How can you not plant a rose in wartime?


By Madronna Holden

updated 8.16.2011

“They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places.  We wanted the hardest place.  We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere.”

— Paolo Lugari (Gaviotas)

Some forty years ago, Paolo Lugari and a group of supporters founded the community of Gaviotas on the llanos-an aluminum-laced plain in Colombia situated between the territories of drug lords, guerrillas, right wing militia and an indigenous people trying to make their life there.  In partnership with native people and holding fast to values of cooperation, non-violence, sharing, and reciprocity with one another and with nature,  Gaviotas shaped a community that restored thousands of acres of rainforest with astounding biodiversity in a formerly ravaged area.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this restoration is the fact that the community of Gaviotas did not set out to do it intentionally. But as they held to their values of respect for the land and refusal to use chemicals and pesticides, their actions created this magnificent surprise.  Standing amidst its canopy besides a village where peace reigns in the midst of social turmoil, a bacteriologist declared, “This place is proof God exists”.

There is a folk story in which a man asks, “How can you plant a rose in wartime?”  The answer comes back: “How can you not plant a rose in war time”?

Kenneth Helphand cites this story in his book, Defiant Gardens-Making Gardens in Wartime, in which he describes gardens planted in the worst of times-by the prisoners in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, for instance, who planted gardens they knew they would not live to harvest.  But as these prisoners tended their gardens, they also tended something inextinguishable in their spirits, Like that to which W. S. Merwin refers in his poem, “Place”: “On the last day of the world, I shall plant a tree”.

“Plant a  tree and plant a new beginning”, says Kenyan Wangari Maathai.  Planting trees led this Nobel Laureate and leader of the Kenyan-based Greenbelt Movement, to her courage and her persistence–and the hope that she wants above all to pass on the next generation despite the crushing challenges the future brings.

Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye expressed the sustaining power of the natural world this way, “The only word a tree knows is yes”. Perhaps all humans, like Nye in this poem, “are born to answer a tree”. Daryl Forde researched an African tale known by many of those sold into slavery that helped them endure the horrors of their oppression.  In that tale, the protagonist plants a “life tree” that survives him when he is stolen into a world where he is helpless.  However, his spirit revives when his brother comes upon the tree he left behind and waters it.

In line with such ancient wisdom some have transformed the “worst places” by finding a way to plant a garden there.  West Oakland is one such place, a disaster zone created by the industrialized global economy, where children are subject to lead poisoning, and residents are sandwiched between ports and warehouses, rail yards and diesel truck depots. Seventy per cent of the 30,000 people here live below the poverty line. Five years ago, this was no place to look for a garden.  There was no oasis anywhere where children could contribute their labor to an effort that mattered to them while they felt physically secure. But thanks to Willow Rosenthal and a dedicated band of neighborhood residents, that has changed.

Rosenthal chose West Oakland as a place to focus her efforts on organic gardening not in spite of the conditions there but because of them. Her effort started with a 2000 foot lot lent to her– and community support.  She worked on the supposition that the community contained its own answers to the desperate issues of hunger and pollution that faced them.  The first year, they harvested 2000 pounds of quality produce from their tiny garden and their effort grew from there.  Today West Oakland sports a Saturday farm stand which sells produce on a sliding scale that begins with zero and offers starts that residents can plant in their back yards, a local composting program where residents can either drop off their scraps or learn to compost them, cooking and gardening workshops, barbecues and other community-wide celebrations, a medicinal garden (established with the help of a local Filipina herbalist), and back yard gardens built and maintained with community effort, in addition to the intensive gardens farmed communally.

West Oakland’s community gardens have some publicity-for instance, an article in spring 2008’s Earth Island Journal.But there are those gardens we may not hear much about that are inspiring in their own quiet ways.  Lily Anderson describes one such garden:

“Two years ago, in the middle of a long period of unemployment, my father was living in Emeryville (also in the Bay Area) and found solace in a community garden, Big Daddy’s Complete Rejuvenating Garden. The garden is on top of what was once a gas station. The plants climb up art installations, sculptures, and paintings. I used to come into town and walk with my father, over the 580 freeway, to help tend his plot. Pesticides are forbidden at Big Daddy’s and so we would lay egg shells and halves of cut melon to distract the bugs from the tomato and spinach plants. I have never seen such a beautiful representation of nature and community before. Surrounded by industrial buildings and road noise, there’s a little oasis where people come together, discuss their garden, and sit among the flowers.”

There are solitary individuals working to green their cities in ways most of us will never hear of.  I would not have learned of “Gardener Robert” but for the information shared by my student, Kristian Godfrey, who worked in a bagel shop in Gainesville, Florida where Gardener Robert bartered his produce.  In her words, Robert “was a man who made gardens, and I mean he MADE them.”  Robert roamed the outskirts of modern American society, since he didn’t work. Perhaps he carried some mental distress that prevented him from doing so, “because he simply couldn’t sit still, he had so much energy he vibrated”-and he refused to deal with money-even the fee for a community garden plot.  He needed more space than that anyway. “Thus Robert would find abandoned plots of land; plots squished between buildings and apartments and businesses, and then proceed to track down the owners and then beg/ barter the use of their land for his gardens. He always had at least four in town. He would also ride his bicycle to abandoned places away from the city and garden. He offered space to anyone who wanted to garden with him, no charge. And the gardens fed him, every bite he ate. He would come to the bagel shop and barter, bags of bagels which would normally be thrown into the dumpster at the end of the day were traded for Robert’s Seminole pumpkins, bags of basil, or whatever happened to be in season.”

Gardener Robert would become depressed when the owners of his city plots would reclaim them, and his beautiful gardens would be paved over. But he would ride on seeking out his next spot to plant and beautify, even if it was only temporary.  As in the community of Gaviotas, “Gardener Robert survived and re- introduced plants in the hardest of places.”

Priti Shah adds another example of what she terms “guerrilla gardening”:

“I had the opportunity to participate in “guerilla farming” when visiting a friend in Honolulu.  We toured a few blocks and harvested greens from patches in front of restaurants and strip malls and dead space between high rises. I then helped plant a garden in the center of a busy road on the strip of dirt enclosed in concrete dividing the lanes. We tore up the dirt, added compost and soil, and then planted beans, sweet potatoes, greens, herbs and flowers. I was incredibly moved and thankful to see how much can be done with such a space.  I later checked in with my friend who notified me that the garden was doing well and people who live on that road are now care-taking and eating from it!”

If ever there was a “hard place” for such a garden, it was North Philadelphia where artist Lily Yeh began her work, in an area over half the original population had recently fled, leaving behind vacant buildings and lots full of garbage-and a remaining population where 32 per cent of the labor force was unemployed, houses were riddled with dangerous disrepair and schools provided the most meager of educations.  There was youth violence, high levels of incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution.

Why should she come to work in such a place by choice? Yeh was driven by a need to reclaim the meaning of art. Being Chinese, she had witnessed the massacre in Tiananmen Square.  Instead of turning away from that horror, she re-dedicated herself to proving the power of art to heal and redeem society.

In North Philadelphia, Yeh felt vulnerable, but not discouraged. She recognized her weakness as her strength, since what she could not do alone was an invitation for the community to help her.  That help early on included a former drug dealer who seized the opportunity to create real meaning with his labor. Yeh worked on “reconnecting what is broken, healing what is wounded, and making the invisible visible” in the most concrete of ways: by hauling garbage from abandoned lots and replacing devastation with plants and with the beauty of her art-sometimes she transformed the very garbage she  found into inspired mosaics.

Today, The Village (as it now called),  sports fourteen parks, numerous community gardens, educational facilities, a youth theater, offices and a crafts center serving 10,000 low income people whom Yeh’s leadership-through-art helped  re-possess and re-build their homes.

It all began with the simple idea that Yeh could offer a bit of beauty as a token of respect for the citizens of inner city Philadelphia.

After all, how can you not plant a rose in war time?

Partnering with the Natural World


By Madronna Holden

In 1927 Chehalis elder Mary Heck testified on behalf of her people before the U.S. Court of Claims. She spoke in Chehalis, enumerating the things a non-Indian court might count in terms of value.

She listed the houses that had been destroyed by pioneers who wanted the cleared land on which they stood. She told how long it took her people to build each of those great cedar houses that stood for generations unless they were destroyed by fire – the white tool of choice in this matter. She spoke the names of villages erased from maps that set down straight lines over lands and waters that contemporary Chehalis elders told me were traditionally navigated by “streams of trees” and “fish trails.”

