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”

 

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it is important

I sit here in the morning knowing that just over two weeks ago feet were stomped and hands were shaken and that with every quiver of the ground the beast shifted and something shook.  I sit here and I don’t know what to say.  Over 40,000 people in Washington DC.  Thousands more gathered in cities all across the United States.  My mother was in DC on that day when all the people came together.  When she called me Sunday morning her voice was open and raw,

“Maya, there are so many people here.  Listen–can you hear them cheering?  Listen to how many people there are.”

She held up the phone and in the distance I could hear the faint cry of the beast, the sound of the world shifting, the noise that we make when waking up.

It is important to know that you are not alone.

As people walked and sang in DC I marched through the streets of Los Angeles with a thousand of people because I needed to feel I was not alone.  They carried signs with words that I recognized, their voices rose up to demand change I understood–it was good to know I was not alone.

When we reached the front of city hall an indigenous leader stood to offer prayer and blessing for this gathering.  She said that she had been unable to march but that as she had waited at city hall she had observed something special.  She said that as we rounded the corner towards city hall the wind picked up and blew gusts down the street.

“In my culture the wind represents your ancestors and today our ancestors are here with us.  All this cement here,”  She pointed at the ground with forceful intention, “it doesn’t matter to me.  I know what was and is here–the earth.”

It is good to know we are not alone.

Standing in the sun in LA I listened to speaker after speaker demand that President Obama reject the construction of the KXL pipeline and I was glad to hear them request this.  I was also sad, however, because as they talked about what the construction of this pipeline would do to human, animal, and plant communities I could only picture what has already been done to the community that raised me.  Listening to cries that called for change I thought of the land that has been scraped clean, the long curving snake, the pipe where light shines through, the men, women, and children who I know who were not given a choice about this new neighbor on their land, in their community, next to their school.

As the afternoon wore on my throat became tight–it is true that the northern sections of the KXL pipeline should not be built but what of the indigenous communities already being ravaged by Tar Sands extraction?  What of the Texan communities where pipe has already been buried?  What about my people?  My place?  What about our world?

“There are people in Texas who have been working to stop the southern arm of the pipeline that has already been constructed.  They have chained themselves to machinery, sat in trees, interrupted conferences, spoken up, organized.  It is time that we all take notice of the work being done by Tar Sands Blockade.  It is not enough to only care–we must act.”

Listening to these words spoken after hours of hearing them beat in my own head I wanted to shout,

“Hey!  I know those people!  They have sat next to me in church, I have listened to their stories, hugged their necks, allowed them to change my life.”

It was a small statement, a small part of the speeches but it helped.  It felt like an acknowledgment of the ongoing work there is to be done. I felt less alone.

Our voices are small separately.  We must act and speak together in order to feel we are not alone.  This is important.  There is pipe in the ground in Texas, there are gaping wounds in the Canadian soil where Tar Sands extraction is already ripping indigenous communities apart.  But… under the all this cement that we have wrapped like ribbons we know that the earth is still there and every time the wind blows our ancestors remind us that we are not alone.  Two weeks ago 40,000 people came together and as I walk to work today I will wait for the wind to touch my cheeks and, when it does, I will be grateful because I will feel a little less alone.  And this is important.

 

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letters

Thanksgiving day, the table littered with plates still warm from hands and hot food a debate began about the worth of letter writing in a modern world.

“It’s outdated and overrated.”  One man exclaimed, “Send me an email.  It’s quicker and easier–doesn’t waste paper.”

“I never check my mail.  Only junk.  Bills, correspondence–I do it all online.  There isn’t ever anything good in my mail box so why would I bother checking it?”  Another chimed in.

I love letters.  For many reasons, but mostly because they are a way of sharing an experience with someone whom you are not with physically.  The act of writing and receiving a letter is sensual.  You hold it in your hands, paper that has been touched, and your skin absorbs the words.  When you tear open the envelope there is often a waft of smell, paper, ink, grease from the food they were eating as they wrote, sometimes–if you are very lucky–your nose will even pick up the special smell that identifies your loved one, the unnamed scent that reminds you of them.  And then there are the words, the press against paper, ink that bleeds through, ballpoint pen that leaves bumpy imprints on both sides of the page, pencil that smears when you accidentally touch it with wet hands.  In the moment that you open and read a letter you hold something that has been held, created, sent to you alone.

