15 November 2016

My Talk at Riverbend: Aware, Responsible and Caring Citizens

My son Walker, then 2, in his "one square yard."
"Aware, responsible and caring citizens." Yeah, we can use some of those right about now.

Back in June 2016, a colleague at EY reached out to ask me to speak at Riverbend Environmental Education Center, just outside of Philadelphia. 

I jumped at the chance, in part because I love a stage, but also because Riverbend has an important mission: teaching environmental principles to children...through a direct connection with nature, inspiring respect for our natural world and action as aware, responsible and caring citizens. 

Here is the talk I gave, which included a few poems that I added for color:
I want to share with you three stories tonight, each of which is paired with a poem or part of a poem that illustrates a point I’d like to make about why we are here, why we need to know about this place and others like it, and why we should care. Care not just about Riverbend Environmental Education Center and the people it serves, but why we should care about this big blue marble we inhabit.

There was a popular book a number of years ago called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. For me, I’ve always said all I really needed to know I learned from Gladys Taylor. Gladys was a surrogate Aunt for me, a retired English and Physical Education teacher, who taught me about nature and art and poetry and being active, and also about how to look at the world and begin to make sense of it – years later I realized she was training me to pay attention to the world around me and it has come to inform a lot of what I’ve done in my life and work.
Work that has taken me from the halls of a publishing house to protecting forests, grasslands, rivers, and seascapes with the Nature Conservancy, investing in social entrepreneurs trying to solve the world’s pressing problems, and to helping developing countries provide greater access to electricity that can help improve lives and economies.
I’m not alone in having a pivotal figure in my life that helped me find a path or multiple paths. It could have easily been a parent, teacher or a mentor from another part of my life. But for me, it was a woman who looked after me during my formative years in Rhode Island and summers at her family house in Vermont. I wrote a poem about her influence on me – it’s too long to read here in its entirety, but you can find it in my book, FALLOW FIELD – the poem is called “The Postlude, or How I Became a Poet,” and it opens with this passage, 

I am a child, crawling around in the leaves
With Gladys Taylor while she names the trees,
Parts the grasses, digs into the earth with a gardener’s trowel.
She picks out worms and slugs, millipedes
And springtails, which we see with a “Berlese funnel.”
Busy decomposers working their busy tasks,
Turning waste into energy, leaf litter into soil again.
Gladys names things for me: “That oak,
That maple there, that sassafras, smell its roots.”
“Root beer!” I exclaim,
Her laughter peeling away into the hills. Later,
With Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study
On the table next to the unending jigsaw puzzle,
Gladys opens to “The Oaks,” reading or reciting:
“The symbol of strength since man first gazed
Upon its noble proportions…” Then she sings Virgil,

         Full in the midst of his own strength he stands
         Stretching his brawny arms and leafy hands,
         His shade protects the plains, his head the hills commands.

Leaves and acorns spread across the table,
Each divided to its source, as if cataloging specimens:
The white and chestnut oaks, red and scarlet,
Every oak in the neighborhood, sketching the leaves,
Tracing and coloring them. Then questions, such questions:
“Where did we see this one growing?” “How tall?”
“Are the branches crooked or straight?”
“Round leaves or pointy?”
And then a game of matching
Acorn to leaf; a most difficult lesson — as difficult
As those jigsaw puzzles for a boy lacking patience
Or attention… 

Now Gladys was a unique person and I, as her protege, was as well. But like I said, each of us can probably think about someone in our lives that had a profound impact on us. It may be one of the things that brought you here, I suppose, because by being here – even if you’re just here for the food – you are showing that you care. By being here you may learn a lesson I hope is not as difficult as matching acorns to their leaves. 

When I had children of my own, I really wanted to impart in them that sense of wonder Gladys had enlivened in me, to pass on her lessons in a way. In my work for many years with The Nature Conservancy, which took me from the Hudson Valley in New York to Alaska, to the desert southwest and the tall grass prairie of Oklahoma, to back here to Pennsylvania, as well as to Indonesia, Ecuador, the islands of the Caribbean, and many other places in between. I was always impressed by the local knowledge, the indigenous knowledge of the people with whom we were working to protect some of the world’s great places.
We’ve all read the reports about nature’s impact on our psyche. We need nature. I need nature, even though I live in a city. As my kids were growing up, I realized that while treks out to the wilderness, camping, hikes in the mountains, etc., were all great experiences for them (and me), it was equally important they learn about the nature in their own backyards, their own city block.
This “one square yard philosophy, that learning about the nature in one square yard, really learning it and paying attention to the connections between species and the ecosystem as a whole, instills a sense of the importance of our own backyards and, in turn, will help us care about the natural world and our place in it and protecting it.
Today, all of us, but especially our children, are consumed by screen time. The average user spends 50 minutes on Facebook a day, according to recent data – and our kids are faced with numerous other social media distractions from Snapchat to Instagram to Periscope, whatever that is. Not to mention Candy Crush, Minecraft, and Angry Birds.
A few years ago, my sons were hooked on a mobile phone game where you rapidly identify corporate logos. I was horrified that they were so good at the game and disappointed I’d apparently failed in my mission to impart Gladys’s lessons. Nothing against corporate logos – some of them are quite good design – but that they could recognize more corporate logos than birds or trees really bugged me.
Yet, one day, walking in Carpenter’s Woods over in Mt. Airy, on the edge of Wissahickon Park with my twins, they got excited about the fallen trees on the forest floor and how they were decomposing. They noted the differences between the bark and the color and the consistency of the “saw dust” as the trees were returned to the Earth. It was a small victory – they still know more corporate logos than birds, I suspect, but what can I do?
I wrote this poem, called "Owl in the Gloaming," after a walk in those woods a couple of years ago that illustrates I’m not immune to apps myself…

