Popular Education in El Salvador

I have been a part of a lot of workshops.  They have been interesting, informative, painfully boring, predictable, creative, useless, and inspiring.  One of the primary goals of our time in Cinquera was that we would participate in, present, and support workshops put on by the sustainable agriculture work done by the ARDM (an organization focused on community organizing and development).  We have helped facilitate and attended several workshops.  The material and presentation of these workshops has made me want to rethink the way we teach in this type of setting.

A thread that ran through all the workshops we participated in was the pedagogy and practice of popular education.  To greatly simplify, this approach holds that each person has important skills and information to add to the conversation.  Popular education workshops utilize a wide variety of dinamicas (in the US we would call them energizers) to engage and give space for all participants to share.  In both workshops with adults and children these simple games were used to stretch out stiff bodies, break the ice, keep folks awake, and encourage engagement, interaction, and sharing.  I was impressed how these simple activities shaped the experience and pushed folks that might not share otherwise to offer thoughts, reflections, and opinions.

Another aspect of popular education that I noted in all the workshops we participated in was a willingness to discuss and introduce a wide variety of radical and revolutionary ideas.  From conversations of machismo and gender to discussions about imperialist/capitalist oppression, both workshop leaders and participants alike were willing and ready to discuss ideas that in the US we would be likely to avoid for fear of not being politically correct.  Here in El Salvador there is a degree of political education/awareness present in the everyday people of the world that I have rarely encountered in the US.  This common language of political engagement prevented the workshops from ever feeling stale or irrelevant.  Workshop topics were made eminently important by the parallels to the politics of everyday life drawn by presenters and participants.

The first workshop we participated in was with a group of campesinos (small farmers), all of whom are attempting to transition to using complete or partial sustainable practices on their farms. Sitting in a circle of plastic chairs with roughly 30 campesinos, who ranged from 20-75 years of age, I was struck by the awareness of intersecting histories of oppression that seemed almost taken for granted.  “This is revolutionary!  Sustainable Agriculture isn’t just something we do on the farm—it’s a way of life.  We are changing our health and freeing ourselves from being slaves to corporations like Monsanto.  This is why big companies don’t want us to do this.”  Thundered a man with a pale denim shirt and a baseball cap with a picture of Mini Mouse that said American Beauty.  His words were met with firm agreement.  Yes, yes, the nodding heads seemed to say, we know what is at stake and what we are up against.

11091147_10102756099057359_5449604362562846357_npractical demonstration during campesino workshop

In a workshop on climate change and metallic mining in El Salvador at the school of San Benito I was struck by the ease that ARDM organizers told the story of mining activists that had been assassinated by the mining company to a room full of students. “It’s good to learn about all this.”  One of the teachers told the students.  “It’s important that we are informed.  Also I think if they came and tried to build a mine here that we would stop them.  Yes, we would go into the streets and we would stop them.  Yes, I think we would not let them come into our community.

dinamicasdinamicas in San Benito

At the end of the workshop we had the students draw pictures of the climate crisis, its causes, and possible solutions.  On pages of white computer paper the students used pens and pencils make simple, honest drawings of rising seas, deforested hills, children picking up trash, and cars belching smoke.  As I looked at these pictures I found myself thinking that if we can’t stop this runaway race towards destruction (climate change) these children will be some of the first to suffer.

picturesclimate change pictures in San Benito

When I get back from El Salvador I’m launching into a summer of teaching with Outward Bound.  My hope is that after my experiences in workshops here I’ll bring new life and energy to my teaching.  I hope to use dinamicas to keep folks awake and engaged, bringing the pedagogy of population education into the way I imagine and experience teaching.  I hope that I won’t be afraid to introduce ideas that feel radical or revolutionary—that I’ll be able to speak with the same passion and resolve as the teachers and farmers who have taught me so much here.  Teaching can put you to sleep or it can light a fire.  Here in El Salvador I have found a method of teaching that brings life and fire into the eyes of students and participants.  Teaching this way brings the world alive.  If we expected all teaching to captivate like this truly radical and revolutionary things would be possible.