But Mary Heck had something else to say as well, something she deemed important to place on the record alongside the list of the destroyed homes of her people: the destroyed homes of the beaver, devastated by pioneers as they drained her people’s lands for their farms.

Even in translated court transcripts, her tone comes through. She is speaking up for the beaver who shared a partnership with Chehalis women in their root digging grounds. Mary Heck credits the beaver for sustaining the wetlands and fertile ground the Indian women favored for these crops. In relating the destruction of the beaver’s homes, Mary Heck mourned the loss of a friend.

Just as the otter is a keystone species in Pacific Ocean ecosystems, the beaver had a central role in ecosystems both east and west of the Cascades. Indeed, in taking beaver and otter, the early fur traders could hardly have picked two species whose depletion had more profound effects on local ecosystems. Beaver dams helped create and sustain the wetlands that are now ninety-nine per-cent gone along the Willamette River, wetlands which married the river to the land, providing habitat for a proliferation of plant and animal species, containing and filtering storm water, and keeping ground water tables charged.

Across the Cascades, along the Crooked River, for instance, innumerable springs dried up when the beaver dams were lost in the wake of the fur trade. Then the once fertile lands that spread out beside that river shrank as the formerly meandering waters stayed to a deeply cut bed. In this sense, the concerted policy of Hudson’s Bay Company administrators John McLoughlin and George Simpson to stymie competitors by creating a “fur desert” in the Pacific Northwest had an ironic ring. In accomplishing their goal of depleting the otter and beaver, they enlarged dry land areas throughout the Northwest.

We can set Mary Heck’s story of the beaver alongside the modern ecologist’s story of the sea otter in expressing the dynamic interplay of species in a resilient ecosystem. Her perception, in turn, derives from the “partnership” worldview in the indigenous Northwest. With this point, I want to take up where many natural resources managers, including innovative ones such as “resilience” thinker Brian Walker leave off.  I want to shift from questions about how we “manage” natural resources to how we manage ourselves to support nature’s resilience.

The issue of partnership takes up a theme in a paper I recently gave on resilience thinking, in which partnership was one of four strategies I proposed for managing human behavior in ways that support the resiliency of natural systems.

The first step in establishing a partnership is treating our partners with comparable respect to that with which we treat ourselves.  In their 10,000 years of sustainable living here, the Pacific Northwest’s diverse indigenous cultures did this by treating all natural life as their intimate kin, with standing comparable to that of humans. “All animals and inanimate objects possessed spirits,” as STOWW (Small Tribes of Western Washington) stated in their handout for their 1975 treaty rights workshop. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River, the term for “life” is waq’ádyšwit, the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature”. Waq’ádyšwit indicates “intelligence, will, and consciousness,” and since it exists in all natural things, it is the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land. [i]

Parallel recognition of personhood in nature is found in the traditions of the inland valleys as expressed by contemporary Coos-Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman: “The earth is alive. It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise also perceived natural landscapes as comprised of persons alive with spirit. In the early 1900s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a word for animals that contrasted with that for humans in the Pit River language. But there was no such word in their language, since there was no such distinction in Pit River culture.

A partnership worldview inherently promotes respect for diversity in its recognition that all natural life possesses spirit and personhood. In this sense, the partnership view envisions the most democratic of socio-ecological systems, embracing what Vandana Shiva terms “a democracy of all life”.

The radical equality between humans and other natural life in the partnership worldview goes hand in hand with the recognition that nature and humans are intertwined in the relational manner of Brian Walker’s “socio-ecological systems,” in which “changes in one domain of the system… inevitably impact the other.”

In this sense, both the partnership model and the resilience paradigm offer an alternative to the dualistic split of the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature. Both concur with the modern science that tells us whatever we do to our natural environment, we do to ourselves. Thus, for instance, the pesticides and fire retardants released into our environment have become ubiquitous in U.S. breast milk.

In recognizing the dynamic reflexivity between ourselves and the natural world, indigenous Northwesterners developed an ethic of reciprocity, which entailed sharing the gifts of life with others, taking only as much as you could replace from natural systems, and treating natural life with respect in order to allow it to flourish – which in turn allowed humans to flourish. In such reciprocity, we find the intersection of ethics and practical outcomes in an interdependent world.

Take for instance, the case of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest.  Respecting the salmon as partners with humans, for instance, resulted in their abundance under native management, so that the indigenous peoples on the Columbia River harvested seven times the modern take without harming the sustainability of the runs.

Since all natural species were peoples in the partnership view, it followed that one should develop an ethics of consideration for the future generations of salmon and humans together. Drawing on this perspective Yurok elder Lucy Thompson observed in 1916 that non-Indian rules for protecting the salmon on the Klamath River were bound to fail, since they were based on the actions of individual fishermen – but their actions taken together created a gauntlet of barriers the salmon could not run.

Lucy Thompson’s insights stand beside those of all the indigenous peopled cited above in illustrating how the partnership view implements both intimate knowledge of natural systems and careful monitoring of the results of human actions on those systems. Thus is the alternative to the Not in my Backyard attitude which separates the consequences of environmental decisions from those who make them.  Ecofeminist Val Plumwood points out the fundamental irrationality of the modern global system in this respect, in which those who have the most power to make environmental decisions are the least likely to be visibly  and immediately affected by them. This broken feedback/ethical loop must be repaired by remedying a sense of “remoteness” from particular places (as the bioregional movement sets out to do), from the future (in the effects of our actions on future generations) and from those “others” which a hierarchical worldview renders invisible or inconsequential.

The ways in which the partnership model encouraged humans to manage themselves for the benefit of both their landscapes and themselves were not limited to the salmon. In Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson details the way that this worldview led to the exquisite bounty of root crops, wildfowl, and game recorded in hundreds of explorer records in native California. In like fashion, early explorers in the Willamette Valley termed it the “gourmand’s paradise” for the results of the specific management practices of the Kalapuya – and they would come to the Willamette Valley to stock up on provisions whenever they ran low.

The intersection of ethics and practical results in the partnership model is eloquently expressed by modern Nisqually leader Billy Frank, Jr., who has worked tirelessly both for Indian fishing rights and the care of the salmon and its habitat: “I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same thing.” [ii]

Modern Westerners cannot authentically or ethically take over the specific spiritual beliefs of other cultures. Nor can we return to the past. Yet as the Resilience Alliance’s workbook for resource managers observes, it is important to tell the story of ourselves and our land in ways that free us from the constraints of the ruling paradigm. In this context, the partnership worldview has much to show us about fostering a resilient world.

Indeed, the partnership worldview immunizes its holders against the paradox of domination. This paradox flows from the fact that the more one tries to control a thing, the less one sees it for what it is. One-way communication with natural life (we plant, you yield) subverts the knowledge we need to foster a resilient world. As a remedy for the dangers of such limited information gathering, the partnership model sensitizes humans to the ways in which natural life “talks back” to us.

This paradigm has important scientific potential, as expressed in geneticist Barbara McClintock‘s Nobel Prize-winning work she accomplished through “speaking with the corn,” getting to know each corn plant as an individual. It was not a popular method for any scientist, much less a woman beginning work in genetics several decades ago. For years McClintock struggled to continue her research without the support of her colleagues, finding ways to fund her own work.

This is the kind of leadership expressed by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker in taking on her personal commitment as a “voice for the voiceless.” She does not say, “voice of the voiceless.” She is not subsuming or taking over the voice of the other. Instead she is expressing the central stance in the partnership worldview: speaking up for those we might otherwise leave out of our goals or visions, in the same way that Mary Heck called attention to the beaver.

Such leadership reminds us that in order to gear our behavior toward fostering a resilient natural world, we need to increase our listening skills-and thus expand our range of vision.

Key to the success of the partnership worldview is its attribution of agency to all in any socio-ecological system. Thus it helps us embrace a question as pressing in this era of increasing globalization as it was to cultures with 10,000 years of standing in the Pacific Northwest.

How do we share our world?

[i] “Western Columbia River Sahaptins,” Eugene Hunn and David H. French in Handbook of North American Indians v. 12.

[ii] Quoted in Charles Wilkinson, Messages from Frank’s Landing.

A slightly different version of this essay appears as “Partnership and Resilience” in Ecotrust’s online journal, People and Place.

Taking Back the Power to Nurture

In the November/December 2008 issue of the Women’s Health Activist Anabella Aspiras relates her personal experience of the rape of a close friend, who kept her assault a secret as Aspiras watched her sink into a deep depression, dropping out of her social circle and then out of school.

