The following is part of a series of reflections CEC’s CEO Sigrid Wright has been sending to our leadership team in recent weeks about the current state of the world. As we listen, learn, speak out, and dig deep to pluck out the roots of racism, oppression, and environmental degradation our country was built on, we’re offering these reflections more broadly (including some curated poems) in case they help with processing emotions too monumental to express.
This will not be a lyrical post, but rather a stuttering gasp of grief and impotent rage after witnessing – as we all did this week – the cries of an unarmed man for the most basic human right: the right to breathe.
This will not be a soothing post, but rather a reflection on an explosive week in which a white woman walking her dog in Central Park lost her mind, and a black man birdwatching in that same park managed to stay centered – providing for us yet one more story on the privilege of skin color, this one particularly about privilege in parks and natural spaces.
On that same day before these two stories hit the news, I too went birdwatching, circling a small lake near my home, my heart soaring at the cries of killdeer, the trills of red-winged blackbird, the flight of sparrows at sunset. Then, as dusk came on, I went home – safely, without consideration of my skin color, without fear, without a second thought to the black hoodie I wore as the evening cooled. No one was disturbed by my presence other than a territorial hummingbird; no one questioned my right to walk that lake path or breathe the evening air or let the natural world soothe me.
I went home to my garden and prepped for dinner by picking heirloom beans called Dragon Tongues, thinking of how, as activists, there are times when we are called to breathe fire. When not every word can be soft and cooling. When at times fierceness is necessary, and anger is not only justified, but the only sane response.
I was thinking, in fact, a few hours before these stories broke, about the Amazon – the rainforest version, not the crushingly hyper-consumer, make-some-guy-you-don’t-know-the-richest-man-in-the-world version. I was thinking about how losing the vast Amazon ecosystem to mass deforestation and heat-induced wildfire is like removing the lungs of the planet, and how that is a moral outrage extending beyond any social or economic code. Because once the Amazon is gone, it is gone forever. Because – as the American Lung Association tagline goes – “when you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
That evening, in my garden, I was thinking, too, about how our symbols and metaphors seem to be getting more and more literal – the human condition and Mother Earth’s condition clearly mirroring each other. The dangerous heating of the atmosphere and loss of the planet’s lungs. The loss of 100,000 Americans to a pandemic-level fever and respiratory virus.
At that moment, as I dropped the fire-breathing Dragon beans into my basket, somewhere in Minneapolis a man cried out for his mother and a policeman pressed a knee further into his neck. And as George Floyd’s breath was crushed from him, any remaining pretext that the current social and economic code merits an obligation to play by its distorted rules was, in my mind, extinguished.
CEC is committed to creating a more resilient and just region in the face of climate change by transforming current social, economic, and environmental systems and conditions in ways that advance the welfare of our region’s most impacted communities. Through our work with the Central Coast Climate Justice Network and elsewhere, our vision includes an end to racial injustices and their resulting environmental inequities.
A Small Needful Fact | Ross Gay
Written for Eric Garner, killed by NYC police in 2014 and the origin of “I can’t breathe”
A small needful fact
is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do,
like house and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
We Are Not Responsible | Harryette Mullen
We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives.
We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions.
We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts.
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.
Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your reservations.
In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on.
Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments.
If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of the way.
In the event of a loss, you’d better look out for yourself.
Your insurance was cancelled because we can no longer handle
your frightful claims. Our handlers lost your luggage and we
are unable to find the key to your legal case.
You were detained for interrogation because you fit the profile.
You are not presumed to be innocent if the police
have reason to suspect you are carrying a concealed wallet.
It’s not our fault you were born wearing a gang color.
It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights.
Step aside, please, while our officer inspects your bad attitude.
You have no rights we are bound to respect.
Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible
for what happens to you.
The Want of Peace | Wendell Berry
All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.
More of My Reflections.
- The Long Emergency – The societal bonfires of the past decades – human health, economic, social, racial, political, environmental – have now unarguably grown into one large Complex Fire and are forcing us to seriously assess the sanity of returning to “normal.”
- Navigating by New Constellations – Lately, with our collective navigational instruments on the blink, dials spinning uselessly, I awake from sleep and find myself curled into the shape of a question mark, as if to reflect back all the unknowns of this time.
- Burn Your Maps – After months of pandemic-induced disruption at so many levels, I find it liberating to realize that the times we are in may just be asking us to let go of where we wish we were, set a new course, and burn our old maps for fuel