For now there is destruction
gate gate paragate parasamgate,
under the rubble
a strong vulnerable sprout breaks ground
As I write this piece, I’m listening to the wind rustling the leaves of the trees in the valley below. I’m sitting on a grassy knoll, under the overhang of what serves as the front porch of the Mac Smith Strawbale Lodge named after a former Miami Dade College professor who taught for 30 years at the college I’ve worked at for 22 years now and who launched a series of programs that have blossomed into a number of communities that focus on Earth Literacy.
I’m not sure why I need to write this last paragraph, but it seems important to name him, name the place where I’m working and in doing so remind myself that the work I do is somehow tied to many others who have come before me. This before me part has been really important in the past. Connecting to the ancestors has been a lifeline that in some of the more challenging times of teaching has allowed me to find my way when the path was unclear or encumbered by my own confusion. What I’m noticing more and more is that those who follow are becoming more relevant. What is dawning on me is that I am now becoming more of an elder or lifeline to those who come after me.
I’m also realizing that I’m coming to the end of the summer of my teaching life. I sense the beginning of the fall season and note a number of things. One that stands out very vividly is the notion that the kind of education that I’m interested in is not one that easily translates into objectives and goals. I realize that I’m interested in the ancient notion of education, which the word itself points to— is to draw out, to invite into awareness. This is what I consider or want to consider to be my role as a teacher in relationship to my students. It’s also the type of role, that at my best, students have in relationship to me. Together we draw out for one another what is already there but may be overlooked. And the drawing out is not exclusive of learning a skill but my point is that it is so much more than merely writing an essay, resume, or figuring out a complicated calculus.
I write this after spending an afternoon touring Narrow Ridge, an Earth Literacy Center and community in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Smokies my school sends students to every spring. I’ve come up this time as a chaperon. As I live among 13 young people for this short time, I’m challenged to hold the tension of living out of one’s ideals and often finding that the choices made don’t come close to these. Like the young people I have accompanied, I live with the disorder of my own mind and life, wanting to live consistently within my ideals and coming up short time and again. This understanding does not jive well with my notion of being an elder.
The disconnect and discomfort in my own mind regarding elderhood is part of the generational gap and chasm that has existed for far too long. The young and old don’t relate to one another enough by living and working close together. The segregation that started with industrialization and children being put in schools that were away from their grandparents and parents most of the day and that were modeled on the factories the parents worked in planted the seeds of a huge wisdom deficit that we keep bumping into and find no real way to address. We have become an uninitiated culture unaware of how to be.
These particular students remind me in their youthful exuberance of wanting to and being aware of being life itself, of exploring the possibilities of living in a way that affirms rather than denies life. They are able to do this so freely and so quickly as they step away from the constraints of the classroom and find themselves in a quiet space meant to invite awareness rather than distraction. It is clear as I hear them share and join them during our meals together that they also seek for ways to live with the brokenness and disjointedness of life lived in the uprootedness of urban environments where neighborliness is often absent and where green spaces are tiny islands engulfed not only by the built environment of roads and buildings but surrounded and steeped in the always on culture of social media and smart phones. What’s different, it seems, for them is that their desire for wholeness has not gone through the challenge of living long enough to experience the obstacles inherent in existence itself, and of the tendency that happens as we grow older to give up or grow disillusioned and disheartened by the experience. I’ll come back to this later.
Narrow Ridge is named after a line in Martin Buber’s book I and Thou. It’s a pertinent thought that can serve as a signpost for all of us:
I do not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolutes, but on a narrow, rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but [only] the certainty of meeting what remains, undisclosed.
The narrow ridge Buber and this place reminds us of is that tenuous spot where we meet all of life not as an object but as subjects. It’s a tenuous spot because one does not stay on the ridge very easily. We walk it with great care and humility, honoring and becoming aware of the ultimate mystery of existence and life itself. Too much effort or too much trying and one falls of the ridge. Too little effort and little awareness and the same thing happens. I’m not even sure that we can use the word tenuous. The narrow ridge is a point that seems really out of reach for most. For me, I don’t know I’m on it for more than mere moments and then I’m off.
On this particular day, without the use of a textbook or PowerPoint, my students and I got a small glimpse of living in that balance and awareness, of living as Daniel Berrigan says in his introduction of Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness, of living “…as though the truth were true” (xxiii). This happened as we walked up and down hills and saw and heard the story of Narrow Ridge. We spent a couple of hours not only walking, but seeing first hand a physical manifestation of a vision where humans live in conscious awareness of their own place in the Universe. Through its relationship to the land, its built structures, and governance, the Narrow Ridge community shows visitors an attempt to walk the ridge, to navigate between a culture of mass consumption and one of great care.