Only when Aspiras went to her missing friend’s house and demanded to know what had happened did she learn her friend had been raped. She also learned that her friend’s parents counseled their daughter not to report the rape, since they felt the criminal justice system would only traumatize their daughter further. Aspiras writes that as a result of being raped, the friend she “knew and loved in high school is gone”.  She concludes, “Until survivors of rape have reason to be confident in the criminal justice system, rape will continue to be under reported and women’s lives, like hers, will be lost.”

Over the years, I have heard far too many stories from my students about the assaults they experienced simply because they were women–and about which they had previously told no one.  A work-study student in a program at the University of Oregon, a Native American grandmother was assaulted by a man offering to help her carry a heavy piece of furniture into her new apartment in broad daylight in Eugene, Oregon.  Though she showered again and again, she could not get the smell of this man off her.

Another student was pulled into the bushes from a bike path and only managed to save her life as her assailant choked her by telling him to ease up, since she liked to move during sex.  She had to rasp out the lie again and again before she was able to get away.

One might hardly guess that another of my students who came to class as a well dressed professional had also come close to dying– at the hands of her raging ex-husband.  Luckily she managed to escape and take her children with her after he pulled out his hunting rifle and threatened to shoot them all.

The under reporting of such assaults on women in the military is a finding in the recent Congressional hearings. For the 2688 reported assaults in the military in 2007, there were four times as many that went unreported.  As Penny Coleman, widow of a veteran-victim of PTSD observes in her essay on sexual assault in the military, more than a third of women who seek VA care for mental health issues after returning from Afghanistan or Iraq, do so because of trauma created by a sexual assault.

Coleman is especially concerned with supporting assault survivors who choose not to seek medical or psychological help within the military system-for understandable reasons. A recent student of mine was seriously injured by her serviceman-husband.  She appealed to her husband’s military commander, only to have him cross-examine her as to what she had done to incite the assault and urge her to work harder to please the abuser. There is a happy ending to this story stemming from this woman’s self-assertion. She managed to leave the marriage that confined her on base with her dangerous husband.   Later she re-married another serviceman who treats her with equanimity and she considers her current marriage a true partnership.

The widespread incidence of the assault of women soldiers by fellow servicemen is a situation of which the military has evidently been cognizant for some time. Stationed near Detroit during the Detroit riots some decades ago, another of my students relates she was confined to base along with the other servicewomen in the area to avoid being raped by the Guardsman called up to put down the riots.

Sexual assault is not only a continuation of historical experience– it is also a multi-generational affair.  One of the saddest experiences of my teaching career occurred when the daughter of one of my students was raped. This woman and her husband had adopted five children, including this one.  One of their adopted babies came to them emotionally damaged, and they arranged their schedules so that they could hold her constantly for several months until she finally stopped crying.

But this mother did not have a similar cure for the violation of her raped daughter.  She stood by her as she went to court to prosecute the assault, but during the process this even-tempered and generous woman formerly so full of humor almost went crazy with grief.

Any one of these attacks on women is enough to illustrate what should be common knowledge:  rape is a crime of violence, not sex-and certainly not a part of human nature. There are cultures in which there is no word for rape– since such an action is literally unthinkable.  But sexual assault is a common occurrence in cultures that emphasize the value of domination. In such cultures, the links between power and nurturance are broken, so that those who nurture others have little power or status. And those with power use it without any sense of service or care.

The severance of nurturance from power is tragically expressed in the attack on the physical center of women’s ability to nurture life.

In patriarchal societies, the severance of nurturance from power may be quite intentional, as illustrated by Hitler’s censorship team. As they publicly smashed Kathe Kollwitz’s famous sculpture The Tower of Mothers, depicting a group of mothers protectively circling their children, they proclaimed, “The state keeps children safe, not mothers!”

The experience of the mother in my class and the parents of Aspiras’ friends directly experienced their inability to protect their children.

When nurturance and power are severed in a society, the voices of those who speak for future generations are no longer central to the sphere of political power, as they are in the Iroquois council of women who approve or disapprove all political decisions according to their effects on future generations. Instead, a society which severs nurturance from power puts “women and children last”, as Ruth Sidel’s book analyzing the modern western condition puts it.

In such a society, it is easy to confuse the fact that nurturance is disempowered with the idea that there is something in the nature of nurturance (as expressed in biological motherhood, for instance) that causes women’s oppression.  Expressing this confusion, certain feminists of the sixties declared that they must break with the biology of their own bodies–and it’s mothering capacities– in order to assume equal social power alongside men. This thinking was illustrated by Shilamuth Firestone, who reasoned that only the erasure of biological motherhood would allow women to share equality with men. Only when humans had the technology to fully dominate their biological nature, she insisted, would women be liberated.

There is little that can so well alienate women from our bodies as the experience– or potential experience– of sexual assault.  But to reject our biological nature only amplifies the denigration of our bodies that sexual assault expresses.  Further, Firestone’s cure of dominating nature only gives us more of the cultural value that underlines rape in the first place.  As ecofeminist Val Plumwood has eloquently detailed, one cannot express domination as a positive  value with respect to the natural world and expect that value to vanish as we relate to one another.

Fortunately, there is an alternative that connect nurturance and power, as in the case of the Iroquois.  Linked with the precautionary principle-or fore-caring for future generations– such guardianship, in essence, consists of choosing something you love and protecting it.

It involves, that is, taking back the power to nurture.

The Raging Grannies and the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers are more nurturers to be reckoned with. They have seeded groups working for social and environmental justice worldwide. Takelma Siletz elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, the chair of the Grandmothers, begins her public talks with a moving statement asserting the value of every woman in her audience. She goes on to insist that such valuable women can never accept a situation in which they are abused.

We need, Grandma Aggie also says, to return women, with their nurturant impulses in full play, to power. Not incidentally, she and the other grandmothers see the earth as female: as the violated mother whose power we must once again honor so that she, in turn, may nurture us all in the cycle of life. Notably, this earth-nurturer is no weakling.  If we misuse her water, for instance, Grandma Aggie says, she will take it back. This is her explanation for the global droughts she has seen in her travels with the other Grandmothers.

The Grandmothers know all too well the pervasive modern story that disempowers nurturers–and they are not buying it.  They have dedicated themselves to living out another story, in which women, joined together, honor the power that resides in nurturing the children of the future and the earth we share.

In this story, women are both fully empowered and nurturing. And those who use their power to nurture others are our true heroes-whether they be men or women.


I welcome you to link to this essay;  if you quote this, please indicate  this source.  If you wish to reproduce all of this,  feel free to contact me for permission.

Why the death penalty is not the answer

In her eloquent response to my query, “Is there justice in such a world”, Frances McNeal wrote:

“I do not believe in the death penalty. The Prison Industrial Complex in our nation is not about justice. We see that African-Americans make up 12% of the population and 50% of the prison population. Something is wrong with that picture. We also see the over population of prison with people of color in general. I once asked my grandmother about her opinion of the death penalty and she looked at me and simply said, “Never take what you can’t give!” In essence a human life. I do believe in restorative justice. I believe that if the judicial system allowed an alternative they would be a lot better if they practiced restorative justice overall. They could learn from the indigenous people in the United States. I also wanted to say that there was an African tribe in Africa who when someone did something wrong they had to stand in the middle of the village and all day long the villagers would come up to that person and remind them of all the good things that they have done and all of their positive attributes. When I did an artistic residency in a women’s prison I did this same thing with the women. Each woman took turns standing in the circle as we reminded them as a group of their power, beauty, and positive attributes. Is it no surprise we had wonderful results? Even women looking physically different. Everything responds to love and restoration. We can come up with alternatives that can bring forth justice and healing in ways that are powerful and profound. We must go to the heart of the matter by challenging ourselves to see another way of living and being.”

I could not agree more.  Here is my list explaining why I don’t believe in the death penalty:

1. As DNA testing has proved, a substantial percentage of those on death row are innocent. It turns out that eye witness evidence is not very reliable– especially with respect to strangers seen in a traumatic situation.

2. In emotional judgments our unacknowledged prejudices come up: for instance, racism. The statistics McNeal cites above speak for themselves.

3. We don’t really honor the families of victims by putting the guilty to death. Stopping the perpetrators from hurting others in the same way, yes.  Rebalancing and healing the harm done by a crime, yes.

In short, I support restorative justice rather than retribution. We don’t need to give emotional power (or publicity) to the guilty by conceiving of ourselves as their “victims”. Retribution also inevitably  the cycle of violence to escalate. By legally “avenging” someone, we sanction vengeance as a model for others to follow.