Lessons from Cinquera

White dust billows up behind us as we lurch and jolt down the road.  Everything is seco, seco (dry, dry).  A dog runs across the road as dirt turns to bricks.

Over the course of my time in El Salvador I’ll be spending just over two weeks in the small Salvadoran community of Cinquera.  Ethan, my pareja (partner), and I are staying with a family, working with the social organizing organization in the area, and bumbling our way through life there. I am humbled to be welcomed so graciously by so many.

Cinquera is perched on a steep hillside with distant views of lake Suchitlan.  Home to roughly 700 people, Cinquera was leveled by the Salvadoran Civil War of the 80’s and 90’s.  After the war the only structure left standing was a single wall of the church, pale brick pock-marked with bullet holes.  One day when we are sitting in the square eating papas fritas (french fries), the women making our food begins to tell us about her life and connection to Cinquera.  She was a guerrilla during the war, taken into custody and tortured several times.  She says that when they first came back to Cinquera after the war there was nothing but broken, twisted buildings.  In the night she says they could hear tiles from destroyed roofs falling and shattering on the ground.

Today Cinquera is a quiet village.  Nationally, many Salvadoran communities are plagued by gang violence, but Cinquera remains a safe, close-knit community.  The ease and comfort that both residents and tourists experience in Cinquera is in large part due to highly effective community organizing done by the ARDM (Association of Reconstruction and Municipal Development).  The ARDM works on projects related to youth, environment, sustainable agriculture, tourism, and historic memory.  The ARDM organizers I have encountered are dedicated, rooted, and highly visible in daily life in the community.

Tourism is part of the ARDM’s work and they are hosting us, two gringos who speak faltering Spanish, in part because we have promised to write and promote Cinquera through English-speaking venues on the internet.  In politicized, radical circles in the US, tourism in places like El Salvador is often viewed as an exploitative industry driven by the western world and not necessary rooted in the community itself.  In Cinquera, however, the projects and industry of tourism feel distinctly designed and utilized by the people.

The ARDM owns and manages a hostel and restaurant that sits just outside of the community center.  In the two weeks I’ve spent in Cinquera our two white faces have been the only foreign faces I’ve seen at the restaurant.  Every day at lunch, however, the line for food snakes out the door.  Faces I recognize from around town, as well as Salvadorans on various tours, crowd around tables to eat fragrant, tasty food. The hostel also has a large community meeting space, tucked down in the shade by a creek, that is used for meetings, trainings, and workshops.  This is not some tourist trap that lays quiet until the gringos descend.  The hostel is a living, breathing facet of the organization and function of Cinquera.

The Ecological Park is another example of a project that appeals to tourism and is rooted in the community. Before the war, all of the land around Cinquera was used for farming corn, beans, and maicillo.  During the war these ventures were abandoned as the people either went into hiding, joined the resistance, or left the area altogether.  Trees began to grow, creeping up along the crests of hillsides and down into the hollows of rivers and streams.  The guerrillas who lived and fought here depended on these trees for shade and safety.  The people who stayed in Cinquera during the war were able to remain here because of the shelter that the forest slowly and steadily offered them,  After the war, the people worked to form the Ecological Park in hopes of saving it from deforestation for agriculture and firewood.

Today the Ecological Park offers visitors a rich view of the environmental and human experience.  The lush forest contrasts starkly with the land surrounding it.  There is a cool pool to swim in, observation towers, and winding, well-kept trails to hike.  The history of the people is also a central part of the Park.  It is a historic memory site and the presence of guerrilla resistance is well represented. The recreated guerrilla kitchen and campsite assert that the struggle will not be forgotten.