Letters are slow, they are a measured way of sharing your thoughts and feelings.  Over the phone or in an email it is easy to blurt things out, to quickly say or send what you do not mean.  A letter however, for which you must find a pen, paper, envelope, and stamp, that you must write, address, stamp, and place in a mailbox is a declaration of truth and commitment in many ways.   These words are sent with care and intention, an output of time was required to get them to you.  A letter is a tangible sign of commitment and caring.  It takes work to send a letter, it takes work to hold a friend, it takes work to tend a relationship, it takes work to save a space for distant love in your heart– and a letter?  A letter is one of the surest ways I know of demonstrating the willingness to do this work, the work of loving, living, and sharing life another person.

The mythology of my existence is in part built around letters.  Shortly after my parents met my mother boarded an airplane bound for distance.  Once she told that me that she sang Peter Paul and Mary’s ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ to my father before she left.  This was the first song I learned to play on the guitar and whenever I play or hear it I think of the love and life my parents have built together.  During that year that my mother studied abroad my parents wrote and sent letters from Spain to Texas.  The mythology that I carry is that this is how they fell in love, how they began the work of becoming partners, that the letters that sailed like ships across the ocean had wings covered in the words that would eventually lead to my life.  The mythology of my life is that letters are important, that they allow us to speak when we might otherwise be silent.

Under my bed in Texas there is a box full of letters.  They are in zip lock bags, dated and grouped by the time when I received them:  Summer 2010, Hendrix College: Fall/Spring 2011, Outward Bound Summer 2012.  From the dusty recesses under the bed pages whisper with feelings, confessions, secrets, prayers, and laughter.  They remind me of the people who have loved me, who have worked and written and been a part of my journey.  Sometimes I like to imagine where my letters end up, tucked into a book, stained with the ring of a coffee cup on a kitchen table, postcards tucked into windows, pages read once or twice or sent to the wrong address, stories thrown away or treasured or forgotten.  All across the world my words have been read.  They are birds I send out to tell my story, far flung and flying they are a moving, breathing act of prayer.

Last week I received a heavy stack of letters.  Falling asleep they whispered from my bedside table, words weaving their way into my sleep.

…maybe, just maybe, if we put enough love, good works, and positive energy out there we can take two steps forward while our petroleum addiction takes one step back.  I’ve got to see it that way, anyway.  Because I have this little baby and I have to believe we can help her Mama earth out of this mess. 

I am currently laying in a golden wash of sunshine streaming through my window.  I love the sun’s warmth and greeting on this day. 

It is good to realize you are our teacher in many ways.

Above another thunder clap tears at the sky’s fabric wringing out the excess water from heavy denim clouds onto East Texas February as if to say… YES!

I want to plant a garden this spring with my roommate.

As I fell asleep the pieces of these letters buzzed like a lullaby.  These words bear weight in my hands.  I can hold them.  They might disappear in a blaze of fire or be pressed between pages for a century.  Letters may be outdated by I will continue to send them, because I don’t know how else to demonstrate my dedication to the work of relationship and because in the mythology of my life letters are important. 

the beast

I am from this place.  Grew up with feet stained orange from walking barefoot through red mud, have snuck up on armadillos to watch them jump, laid on my back in a bed of needles to watch the tallest tops of pine trees sway.  I am from this place.

I have heard Texas called the belly of the beast.  The pine trees, well pads, the curving snake of the KXL pipeline, the refineries along the gulf, freedom fries, Bar-B-Q.  I have heard it called the belly of the beast.  At times it seems to house, to hold many of things that need to change.  There have been times that I have felt this way.  Times I have been proud of my ability to meld the traces of my Texas accent with the speech of the locale around me, glad to tell stories of trips to far away places with exotic languages and juicy fruit, relieved that, although I am from the buckle of the bible belt, my parents raised me in a way that I never felt I fully ‘fit in’ with steak dinners, 4-wheelers, or pasture parties.  I intentionally went away for college, found work in northern states, settled my feet in places that felt far away–I intentionally did not look back.

