My favorite poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, says that our lives are poems. Every memory, each conversation, and all the places you exist within are contributions to the narrative that encapsulates our human experience. If she is right, which I believe she is, these past two months have been some of the most poignant verses in the proverbial poem of my life.
To explore the agents of this growing poem of mine, I want to acknowledge the words that have renewed definition. First is “classroom.” What makes a classroom? Perhaps a whiteboard with markers that somehow seem to always be almost out of ink, rows upon rows of long tables with creaky seats attached to them, and *wait for it* the infamous PowerPoint that rocks even the most studious of us into intellectual oblivion. Maybe you can start to see why we all opted to leave that image behind for a semester. But perhaps a classroom can be so much more than that.
It can be on a hillside at 5:30 a.m. watching the sunrise over the Scapegoat Wilderness and studying how the world wakes up when no one is there to watch it. Or, it can be in the middle of a 16 degree night when all you can think of is the comfort you’ve consciously left behind for the world that constantly frosts and melts, and persists with grace despite everything. The whiteboard becomes our pen and paper; we decide what resonates and what’s worth squeezing the ink out of the marker for. The desks and chairs become Crazy Creeks atop sacred buffalo grounds, organic farms, cattle ranches, Yellowstone National Park, coal mines, snow covered river banks, and the list goes on. And the PowerPoint: it’s the people we’ve met and the places we’ve been a part of along the way. Their unique histories, polarized perspectives, and genuine struggles as human beings in a dynamic world make up the slides. I guess this goes to say that the word “classroom” has become something I expect a lot more from nowadays. That petri dish of intellectual oblivion has the potential to hold the greatest intellectual momentum I’ve felt in all my years of schooling.
Another word with renewed meaning is “community.” How do we come together? Rae Peppers, state representative for the Northern Cheyenne, says that community is “reaching across the aisle.” Community is more than the neighbors you agree with. It includes those whose individual life shaped their vastly different worldviews. It’s easy to build a community of like-minded people, but, according to Jim Dodge, an advocate of bioregionalism, there is stability in diversity. It not only behooves us to reach across that aisle, it strengthens us as well. Perhaps in this way, community as a concept has begun to function more as a verb than a noun in my mind. It is not static and it surely doesn’t create itself. Bunny, a rancher in our recent home of the Tongue River Valley, said that he wouldn’t have survived this long without his neighbors. He’s needed them to keep his ranch alive and to unify to fight for water security in their valley. This collective of people is the most vital and valuable item in our toolbelt in the face of environmental catastrophe.
And to be clear, this collective includes the natural world just as the natural world includes us. We are entirely inextricable from one another. To divorce the land and wild beings from any notion of human community would only further drill the nail into our coffin. In this way, functional community has become a live, diversified notion of our future; it is the only way.
Lastly, the idea of “action” has changed in my life’s poem. I grew up with a magnet on my refrigerator that melted into my subconscious over the years. It said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” I was always skeptical of this idea put forth by Margaret Mead, an incredible mover and shaker in her own right. How can a few people wield enough power to create a meaningful shift in our culture? Over the past two months I have come to understand two key concepts in disrupting the status quo: pressure and power in numbers. We all understand the divide between the top one percent and the bottom 99 thanks to Occupy Wall Street. That one percent has the power to make the 99 percent do things we wouldn’t otherwise do — thanks to the power structures built upon keeping the one percent at the top. However, the 99 percent has power in numbers and with that comes immense pressure on the one percent. Not only is the top vulnerable, but they are dependent on their foundation to keep them up in the air. But what happens when the ground starts to shake? When those thoughtful, committed citizens come together and disrupt their foundation?
In The White Queen’s Vision, Rebecca Solnit says that action is likely to arise from “the marginal zones, with visionaries… the young and the poor.” And eventually, the convictions of these marginal zones become the new status quo of the center. In Alice and Wonderland, the White Queen did an exercise every morning. She tried to believe a few impossible things before breakfast. Those impossible things, like the abolishment of slavery, marriage rights for queer folks, women’s suffrage were all impossible, and dare I say edgy ideas at one point. But soon enough, almost inevitably to us now, the edges became the center. Of course there are outliers and these examples are small steps on a long path, but nothing impossible before breakfast became possible by lunch. Action and reaction takes patience, maybe even generational patience.
Action is an environmental practice to me now. It is getting up every day and living as I have out here, with Montana as my classroom for the past two months. It is choosing to reach across the aisle, looking at the more than human world as an extension of self, and exercising patience like I never have before. We have a long fight ahead of us, after all, when it comes to deconstructing the worldview of earth as an extractive resource.
In this fight, our lives and experiences, our poems, are a tool. They open a discourse that weaves together the fabric of place, community, and self that is unique to each individual. These poems of ours are what make all the difference.