By Brandt Dirmeyer
On the 26th and 27th of October, 2016, as part of my year as a Chesapeake Conservation Corpsmember, I attended an Environmental Leadership Training retreat across the Potomac from Harper’s Ferry at the Blue Mountain Retreat with half of the other corpsmembers. We spent a little over 24 hours together with Tara Baker, the program officer of the CCC and Michael Gagné, the regional programs manager for the Environmental Leadership Program, learning what it takes to achieve our professional goals through introspective exercises that helped us better understand our strengths and weaknesses.
According to the Strengthsfinder test that all of us were required to complete before the training, my skillset focuses on the absorption, synthesis, and extrapolation of the details of the environment around me. My top five were input, connectedness, intellection, ideation, and learner. I took these attributes to mean that I am best when I am allowed to exist beyond myself, to think about the world at large as opposed to my comfort as an individual. From this, I was then able to see where my weakness lies. I have difficulty thinking about myself as an individual. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see my asymmetric eyes nor my full lips, but my original face. I am uncritical of my personal trajectory as I spend too much time critically thinking about the course of humanity and the ecological worlds we inhabit. My mind is not an arborescent hierarchy of feelings and facts, but, according to my former literary theory professor, a rhizomatic structure noding every which way. Luckily, many of the exercises Michael led us through focused us on ourselves and the goals we strive to achieve in this life we’ve been generously given.
The exercise that most stuck out to me was one where we were told to draw two trees, one with a problem in its trunk, and another with a corresponding solution. The roots of the problem and solution trees extend upward to the branches filled with the budding fruits of causality. For the problem tree, the roots were the causes of the problem and the branches were the products of the problem, and vice versa for the solution tree. While most of the corpsmembers thought about their paths towards graduate school or the careers they hoped to find, I ended up focusing on how to recreate nature’s sustainable infrastructure of clean water and localized agroecology across the world, as I have recently been reading Vandana Shiva’s most recent book, Who Really Feeds the World? Obviously, this is a daunting task that I could never accomplish on my own, nor did I have the time to write out every root and branch of the problem and the solution, but it helped me to envision a world beyond the desirous overconsumption of finite resources that plagues the current world to an ideal world where all forms of present biota can coexist and proliferate from the production of others.
For another exercise, we were instructed to make a chart of our five biggest wins, with “my big wins” in the center and each win branching outward from the center. I thought of four right away: Cognitive Autonomy, Career Foundation, Legal Freedom, and Physical Health. A number of these I can attribute to the privileged position that I was born into, but I also had to consciously act in order to make the most of my advantageous circumstances. This is why I empathize with the suffering of the world. Since I was born and raised in the third largest and most studied estuary in the world, it is easy to dismiss the fight for water rights in Bolivia, the conflict between nuclear powers Pakistan and India over the historically-contested Jammu and Kashmir, or the droughts and depleted aquifers that are catalyzing the crumbling of Arabia, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, and California as existing beyond personal scope.
Too bad everything is interconnected through complex cyclic processes. Clear right and wrong moral answers are hard to find in our multiplicitous world of necessary-yet-bounded natural resources. Nelson Mandela, the beloved leader of post-Apartheid South Africa, a man who experienced alienation, subjugation, oppression, and torture at the hands of ulterior interests, made a tough decision when he invaded the precipitous highlands of Lesotho to secure that water flows cheaply to the arid central region of the first country to assert water as a human right.
The fight for water rights in Bolivia during the Cochabamba Water War happened because an engineering firm in California bought rights to the country’s water for private use. Arabia, North Africa, the Western United States, and the Mediterranean are desertifying at rapid rates because of the changes in climate brought on by our own ignorance of our deep connections to the environments that sustain us. Countless empires from the Assyrians to the Romans, the Mayans and the Minoans collapsed from over-irrigation, monoculture farming, deprivation of the population’s nutrition, and the subsequent environmental changes that led to each catastrophic decline. While Lake Chad receded from natural climate variability, as the Sahara fluctuates between desert and grassland every 20,000 years or so, Lake Urmia in northwest Iran has decreased by about 80% in the past 40 years, with most of the change occurring between 2009-2015.
After thinking hard about my fifth biggest win as I wandered the grounds of the retreat, looking at the grasses under my feet, the trees towering above me, and the vultures circling high, I realized that my last big win wasn’t necessarily a personal win, but more something that I could never lose: the sun. For all the energy that I exert on the page and in the waking world, for all the energy that we exert as we do our personal best to make Earth a better place than how it was when we first came into its nurturing atmosphere, and for all the energy that we consume in the pursuit of something greater, we have the radiant star that we orbit to thank. The sun and the moon have been eternal witnesses to the changes in our original face.
To conclude this blog, I will share the first exercise that we did at the training. As we all sat in a large circle in an open room, Michael gave us three quotes from Rabbi Hillel and asked us to write about the thoughts that the quotes provoke within us. The first was, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” followed by, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” and lastly, “If not now, when?” In order to order my thoughts, I wrote in the manner that has historically been reserved for the contemplation of existence: poetry. Prose, at it currently stands with all of its punctuation, paragraphs and logical sequences, is a fairly recent development in human history, with the earliest popular English novel Robinson Crusoe, a travel narrative about a British man encountering the “savages” of Trinidad until he can be saved and sail back to civilization, written by Daniel Defoe in 1719. At the show-and-tell later that evening, I shared this poem that I wrote, titled If Not Now, When?