Everyday that I walk around Cinquera I think about all the people who have worked to create this community and the odds they have faced.  I am struck by the many functions that community organzing projects serve in Cinquera.  This community would not exist without organizers who understand the importance of preservation and also value the importance of creation.  The ARDM projects I have seen thus far serve a variety of needs: jobs, space, recreation, community, environment, economics, the list goes on.

A gringa organizer who works here in El Salvador told me that there is a culture of community organizing in El Salvador that is unique and markedly stronger than that in the US.  Being in Cinquera and experiencing the projects that community organizing has created and maintained I think she is right.  Everything was destroyed in Cinquera.  The community that you see and experience is a direct manifestation of the dreams and work of the people.

This is something we all can learn from.





Encounters with Oscar Romero

The chapel sits next to a cancer hospital.  Outside of the small building, bright flowers spill onto the sidewalk with graceful ease.  The words next to the crucifix translate “On this alter Monseñor Oscar A. Romero offered his life to God for his people.”

Between 1980-1992 El Salvador boiled with civil war. Entire villages were leveled, thousands killed, the physical and mental landscape of the country changed.

Our first day in El Salvador we visit a museum dedicated to the former archbishop, Oscar Romero.  In 1980 Romero was assassinated while giving a sermon in the small chapel near where he lived.  The doors of the chapel were open and a car drove by the front, a shot was fired, and the car sped away.  For many, the death of Romero was the spark that solidified the need for change and began the Salvadoran civil war.

The small museum, which was his home, displays the usual artifacts of a home that made been into a museum: a bed, books, pictures, a peek into his bathroom.  These artifacts seem to be presented as proof of his life.  In the front room are artifacts of his death.  Someone had a camera on the day he was assassinated and a series of 4×6 photos show him slumped over the altar with blood pouring over his body, falling to the floor with others crowded around him, being carried from the church.  The pictures read like a series of news stills, a slow motion replaying of the event.  In one glass case hangs the robe he was wearing the day he was assassinated.  It is stained pale reddish-brown with his blood.

Much of the narrative of the museum is left to the viewer.  There are no fancy videos or signs telling you how to feel.  As we leave the museum a group of school children file quietly in.

In the days since that visit I have tried to imagine a similar museum in the United States.  When and where we would be brave enough to display the bloodstained clothes of our martyrs?  I can not imagine we would have the courage to offer the story without heavy-handed propaganda insuring the desired message.

Over a week later I am riding in the back of a pickup truck up a steep, rocky, dirt road.  Crowded in the back with roughly ten other people we sway and bump into each other as the truck climbs, holding onto the truck and to each other.  Each time we pass a house, the community organizer driving the truck beeps the horn and calls out to the people inside.  “We’re showing a movie about Romero at the school in El Tule.  Are you coming?”

The school sits next to a house and as far as I can tell is the center of El Tule.  I am told roughly 30 people live in this community.  The trees near the school are heavy, heavy, heaving with mangoes.  We throw rocks up at the branches to knock ripe ones down and then sit on the side of the road and eat juicy ripe mangoes as well as the more tart “sason” mangoes, which haven’t reached full ripeness but are delicious nonetheless.

As dark approaches we gather at the school for the movie.  We sit on plastic chairs brought by community members and on the floor as night birds and insects dart out of the darkness to flash across the screen.

The film was originally in English but this version is dubbed in Spanish.  Watching it in this tiny community I cannot ignore the ways that Romero and his legacy are still alive.  The area where we are was a hot zone during the war and the older people around me lived through all of this.  As light dances across their faces I wonder how the Romero’s death and the war live on for them in their day-to-day.

At the end of the movie we eat pan dulce, sweet bread with fruit filling and crusty sugar on the outside, and drink coffee out of small styrofoam cups.  Climbing back into the truck we all sit closer on the way home.  Night air flashes across our faces and the rocks on the road jar the truck.  In the distance a fire blazes against the night sky like a small sun falling below the crest of the horizon.

