Wangari Maathai 1940-2011

By Madronna Holden

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

–Wangari Maathai

 Growing up in her Kikuyu village in the sight of Mt. Kenya, Wangari Maathai learned to revere that mountain as the glacial source of rivers and rain that sustained her land and people.  When her people climbed that peak, they walked barefoot out of reverence, for they felt they were approaching the realm of God.

Heaven, Maathai asserted, is right here, in our lives and the presence of the other lives of all species that share the earth. Thus the Kikuyu recognized the presence of divinity on the mountain.  As long as the people looked up and saw the clouds on the top of Mt. Kenya (that mountain, Maathai wrote, is a “shy mountain” and usually covered), they knew they could rely on the rains to come and the rivers to run full.

That reliance has grown shakier as the glaciers recede with climate change and logging denudes the land.  Maathai asserted that the land does not like to be “naked” in this way.  It wants to be covered with green life: with the trees that also yield protection for water resources, food, firewood and building materials for local villages. By tradition, her Kikuyu people never cut the streamside trees whose roots protected the abundance and clarity of precious water resources.

From her culture, especially as passed on to her from her grandfather, Professor Wangari Maathai of Nairobi University, the first African woman to hold a Nobel Prize and the first person to earn that prize as an environmentalist, learned to look at the mountain and “understand the future”.  Her reverence for the mountain motivated her work in the Greenbelt Movement, along with her continued emphasis on the relationship between social and environmental justice for the people of Kenya– as she  emphasized in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

In 1977, she founded the Greenbelt Movement, ultimately responsible for planting 47 million trees in Africa and billions of trees worldwide. Such planting was primarily the work of poor women carefully tending and watering their trees.

Without culture, Maathai wrote, humans have no real security in the world and easily succumb to the lure of material goods as a short term “fix”. It is a poor substitute for real security.  Maathai acknowledges there are negative things in some African cultures—but also positive ones that counteract the colonial assertions of African “backwardness”.  Essential among these is the ways in which traditional peoples know how to sustain their lives and health of their lands together.

As the current tribute to her life on the website of the Greenbelt Movement states, Wangari Maathai’s experience increasingly supported her view that “poverty and environmental destruction” were intertwined with “deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures”.

Founding and guiding the Greenbelt Movement that included over 900,000 African women was not always easy.  Maathai and other Greenbelt members were consistently jailed and harassed by the authoritarian regime of Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.

Even as Maathai considered environmental protection and human justice intertwined, she continued to speak out for both.  At one point she was beaten unconscious by police in a demonstration seeking the release of political prisoners—a demonstration that ultimately resulted in the release of 51 men.

Even as leaders were by tradition accountable to their people, Maathai used her own social status to support the cause of justice, as when she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five of her sister Nobel Laureates to advocate for peace, justice and equality worldwide.

It is with good reason that women were at the center of Maathai’s priorities as she developed ways to empower poor women globally.  Elected parliamentary representative after the demise of the authoritarian Moi regime, Nobel Laureate, professor at Nairobi University (the first woman to assume that position), winner of the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003), the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the Sophie Prize (2004), the Goldman Prize (1991), the Right Livelihood Award (1984), and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Morehouse College in the U.S., Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, Maathai still could not obtain a divorce from her husband who protested that she was “too outspoken for a woman”. Indeed, she was jailed for criticizing the judge who failed to grant her that divorce.

From the time that as a child Maathai lived in terror of the crushing violence of colonial authorities putting down the Mau Mau insurgence, Maathai experienced firsthand the effects of such violence on women and children.  Still she was tireless in enacting her vision even in the face of such violence. “Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times”, Maathai wrote, “But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”

Sadly, the world has just lost this remarkable leader though ovarian cancer. But in her 71 years on this earth, she left a powerful legacy.  Her example is a distinctive one for meeting the environmental and social crises we currently face.

She taught us the importance of holding to our vision in the face of overwhelming odds—even as she worked in her own life to supplant the violence levied against her and the earth with compassion and justice.

Maathai modeled the way in which a simple act such as planting and caring for a tree can give poor women their power back at the same time that it can change the world for the better. And multiplied in community, such an act can become billions strong.

The roots of the billions of trees newly planted in Wangari Maathai’s wake are testimony to the hope and persistence that each of us might express in our lives, wherever and whoever we are.

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I want to acknowledge my former student Julie Bovett for emailing me about the sad fact of Wangari Maathai’s passing.

Lessons from Yellowjackets: Speaking with the Natural World

By Madronna Holden

Some years back, my then three year old daughter and I were sitting in our front yard when a decidedly threatening man appeared and insisted I hire him.