Protecting ourselves or someone we love from attack is certainly justified, but if we are in no physical danger, cold blooded killing for whatever reason is something very different.  All killing, whether justified or not,  creates a kind of soul sickness in need of healing.  I once brought up this topic with an ethics class of mixed generation students and one hundred per cent had examples to share of PTSD in themselves or relatives returned from US wars, going back to World War I.  Some contemporary vets suffering PTSD have successfully participated in healing ceremonies for returning warriors in US indigenous cultures. Unfortunately, we don’t usually offer our returning vets such social and spiritual re-integration ceremonies.

4. We are not omniscient enough to plumb the heart of another–and thus we cannot declare that they are incapable of redemption. And we should consider the consequences to ourselves of declaring any other human being unworthy of compassion.

In sum, our goal should be to restore the balance of society after a murder.  A loss of life calls for healing, not more loss of life.

In his context, we  need to examine the cultural underpinnings of violent crimes.– and direct some prevention into changing those values.

Individualism: it is no coincidence that those dangerous individuals with “attachment disorder” come out of a society which proclaims the importance of individualism.  Attachment disorder is the culmination of such individualism, in which nothing and no one else counts outside of the individual. In this sense, crimes committed by those with attachment disorder are showing us the terrible shadow of extreme individualism .

It doesn’t make sense to single out an “evil” individual when we allot heroic standing to those who triumph over others in the business arena– often at substantial cost of life.  Is it not a form of serial killing when a doctor purposely falsifies the results of experiments for a drug (as one did in the case of Lupron)– causing that drug to be approved by the FDA, causing the deaths of at least 25 women and the maiming of countless others?

I cannot read the mind of the physician who committed this crime, but according to the memos of CEOs of a consortium of plastics manufacturers, they felt they had a clear right to protect their personal profit even after their own doctors told them their workers were dying as a result of the conditions of their labor.

Modern westerners watch tv episodes about finding sociopathic serial killers avidly.  But what about the person in the federal government who hid the memo giving the order to dismantle the warning device that would have alerted the 78 workers trapped and killed in the Farmington mine disaster?

Not only do we have to change the idea that we exist in isolation from others– we need to stop giving monetary rewards to those who act as if this were true.

Might makes right (or “the cream rises to the top”, or Manifest Destiny).  In our movies, Rambo violence wins, asserting the selfsame “heroism” of physical power exerted over others as does anyone on death row.

A few years back Sweden, seeking to change the cultural idea that difficulties should be solved by violence on the part of those with more physical power, embarked on a program to eradicate the spanking of children. It took a concerted national effort, educating parents as to  alternative ways to discipline children.  I would like to see us exhibit similar resolve.

The Western notion of “progress” tells us only our own isolated slice of time counts. Thus we can use up the natural resources necessary for future life–or simply leave them too polluted for others to use after we are through with them.

In this individualistic notion of time, the past is only something to leave behind–and thus we erase all the wisdom of learning from the past– even as we assert the idea that generations have nothing to share with one another.

Certainly we can well use the “male mothers” described by Malidoma Some.  In his African society these are elders who stand beside a young man coming of age and nurture him, teaching to direct his masculine energy. Michael Meade, who has worked extensively with prison populations, has a parallel idea: we need initiation ceremonies for our young men (the vast majority of violent crimes in this society are committed by men under thirty-five) to teach them how to direct their passion and energy.

This meets the need for purpose in many young lives.  There was Lily Yeh’s experience in Philadelphia, for instance, in which local drug lords became her allies in cleaning up neighborhoods (literally, with garbage clean up and creation of community parks and gardens) when they were given this alternative opportunity.

Other projects, like Daniel Coleman’s teaching of “emotional intelligence” to middle school students impart personal power along with alternatives to hair trigger violence to such students.

Changing our worldviews and values is a large job, but it is a work whose fruits would benefit all of us.  With those like Frances McNeal, whose words begin this post, working for justice– we have both hope and vision on our side.

Is there justice in such a world?

By Madronna Holden

“He is confined to solitary twenty-three hours a day in a prison cell that measures 9’X12′.  The cell has a solid front, preventing any view of the outside world…Like most of his fellow prisoners on Arkansas’s Death Row, he claims to be innocent. In Damien Echols’s case, however, there’s substantial evidence that the claim is true”.

So begins Jeff Zaleskki’s introduction to the issue of Parabola on the theme of justice. In line with this theme Parabola interviewed Echols, “but not because he probably is innocent. We all have suffered injustice and we all have tolerated, even caused it.”  Parabola is interested in Echol’s case because he is a Zen master who lives day in and day out in the face of the injustice that committed him to death row.

There is clearly ample injustice in our world today– injustice that those organizations linked to this site under the category of “environmental justice” dedicate themselves to changing.  Injustice in climate change, for instance, that causes the oceans to rise over island nations that contribute little if anything to this global problem. And there is injustice surely in the growing disparity between the rich and poor everywhere.

But is there justice and if so, where do we find it?  In God, in religion, in humanism?  Some of the Parabola articles examine these directions, including the one that honors the words of the strikingly compassionate believer Etty Hillesum, who died in the Holocaust, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who lays out the “sacred foundations of justice in Islam”.

For myself, I find justice in the natural model of reciprocity expressed in the folktales of ancient peoples. I am honored that Parabola allowed me to add my own voice to such eloquent ones as those above on this score. Such wise tales assure us that life does not abandon her children– even if a great injustices take more than one generation to redress, as expressed in an eloquent tale many of  those stolen into slavery from Africa knew.

As always, this issue of Parabola indicates that we cannot know ourselves too well.

I am moved by those who meditate on this topic alongside me.

But I am moved most of all by those of you who work for justice on our shared earth.

Many public and university libraries carry Parabola.

The Green Revolution–Whoops! The Women of Bangladesh Offer an Alternative

The more we try to manage a problem with a technological magic bullet, the less effective we may be in meeting our goals. Take, for instance, the case of high producing variety (HVP) rice in Southeast Asia. The HVP rice provides more calories, but its introduction several decades ago wound up amplifying both vitamin A and protein deficiencies among those who grew it. Not only were the HVP rice strains lower in protein than traditional varieties, but the mono-cropping of HVP rice did away with carotene-laden greens that formerly grew in the rice paddies, along with the fish traditionally raised there.

In a parallel fashion, genetic engineering today may look good on one level, but work against its own purported goals on another.  Take the current “roundup ready” soy sold by Monsanto.  It works in conjunction with the herbicide Round Up to prevention competition in soy fields.  But the “round up ready” gene is spliced into a low-producing variety of soy-a variety rejected some time ago in hybrid breeding programs because of its low yield.

If we want to increase yields, as the “roundup ready” seed promises, why not return to higher yield varieties along with care of the soil– as opposed to low yield varieties plus with Round Up with all its health and environmental hazards?  Of course, then there are no profits for Monsanto?

There is another serious problem with genetically engineered crops:  one that caused British farmers to burn test fields of genetically engineered soy-and the European Union to reject imports of genetically engineered grains.  Through a  mechanism we can neither understand nor control, genes migrate from one plant or field to another. That is, gene reproduction in plants is not entirely contained within single plants.  This is a serious issue with the Monsanto “terminator” genes engineered to create sterility-as a protection for the Monsanto gene patents.  But what if the terminator genes migrate to crops whose seeds we want or need to save?

To return to Southeast Asia and HVP rice, bioengineers are currently working on “golden rice” containing carotene to address the problem of vitamin A deficiency there. But as some local people understand, what they need is something entirely different from a more heavily engineered super-rice.

Thus the women of Bangladesh began the Nayakrishi Andolon, or New Agricultural Movement, practiced by 25,000 households by 1998. This movement fosters biodiversity in the context of the Hindu belief that all life is interconnected through the single spirit that animates it. This movement has come to its striking success, two of its members recently told Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, co-author of The Subsistence Perspective with Maria Mies, by simply doing what brings them joy even as it makes their land beautiful.

These women have led a local movement to replace the beesh, or “poison” of the Green Revolution with a diverse ecosystem which uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers (phasing these out if necessary); practices mixed cropping; multi-cropping, and agro-forestry; integrates habitat for livestock, poultry, and semi-domestic birds and animals; and practices seed saving and genetic conservation. The farmers in this movement assess the productivity of their fields not by the yield of a single super product, but by the sum of their diverse products. They have not gotten back all 12,000 varieties of rice indigenous to this area, but some individual farmers grow more than 110 varieties. And their methods have been so good for the land that some now grow rice using only surface water rather than drawing up ground water. This movement is an obvious success.

It takes a local community in partnership with nature’s diversity– rather than a single technology developed somewhere else-to reclaim a land. As in this case, global development projects which purport to bring “progress” to a third world community might well take a moment to learn something from the communities they hope to serve.  Maria Mies’ “subsistence perspective” offers some guidelines for doing this.