As we walked, we visited with a number of the human residents of Narrow Ridge. Each offered us a part of their story. Each left us with a bit of the stirring that happens within when we meet another person who has tried her best to live life in service, in love, in truth.
In the process, I was reconnected with the question of what happens when young and old gather to intentionally learn from one another. All along, I’m thinking about the lifeline of ancestors and my own role as an emerging lifeline to others. Together we learned as often happens from these gatherings the unexpected.
For the youth in the group, the anxiety of what to do with the gift of life, how to live in a world that feels out of sorts in its speed, focus, and ultimate goals was offered as the base of much of the conversations we were having. For the elders and elders in training among us, who clearly did not have any specific answers to these heartfelt questions, but, who because of the grace of sometimes living with some awareness could point out some of the sign posts that have kept them on or close to the narrow ridge, the opportunity to be in communion with these young people and their concerns served as a tonic and balm for the achiness of spirit that too often plagues those who have not given in or are awakening from to the dominant culture’s hypnotic spell to merely consume. For me, and I suspect for the others above 40 in the group, coming together to enter into a conversation with young people offers the blessing of renewal, a reminder to remain vulnerable, open, and strong all at once.
Walking the narrow ridge in this regard has something to do with what I see Jesus referring to in the Gospels of entering the kingdom which in his time meant sensing the divine presence not in some far off place but in the midst of the oppression, hurt, and ugliness of an empire bent on domination of the many for the benefit of the few.
When together we face the youthful not knowing of the current moment and the elder’s understanding of the inherent incompleteness of all of our efforts, we can sense, if there is honesty and grace in the container of sharing, that together we offer one another what is needed. We bring ourselves with all of our limitations.
And any uncertainty about the future becomes an entry point to the mystery that all we need is right before us and that we are the ones we have been looking for all along.
In this meeting place, or narrow ridge, the now of this moment allows all of us, young and old, to be fully ourselves and stop the continuous effort to cover over our inherent qualities as homo sapiens sapiens, a species among many, a species with a deep desire to reflect upon its own place in the family of life.
As I said earlier, what I’m describing took place in a retreat setting. As I look back at my own teaching life, I realize that my development and growth as a teacher often takes off as I enter or create the kinds of diverse communities where the old and young come together in a spirit of listening and sacred sharing.
These communities have never been committees. They have always involved effort in either joining or creating them. Sometimes they emerge suddenly and with great force. Their intensity brightens up the path for all who participate. More often than not, these have been ephemeral in nature, lasting long enough for a few relationships to develop and transcend their existence.
The bringing together of the young and old in a context outside of a classroom is powerful and something that does not happen often enough and may be one very important element in creating the possibility of living a more balanced life.
Over the years, this practice of not just stepping outside of the classroom but outside of the entire schooling system where education is seen as a transaction has served to bring me back to myself as a learner, a seeker, and one who wants to live with integrity. Interestingly, I have been able to experience this not only outside of the physical structure of schools such as a place like Narrow Ridge, but I have also been able to sense it even within the walls of my own institution I sometimes lovingly call Rockland, the name of Ginsberg’s psychiatric hospital in his poem “Howl.”
I point this out, because the magic of this time in Narrow Ridge has to do with this community container than the actual place. I suppose I can say that the narrow ridge Buber describes is that place where such gatherings can take place. We need these to help us find our way and balance. I need these to find my heart and soul when both become opaque or clouded over with the detritus of living.
Because these communities serve as the oxygen for teaching life, they are not optional. They are necessary if we are to not only survive as teachers but to thrive and in so doing create learning spaces where students are invited to become who they are, their voices are welcomed, and their experiences are valued for the wisdom they harbor.
The invitation for smaller groups to emerge, to coalesce around the desire to walk the narrow ridge is essential in my own health as a teacher. The coming together of students and teachers, often within the walls of the classroom but outside of the philosophical limitations imposed by industrial education is often the highlight of the term.
On our tour, we saw how each of the buildings is powered by solar energy. This became more important as our time together unfolded. Near the end of our week at Narrow Ridge, we took a day trip to Eagan, just south of the Kentucky border. Eagan is a border town, on the margins sort of speak, and as such has been a mining town since the early part of the twentieth century.
We were met by Gary Garret a resident of Eagan and a volunteer at the Clearfolk Commnity Center. As we approached the town, it was clear to see that we were entering another America, one that was rich in beauty, culture, and so called resources, but one that had been used as the source of cheap energy for more than one hundred years. All around us we could see the effects of coal extraction, sides of mountains cut in perfect angles, exposing veins of coal that were the remains of our prehistoric ancestors. Our bodies also knew we were in a different America. Many of us had difficulty breathing the air. It was as if the air had become heavy. In reality, the air was heavy with the coal dust of the mountain that was being removed right in front of our eyes.