The memory of people like Romero lives on in museums and community life.  It takes the journey of the people, the light of memory flashing across their faces, and the retelling of the story to younger generations to keep it alive.

Writing Home

As I sit down to write I can imagine the questions my family and friends have for me.  In the almost week since I arrived in El Salvador I have been asking myself what I will say, what I will write home about?

It is hillier than I expected. San Salvador has winding streets that twist tightly with cars parked on both sides.  The air smells like wood smoke and exhaust.  Trash bags, sunglasses, and toothpaste are sold by vendors who stand on the yellow dividing line in the middle of the street.  Most of the houses and neighborhoods are gated.  It is hot and dry but there are still flowers everywhere.

Cinquera, the Salvadoran community where we will be volunteering and learning a, is about two hours by car from San Salvador.  Situated in the the midst of steep semi forested hills, Cinquera was almost completely level by the civil war.  When the people began to come back only one wall of the Church remained.  It is amazing to walk through this community and imagine that about two decades ago none of this was here.

Yesterday we went down to the river in the heat of the afternoon.  Our feet pooled in dust and dead leaves as we approached.  Clear and shallow, the water felt like cool silk sliding across our skin as we waded and splashed. As we sat in the dappled shade a farmer started up a gas pump to take water to his crops, the motor buzzing louder than insects.  He gave us green mangoes that we peeled with a machete and ate with salt.





Buen Viaje: mental grit and going to El Salvador

I do not like doing things that are hard.  The first time I went on a sea kayaking expedition I spent a significant portion of the time thinking I would quit. That expedition was an exercise in mental grit and agility. Staring myself in the eye every morning I cajoled, yelled, and shamed myself to put on cold wet neoprene and get in the boat.  I was capable but had to fight hard to convince myself of that.

There is this split in all of us, a divide of what we can do and the lengths we go to prevent ourselves from doing that.  When I say I do not like doing things that are hard, I mean that I do not like putting these two sides of myself up against each other.  It is uncomfortable and embarrassing. In order to be my greatest, to do all the things I am most proud of, I have had to fight and kick and shove myself out of the way.

For the next six weeks I will be in El Salvador.  I am going to see the life of my sister friend Catie (see her blog for more about her experience in El Salvador) and to be a guest, observer, and listener of the solidarity work being done by US-El Salvador Sister Cities (see their blog for more information on their work).

During my time there I will be involved in sustainable agriculture projects in the community of Cinquera.  I will participate in a delegation of Salvadorans and internationals witnessing a community consultation seeking to ban metallic mining on a community level.  Plans for eating pupusas, playing on the beach, and improving my Spanish swirl throughout all of this as well.

I will also be writing about my experience in El Salvador.  US-El Salvador Sister Cities was founded around the concept of solidarity and importance of witnessing the lives of others.  This blog will be part of both my solidarity and witnessing. I invite you to read it.

When I get on the plane tomorrow I will shove the scared, doubting part of me out of the way in order to board.  Upon arrival in Mexico City I will elbow the shy, whining part of me aside as I ask for directions to my connecting flight in faltering Spanish.  In order be a person of courage I admit to being a person of fear.  We are all both.

Buen viaje a todos.


Grassroots: Why the Startup of Keystone XL South Makes Us Stronger

Reposted from the Huffington Post

The sun feels good on my shoulders. The skin on my knees tingles from kneeling. My hands are stained orange by red dirt and my fingertips will be cracked and sore tonight.

In front of me is a tiny clump of grass. As I pull at it, blades come off in my hand but roots buried deep in the soil refuse to let go. The grass is rhizomatic. It has deep roots and if you cut them apart they multiply. This farm will be pulling grass out of garden rows for years and someday, when this farm is gone, the grass will take back over. Roots that were never fully dormant will shoot up and grass will cover all this ground again.