It is important to note that though the women farmers of Bangladesh have reclaimed their lands in these ways, areas of Bangladesh are currently hard pressed to deal with rising waters in the Bay of Bengal resulting from climate change. As the documentary, “Afloat”,  indicates, what the people of Bangladesh face will be faced by all of us if the global community does not join in ameliorating climate change.

“Going on the Side of Life”: Managing Humans to Foster Nature’s Resilience

By Madronna Holden

Given the extensive impact of human actions on the natural world, it is improbable that we can restore our environment to a previously undisturbed state-in terms of climate change, for instance.  Even if it weren’t for the current environmental crises, it is problematic to decide what our “restore” point would be.  In the dualistic framework of the modern industrial worldview,  “wilderness” is that which has no human impact.  However, some lands pioneers in the Pacific Northwest considered “wilderness” since they were not altered by western-style development were in fact the result of thousands of years of a human-nature partnership which fostered the resilience of the local landscape.

More than ever, in the modern age, we need such models to honor and support natural resilience: which I define here as the ability of natural systems to sustain, heal, and regenerate themselves. This is in line with a native grandmother’s words. At a meeting in which her Muckleshoot people detailed the ways in which their sacred sites had been ravaged by developed, she said, “I guess we just have to go on the side of life.” Life has a sacred meaning among many indigenous Northwesterners as it should for all of us: as the animating principle of the earth we share. I cannot think of a more powerful sense of nature’s resilience.

I want to suggest four guiding principles for managing human behavior toward this goal.

One key element in an environmental philosophy that supports the resilience of natural systems is reciprocity. Reciprocity casts human and natural interactions in terms of balanced and mutual exchanges: As such, it enjoins humans to take (food, energy, shelter, medicine) from the natural world only what they return. Though some institutionalized religions link reciprocity with a mentality of accounting, earth-centered societies link it with gratitude, moderation, generosity, and sharing-in which giving back to the circle of life is done without knowledge of how and when a gift will be returned. Enacting reciprocity with respect to natural systems inhibits human actions that undermine the essential vitality of these systems by drawing too much from them. notably, those mid-Columbia River peoples who saw life as a sacred animating principle of our world also saw reciprocity as a key ethical standard.

The precautionary principle or “forecaring” is a second element of a standard of human behavior that supports the resilience of natural systems. Its main tenet is that human actions (especially new technologies) must prove themselves harmless before being enacted. This principle compensates for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. As instituted in modern law, this principle protects natural systems from harm in a way that echoes traditional stories stressing the importance of care in human choices-care that extends to future generations. The precautionary principle is linked to environmental justice in the ethical prohibition against inflicting harm on those who share our world both today and in the future.

Honoring the flexibility and diversity of natural systems is another way of supporting their resiliency. Flexibility is essential to the ability of any system to respond to and recover from stress. “Edges” and interstices between ecosystems as fostered by indigenous practices in the Willamette Valley are the most diverse and thus resilient parts of ecosystems. The value of diversity to the resiliency of ecosystems weighs in against practices that create “blank slates” for human use — such as clear cutting, non-contoured plowing for mono-cropping, and wholesale bulldozing for construction projects. Today wilderness set asides might be used to balance some of the diversity lost through human use of the land.

It is important to note that indigenous peoples throughout the world traditionally managed their landscapes for biodiversity and this is one reason that they now steward some eighty per cent of global biodiversity. Another reason consists of the tragic homogenization of nature and culture that results from industrialized development.  In creating such homogenization, we are undermining the options for both ourselves and the natural systems we depend upon to respond to stress such as global warming.

A fourth essential element supporting natural resilience is partnership. Traditional societies enact their partnership with the natural world through ceremonial or diplomatic relationships with other natural beings: animals, plants, and spirits of place. Such personalization (as opposed to commoditization) of others has the pragmatic result of fostering the protection of these natural beings and the habitats upon which both they and humans depend. We might take a first step toward enacting the partnership ethic today by assuming a stance of humility in our dealings with the natural world-and respect for those others that show us how to expand our own humanity. We might also work to learn the “language” of our natural partners, as did contemporary Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock. Importantly, the partnership ethic shifts the social Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest” from competition to cooperation. In terms of the partnership ethic, those most “fit” for survival are those who support the lives of the most “others”-and thus the diversity and resiliency of natural systems upon which they depend for survival.

From a somewhat different perspective, the Resilience Alliance works with natural resource managers to  foster natural resilience.

For a more detailed discussion of my sense of the relationship between partnership and resilience, see my “perspectives” piece in response to Brian Walker’s essay at Ecotrust’s online journal:

You are always welcome to link to this post.  Note it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to cite it rather than link here. Thank you.

Blessing the Water: Gifts for a Gift

By Madronna Holden

Cottage Grove, the self-proclaimed “All American City” was an interesting site for the ceremony that took place on the banks of a tributary of the Willamette as the hazy heat hung in the air. Oral history recalls gatherings of pioneers and Native peoples at this site on Silk Creek. The gathering this afternoon was every bit as mixed. It included members of the Washat Longhouse religion brought here by a Nez Perce man, native and non-native members of the Willamette Valley and Cottage Grove Grandmother’s Councils, and miscellaneous others, including a young boy whose prayer ribbon boasted the Hindu blessing “Namaste”.

From the Longhouse singers with blankets folded over their arms to the white-haired woman from Eugene in a wheelchair the electric crowd had something in common that overrode their differences: their prayers for the earth’s waters upon which we all depend for survival.They offered songs of praise to the water from different traditions and poured water blessed by grandmothers from around the world into the river. And they gave gifts of songs and rose petals and sage and foxglove (to strengthen the heart of the water) to the river. It was important to pass on something beautiful to the river to replace the dumping in it that is all too common. Indeed, one participant pulled a twisted metal sign holder out of the river during the ceremony.

As one gray haired speaker recently arrived from Mexico observed, there are too many people on this earth who have never known what it is to drink clean water, much less to bathe in it. Grandma Aggie has seen the places where such deprivation exists first hand in her travels around the world with the other grandmothers.Water, its shortage and quality, is a worldwide crisis that is already here.

In the context of such imperatives, we might ask what difference it makes if a few dozen citizens of earth gather together to honor their local river. I have more than one way to answer this: for one thing, it is my sense that addressing our current environmental crises is not a matter of technological fixes, but of changing how we think and act. Honoring the river as was done this afternoon is certainly a disincentive to dumping in it– or allowing anyone else to do this.

It strengthens this sense of intimacy with the river when we remember that our own nourishment is linked to the way we nourish our earth.This was underscored in the ceremony when we all drank water that had witnessed our blessings for it.

In one of the conversational groups that formed after the ceremony, talk turned to the heyokas, sacred individuals of Plains culture who heal by doing things backwards in order to undo and rewind the ribbon of life tangled by our mistakes.Giving songs and praise and flower petals and sage to the water was such an unwinding: a reversal of the knots in our thinking which license us to take and take from this land rather without giving back to it.

Another story I heard in the circles afterward was this.A woman had just lost a dog and was grieving over this when she was given a new puppy.She was happy about this—except for the fact that an eagle took to circling over the puppy’s kennel. She knew well enough how fast and strong a golden eagle can be when it set its sights on something.Whether or not it was good for her, she stated, she really wanted that puppy—and had to do something about her fear for it.So she went to the log where she has a “gift plate” and left an offering of food for the eagle with the prayer that it not eat her puppy.When she returned, the food was gone and an eagle feather was in its place. Notably, the feather had a tiny splotch of blood at the tip of the quill. She had never seen a feather with blood on it like that.

This led to speculation that the eagle had pulled out its feather to give her. In any event, it left her puppy alone after that.

I would not presume to tell you what was in that eagle’s mind. But I like to contemplate what our world might look like if we all treated the natural world with this kind of diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy entailed in the gifts to the water at the ceremony at Cottage Grove. The is the way Grandma Aggie, the guiding force behind this ceremony and the local grandmother’s councils, urges us to treat the water: as if it is a live thing that can hear us and understand when we honor it.

Thanks to all those who offered me this vision this afternoon.

This post is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to use it.

Takelma-Siletz Elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim: Honoring the Water

Before she blesses the Willamette River, pouring into it a vial of similarly blessed water from around the world, Takelma-Siletz spiritual elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim thanks the natural elements, including the cloud people, for their cooperation. The latter answered her prayer to hold off so that it would be a nice day for people to gather. The sun is shining on this perfect day, April 26, 2008 in Eugene, Oregon. That is something to be grateful for after six weeks of unsettled weather.