The point of this trip was to visit the site of a mountain top removal. This is a euphemistic term for something much more gruesome. We were there to witness the decapitation of the mountain, a slow execution fueled by my own, our own, desire and need to cheaply power our modern way of life. I say cheaply because none of us have paid the full cost of the coal that has been extracted from the mountains there. But the mountain and the whole communion of beings who call it home have and are paying the full price.
Eagan felt like a developing country where large landholders control most of the land and do with it what they will, even when this means that area residents suffer dearly with the poisons that are the detritus of extracting energy—either in the form of food (always in the form of some kind of monoculture) or of fossil fuel to keep the economy running.
It was raining on this day and what we could see was the torrents of brown runoff coming down from the side of the mountain. Every barren or almost barren hillside was a flowing river of milk chocolate colored water, all flowing to the bottom where mountain streams carried them as a cocktail of chemicals and dirt that kills most if not all of the fish and wildlife who call these streams home. The effects on humans is equally disastrous as flash floods because of the erosion is now commonplace. No trees on the mountain means not roots to hold the soil in place.
The solar panels spoke to us as we watched as we drove to our destination. We tried getting to the top of where the coal company had removed the mountain, but we could not. The rain was too much and the road was becoming impassable. Instead, Gary showed us a cemetery on the side of the road. It was the part of the mountain top that had not been carved out for coal. The cemetery stripped of the mountain all around it was left as an island of the dead, a monument to shortsightedness on all levels. That it had not been carved out like everything else was a miracle. We suppose that it was left there to respect the remains of the residents who once called the mountain home. But what we presenced was obscene. And we suspect the dead in that cemetery like the living have no real resting place as the mountains continue to be chopped up and killed. Chief Seattle’s words rung in our ears:
And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.
We also reflected on our tendency to become overwhelmed by the immensity of the task at hand. The solar panels in Narrow Ridge are a small response to the mountain top removal/decapitation/execution. All of us knew this as we travelled back to our little oasis. As we did, many of us thought about memory and the loss of memory that our culture is based on. The key to the complete loss of this memory is the disunion between old and young. Without the generations coming together and sharing what’s of value, what’s of interest, all we have left is a flattened environment and ecosystem both outside and inside of us.
Narrow Ridge is a dynamic place. The very moment one comes into the community and settles down in the lodge or cabin, one is told about two things: composting toilets and solar panels. As usual, our best teachers are often not the ones we easily recognize. In Narrow Ridge the best teachers don’t have human form. In fact, they can’t be seen. Each of the structures visitors stay in has composting toilets. These not only serve the obvious function to collect human waste, but they exemplify in the most physical of forms the connection between human and Earth through the work of millions of microbes who do what no waste management processing station can do.
If you don’t know what a composting toilet looks like, they come in different shapes but the basic function is the same. You do your shit, pour some peat moss afterward, close the lid, and let microbes go to work transforming waste into compost. The process is simple enough to understand. It is a challenge, however, to the paradigm of throwing and flushing away. One realizes that there is no away.
Explore Mary Dennis’ story. Her work with Oakridge, the work of Daniel Berrigan and so many others….highlight what she said about being silent in order to listen to the cries all around us and to then respond. anywhere we enter we will find ourselves in the center of things….bring in Ana Maria and her work on the border….
Every time one goes to the bathroom, there is a reminder of the profound reality that we are in and are a communion of organisms. Within us there are billions of bacteria allowing us to digest food. All around us there are countless other organisms that permit us to exist. Going to the bathroom becomes a sitting meditation practice that allows us to clearly understand that in nature there is no such thing as waste. A composting toilet teaches without saying a word. It dismantles one of the central pillars of modern society that disassociates the human body from Earth itself.
Say more here about communion and community…
List of Ideas
Formaldehyde and Green Burials
Owls and Stars
that as teachers we are sometimes invited to explore together. As I have done so in my own work and with my students, these questions become entry points for my own questioning as to what I have done with my days, my years of effort. Like my own students, I often don’t know the answers and feel a deep sense of dis-ease that a large aspect of what I do matters little when placed side by side the great need of this planet time.
The sense of dread and
The conversations on the hillsides of this beautiful community for the breaking down of the hardened shell of cynicism that comes from giving up on possibility and the spaciousness of the present moment.
The future becomes revealed in the present as the young come in contact with older human beings who like them have lived and walked down paths filled with the ups and downs and missteps of life itself and are willing to share what they have learned along the way.
Idea for a way to organize the essays in the book…
The communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life of the world to come…
From Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” in The Sand County Almanac:
`When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his
absence. This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong.