As a writer there is a tension between what I feel I should write and what I need to write. Keystone XL South is beginning full operation. The story I should write is about the hundreds of known anomalies along the pipeline, the landowners who had their homes wrongfully taken, the indigenous communities already devastated by tar sands extraction, the people who live near the pipeline and don’t know they are at risk, the rivers and streams that stand to be changed forever.

There are times, however, that I must write for myself. Keystone XL South cuts through my community and puts my home and family in danger. The things I should write feel too painful and don’t offer comfort or encouragement. The story I need to write therefore centers on this tiny clump of grass and the roots I cannot see.

When rhizomatic plants are pulled apart they separate into new life. They hold nutrients in their roots and spread out laterally, shooting up far from their origins. In many ways adversity makes them stronger. Although it hurts and is hard, there are ways the startup of Keystone XL South is making a grassroots movement stronger.

In the last two months, in the time since TransCanada announced the startup, new life has shot up and reserves of energy and wisdom have offered strength. Frontline communities along the route of Keystone XL South have come together to voice perseverance and tenacity, offering solidarity in a shared struggle. Landowners have gotten media attention and made progress with legal action. Community groups have found new energy and motivation to continue working for the safety and health of their homes. Grassroots resistance is growing.

Although frequently used and broadly understood, the origins of the term “grassroots” are unclear. It seems likely, however, that this idea came from a farmer. Only someone who has spent hours pulling at blades of grass and never fully getting the roots could offer this prayer for social change — that those who wish to create the world do so by being stubborn like the grass. Within this tiny, often unarticulated metaphor lies all the encouragement, grit, and dedication a movement could wish for its participants.

The clump of grass in front of me tells the story of a movement made up of people stubbornly fighting for life. As grassroots organizers, activists, and community groups our commitment is to the things we hold most precious — children, fragile wetland ecosystems, trees planted years ago, the elderly, and the morning air. We love the things we are fighting for and so we dig our hands deeply into the soil of our work. We send out roots in all directions and we allow the things that threaten to pull us apart to give us new life. Our belief that someday our vision will cover everything in a carpet that is lush and green allows us to dedicate ourselves for the long haul.

I imagine a day that the roots of plants and trees and the dreams of people reach down into the soil to pull out pipelines that threaten us. The tiny metaphor of the roots of grass is offered as a wish for grit, encouragement, and dedication to all of those who are impacted by tar sands extraction and transportation. May we be like the grass and may days like the startup of Keystone XL South encourage us to cultivate our roots.

The Climate Movement needs to Stop “Winning”

Cross posted from the Huffingtonpost

As a child my favorite chore was hand-pumping water from the thirty-foot well on our family homestead. The pump was shiny black and the water ice-cold.  Then my father was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer linked to chemicals used in oil and gas production. It’s been nine years since I drank that water.

I am from an impacted community in East Texas, home to oil and gas industry, on the southern route of the Keystone XL (KXL) tar sands pipeline. My involvement in the climate movement is motivated by the reality my community faces.

Nacogdoches, Texas lies along the southern path of KXL and cannot escape tar sands. From Cushing, Oklahoma down to Beaumont, Texas pipe is buried in the ground and scheduled to go online by the end of the year. We are waiting for the shoe to drop, for tar sands oil to flow through the pipe, for the bend of welded metal to respond to the heat and corrosion of bitumen. We are waiting for an event over which we have little control, despite its potentially disastrous impact on our lives.

Within this experience lies the insight I have to offer the climate movement. My experience is limited by the fact I am a young, white woman from an unconditionally supportive family. Incomplete as it is, however, my perspective is the best thing I can offer.  And so, I ask that the climate movement stops talking about “winning.”
My community will not “win” on climate and this idea delegitimizes the extraction industry impacts we already face. I have lived alongside the reality of petroleum extraction my whole life. A pipeline runs down our driveway. I have been woken in the middle of the night by fracking fumes that burned my eyes and nose and made me feel sick. The construction of KXL south near my home has ignited new concerns about the health and safety of my family and community. In communities like mine impacts run deep and come from all sides.