For what, he never said.

In fact, without listening to my answer–which was an instinctive “no”– he let himself through our side gate and went around to the back of the house.

I barely had time to register my alarm at the fact he didn’t leave when I asked him to than he came out of our yard again, shouting that he was being attacked.

He was indeed. He had a swarm of yellowjackets in hot pursuit.

We never saw him again.

We ourselves came into daily contact with the yellowjackets who had a nest in our yard, but they never bothered us. I felt no qualms about sharing our garden with insects that had the capacity to be a nuisance, but also assisted us with pollination in the spring and consumption of other insects to feed their young later in the year.

I liked to imagine they refrained from stinging us since we tended the place where they found their sustenance—and they sensed this in whatever way yellowjackets might sense such things.

I liked to imagine that our daily rounds had become an accepted element of their world like rain and grass.

I know there are less poetic explanations for the yellowjacket attack on the stranger when they were so peaceable with us.  But I am reminded of the response Albert Einstein gave when asked if humans might one day reduce everything in nature to scientific explanation. His answer was yes, but that would be like explaining Beethoven through the measurement of sound waves. We could do it, but it would tell us nothing about the music.

Reportedly the anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski once grew impatient with the Trobriand Islanders as they related the reverent actions that made their yam gardens grow. Attempting to elicit a more pragmatic basis for their methods, he asked them whether they didn’t notice cause and effect.

They told him that was the simple explanation. The one reserved for things that didn’t have any meaning.  And growing the garden that gave them life did not fall into that category.

Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel once observed that it is an ” arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

I agree.  I prefer the story of natural creatures who express themselves in their own ways—and sometimes, if we are lucky, do so on our behalf.

I like to think that such creatures—even those we may be least apt to recognize as brethren—might choose to accept us into their communities and form alliances with us.

If we take a different view of the natural world– that of a “mere puzzle to be solved”, we lose considerable capacity for both wonder and vision.

The following Plains Indians story of a vision quest is illustrative.

A man who is seeking a vision fasts for several days.  He cries for his vision, humbling himself before the spirits of the world.

When he has done this for many long days and still no vision comes to him, he becomes desperate.  He climbs to the top of a great waterfall, determined he will live with a vision or die without one.

He jumps, abandoning himself to the roiling water.  And at that moment a magnificent white buffalo appears and swims him safely to shore.

From that day forward, the white buffalo becomes his spirit guide.

For the Indian audience that is the end of the story.

Still, the storyteller knows non-Indians will have questions:  “Was that really a white buffalo that pulled him out of the water?  What would someone standing on the shore see?”

So the storyteller adds something for their sakes:  “Something pulled him out of that water,” he asserts, “And whatever that was, belongs to him.”

It is only because the observer is a mere watcher on the banks of the river of life that he questions the life-saving vision another has found for himself.  Such an observer, with his self-proclaimed “objectivity”, is all too ready to declare his view of reality superior to that of the one who has chosen to dive in.

When I worked among the Chehalis Indians several decades back, elders were indignant that members of non-Indian culture might deem their traditions as “just stories”.   In such stories, passed down through thousands of years, was the collected wisdom of a people.

For their part, the elders who kept this knowledge on behalf of their people expressed considerable epistemological sophistication.  They understood that their individual views of the world were not reality.  To make such an assumption would be to insult those who shared their world. They honored all their unique voices as they asserted, “No one speaks for anyone else”.

By contrast, “even the best scientists” in Western tradition have made the profound mistake of believing, as Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute, put it, “that the world operates by the same method they use to study it.”

With parallel arrogance, colonizers regularly deemed the beliefs of those whose lands they usurped as “superstition”.  Anthropologist Ruth Benedict had a response to that:  an analytic response that makes the way modern industrial society uses technology the real superstitious behavior.

According to her, superstitious behavior is based on adhering to simple stimulus and response. (This is the view of cause and effect without deeper understanding that the Trobrianders decried).  We do something—wear a black sock– and something happens—our team wins.  And so we continue to wear that sock every time our team plays in hopes of controlling the outcome.

Superstitious behavior attempts to control the world through magical thinking.  And thus we cast our lot not only with the black sock but with science’s magic bullets.

Incidentally, the story of the yellowjackets with which I began this essay could  also become an instance of such superstitious thinking  if I interpreted it to mean that I might blithely trounce through the natural world without ever worrying about yellowjackets.

Like all stories, this one belongs to a particular time and place.  I have been elsewhere–out in the woods–in the front of a line of other humans on a hike when I inadvertently stepped too close to a yellowjacket nest and was stung.

