The purpose of this "blog" is to make my essays that have been
published online accessible in one place. Current essays are on
top and older pieces farther down, though they are not presented
in strict chronological order. The postings or "blog archive" list
serves as a kind of index. Since most of my essay links were posted
at once in May of 2009, click "2009" under the blog archive column
and a list of essays will appear. Each essay is briefly described and a
link provided.

My formative writing experiences were as a grassroots organizer
and activist in campaigns to make polluters accountable. I wrote
newsletters, pamphlets, press releases, op-ed pieces, and statements
to be read at hearings, debates, and panel discussions. I did hundreds
of interviews for outlets as diverse as NPR, CBS, BBC, and CNN.

During this time I was also a library manager and administrator.
Although one might not suspect so, the role of the librarian and
the role of the activist share much in common. Effective activists
provoke public dialog. Effective librarians invite such dialogue.
Although they employ different methods, the ends are the same.

Eventually, I wrote two books about my political adventures,
Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West (Verso,
1999) and Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the
American Land(Island/Shearwater, 2004).

We spent the last two centuries learning how Nature can create wealth.
We will spend the next century learning how Nature creates health.
Ultimately, as we learn to live in reciprocal and sustainable
relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us, we will replace
the cultural language of wealth that both expresses and guides our
behavior today with a new language of health.

I am not talking here about mere words. I mean the way we see the
world, the way we express our values, and the way we make choices
together. The difference between those two ways of seeing and being
in the world are profound.

Wealth says more; health says enough.
Wealth says accumulate;
health says flow. Wealth says compete and win; health says
reciprocate, integrate, reconcile. Wealth says manage and
measure; health says jam and dance. Wealth assigns value; health
assumes it. Wealth adds, subtracts, and divides; health makes whole.

To learn this new language, we begin by listening. When we translate
what we learn into behaviors, we are practicing what I call ecological
citizenship. Ultimately, the health of our natural/physical
environment is directly related to the vitality of our civic
environment. And if you dig deeper, environmental crises are
also about our disconnection from nature and from each other.
And so we confront not only entrenched powers and their
destructive interests, but a culture that enables us, even
encourages us, to think and feel and act as if we live apart from
nature. As I try to explain in the essays that follow, nature is
embedded in us as we are embedded in the ecosystems that sustain us.

Chip Ward

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mini-Riff: Happy Dirt Day to You!

What we dismiss as dirt – common and plain – is actually quite unique, complex, variable, and vital. Soil is composed of decomposed blade, leaf, stone, root, bone, carcass, carapace, and flower – millions of tiny components that express the geology, biology, and land use history of that place. A spoonful of soil from any one location will be different from a spoonful of soil from any other location. Soil samples taken from the same place will change over time, too. Living within that mixture of debris and detritus is a universe of micro-organisms as variable as their environments, so many tiny species that we have counted but a slim fraction of them. A spade of rich garden soil may harbor more species than the entire Amazon Basin nurtures above ground. The bacteria in an acre of soil can outweigh a cow or two grazing above them.

Soil is not a thing, but a living process as the chemicals, nutrients, enzymes, bacteria, microbes and so on interact with one another and reconfigure over time. Soil, of course, becomes food if you add seeds, sunlight, and water. As important as that is, food is just one of soil’s blessings. Working together, the soil’s tiny creatures break down organic matter, store and recycle nutrients vital to plant growth, renew soil fertility, filter and purify water, degrade and detoxify pollutants, and control plant pests and pathogens. Without these fundamental ecological services, forests would wither and die, food webs would collapse, plants could not pull carbon from the atmosphere, and life on earth would eventually cease.

Our bodily communion with the physical world around us means that we carry the salt of the seas and the power of a star in our blood, but also perchlorate, lead, and dioxins because what goes into the soil can be incorporated into your cells. The boundaries we assign to “things” like uranium and kidneys are temporary, even arbitrary.

It is easy to dismiss process and relationship while embedded in a materialistic/reductionist culture that tells us that soil is not a living community, not the very ground of your being and not the genesis of your own flesh and blood, but merely a medium that props up trees and plants – a “dirty” and lowly thing not worthy of regard, let alone reverence.

Stones turn to dust, dust becomes soil, soil becomes food, food becomes you, and you sit on a stone and think about how very different you are from a rock. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, until we are conscious of what we are, we will not change what we do.

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