IMG_2318_2Maya on her family’s property.

I will never “win” on climate. Tanks containing benzene on my family’s property display plastic signs warning against cancer and requiring the use of a respirator. There are three active gas well sites within a two-minute walk from my front door. Scanning the land I am from it is impossible to imagine a scenario where I have not been exposed to the same chemicals that may have caused or contributed to my father’s cancer.

Last fall the direct action campaign Tar Sands Blockade (TSB) brought national attention to my community. Folks in TSB put their lives and livelihoods on the line to stop construction and raise awareness.  I am glad they came to stand with my community but this also marked a loss. National climate groups celebrated Obama’s decision to delay the northern segment of KXL, intentionally overlooking that this supposed “win” was paired with an endorsement to fast track the southern arm of KXL, connecting a preexisting tar sands pipeline that ended in Oklahoma to refining communities and shipping ports in Texas. There was no delay for us–pipe was being put in the ground.  In search of a “win,” the people of KXL south were written off as a loss.

Like cancer taking over the body, the oil and gas industry is too entangled in the organs of my community for a simple “win-lose” dichotomy. The industry employs us, pays for community festivals, and improves our roads. They also contaminate our water, deny us access to our land, and take away our sense of agency. Extraction industries have impacted our land, bodies, and minds in ways that can’t be erased or won.

Checking a thesaurus suggests further complications of a “winning” framework. Synonyms to “win” include “come in first” and “conquer.” In communities with an intersecting history of oppression “winning” doesn’t seem to be the most appropriate message.  Utilizing ideas of “coming in first” and “conquering” among individuals living a legacy of racism, classism, and colonialism seems intrinsically problematic.  Environmental Justice leaders ask instead that we “lift up” impacted communities. Will our movement be one that “conquers” or “lifts up?”

Obama’s decision about the northern segment of KXL is important but whatever is decided the southern segment has already marked my home. Even if KXL north is denied I will not “win.” Neither will people living at the end of the pipeline in Manchester or Port Arthur, or the people in Alberta, Kalamazoo, Arkansas, or countless other impacted communities.  We will not “win.” This doesn’t mean we give up on the northern segment of KXL but it does mean that we broaden our focus to include those already facing extraction impacts.  It means that we pour our energy into stopping–tar sands–not just KXL north.  It means we stop talking about winning the northern segment of KXL and we start talking about changing the access extraction industries have to our land and our bodies.

Hope provides momentum and “lifts up” the individuals and ideas of a movement.  For me, however, the concept of “winning” doesn’t offer hope but instead says my experience isn’t real and KXL south doesn’t matter. Working only towards a “win” would force me to abandon my home.  If we are to be an enduring and inclusive movement we must provide a hope that welcomes joy and acknowledges loss.  We must not ask impacted communities to abandon their homes for the cause.

There is loss and pipe buried from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast of Texas and if we rally around a “win” my home will continue to be overlooked. If we only engage in “winnable” struggles our movement will be shortsighted, lacking compassion and leaving many behind. Instead let’s dig in deep, go back for the overlooked, and be with those that will not win. Let’s be a movement that looks complexity in the eye, offering a place for both hope and loss to sit together at the table and working to be a movement built on lifting others up.

“truth” and Exxon

When I was five my family invited representatives from Exxon into our home to talk about the pipeline they wanted to construct down our driveway.  Spunky and excitable, I remember being giddy to have visitors.  We showed them our home and gave them tall glasses of tea that beaded sweat in the summer heat.  They told us that, because we didn’t own our mineral rights, they could put the pipeline on our property whether we wanted it there or not.  When my father asked what would happen if he didn’t sign the paper that lay in front of him, tiny print outlining changes to our life, they said they would do it anyway.  They told my father that he had to sign this paper because he couldn’t stop them from putting the pipeline in.  They told us that they pipeline would be safe, that it wouldn’t change anything.  My father signed the paper.  Years later we were told by lawyers that none of this was true and that if we truly hadn’t wanted Exxon to build the pipeline on our land that we shouldn’t have signed.  But they told us that it was safe and that we had no other choice.  