And I can tell you a yellowjacket sting is no fun.  But the appropriate response seems to me not to try to get them because they got me– but to pay attention.  I have not learned to magically control all yellowjackets but to live with some of them for our mutual benefit.  They still are very much creatures of their own.

By contrast, our characteristic pesticide use is an instance of superstitious behavior by Benedict’s criteria.  We spray pesticides and insects die—until they no longer do because they have grown immune. But our behavior has becomes a reflex action.  So we spray more, still hoping to control the world for our convenience–not noticing the effects on the environment and our own health that a deeper assessment would bring us.

According to Benedict, the contrasting attitude is based on dialogue. It is about reverent communication with the world.  Thomas Berry eloquently expressed the same view when he stated that the world is not a “collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”

The first kind of behavior—the manipulation of our world—has left us with climate change and cancer epidemics and skyrocketing autism rates. The other one left us with sustainable models by which humans lived in harmony with their natural environments for thousands of years.

Wonder cannot be commanded, but if we view the world with humility and respect, there is just a chance it will respond to us with marvelous rather than deadly surprises—as happened in the modern community of Gaviotas in Colombia.

The consequence of their careful partnership with place was the serendipitous restoration of the rainforest in all its biodiversity on once ravaged aluminum-laced llanos.

We should all be so graced.

Burning down the House

As Chehalis elders reminded a visiting anthropologist in 1926, human power strong enough to heal is also power strong enough to kill. It would not have surprised them that the third leading cause of death in the US today, after cancer and heart disease, is undergoing a medical procedure.

Today we are great at developing new technologies– but not so great at considering the results of applying them– or even understanding what those results might be. Thus we sorely need the “precautionary principle” instituted in European Union countries and some municipalities in the U.S. That principle states, “No data, no market” with respect to innovative technologies. That is, we shouldn’t market such new technologies until we have researched their safety. As modern philosopher Andrew Light observed, we look both ways before crossing the street even though we are not one hundred per cent certain a car is coming. We might certainly apply the same basic standard of precaution to the thousands of new chemicals and genetically engineered foods their developers are releasing annually into our shared environment.

Indeed we might apply parallel standards of care to all human technology. Take the example of the wildfires currently burning everywhere in the West. One could hardly find a more basic form of human technology than fire. Learning to set that first fire was an important step for humans. No more cold winters and raw meat. It seems we like this about ourselves. Western culture cheers those who “set the world on fire”. But that does not absolve us of choices. A deed that is “world burning” is only a good thing until we come face to face with global warming. And even a single campfire may spread out of control and set someone else’s house on fire if not properly handled.

We might do well mull over traditional stories told by indigenous Northwesterners such as the Chehalis, which encouraged care in dealing with fire-and by extension, with all human technology. Fires burned on the prairies between the land of the living and the land of the dead in such tales. In one story, Bluejay has to cross these prairies-and learn lessons about how to deal with fire-lest he get himself burned up and relegated to the land of the dead forever.

This story taught pragmatic lessons to those who regularly gathered in inter-tribal groups to set fires to clear out the underbrush in their landscapes that otherwise provided fuel for more dangerous fires. At the same time their fires encouraged habitat for game animals and important food crops. Those fires were essential, and they set then with care.

Without their own stories that helped them deal with fire, pioneers stopped native burning and suppressed fires started by natural causes. Smokey the Bear became our icon. But that didn’t exactly work out as planned. If an area has no small fires, fire fuel builds up there. When that area does burn in the inevitable course of things, it burns with a larger and hotter fire. Today Forest Service policies have put that lesson into effect to allow for controlled burning and/or fires started by natural causes to burn unabated.

Fire is not good or bad in itself. It is not a matter of whether we should laud it or outlaw it. Instead we have to learn how to handle it. And as the example of fire illustrates, in learning how to handle it, we must account for the cumulative and spreading effects of our actions. In parallel fashion, we must assess the health effects of chemicals currently in production before we release new ones into the environment, as stressed in a memo sent recently to the members of Congress crafting the Kid-Safe chemicals Act by the Science and Environmental Health Network.

I am impressed by the compassion for their fellow citizens exhibited under emergency conditions. Last night (July 10) shelters housing those who evacuated because of the fire in Spokane issued a call for donated toys. They were flooded with so many responses, in only a few hours they had to issue a request to stop sending donations.

But on the flip side of our compassion, we have our carelessness. It is true that wildfires may be started by lightning strikes-and these in turn are exaggerated by global warming and its destabilizing weather patterns. But it’s also true that the vast majority of the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California were started not by lightning but by individual humans.