 Although real birders frown on it,
I play back songs of birds
trying to lure them out of the wood:
"scree-chee-chee" of song sparrow,
mashing notes of catbird, "what-cheer,
what-cheer, what-cheer" of cardinal.

This irritates the birds.
They fly reconnaissance
over my head. Catbird looping
furtive patterns above me,
crossing the path from tree to tree.

 Sparrow chasing catbird,
thinking he's got too close,
although the interloper was me
in the unquiet afternoon 
sloughing into evening.

 Suddenly, a monotonous trill,
tremulous horse-whinny 
of the screech owl--
unmistakable, hideous laughter.
Then, overhead, something large,
gray, all wing beat and bodily hum.

 All other birds go silent, 
in the owl's shadow.
Hidden in the trees, 
his scaly, bark-like feathers,
can't be made out in the gloaming.

 Now there's a distant thrumming,
not from the bird app on my phone.
Rather, from within my chest,
vibrating on this turning earth,
under an owl's wing. 
Several years ago now, I was in India, working for Ashoka, which is a kind of social venture capital organization. One of the Ashoka Fellows I visited there was Kalyan Paul, who had started a very successful environmental organization called Grassroots, in the Indian Himalayas. Kalyan introduced me to some of the people from the village of Ranikhet, where he is based, including the Artisan’s Guild, a group men who were building and installing biogas stoves to repurpose cow dung and eliminate charcoal fires inside their houses for cooking.
And I met craftswomen who had created a profitable business making jams and preserves from local fruits, as well as hand-crafted sweaters and other garments for sale in local shops and around the world through online sales. Kalyan and Grassroots had helped set up this economic activity long before they tackled a single “environmental issue,” such as deforestation, erosion, and invasive species.
When I asked Kalyan what made him successful, he said, “I paid attention. I walked around and listened to the people. Their issues were economic and health-related, and I realized that until I helped them address those issues, and set them on a path towards greater self-sufficiency, I was never going to be able to address the environmental problems – the issues were linked.”
Today, I want to share a bit about my work with EY, which happens to be a sponsor of tonight’s event, so I may as well put in a plug for our work – because I think it’s pretty cool.
Electricity is a big issue on the African continent, as it is in many developing continents and countries, especially access, availability, and reliability. Working with a municipal utility in South Africa, our team helped design and implement a pre-paid smart metering program that addresses three problems the utility had: 1.) collecting revenue from their customers – some of whom wouldn’t pay their bills because they didn’t trust the billing systems; 2.) reducing electricity theft, not just in small villages, but in “gated communities” and even some commercial operations; and 3.) attracting investment to allow them to expand their network and improve reliability.
Now we’re looking at taking this same solution and exporting the idea out of Africa to other countries -- to India, Brazil, Mexico -- wherever there are similar problems this idea can address.
Both the Grassroots and EY solutions were about paying attention to what is going on around and creating opportunities out of the situation, which in turn creates greater value for others. Which reminds me of my poem,
A wasp wrestles all day
with the false freedom
of a window pane.
Scaling the glass, then slipping
down, buzzing the cracked paint
of the old window frame.
As if thrumming wings faster
will pull it closer to the blossom,
just beyond its reach.
So determined in its struggle
to get in, to wrest pollen from
the exotic flower on the other side.
A spider sets its dinner table
in the corner of the pane—

My mother-in-law once commented about that poem, “I’ve witnessed that scene many times…only you noticed the spider in the corner.” I can probably thank my Aunt Gladys for that.
We can be single-focused, like the wasp, beating our heads against the glass until we’re unconscious or we can be patient and attentive like the spider to make things happen when the opportunity presents itself.
In my experience over the years, I’ve seen the environmental movement make progress being more inclusive regarding people and nature, reaching more diverse communities, and beginning to change the face of conservation by giving others the opportunity to be a part of the solutions.
Places like Riverbend help broaden the horizons of children and bring them into an understanding of the natural world around them – whether it is a nature preserve, a city park or their own back yards.
Make no mistake about it, this is important work, as important as big land conservation or global climate agreements, for it is our children, as caring citizens of the world, who will be tomorrow’s stewards of the lands and waters we need to sustain life on Earth.
And this is important because, as Robert Michael Pyle wrote in his book, The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, “People who care conserve; people who don’t know, don’t care.” 

I don't know if I created any "aware, responsible and caring citizens" that night, but I hope so.