When I was 14 my father spoke words that changed my life, “Maya, I have leukemia.”  When he typed these words into the Internet, page after page about the connection between benzene and other petrochemicals and leukemia came up.  We immediately stopped drinking water from the hand-pump well we had used my entire life. Everything changed.

In the weeks that followed, Exxon assured us that the oil and gas transfer station on our property was perfectly safe.  They did tell us, however, that the loud noises we had heard it making over the years had ‘not been happening’ but that if they did we should notify Exxon immediately.  For the first time in the 10 years the station had been there they installed caps over valves that would signal any sort of release from the site and put up signs that said “Warning:  Contains Benzene, May Cause Cancer.”  We were safe they assured us. Exxon’s presence had not caused my father’s cancer.  

When we woke up to the smell of chemicals on a heavy dark summer night the scene felt unreal.  After enduring it for several hours our eyes began to burn and we felt nauseous.  We tried calling our contact at Exxon but it was the middle of the night and they didn’t answer so we drove away from our home to sit at IHOP and wait for the sun.  Exxon told us that they were fracking a nearby well.  They were surprised we had noticed anything, they assured us that it was safe.  They said that the symptoms we had experienced were not connected to the fracking.  They said we were safe, but that night was the first time in my life I was truly scared of the woods.  I remember closing the windows in my room, spraying the cheap perfume of my teenage years and crying in my bed — worried that this smell and the way I felt meant that I would have leukemia soon too.  To this day, when I smell lime and coconut perfume I feel sick and sad.  Exxon finally agreed to pay for us to stay in hotel when they fracked, offering this up like a parent cajoling an overly dramatic child.  Relocating was unnecessary but if we insisted they could afford to comply.  We were still told, however, that it was completely safe to stay in our home.  

The most recent official press release from Exxon on the Pegasus spill claims that bitumen, the tar sands product that spilled from this pipeline, has not entered Lake Conway.  The Attorney General of Arkansas, a man who is pro-petroleum, says that it has.  Exxon’s claim that the lake is oil-free seems entirely based around an artificial designation that one of the main coves of the lake somehow does not ‘count’ as Lake Conway.   Exxon also claims that the main animals impacted by the spill are venomous snakes, which reporting done by the Huffington Post suggests is not entirely true, as these impacted snakes have not been documented while many birds have.  Exxon says that there should be no health impacts on the community from the spill.  The people who live in the community are safe, there will be no longer term impacts from this spill.  This same press release says that clean-up is almost complete.  They say that Exxon will pay for all ‘valid’ claims from the spill.  

I wonder what claims will count as valid.  The fear and loss of innocence that I experienced as a result of Exxon’s involvement in my life must not have been ‘valid,’ because I’ve yet to see any sort of reimbursement for this claim.  Truth is a funny thing, it changes based on who holds it.  It is something we experience and live and authoritative assurances cannot change it.  Exxon’s presence in my life has not been safe.  No one can tell me otherwise because I’ve lived an experience that makes these words true.  

Although I’d like to believe that the spill is cleaned up, that there will be no long-term health impacts, that the community is safe — I don’t.  I don’t because when I was five I sat at a table and listened to representatives from Exxon lie to my parents, to their faces, to my face.  I don’t think the tar sands oil has been cleaned up, or that it will be for years to come. I think people will live the impacts of this spill in their bodies for years, that many people may even be killed by it.  I don’t think the community is safe.  But that’s just me, that’s just my ‘truth’ about Exxon.