Concepts of right and wrong were not lacking from Odysseus’ Greece: witness the fidelity of his wife through the long years before at last his black-prowed galleys clove the wine-dark seas for home. The ethical structure of that day covered wives, but had not yet been extended to human chattels. During the three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only.`
Bobby C. Billie in “Walk for the Earth”
“The whole natural system of the Earth—the Air, the Water, the Trees, the Fish, the Birds, the Animals, the People—is one life system.
“Since white people stepped into this land, everything has been destroyed. Everything is changed. The Water is polluted, the Air is polluted, the Trees, the Plants, even the People’s minds…
“The Creator gave us a natural ecosystem. At a certain time of the year the water flow slows down and the water level also goes down, and during this time different species lay their eggs and also the fishes lay their eggs in the water. By the time the little eggs have hatched, the rains come and the water flows back to a higher level. By that time the little Fishes and Insects and others have learned how to take care of themselves. At the same time little Grasses and little Trees have had enough time to grow and rise again. The Animals, Birds, and Fish cannot read the minds of People and cannot know when you raise and lower the water levels. That is why they are dying. They only know how to follow the natural system.
“When you try to control the natural system, the system must seek to protect itself, it cannot be controlled. It controls us, and if mistreated it can fail us. And if that happens, all the knowledge you have, all the power you have, all the technology you have, all the money you have will be useless.
“What I see is nothing but roads, building after building, city after city. What we see is no future. What you are doing is wrong. You are not protecting your future generations.
“If the natural system is restored, we can see a future. If not, there is no future.”
Bobby C. Billie in The Seminole Tribune:
You cannot separate the Land, the way you think, with imaginary lines, because it is all connected. It is one Earth. All Creation is Sacred (Holy) to Aboriginal Indigenous People. We cannot separate the Creator’s (God’s) Creation. All His Creation is connected and Sacred (Holy) to us, for us to take care of, and make sure His Creation is not disturbed or damaged so we can pass on what He gave us, at the beginning of the Creation of Life, to the next generation of Unborn Life.
Bring in Vaclav Havel’s concept of “Second Culture.” Creating these communities within the structures of a school is necessary for the survival of what is living within learning.
[This short poem begins this section on the cycles in my own teaching, and as such it is my invitation for you to look at your own. This section is open exploration of the twists and turns of the path of finding the soul within the work of teaching and learning that like all of the cycles of nature these, too, ebb and flow. Taking note of these and honoring them seems like an important practice in reclaiming the sacredness of our profession.]
Maybe this is something I can pick up toward the end once again and set up what may become a series of essays/chapters to explore…
7:06 AM May 29
i would love to hear (stories from “ancestoral teachers” how those that have grown older have faced and overcome those obstacles in teaching (disillusioned and disheartened). Mine would be finding another form of teaching (but then it could look like I gave up on teaching)
7:12 AM May 29
Do you have any stories (if not theirs, maybe yours) from the young in the group to maybe incorporate here?
My teaching load as a community college teacher is heavy. I often have more than 200 students each semester. In the past, these numbers felt like an impossible obstacle to overcome.
Over the years, I’ve learned to work through my own limitations and use these as a way to engage rather than distance myself. I’ve done this by paying more attention to any unnecessary energy drains. I refuse to participate in certain projects and committees in order to keep myself alert and alive enough to encourage community building with colleagues and students. Who am I kidding? I hav steadily refused to serve on committees that spin endlessly when I can use that energy to be more present. I aim to start each year and semester with the desire to have these groups emerge.
In this past year, this has happened through a series of events …food project, gandhi day, walk2nicaragua, if club??????
Chief Seattle’s Speech of 1854 - Version 1. (n.d.). Retrieved May 27, 2014, from http://www.halcyon.com/arborhts/chiefsea.html
7:29 AM May 29
for those young people coming into teaching, how will they be able to see the connection of your stories (especially Eagan)? You finish by mentioning the generations coming together, but as teachers, how can they connect Eagan to their time with students?
I suppose that when we talk about mountain top removal we don’t really understand the horrors of this practice. The lack of understanding does not come from lack of information but more so from the very nature of the paradigm that sees humans owning property as a god given reality rather than an aberration not seen in any other species. This euphemistic term silts the reality of an entire ecosystem being killed or executed in order for a group of people to enjoy the comforts and excesses of a modern society. We can turn blue in the face saying is wrong, but unless there is some sort of shift or as some of the ancient scriptures point out a metanoia, a deep change in perspective that does not merely reside in the intellect but is experienced in the whole of the body and finds full expression by a change in attitude and behavior, we will not stop decapitating mountains and all of the other ecocide related to our living out of a faulty relationship with the planet around and within us.
Bobby C. Billie is one of about 100 traditional Indians who are not part of a recognized tribe in Florida. He lives in a remote village north of Lake Okeechobee.