"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Friday, January 20, 2012

...and ECO-JUSTICE for ALL!

I was “…on the road again” this week. On Thursday morning I saddled up Ruby –my new, less ravenous Honda Element motor mule for the trek. Yes, Beulah May, my beloved GMC pick-up & draught horse,  is resting in the driveway pasture now, having given me almost 300,000 miles of dutiful service, I thought it was time to give her some down time—limit her travel to local places.  She’s still my hunting and hauling beast of burden but she has a stable mate now. On her first foray north and into the rolling hills and mountains of Southwestern Virginia, Lil' Ruby proved quite the capable climber and even held her own in the left lane when speed was the need. I think I’ll keep her.

This past week many of us celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Designated as a “day on -- not a day off” --to serve others, most have come to see the third Monday in January as simply another day away from work.  As such, the reason for remembering the life and work of a man who fundamentally changed American society-and the world-- for the better, has become concentrated into an eight hour work cycle and forgotten when the long weekend ends.  I think the work to bring the dream of equality to all people--a vision still not yet fully realized almost 50 years after King’s martyrdom –deserves more than just a day and cliches.  To me the fullest effect of any vision lies in making it mean something  to peoples’ lives. Virginia Tech, the land of Hokie stone and the brave and resilient community of folks who’ve overcome much to excel in so many ways, have innovated the inspirational and maybe are doing just that.  Their idea is to make Dr. King’s work relevant to the lives of the college community by spreading the celebration out over a week and targeting speakers to departments and schools where their messages will hopefully resonate more deeply.     

I was honored when Dr. Anne McNabb and Dr. Bryan Brown, faculty (and new kindred spirits) in the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Sciences, invited me up to the New River Valley to be the King Week Celebration speaker. The event was sponsored by several units including  the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Science, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation  and College of Natural Resources and Environment; and the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.  Within these units, diversity committees came together to bring me north to "Hokie Land". I’ve   been honored to speak in many places for all kinds of occasions, but this was the first time I’ve ever been asked to talk about environmental issues with the larger than life work of Dr. King looming as the inspiration for the effort.  As the day for the seminar approached, I began to think about how I would tie a talk about  nature, land ethic and the like into the struggle for social justice and civil rights.   A search of MLK’s speeches, letters and conversations reveal little if anything about his attitude towards the environment.  For a split second, I thought that maybe it would be a stretch to tie conservation to King.  And then, like a blast of cold winter wind through a narrow mountain pass, it hit me.  The conservation of nature and the sustainable stewardship of air, water, soil, timber, wildlife and other natural resources is simply an extension of Dr. King’s philosophies.  He once said that “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Those “broader concerns” to me include environmental ones. They have to because we cannot live without air or water.  They are inalienable rights I think.  Air and water by nature do not only make themselves available to a select groups of people. That is to say they are requisites for life and cannot of themselves discriminate based upon skin color. However, justice (or injustice) can be wrought even upon something as elemental as oxygen or H2O.  Are those who build the industries that poison the air and water doing the same dirty work of discrimination by  disproportionately placing polluters upwind (or upstream) of communities of color and poor folks who then suffer higher rates of asthma or find themselves in places where cancer concentrates to maim and kill as the poisons find them downstream?  Where black folks still farm or own rural land, they usually find little help from state and federal agencies tasked with helping landowners to find ways to manage sustainably to make their land more productive for themselves and other creatures.  Often times, the help –and the money--goes to the “good ol’ boys” that look like the administrators. Think color isn’t an issue in matters of the environment?  Think again. 

The birds and the beasts that so many of us in the conservation “industry” came into the profession to protect often find their greatest refuge near areas where people of color live.  Look across the Southeast and you will often find black folks living in or near the areas where all manner of wild and wonderful things live.  In South Carolina, Congaree National Park, a tree-shrouded haven for migrant songbirds like the secretive Swainson’s warbler, sits in the midst of some of the highest concentrations of black land ownership anywhere.  Beidler Forest—its old growth cypress swamp nourished by black water and richly flecked  with the gold of prothonotary warblers, is abutted by private landowners, many of whom are black.  Travel down I-95, where large numbers of African-American reside and you will pass through expanses of long-leaf pine forests and thickety swamps that harbor endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and wood storks.  In all of these communities you’ll find immense ecological wealth undercut by poverty, mismanaged lands and people who often feel left in the wake of conservation as afterthoughts to wildlife. 