Arkansas Rain

It’s raining in Arkansas tonight and there is rain in the forecast through Tuesday of next week.  That is what it does in Arkansas in the spring–it rains.  Day after day rain falls, flooding roads, bridges, city streets– spring rain often brings tornadoes and huge crashes of thunder, eruptions of lightning.  It is beautiful and it is fierce and it is completely out of human control.  In the spring, Arkansas rain can fall for days, and in the flood planes where many central Arkansas cities are built, water fills up roads, parks, and yards like a glass overflowing.  There are weeks, maybe even months, where lawns and sidewalks disappear completely beneath days of standing rain water.

It’s raining in Arkansas tonight and the oil is sure to get washed around.  By now we know the outline of the facts, we’ve seen the pictures.  The Pegasus pipeline spilled and Canadian tar sands oil is seeping into Arkansan soil.  Exxon and other industry leaders say it will get cleaned up, politicians say the response has been fast and seamless.  But it’s raining in Arkansas tonight.  We can predict and discuss and plan for spills like the one that occurred Friday in Arkansas but we cannot plan for the rain.  And as a result we effectively have no plan.

I am a teacher.  I teach students about the earth.  Two weeks ago I sat in front of 15 6th grade students and taught geology and engineering.  As we discussed how to build structures that bend and move with the movement of the earth, how to predict places where the very soil is likely crumble beneath you, where to be wary of shifting faults and moving plates I was struck by how dynamic our earth is.  We live on a dynamic earth.  It stirs, changes, and flows with time.  The earth is alive.  Our challenge is to find ways to live with our dynamic earth, to create structures and systems that account for the movement of the earth, that don’t fall apart with the falling of the rain.

The safety of pipelines does not merely depend on the structure of the pipes themselves or even the materials that flow through them, it also depends on the movement of the earth.  Our ability to clean up spills when these pipelines leak does not merely depend on technology, quick response, or human ingenuity, it also depends on the rain, the sun, the consistency of the soil.

I have lived in Arkansas and I know about the rain there.  During the four years that I lived there an entire town was leveled by tornadoes, I walked through knee-deep water across my college campus, and I watched dirt and debris gush up out of the storm drains.  No one can control the rain.

It’s raining in Arkansas tonight and there’s an oil spill to be cleaned up.  Our earth is dynamic and we need to find better ways to live with her or the waters just might sweep us away.

For media coverage on the Pegasus spill check out “Arkansas spill strengthens arguments of Keystone foes” and “Ducks Near Arkansas Oil Spill Found Dead After ExxonMobil Pipeline Rupture”


i have been blessed

I have been blessed.

In the course of my life I have stood in churches and other holy structures, listened to the hushed murmur of voices and gazed up as dust filtered through golden streaks of light.  People act different in these places.  Their voices are hushed, smiles quiet, they walk slower, sit longer,  their eyes squint to make out the patterns on the walls, to decipher the mystery.  When they walk out of these structures they blink at the sunlight, stop for a moment to breath, and continue back into their lives quieter.

I have been blessed.

I have stood at the base of the largest tree in the world, sound muffled by the canopy above, I have felt small.  It is impossible to understand the breadth of a sequoia until you stand at it’s base.  Until that moment you think you know big trees and in that moment you realize you don’t know anything.  Their bark is soft and fibrous,  sticking to your skin after lips are planted to kiss the trunk.  A flick of the tongue and I swear it tastes sweet.  People approach these trees with the same reverence that they approach churches.  A stunned smile on their lips, photos are tastefully taken, and words of wonder are whispered in the ears of strangers and companions alike.

I have been blessed.

Sitting inside a sequoia my skin felt electric.  The inside was black, hollowed out by fire, growing up around the scars and dripping curls of dried sap.  The corners and crevasses inside this tree were so dark I felt that they would swallow me up.  All noise was deadened by this great being–the wood of the tree absorbing the sound of shuffling pine needles, the shifting of my weight on the ground.  Rising hundreds of feet up to scrape the sky, the roots of these trees are a mere three feet in the ground.  They are as much as 3000 years old.

I have been blessed.

Standing in sacred human structures and in forest of sequoias I have felt blessed.

I have been blessed.