“Grandma Aggie” is here to help us honor the water. She tells the gathered crowd of two hundred that the water hears us when we thank it for cleaning us and quenching our thirst. “We are all water babies”, she says, reminding us that we are composed largely of water.

In her eighties, Grandma Aggie is the oldest member and chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers whose goal is to “circle the globe” with social and environmental healing. As stated in the book that tells their story (Carol Schaefer, Grandmothers Counsel the World), this remarkable community of holy women came together in October 2004 (post 911) from “the Amazon rain forest, the Arctic Circle, the vast plains of North America, the highlands of Central America, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the mountains of Oaxaca, the desert of the American Southwest, the mountains of Tibet, and the rain forest of central Africa” in “an alliance of prayer, education, and healing for our Mother Earth-for all Her inhabitants, for all the children, and for the next seven generations”.

Grandma Aggie has visited the lands of the other grandmothers and seen firsthand the lamentable pollution of the world’s greatest rivers. She has also experienced increasingly widespread drought in the global arena. She says Mother Earth is withdrawing her water, taking her precious source of life back into her womb-as she will continue to do if humans continue to treat our water as we are. The sign she requested for the water-honoring ceremony reads, “The River is not a Garbage Dump.”

Grandma Aggie jokes that if she were to write a personal memoir, it would be entitled, “Everybody’s Grandma”. With the humility befitting a spiritual leader she resisted assuming her current leadership role at first. She did not think she would live up to the model of her Takelma (Rogue River) ancestors like her grandfather George Harney.

Harney saw her people through terrible times following their removal far from their homelands to the Siletz Reservation. When the government informed one Rogue River elder, Whiskus, he had signed an agreement to vacate his land and come to Siletz, he insisted he had not understood he agreed to any such thing -it made “his heart sick”. It was a grave sickness, indeed. In the early days at Siletz, Indian Agent Metcalfe noted among the residents of Rogue River descent, “a depression of spirits” so serious that those who suffered from it died. Indeed, far from their homeland, with no food or shelter, 205 out of 590 (the remnants of several thousands) Rogue River Indians died at Siletz within a year.

For two decades after their forced removal to Siletz, the survivors of the Rogue River people worked to build homes on the new land. Then the government decided to remove them the lands they had worked at Siletz-and open up those lands to white settlement. When the government informed them of their decision in 1873, George Harney (Olhatha), Chief of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, protested: “We do not want to be driven away. We were driven here, and now this is our home, and we want to stay.” Harney also went on record to state that his people were tired of token gifts of blankets, tobacco, and shirts-and were ready to receive their promised treaty goods of teams and wagons and tools-and schools for their children.

Grandma Aggie doesn’t speak of this bleak history before the gathering of the Willamette Valley Grandmothers, one of the local grandmothers’ councils springing up on the model of the global council everywhere. She is too busy finding the good in everyone. “You could put me on death row”, she laughs, “And I would find the goodness in the inmates there”.

She does express her hope, however, that the Thirteen International Grandmothers will get the audience with the Pope they have requested. They want him to rescind the Vatican edict of 1493 that supported the killing of “non-believers” on lands discovered by Europeans. “He wasn’t there”, Grandma Aggie says, “He didn’t do it”. Thus it wouldn’t hurt him to take that edict back. And it would do a great deal of good, as it did when the Australian government recently apologized to the Aborigines.

These days Grandma Aggie travels the globe, but she is also leading a resurgence of spirit and culture on her homeland. Last year she re-instituted her people’s sacred salmon ceremony at its ancient site. This year’s salmon ceremony will be a large gathering-even as Grandma Aggie continues to invite more and more people to attend. She has arranged to generously feed all the travelers who will arrive for the three day ceremony. She has also done research to house and feed the group in an environmentally friendly way. It is only fitting in a ceremony that praises the sacrifice of the female salmon that fight their way upstream to continue their people even as their bodies become nourishment for “thirty-three kinds of birds and forty-four kinds of animals”.

“Walking her talk” consists of caring for all the species who share this earth with us. “If the polar bears and the elephants and the tigers aren’t in good shape, than we’re not in very good shape either”.

There are many things to mourn in our world today, but Grandma Aggie counsels happiness. “You should live each day as if you were to die tomorrow. When you live with one foot in the other world as I do, you know how important it is to make the most of each day.”

For Grandma Aggie each day is comprised of soulful commitments and earthly delights. She smiles when she sees another of those dragonflies that surround her. The name of Transformer who made the earth good for people in venerable Takelma stories was Daldal- Dragonfly. The dragonflies that accompany her everywhere remind her of the presence of her ancestors. They also let her know the Creator is helping her as she “walks her talk”.

Grandma Aggie’s vision requires a transformation as great as Daldal’s in those Takelma stories. But she does not plan to do it alone. “I have a ship run by the L-word. It’s friendship and it’s run by love.”

Without skipping a beat she adds, “I am happy.” That is what she wishes for all of us. She advises us to laugh every day, telling us how good this is for us.

Later, when I pause to say good-bye to Grandma Aggie, she grins and says, “It was a good day, wasn’t it?”


For additional inspiration on grandmothers active for social and environmental justice, check out the Raging Grannies and Holly Near’s song, 1000 Grandmothers.

The Alliance for Democracy also has a campaign to protect water quality and public access to global waters.

Feel free to pass on the material in this post, but please cite its source. Thank you.

Tree Huggers in the City

One day I looked out my window to see a woman with her arms around the old maple tree in front of my house.When I stepped out my door, she explained she has just had breast cancer surgery and, “It feels like healing here.”

Research has shown that those who look out on a tree from their hospital window heal faster than those with no such view.Perhaps this woman sensed that if looking at a tree is healing, touching it might be more healing still. Each day for several days she came to hug this tree while her husband stood by.

A few days after she ceased coming, there was another woman with her arms around this tree.“I just had shoulder surgery”, she told me, “And this tree is just the right height to stretch my arm”. She also came with a male partner who stood by. Then they, like the other couple, turned and walked back to wherever they had come from.

I wouldn’t have picked these couples out of an ordinary crowd at say, a movie theater. I certainly wouldn’t have looked at the women and declared, “These are the women who will stop on a city sidewalk to hug a tree”. In their similarity with any of us, their actions sign a recognition that lies in each of us as well — no matter how deeply it may be buried in the trappings of modern life. That is a recognition that we belong to the natural web of life—and some generously rooted thing in that web might have the power to heal our wounds.

As a street tree, the roots of this particular tree are confined by a cement sidewalk on one side and the street on the other.In such a position in the world, it does more than thrive– it flourishes. So do its green companions. In its leaf mold, naturalized flowers bloom in a riot of color every spring and I watch strollers stop to enjoy them.Later in the year, children from a nearby day care linger in the shade under this tree on their walk to a local park.Passing workers park under the tree to enjoy their lunch.

Under the canopy of this tree, walkers sometimes stop to ask me about what grows in my yard. It is thus children learn to pluck the grape kiwis that hang on my front trellis or chew fennel seeds in the herb garden by the street. When I see a father stop to test the kiwis for ripeness as his son watches, something essential pass between father and son with the tree as a guardian angel in this process.

Providing succor is something trees have done for us for as many generations as we have been human. This tree continues this great tradition among trees as it creates community between neighbors and strangers on my city street.It unites us in a common language, showing us that a shared world is a richer one.

But to understand this language, we must let ourselves be vulnerable to the larger than human world—give in to our impulse to lean on a tree. We must abandon our human separateness—our human smallness for something larger.

Above all, we must drop the notions that set us apart from the natural world—ideas like “survival of the fittest.” The ancient peoples of the Pacific Northwest where I now live saw things differently. “The eyes of the world are looking at you,” Chehalis elder Henry Cultee told me.His elders taught him that it was these multiple eyes of natural life that determine our longevity, as persons and as a people.

What his people anciently knew, modern ecologists are just now learning. In any ecological niche, including the one in a contemporary city, interdependence not only enhances the quality of our lives—it ensures our survival. If we really want to use the word, “survival of the fittest”, we must understand “fittest” in true survival terms—in terms of how we “fit” within natural systems.

Perhaps we might even learn to shelter other humans who share this earth with us as does the tree in front of my house.

           And an addendum (12 years after I wrote this): 

          A woman stopped by while I was working in my yard last week to introduce herself and tell me she was one of  the women hugging that venerable maple all these years ago. She just wanted to tell me it was a sacred tree:  she had breast cancer then, but is cancer free now and has been for over a decade.

You are welcome to link to this post;  note, however, it is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden. Feel free to email me if you wish to use it.