It seems our frontier mentality is still with us. According to the dictum of “full steam ahead” and “dam the torpedoes”. asking an entrepreneur to pause in getting a designer chemical to market is an unpatriotic as throwing a damper on a firecracker on the Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July gave campers in northern California ample opportunity to start the majority of thousands of wildfires there. My neighbor related her own experience celebrating the Fourth of July on the beach where crowds gathered to set off fireworks. She watched a father hand his toddler a lit bottle rocket- I imagine he wanted to share the excitement of shooting it off with him. The toddler, not knowing quite what to do with it, turned around in a circle and finally launched it-into the open door of the family van. Out of the van poured the rest of the family who happened to be lounging there out of the wind to watch the family fireworks. Then someone remembered the rest of their fireworks were still in the van. Back in they went with sand and water and fortunately captured the miscreant firework which miraculously hadn’t lit anything else on fire.

While my neighbor was laughing, she heard a whoosh and turned around to note that someone from another family group had tossed a sparkler into the backseat of her own car through an open window. After they managed to put it out, her family went home. They had had all the fun they wanted for one night.

Some seem to hold to the idea that if we’re on vacation, nothing bad could happen to us. We’ve entered a realm where none of the cautions we otherwise use in daily life apply. That’s the frontier mentality as well: if we’re pushing the boundaries of human technology, nothing bad will happen as a result.

As a first step in rectifying such abdications of caution, it would help to name things correctly. Just as we can’t rightly call the recent flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa a “natural disaster” (since it was due to the breaking of levies humans built to protect houses situated in a flood plain), we can’t blame the wildfires burning in the West “natural” disaster. There are a number of dams in Oregon with cracks in their infrastructure-dams holding back water from the flood plains where currently reside hundreds of thousands of people. If those dams break under stress, as did the levies in New Orleans and Cedar Rapids, it’s ignoring our own responsibility to label the results a “natural” disaster. And acknowledging our responsibility is the first step to taking care of both ourselves and our environment.

Assuming such responsibility allows us to learn from our mistakes. Forest Service policy aside, things haven’t changed much since pioneer times on the score of our carelessness with fire in the Pacific Northwest. Those who played out the bottle rocket version of keystone cops on the beach were only following precedent. The year before first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens came to announce his unacceptable treaty provisions to the indigenous folks on the Olympic Peninsula, local emigrants accidentally set the forest on fire during their own Fourth of July celebration. That fire raged out of control until the autumn rains finally put it out.

By the time Washington became a state things weren’t going much better. That year was 1889, the same year a Seattle fire consumed two dozen business blocks and all the mills and wharfs on the bay, in spite of the help of volunteer firemen from Victoria to Portland. A similarly devastating fire hit Spokane in late summer of that year, as did fires that took much of downtown Vancouver and destroyed parts of Ellensburg, Goldendale and Roslyn. As a Snohomish County pioneer put it, it seemed “inevitable in all pioneer towns” that fire “virtually destroyed the entire town”.

As smoke pours into the Willamette Valley and hunkers down here from the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California, I am reminded of an historical image relayed to me by venerable Lower Chehalis elder Nina Baumgartner. When the first Scotsman arrived on the Olympic Peninsula with his red hair flying out in all directions, her people joked that they thought his head was on fire. This joke was about more than appearance. Baumgartner went on to relate the tale in which Bluejay crosses those burning prairies– which she emphatically slanted toward the necessity of being careful with fire.

With our heads set on “full steam ahead”, we don’t dwell on the disastrous potential of our power. We forget that what seems adventurous or profitable in the moment might eventually burn down our neighbor’s house-or give our children cancer.

But to balance that dangerous foolishness is the level of community response that brought firefighters from Portland to Victoria on the scene in Seattle in 1889-the same kind of community response that caused those fighting California fires to travel 24 hours and then begin their work without sleep.

Imagine if we could put such community feeling to work on caring for the future of our shared planet, as those in the Science and Environmental Health Network are currently doing.

Olympia Peninsula elder Nina Baumgartner’s people had ten thousand years to learn how to live in partnership with their land–and to observe the effects of their own actions. We don’t have the luxury of such timing. But the precautionary principle, which states that human innovations need to be proved harmless before enacted, is a good place to start. This principle helps compensate for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. It helps protect humans and natural systems from harm as did traditional indigenous stories stressing care in how we use our power.

The Precaution Reporter provides a wealth of information on the movement to institute the precautionary principle globally. And the Science and Environmental Health Network provides an outline of this principle and ways to support it.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden, and if you wish to copy it, please email for permission. Thanks.