Today 48 activists were arrested in Washington DC for protesting the KXL pipeline and Tar Sands it will carry and I am looking back.  And I am proud to be from Texas.  Among those arrested were prominent members of the Sierra Club–individuals who today chose to participate in direct action as members of the Sierra Club for the first time in the organizations 120 year history.  They were arrested alongside members of groups such as 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Tar Sands Blockade, and others.  They were also joined farmers, concerned citizens, students, people of faith, educators, conservationists, and Texans–all are visionaries.

I am looking back and I am proud to be from Texas because almost nine months ago a group of people came to Texas.  They came ready to fight, to lock themselves to machines, climb trees, raise and reach out hands and voices–they came to say ‘no, no actually oil cannot flow through this pipeline.’  They came to Texas and this has made all the difference.  They have shown that a group of people who are sometimes disorganized, always passionate, frequently in need a shower, and constantly willing to step out into the fray with hands raised to speak their piece can inspire action, discussion, and change.  They came to Texas and that has made all the difference.  Because when they came to Texas, Tar Sands Blockade shook their hands, stomped the feet, and when their voices were raised they began to wake the beast.  I am proud to be from Texas because the stirring that have happened here over the last nine months are of significance.

I have heard Texas called the belly of the beast but I think this is wrong.  I think that we are the beast.  Each one of us that finds a voice, reaches out a hand, rises to our feet ready to walk and climb and dance–we are the beast.  Raised on fairy tales, Tolkien, and my own imagination I know that at some point every beast wakes and that when it does everything changes.  We are taught by the powers that be to fear the beast.  Those who hold privilege know that beasts are unknown, that they spout fire, anger, and change the world and so we are taught to fear them.  It seems foolish, however, to fear yourself–especially since it seems that waking the beast in each of us is necessary.

On Sunday the beast will storm the White House, demanding audience, requesting voice, shaking the ground in what promises to be a major mass action.  Watch out.  We’re awake.

I no longer think that Texas is the belly of the beast.  I do think, however, that this is one important place where the beast began to stir.  I am from that place.  I was asked last week why the soles of my feet are orange.  I replied it is from years of walking barefoot through red mud, from dodging snakes, and slapping mosquitoes.  I said that my feet are orange because I am from a place where pine trees scrape the sky and rivers crawl through thickets.  I am from this place.  I am part of the beast and I am awake.

Watch out.

For more information on the 48 activists arrested in DC today (Feb 13th, 2013) please visit http://www.tarsandsaction.org/participants/.  For more information or to join the Forward on Climate Rally go to http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageServer?pagename=forwardonclimate.  And finally–as ever–to learn more about the work of Tar Sands Blockade visit http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/

why

I think about the earth every hour I am awake.  She is like a lover whose face creeps into the corners of my thoughts, poking her head out around the people and places that make up my moments.

When I left Texas my heart hurt.  I’d been thinking about the Tar Sands pipeline and what it would do to my community, our world, and I had been thinking about the feeling that I often call ‘God’, a word that seems wildly inadequate at expressing my experience with a higher power.  The natural world is the surest place that I have experienced this feeling of ‘God’ and there is therefore something foundationally unnerving about the damage being done to the earth.  This damage prevents me from thinking of God as immutable and requires care and relationship instead of thoughtless worship and surrender.  Watching wells dug, pipelines trenched, and factories constructed on my sacred earth is like watching a McDonald’s being constructed in Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem.  These events are surely happening today but that does not prevent a feeling of sacrilege.  The way that I understand and experience something bigger than myself is being chipped at with the same carelessness in which a woman scrapes away nail polish in line at the grocery store.  For these reasons and more, when I left Texas my heart was heavy, heavy, hurting.

It was a grey rainy winter day, the sky the color of slate.  As I neared a place where the Keystone pipeline crosses the highway I pulled the car over and got out.  Pipelines are visually jarring in East Texas because the ground is red like flesh when the skin is scraped away.  And when it rains, which is was, the water flows red too.  Carved into by machine and the print of boot the earth stretched before me with a long, lean red wound.  A couple of hundred yards away a bulldozer hummed, clearing a pile of trees from one side of the pipeline to the other.