And so with these thoughts in mind I talked as I often do about the search for land ethic among my people. Folks loaded into the seminar room and listened intently.  I talked about the history of black folks on the land and the ramifications that the institutions of slavery, discrimination and a conservation movement that has largely forgotten about people of color have wrought.  The message seemed well-received and I think in the end, many could imagine Aldo and George Washington Carver maybe having a conversation that somehow bridged the chasm of color and concentrated on their love for the land. I’m imagining that conversation as I write this blog and thinking that perhaps there’s more there for me to write!

I ended the long day at Anne McNabb’s home where I got to dine with a diverse group of all-star students whose array of ideas matched the kaleidoscope of skin tones.  It was thrilling listening to the dreams of young people who had been simply given a chance to show what they could do. They were judged for the "content of their character" but also for the richness their differing racial, ethnic, gender and socio-economic experiences bring to bear.   Technically termed as being in “transition” to their doctoral degrees, they spoke with a confidence that inspired me.  There was an easiness among all of them that proved Dr. King’s dream was still alive and in fact moving forward in a generation of folks almost a half-century removed from his last year on earth.  Anne beamed as the students talked about their academic goals as well as things beyond the books.  I got to reconnect with old friends like Carola Haas, who has been an ardent agent in the move to diversify the field. I felt proud to be in the midst of such open minds and look forward to communing again with my new friends soon.

My fears that my ramblings about conservation and land ethic would fall on deaf ears intent on hearing MLK’s message of deliverance were short-lived. I applaud Anne, Bryan and the folks at Virgina Tech for not settling for clich├ęs and token observances to celebrate "The Dream" and to make sure that it lives beyond the day.  Think about this; the greatest period of civil rights advancement in our history led in the 1960’s by Dr. King marched parallel to the path blazed by an eco-revolutionary named Rachael Carson. In that amazing decade there were protests to gain civil rights; protests to attain peace; and protests to save our natural world.  Justice is justice, I think. Neo-eco-activists like Majora Carter are helping to carry the fight for environmental justice forward in a new way. 
Rights to self -determination, to live in peace and to breathe clean air are not separate issues. The lines want desperately to intersect because they are inseparable requisites that all improve the human condition.  I would like to believe that in their own ways, Aldo, Martin and Rachael would've concurred.

My most sincere thanks to all at Virginia Tech who  made it possible for me to speak on a such a very special occasion. To Deans Eric Hallerman and Paul Winistorfer, thanks for your aggressive moves to diversify.  I am most grateful to all who came to listen and offered such positive feedback. You encourage and embolden me to keep going with issues that are sometimes painful to address.  There is indeed something special about Virginia Tech.  I think it goes way deeper than the stone.

Until Next Time,

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Shrew in Memorium

The Shrew
 In the middle of the dirt road--A dead shrew
Just there.
As if stopped short of the marathon twenty-foot crossing its two inch body was trying to make.
Blarina brevicauda, I pondered--
or carolinensis?
Pulling the latin from somewhere deep
But more immediate than more relevant things like human names and numbers
--or responsibilities.
A short-tailed life abbreviated by a metabolism that couldn’t make the crossing
Legs barely long enough to gather notice --it was freshly still
Not a mark to mar the softest fur-
Apparently not appetizing enough to anything to be eaten yet
or ever
A tasty-looking morsel tainted with too much shrewness
Its little pinhead eyes staring into whatever forever place shrews go after lives measured in months expire 
In the middle of  some frenzied chase to find the next morsel of shrew fuel
cricket, earthworm or other creepy crawly thing
I found it in there
Lying in soricid suspended animation
Evidence of a  life spent out when a heart half the size of split pea ceased to beat 
More times in a minute than mine multiplied a hundred times
Designed to feed a megawatt metabolism-
Eat, sleep, mate
The cycle defines life 
Boiled down to the essentials of survival
Years, days, minutes, seconds
Time passes without pause-for shrews, for people for all
The shrew
It lay there still
The little predator deserved a more fitting place to pass I thought
and so I lifted it.   
Felt the weightlessness of the task
What I held in my hand may as well have been nothing-but it was everything
It lay there
Cold and Gray
stretching not half the length of my finger
Warm and Brown
A bed of pine straw made the better palette for the once mighty mite in mortal repose thought I
than the  rough red clay road where time ran rudely 

Thinking in the moment of roads not taken and time wished away
 Expectations unfulfilled and remains of each day
The shrew's fate suddenly done there is no more no less than my own.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Me!