Supporting the Heart of Palestine: An Avenue to Peace in the Middle East

By Madronna Holden

“Whenever something makes us happy, something else makes us sad again.”

–Palestinian girl growing up under Israeli Occupation

“If you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians – oh bless your hearts – take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, backup. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.”

–Abuna Elias Chacour, Palestinian bishop of Galilee

In 1982-1983, I taught at BirZeit University and lived among the Palestinians at Ramallah under the Israeli Occupation.In spring of 1983 I wrote these words in my journal:

Spring has come to the mountains of Palestine, drying out the winter rains that dampened everything in our stone house. We are warm for the first time in months, but I feel vulnerable in the dazzling sunlight, as if I were made of glass and the ever- present wind of Occupation could blow right through me. How good it would be to surrender to the exuberance of the Palestinian earth bursting with green. How good it would be to live a predictable life, not threatened with deportation by the Occupation forces because I am among the foreign teachers who have refused to sign a statement declaring the PLO a terrorist organization.

By mid-April the land is in full bloom and my husband and daughter and I are invited to dinner in Jerusalem by a Palestinian-American who teaches with us at BirZeit. I do not want to go. I want only to hide away behind walls with my daughter at my side. But my husband coaxes me into accepting.

The taxis are slow because the road is crowded. It seems everyone is going to Jerusalem on this lovely day, even as I wonder if this will be the day when the West Bank explodes from the tension pressed on it by occupation. In my mind the houses, the stores, the fields at the side of the road enflame and turn to ash.

“Why did we leave?” asked our elder Palestinian neighbor, referring to those who fled the Arab quarter of Jerusalem in 1964. “There were soldiers, there were guns, and when there are soldiers and guns, something may happen. Our neighbor’s houses were drilled with bullets. We do not blame the soldiers. But when there are soldiers it is best to leave.”

The slow tears thickened on his cheeks as he spoke of the wife and children he never had, since as a refugee he had no house for them. Still he will not allow his story to be “used by someone against someone else. I will not enter politics. Politics divides up everything, politics always lies.”

Our Palestinian-American colleague tells us there is a saying among his people, “Politicians should be sent to the moon to see how small the world is”.

On the way to the Mount of Olives where his brother lives, he points out the ways the streets of the old city of Jerusalem are engineered to take advantage of convection currents that yield heat in the winter, cooling in the summer.

“Arab architecture is very practical. Like Arab burial.” After two hours, his mother was in the ground, before he could get his money out of a bank in Illinois and come back for the funeral. It is practical for a number of reasons: “Why all this fuss and expense on a dead body? And who wants to see your loved one like that?”

He missed his mother’s funeral but he came back to live with his relatives on the Mount of Olives and teach at BirZeit.

At his brother’s house we are offered a roomful of food for five people: stuffed fish, chicken, rolled grape leaves, soup, delicate cucumber and tomato salad, wide meat patties baked with potatoes and other vegetables, heaps of steamed yellow rice: a Friday meal. We are told guests who do not eat it all offend their hosts.

Afterwards, we walk in the cool garden, a tiny space lush with trees of every kind: almond, fig, pomegranate, lemon, orange, olive, mulberry, apple, plum—bordered with the inevitable grape vine and a row of bee houses to pollinate the trees and yield honey from the flowers. All this exists in perhaps a quarter of an acre. The leaves of the trees crowd onto one another, but they are lush and heavy, tended by a traditional Palestinian gardener who knows how to use grafting to strengthen their limbs.

Here there is no garbage caught up and blown in the wind as in other parts of the land. Here every inch of land is carefully, lovingly, tended and it responds in kind.

“It is nice here in summer to take a chair and sit,” he says, as we linger in the shade of trees as loved by this man as they are by the sun and wind.

“These are simple people”, our Palestinian-American host tells us on the way back to Ramallah. He obtained a PhD in mathematics in the States and is having difficulty re-adjusting to life here. But the “simple people” he cannot fault. “I like them best, though they are too easy going. Just smile and you win their hearts. Everyone takes advantage of the simple people of the world.”

After an afternoon with these simple people of Palestine, the helmets and machine guns are at bay in my mind and the spring in Palestine blooms for me once again. I am in a buoyant mood, the sun sparking the sails of the wind that curved up under the Mount of Olives.

Behind the “green line” of Occupation where many non-settler Israelis feared to go because of the calculated publicity of the Occupation Administration, I often opened my door in the evenings to find a child’s smiling face as she proffered a handful of delicate sweets to my family. I walked by lines of Palestinian women who did not wish to remain strangers, calling out, “Come in, come in”, urging me to drink sweet mint tea as they bounced my daughter on their knees, passing her between them to make her laugh until she showed the first sign of a fuss and they handed her back to me. As I nursed her, they clapped their hands in delight. One woman exclaimed, “How nice for her!”

The children of Ramallah and El-Bireh trailed us through the streets calling out “Shalom”—using the Jewish rather than Arabic world for peace, since they took me for Jewish in my modern western clothes. They made a game out of asking my daughter’s name and repeating it back amidst peals of laughter.

“Simple people”, Palestinian peace activist Abuna Chacour, bishop of Galilee and several time Nobel peace prize nominee, also called those Palestinians he grew up among at Biram in his book, We Belong to the Land.He hastened to add that this did not mean they were isolated or politically naïve.They sought out and analyzed world news in a way that honored the Arab tradition that, like the Jewish one, holds scholarship and intellectual debate in high esteem.

This tradition is not neglected even after four generations in Palestinian refugee camps created by the Six Day War, where siblings still teach one another to read.

When Chacour’s family learned the news of the Nazi Holocaust, they prayed fervently that justice would come to the suffering Jewish people. Later Israelis bombed Biram to make room for a Jewish settlement. I do not think they understood they bombed the houses which held such prayers on their behalf.

Such “simple” people were responsible for the collection of keys and other shiny objects growing on our dresser in Ramallah, gifts proffered to entertain my daughter in shared taxi rides. When we introduced ourselves as BirZeit faculty in those taxis we would be thanked for not signing that statement declaring the PLO a terrorist organization. Then those who sat with us would express pride in the possibility of the democratic self-rule of Palestine.

It was the PLO that gave the word that the students should not demonstrate no matter what the provocation from the soldiers that year. There must be no excuse for the Occupation to close the university, since education was the road to the self-rule of the Palestinian people.

But under Occupation it was illegal to speak publicly in favor of a Palestinian state. My students sometimes straggled into my morning classes wet and shivering from having slept in the fields to avoid the soldiers going house to house to look for the colors of the Palestinian flag–and arrest the offenders who possessed them.

The simple people of Palestine have a long memory. They do not forget the thousand year old family olive tree even after it has been uprooted—the tree whose years parallel the genealogy of the family that cared for it. After the bombing of Biram, Chacour’s father stayed on to tend the family trees now in the Israeli settlers’ fields in order to ensure their well-being until he felt too much like a “slave” and could stay no longer. Until his death, he felt that soil calling to him to return, a right upheld by the UN, but refused by the Israeli government for unspecified “matters of state”.

Where there are such links to the land, there is the heart of the Palestinian people.
One day I passed by the elder refugee who refused to assign blame tenderly pulling weeds away from the roots of an unlikely looking tree, with the rubble of bombed out houses as the backdrop.

“It is a pear tree,” he announced as he looked up to greet me, “It deserves to live”.

If the violence between Jewish and Palestinian “blood brothers”, as Chacour rightly calls them, can be undone by any means, it is by supporting the heart of the Palestinian people in their links to their land. I know this much: a man in line for the responsibility of caretaking a thousand year old olive tree passed down in his family does not become a suicide bomber.

Indeed, refusing the right of return to their homes and land to uprooted Palestinians undermines the security of Israeli. If the Occupation ever does succeed in destroying the connection between Palestinians and their land, they will not only destroy the heart of the Palestinian people—but give themselves the daunting task of living beside a people without a heart.

It has not aided Israeli security that the Occupation consistently attacked the forces of moderation and education in Palestine, as it did the year I lived there. Nor has it served either Israeli security or basic human justice to punish civilian populations for the acts of a few , a policy I saw carried out twenty-five years ago even as it was most recently carried out in the blockade of Gaza. There is no better way to alienate one’s potential allies.

It has gained nothing to keep Israelis and Palestinians from meeting one another face to face as the Occupation did during the winter of 1983, when they stopped a bus load of students from Hebrew University who were coming to have lunch with their Palestinian peers and made them stand all day in the sleet before they turned them back to Jerusalem.