“Hey.”  I said, planting my feet wide apart underneath me and gazing out along the pipeline.  “I see you.  I see this and I am sorry.  I’m heading out to California for a while but I will not forget this.  I will see this.  Every day I will see this.  I will see you.”

And I have.  Every morning since leaving Texas I have consciously thought of that long lean scar, of the water flowing like blood onto the road as I stood in the East Texas rain and made a promise.  The earth is the surest way I understand and experience something bigger than me.  There are days that I go to church and days I choose instead to dance but regardless of my where I choose to notice, the feeling of God persists.  I am unnerved that we would chip away at this feeling without thought of consequence.

There are many reasons I am opposed to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline but I think we’ve all mostly heard those reasons and truthfully they aren’t the most important ones for me.  The most true reason I oppose this pipeline is that I believe in something bigger than me and I experience this feeling most completely in the natural world and I will not stand by and watch my ‘God’ be chipped away.  This is the reason I cannot forget, the reason I write, the reason I’ll go back to Texas eventually.  This is the reason I cannot be silent.

I think about the earth every hour I am awake.  I’m believing in a miracle.

For information on resistance against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline visit http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/ and http://gptarsandsresistance.org/

alternatives

Arms leaning against the lunch table he asks me about the pin on my backpack that says ‘No Toxic Tar Sands.’  I tell him that I am involved in activism geared towards halting the construction and operation of the South Arm of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project that if completed will pump toxic tar sands oils from the boreal forests of Alberta Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.  Between bites of food he questions and I explain.  He is curious, sympathetic, and slightly disappointed when I say that, although I know many who have, I have yet to lock myself to the machinery that is driving this project.

“This project is wrong.  It doesn’t make sense economically, socially, or environmentally.”  I say.

“Ok.”  He says.  “Then why is it happening?”

Stumbling over my words I try to convey that companies like TransCanada own big parts of the economic world, that global politics are driven by a culture of extraction that asks for more, more, more.  There is a lump in my throat as I push my words out, a worry that I will be unable to explain this most critical idea.

“Yeah, yeah, I understand that.”  He says.  “But why is it happening if it doesn’t make sense?  What is the alternative?”

“I don’t know.”  I say.  “But I know this project is wrong.  I know that tar sands are wrong.”

I have been asked this question many times–what is the alternative.  It is meant different ways.  Sometimes  it is an attack, a way of proving that I am ‘wrong’, idealistic, unrealistic.  Sometimes it is said with puzzled confusion, a way of expressing the complications of our culture.  Sometimes it is asked as an intellectual query, a way of inciting a pragmatic conversation about the moral implications of activism, environmentalism, and the ‘reality’ of living in a modern world.

I do not particularly like this question but I have been thinking a lot about its answer and have come to this–there are times in life to simply stand up for what you feel is wrong.  Balanced intellectual discussion and consideration of the benefits of exploitation, extraction, and oppression has a place but it is not a reason to shy away from taking a stand.  This kind of discussion can be dangerously debilitating–all of the shades of grey, costs and benefits can prevent action and stifle voice.  There are many systems of oppression from which I benefit.  The ‘alternative’ might not be easy, it might not always feel good but it might offer justice where justice is not currently found.

Our world is getting hotter.  The very blood of our earth is being sucked dry, water and oil, earth and ice and ocean pulled roughly from her body.  Perhaps we do not have an easy one-size-fits-all alternative but perhaps it’s time to stop what we’re doing and see what rises out of the ashes.

A friend recently told me that she had had enough.

“What if this is it?”  She said.  “What if this is the time where we say–actually no, no you cannot do that.  Oil cannot flow through that pipeline.”

I don’t know why the pipeline is being built.  It doesn’t make sense to me economically, socially, or environmentally.  But I know it is wrong.  And I know that even without clear answers about alternatives, even in a world where I fly in planes and drive cars and write this on a computer, I feel it is important to say,

Actually no, no you cannot do that.  Oil cannot flow through that pipeline.

 

For more information on the work being done to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline visit http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/.