It is a New Year and I suppose there needs to be some compulsion to write a blog to such.  As the 365th day clicked off of the calendar, I looked in the rear view mirror of the months trying to put some label on the year.  Why not do it by season? The seasons are certainly easy to define.  Well, let me take that back, they used to be easy to define –by temperature and the passage of migrant birds in autumn, the dying of things in winter and the rebirth of the same in spring; the swelter of summer and the world growing wild.  Things now though seem to be all askew with March temperatures visiting us in December and neotropical migrants that should be cavorting with toucans somewhere south of the equator hanging back to enjoy the confusion that climate change is bringing. The deer folk seem to like the chill of an October frost but those have been a rarity of late, with make-me-shiver temps not coming until late after Thanksgiving or into the next year. And so seasonally defining this past year would be a difficult thing for me.  There are others things to define my seasons though—dispositions of the heart and soul.

My year begins with autumn.   I am a Fall person at heart.  I feel at my best in that season of dramatic change when leaves blush brilliantly and things are moving to meet the demands that survival requires.  Autumn is the season of the hunt and the chase.  This past year was in some ways an autumnal one for me, full of change and the possibilities for it—some potentially extreme.  In the hunting, I’ve found new dimensions of me that will require senescence –some cleaving away to die, so that other things can be reborn in another season.  I think I’m migrating mentally to survive the next phase of my late 40-something life, whatever that might be.  In my autumn, the frost has fallen on some things that have been fixtures.  It is time for them to fall away and become the nourishment for new growth.

Winter is the season of silence and contemplation.  Imagine woodland lying silently, eerily, in new snow.  It is as if someone or something has laid a white blanket over everything. Winter snows are uncommon here but when they come, I must be out in it somewhere where the silence still sits. These are the times  and places to think cleanly ; maybe to trace the tracks of wild things that might otherwise go unseen.  In my winter, I learned to love the beauty of bare-boned sycamores—all splotchy green and chalky white—as much as their towering green canopies filled with birdsong.  I thought deeply about a lot—maybe too much.  Me thinking is a dangerous thing, but it is largely all I have and so it is what I do in the time of dormancy.

In the season where trees bare their boney branches and the skies are often leaden with low hanging clouds, things formerly secreted away in leaves or green tangles are exposed.  It is naked nature.  A white-eyed vireo’s nest that was once carefully concealed in a tangle of briers and saplings to raise the next generation of skulking, scolding, spectacled songsters hangs now in tatters. I can only imagine that it was hidden well enough to keep the cowbirds away and the rat snakes at bay.  An empty bird’s nest is an allegory for hope.
My winter was a revealing one too.  Perhaps middle age brings the truth of what lies beneath to a mortal reality.  Half way up and half way to go, one begins to see things in a different light.  A low- sitting winter sun suffuses everything with a stark, limited illumination that you know will only last for so long.  The coming solstice will bring darkness earlier and earlier.   Sitting in a deer stand in the last days of the season, the evening hunts are almost melancholic for me.  I sit and wait for deer to emerge from the shadows but it is a limited hope.  They tend to come out mostly beyond my capability of seeing them; presenting slim silhouettes at which I am unwilling to take shots that would not be true.  In my winter, I am learning to accept those images that step out of the shadows and appreciate  their  amorphous beauty without having to possess them.  Uncertainty is—or has been—an uncomfortable thing for me.  Even as a scientist who has been trained to accept certain levels of it, I want somehow to control things, lower the “p” value that life presents.   This past winter taught me that the unsure things are to be relished; that control is not a necessity.  The mantra that Philip Booth teaches in his poem “How to See Deer”—“Expect nothing always—Find your luck slowly” is one I repeat several times daily. It helps me to understand the limits of the light and to temper expectations. The deer will come in good light and in life the opportunities to make “clean shots” will too. I must simply learn to “wait without waiting.”  

 And then there was spring and summer--the seasons of rebirth, growth and maturation.  After the melancholy of low light, I anticipate spring as much as anyone.  The buzz of the first northern parula or twittering of the first purple martin in March is a sign of life’s resilience.  It is a burgeoning of biota as things spring from the ground, bloom, throw caution (and pollen) to the wind to recreate and procreate. My spring was filled with the trill and thrill of dawn chorus and the will to awaken those around me to new ways of thinking and being.
I learned this past year that I am still growing—although not as rapidly as I once did, I am still putting on the sapwood.  Physically, it is something that is all too easy to do.  Mentally and spiritually it is something that seems to have accelerated in this past vernal swing.  My mind bloomed to a fresh, new openness in many ways.  Ideas that sat like bulbs underneath my soul’s soil unfurled themselves and struggled up to find the light of a brighter sun.  In my summer it all grew to abundance, sending out tendrils and wandering roots to gather nutrients, space and light to bolster the new being.  And so in the seasons of me, I have come full cycle to another opportunity for change, contemplation, rebirth and growth.  I look forward to the next whatever happens to come.  I will share as it evolves  and hope that you will do the same.  Happy questing!