Certainly the security of Israel is bolstered by the actions of these students, who were those willing to cross the “green line” of occupation the current Israeli government is building into a wall, even as it is bolstered by those who organized a relief convoy of food and water filters during the recent Gaza blockade.

In the wake of failed Occupation policy, it is time for the Israeli government to support the heart of Palestine that lies in its people and their belonging to their land. A first step would be the acceptance of the cease fire offered by Hamas for the sake of the “simple people” who must manage their lives under the Occupation.

Admittedly, that decision will take courage, but it will set the Israelis on the side of both justice and hope.

You are welcome to link to this post.  Note, however, it is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden. Feel free to email me if you wish to copy it into some other format.

What the storm says


By Madronna Holden

I am going to go out on a limb here. I am going to assert my belief that there is something mysterious in the life of the natural world that wants to reach us, to touch us (to heal us). Even though we cannot prove this, we can tell its story as if the larger-than-human world is trying to communicate with us–and therefore change the way we live. Perhaps by telling our story differently, we may create a partnership with the world we share, move toward a flourishing future for those who inherit the results of our actions on this earth.

We do know (courtesy of the Gaia hypothesis) that the natural world exhibits a system of balance built up over millions of years. We barely understand the complex mechanisms by which all the parts of this system tune themselves to one another. Surely they do not all speak English! Thus it is incumbent on us to try to try to understand that larger-than-human language instead.

If this sounds too quirky for you, imagine some of its results. There is Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock, who stated she attained her knowledge by “listening to the corn”.

Each of us can try a parallel approach in our everyday lives, telling the story of our relationship to the world as if it were speaking to us. Here is an example. One of my students has an autistic child who has from birth had a remarkable connection with the natural world, believing, for instance, that everything is alive and also that we should be saving the world’s wild seeds. Set this in context: autism rates are currently skyrocketing and a substantial portion of that increase is caused by exposure to human-caused pollution.

Ancient cultures speak of the wounded healer, which gives us a way to tell this story. Here is a child wounded by harm to the natural world who also carried with him into life a profound motivation to heal that harm. This sense of purpose is untaught, something in a language humans do not regularly speak, to which it is sometimes very hard to listen. But from listening to this child his mother learned much of her own environmental awareness.

We need our science (the kind that truly listens to our world) to right the environmental crises we are currently facing: we also need our stories. We need metaphors in the ancient sense of the word: metaphors that “carry across”, that create a bridge (with all the water of mystery flowing beneath it) between ourselves and the larger than human world.

When the great tsunami ravaged Asia a short while ago, some traditional tribal peoples did not suffer the damage of more “civilized” peoples. On a simple level, their mangrove swamps were still in tact to ameliorate the effects of the tsunami. But something else as well: they say they listened to the animals who told them the storm was coming and moved to higher ground before it hit. How was this? By the way they moved? Did they note their restlessness? Or perhaps they understood them in a language more complex and profound.

Imagine listening to other living things (and to one another) in this way–and then acting as if we are in partnership with the natural life that sustains us.

Imagine understanding storms as bringing us light (haven’t you already seen this in the way the wind illuminates the world by means of movement, the way the rain washes our world into its glowing potential)? Don’t we create our own form of chaos when we take up the broom to sweep our houses clean?

And isn’t it the things which are most inconvenient to our habitual way of doing things that have the most to teach us, bringing us to our own larger selves?

You are welcome to link to this post.  Note, however, it is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden. Feel free to email me if you wish to use or copy it.

Hunger Hell

By Madronna Holden

What is your idea of hell? In 1976 Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee (from the Grays Harbor area of Washington State) told me his version of the traditional story in which Bluejay visits the Land of the Dead. There, amidst entire nations of Indian people and animal species, Bluejay found a white man, munching away, declaring, “Eat it all up!” Cultee’s version of hell was tragically prophetic. In a consumer society that seems hell-bent on eating up the natural world, we also have a current epidemic of obesity among children. As indicated in the PBS special recently aired on this topic, the loneliness, shame, and personal agony of these overweight children does not seem far removed from anyone’s idea of hell.

At the end of show a panel discussed ways to address the childhood obesity epidemic. It is no small health challenge. Those who suffer obesity at such a young age tilt the odds toward losing their eyesight to diabetes before they reach thirty. Panel members spoke of regaining cultural choices in place of fast (maybe we should call it “fat”) food. They also discussed impoverished food choices in underprivileged communities, where less expensive foods supply calories without nourishment. How many white bread buns or candy bars or chips does it take to give the body the nutrients it needs? Until its nutrient needs are met, surely the body will still hunger. I love one solution to changing their children’s eating habits put forth by members of a Latino community on the PBS show: sharing meals together.

One thing the panel did not address was what the desperate hunger of these children might be telling us, especially when we place it alongside the other diseases of hunger in this nation of plenty—such as anorexia and bulimia. When a child cries over a hamburger he feels he should keep himself from eating, we feel his helplessness, his sense that he has no real power—or right—to nourish himself.

Certainly our media works to distort and manipulate our sense of our own hunger. It is more than lack of exercise that associates obesity with hours of television viewing; it is exposure to this kind of propaganda. Disassociation from our authentic hunger is a boon for a system built on consumption. As an addiction counselor once phrased it, “We can never get enough of what we don’t want in the first place”. Those who never get enough will never stop consuming.

Only a nation out of touch with its own real hunger would allow the pollution of its food—and reward those who create such pollution with financial profits. How can we tell children that they should limit their eating when consumption is so tied into with success in our society—even as our levels of consumption are undermining the natural sources of our nourishment?

Take the pollution of breast milk, which Sweden (but not the US) has effectively addressed by prohibiting the use of dangerous chemicals found in that milk. The chemicals in breast milk reflect the chemical burden we all bear, though infants bear this burden especially uneasily. Their own chemical exposures are linked with escalating rates of autism and developmental disabilities—and of cancer, which is currently the main killer of children in our society.

Recently, a study of the Mohawk community at Akwesasne, where diabetes is epidemic, found that the larger their body burden of particular chemicals, the more likely they were to have diabetes. Tragically that body burden is linked to the consumption of the traditional healthy fish diets of the Mohawk. The problem is that these fish now come from polluted waters—not, need I say, polluted by the Mohawk.

Another growing body of research links obesity with body burdens of particular chemicals as well. It is no surprise that endocrine disruptors should disrupt our body’s ability to metabolize food and regulate our weight. And it is no secret that impoverished communities bear the brunt of environmental pollution and so have the highest body burdens of endocrine disruptors such as dioxin, chlorinated pesticides and fire retardants.

A nation that sanctions such pollution by rewarding it with profit is also a nation divided. It is a nation very different from the kind of society where hunger is shared and satiated by those who live close to the earth that sustains them. In the traditions of elder Henry Cultee’s people, only “low class” people failed to share food with others. “If someone was hungry, somebody else would come along to help”. In this context, it was bad manners even to ask, “Are you hungry?” You just brought out the food. Cultee’s views were linked to an intimate respect for the shared earth that sustained his people for generations.

There are parallel beliefs where people live close to the shared earth that nourishes them. An elderly neighbor of mine tells me that in her natal Czech farming community one did not say “thank you” for a gift of anything—such as the fruit or flowers I sometimes bring her—that comes from the earth. She lavishly praises me (far beyond what my small acts deserve) for my labor and thoughtfulness, but for the gifts themselves she thanks the earth. My Czech grandfather had a similar reverence for the natural world—a reverence that also mandated sharing. My father tells of the time the police caught two men stealing meat from his tiny Iowa butcher shop. When they asked my grandfather if he wanted to press charges, he replied, “If they are hungry, the meat belongs to them. Give it back.”

Hunger is not a sin, nor is nourishing ourselves. Nor is poverty, for that matter. I agree with my grandfather’s assessment that true poverty is expressed by those who have too much when others are starving.

I would like to suggest that if we wish to cure the epidemic of obesity outlined in the PBS special, we should feed ourselves well, addressing our hunger for such things as community, belonging, purpose, acceptance, creativity, time to ourselves, and physical exercise—not to mention sustaining food, fresh air and clean water. One of the hopeful signs I see is the (literal!) sprouting of urban gardens in which healthy eating, care for the land, and community are combined.

A world in which we truly nourish ourselves would be one in which we listen to our bodies to tell us how to meet our physical hunger (even if we have to work to relearn this), and our hearts to tell us what unique gift each of us is meant to give back to the life of our shared world.

In which we care together for the earth upon which we rely to feed us all—rather than “eating it all up”.

You are welcome to link to this post.  Note, however, it is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden. Feel free to email me if you wish to pass it on in any other way than linking to it.