A Personal History
O C T O B E R 2 0 1 9
I recently celebrated my 75th birthday, an event that rang like a gong in my heart, making me look up from the current procession of my days and back at the trajectory that my life has traced through those years, looking — as often happens for those fortunate enough to live this long — looking for patterns and meanings that might tell me what this has all been about. There are many ways the story could be told, of course, but one pattern in particular stands out for me just now that I’ll try to describe here, on the chance it may reflect something in your life too.
To put it most simply, throughout my years I have been drawn to, astonished by, and in love with beauty — the beauty of nature and the beauty of human potential — and outraged by its desecration. Since I have a fairly mild nature, the feelings of outrage that have arisen in me have often been disturbing and difficult to know what to do with.
I remember when I was eleven standing with my friend Jack watching bulldozers crash through the woods we loved and where we had played for years. We were heartbroken. They cut down the trees, poured asphalt roads, and started building rows of identical tract houses. One Sunday afternoon when the builders were gone, Jack and I broke into a construction shed on the housing site. Using the picks and sledgehammers stored there, we demolished the shed. I remember vividly the moment when my sledgehammer smashed the electrical fuse box and sparks exploded from it. It wasn’t long before a car sped onto the site and a man jumped out shouting, “Hey you kids!” Jack and I ran for our lives and the man never caught us. .
Coming of age through the 1950’s and 60’s I was witness to the spread of suburban America across the landscape, the ugly highway strip malls and seas of parking lots, the “temples to consumerism” as they’ve been called, and I wanted more than anything to retreat from all that into the remaining wild and beautiful expanses of nature. I wanted to go where there were, as I told my parents, “God-made things” and not “man-made things.” As soon as we graduated from college, my young wife and I headed to an uninhabited island off the coast of British Columbia where we lived off the land for a summer, hunting and fishing, and for the next two years I made elaborate plans to move out there permanently. But eventually I saw that my repugnance for what humans were doing to the natural world and my attempts to run away from it were limiting whatever my life was supposed to be about. I didn’t know what that was, but I stepped warily back toward the human world, hoping I’d find out.
At that time the Vietnam War was raging, and I was soon to be drafted into the army. I couldn’t imagine traveling halfway around the world to kill people I had no argument with. Once again, I felt in an acutely personal way the brutality humans were visiting upon — not only the natural world — but each other. I read a poem by ee cummings — “i sing of Olaf glad and big” — about a pacifist who was beaten and tortured for refusing to fight in World War I. A line in that poem jumped out at me in which Olaf says: “there is some sh_t I will not eat.” That expressed my revulsion perfectly, and I became a conscientious objector, refusing to kill anyone. The whole long experience only deepened my sense of estrangement from society.
Another story that reveals this same struggle in a different way: A few years later — by then it was the early 1970’s — I traveled alone for a month through India. I was intent on witnessing how life was experienced by people who had none of my privilege. I wanted to toughen my tender sensibilities and break through what I felt was my provincial American consciousness. India was, and remains, a good place to do that.
Toward the end of that month I spent a week in Calcutta, and accompanied by a hardened but slightly bewildered guide I had hired, went to the worst places he knew of in the city. We climbed through the vast dumps where people lived in cardboard huts among the trash. Using him as an interpreter, I spoke with mothers and kids living in that stink and asked them about their lives and hopes. Out on the streets we spoke with beggars and lepers. I remember one symbolic moment when a shiny black sedan passed us as we squatted on a curb trying to talk with a beggar, its tires splashing us with filthy water. We went to Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Dying where I told the nuns I was a reporter from the Des Moines Herald and that I wanted to write a story about their work — could they show me everything? They did.
After that week in Calcutta I felt brutalized. The fragrant beauty I had known in nature, the noble beauty I was sure humans were capable of, all of it felt assaulted in my heart. Waiting for my train out of Calcutta in the cavernous Howrah Railroad Station, I sat dejected and depressed on a wooden bench as far from the crowds as I could find. A little man, neatly dressed, sat down on the other end of the bench.
He looked over at me and said, “I believe you are from which country?”
I was in no mood to talk with anyone and didn’t look up. He repeated the question. I muttered in as unfriendly a way as I could, “Merica,” hoping he’d get the point that I didn’t want to talk.
But then, quite slowly, he asked, “And how… do you find… Calcutta?”
Something in me snapped. I wasn’t aware how tight I had become, how not only the squalor of Calcutta but the whole saga of the desecration of nature and human beauty that my young life had witnessed to up to that time, how much it hurt.
I turned to him and glared. “It outrages me!” I shouted, surprising myself and him.
The man sat up straight, slid down the bench, and asked me what I meant. I told him in a flood of words, tears in my eyes, and he was obviously touched. In what I now see was one of those choice points that reveal one’s destiny, the man told me he was part of an armed insurrection that was active further up in Bengal State, and asked if I wanted to come with him to see what they were doing. Perhaps I would join them? I confess I was tempted. Visions of making a heroic stand against the forces of injustice and greed rose up in my mind. But thankfully I had family waiting for me back in Delhi — and I was scared — so I said I couldn’t join him.
Something began changing in me after that period, maybe because I had entered my mid-thirties and had children. Though my marriages back then were falling apart, the very fact of having brought children to the earth made me responsible for doing whatever I could to make things better for them, and for children everywhere. Unbeknownst to me, the love I felt for my kids’ simple beauty and their potential began to change my way of being in the world, at first slowly and hesitatingly, and then more confidently.
Up to then, my outrage had been reactive. It had made me want to pull away from society; now it began to make me creative and engaged. Over time I became a teacher — first teaching people how to design and build homes that were sustainable and beautiful; later teaching human-scale urban design, and then deep ecology, and then training environmental activists, which led me to work with indigenous tribes in Southeast Asia helping them preserve their land rights. With my wife Rabia, we worked on projects to advance peace and cross-cultural understanding in the Middle East and Central Asia. We created anthologies of prayers for the earth and for life, and the work continues still to this time.
The outrage is still here, for sure, but now it’s more like a source of energy than a source of disdain. When I watched young Greta Thunberg at the U.N. the other day express her outrage at world leaders for not doing everything in their power to stop the climate disaster looming over life on earth, tears came to my eyes. Her outrage was love. Her outrage swept all of us together in its love — it didn’t pull away as mine had done for half my life. Perhaps that’s the moral of this story: Know that your outrage against the desecration of life on earth is a sign of your love, and let that outrageous love of yours join with others to create a just and beautiful world.