Stones to the Pile of Climate Activism
It has become a common feeling, I believe, as we have watched our heroes falling over the years, that our own small stone of activism, which might not seem to measure up to the rugged boulders of heroism we have so admired, is a paltry offering toward the building of an edifice of hope. Many who believe this choose to withhold their offerings out of shame.
This is the tragedy of our world.
For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile.
—Alice Walker, in Anything We Love Can Be Saved, 1997
It was a daily walk under early morning skies that saved my mental health during the long Covid lockdown. And I kept walking — through the murder of George Floyd, through the social upheaval that rightly followed; past a national crisis in leadership; the rise of white supremacy; and the simultaneous ramping up of environmental crises with the seizure of movement on battling climate change. Never mind the anxiety rising in my throat — I walked through it all, almost every day, in the pieces of “nature” that I could find in the middle of Baltimore City.
I had no clever “self-help” mantra in mind. I simply needed that sense of freedom and that time with the breaking light to set my soul right before the day began. Soon, realizing that I couldn’t be both a night owl and an early riser, I began going to bed earlier. I was out the door in the dark, ready to be embraced by the earth’s huge rhythms. Gradually, I re-constructed my daily rhythm —taking the quilt of my life apart square by square and stitching it back together in a whole new pattern. I had no choice. And nothing could stop me — not rain or cold or the gray bleakness of March. I was called — summoned?— to stumble forth and greet the dawn, which always came without fail. “Joy is what the Earth gives me daily, and I must return the gift.” says Robin Wall Kimmerer. All I had to offer was my presence, but it seemed enough somehow.
As I reflect on that visceral yet mysterious call, and as the September 11th anniversary draws near, I recall an equally powerful set of experiences in which the natural world gifted me exactly what I needed to be able to carry on— and to consider how to return the favor.
Remarkably, on the day after the towers fell — September 12th, 2001 — I had an inescapable business meeting at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. In the unreality of that “day after”, I arrived at the aquarium where our group was given a brief tour of the exhibit, Seahorses: Beyond Imagination, prior to our meeting. Struggling with my grief while attempting to maintain a professional demeanor, I was grateful for the time to settle in before needing to lead a discussion.
I will never forget my dreamlike walk through those quiet, darkened rooms lit by the glow of huge tanks housing the most beautiful and fantastical creatures I’d ever seen. I don’t remember a word the tour guide said as I walked past the luminescent, flowing bodies of hundreds of seahorses evolved to mimic the sea grasses amongst which they lived and dined on tiny shrimp. I was mesmerized by those fragile bony horses, delicate as lace, moving silently through the water.
One tank in particular took my breath away. It contained the rare Leafy Seadragon, an endangered species from Southern Australia related to the seahorse. It was, in a word, magical. I was looking at a creature so bizarre, so highly adapted to its environment that I couldn’t believe something this ethereal had survived 45 million years. A living embodiment of some frilly, outrageous pair of French shoes, the “Leafie” is in constant motion in its watery world like tatters of silk in the wind. Suddenly, the panic and sorrow locked in my chest since first glimpse of the burning towers dissolved and tears flowed. With my emotions safely hidden in the dark, I was left to reconcile the brutal horror of humans leaping to their death with the Leafie’s fragile beauty. In the space of 24 hours, I’d witnessed the best and worst of the evolution of life on our planet.
Regaining my composure, I went on to lead the meeting. Yet one small piece of the natural world had just swooped me up and allowed me to peek down the corridors of Time. I felt as if I’d received a blessing— and an assignment— from a creature that seemed the epitome of slow evolutionary forces moving inexorably toward adaptation, striving for a rightness of fit within its environment. Dazed by what I’d witnessed, I thought: I live on an extraordinary planet where humans, though we are far from balanced, might possibly one day integrate into our world as seamlessly as the seadragon. I was granted the privilege of a moment of wonder, insight and reverence that transcended even grief. It strengthened my resolve to contribute to the well-being of the planet in my own small way, and to work for environmental justice within my community. I hold the memory of this experience like a talisman.
Since that time, now a distant 21 years ago, environmental problems caused by the climate crisis have only intensified to a frightening degree. The weekly, almost daily disasters splashed in the news threaten to either paralyze us in fear or stop us from taking action altogether out of resignation or defeat. But act we must— individually and collectively, immediately. As Alice Walker writes: we must bring our small imperfect stones to the pile of activism. And as we do so, I think we must work to ensure that others — especially children and youth— have moments in nature like mine with the Leafy Seadragon that inspire us to do our part to save the planet.
Rachel Carson, author of the groundbreaking Silent Spring wrote a small lesser-known book, A Sense of Wonder, in 1965 describing how children need contact with the natural world in order to grow into people who love and are inspired by it, and who are committed to protecting the earth. “If a child is to keep alive [their] inborn sense of wonder, [they need] the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with [them] the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
Carson’s words seem so prescient for our “post Covid lockdown” world, and in light of the alarming mental health statistics since that time: “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” Carson reminds us that “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Reciprocity. A mutual reawakening.
I’ve been wondering how I can return the gifts that the Earth gives us daily, how to step out of paralysis or the “I’m just one person” trap that leads only to doing nothing. How do we begin helping others activate the positive circle of gratitude, a sense of wonder, an understanding of how natural cycles work and from that understanding, an inevitable sense of responsibility and ultimately, action?
For those of us with the privilege of having opportunities and places within reach in which to experience nature’s wonders, if ever there was a moment to work to expand access to the natural world with and for those denied it, now would be the time. To work across lines of race and class, of politics and privilege — and for those more privileged to listen harder, to strive to understand the systemic roots of the inequalities that exist, and to provide support on the terms of the disenfranchised.
For those of us jaded and cynical, suffering from the “why recycle while Rome is burning?” trap, if ever there was a time to take action in spite of it all — to bring one small stone, taking at least one person with you, and by your action set an example, and by your example “move the needle” — now would be the time.
For those simply numb or frozen with inaction in the face of the enormity of the global climate crisis, yet struggling to find a sense of hope about something, anything — why not embrace the quote: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is right now.” Be the change. Be the trend. Plant the tree. Take a child along.
My suggestions here reflect my life in the middle of a big congested urban area, rife with environmental inequalities, including who gets to feel safe enough to walk alone in the early morning. Yet there is also much to be done in rural areas to bring agricultural practices into sync with what is best for the land and soil conservation. There are huge needs for zoning that responsibly guides the shift from agriculture to land trusts, that encourages small farms using sustainable practices, and that curbs suburbanization. We must wisely manage the use of our natural resources for the good of all, rather than for the highest and biggest corporate bidder. If ever there was a time to show up, speak your piece at a meeting; to protest, make a call, write a letter, sign a petition; to lobby or plant a tree — and if ever the Earth needed an advocate — that time is now.
Later in the day of my encounter with the Seadragons, I cast about for some sort of ritual to acknowledge what had happened on September 11th, to bear “witness” in some way, to move toward a sense of community I hungered for. The image of the nearby labyrinth at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center came to mind, a place of beauty and quiet open to all and created by the TKF Foundation and the Moving Company. The labyrinth is nestled in the gentle green slopes of the park leading to the hospital. A circular form created with paving stones, it marks an ancient design 52 feet in diameter – a single path maze with no dead ends that leads us into the center and back out again. Its perimeter is defined by shrubs and benches facing inward.
The labyrinth is a map for meditation, the offering of a slow, circuitous walk from the first step on the perimeter in to the heartwood of its concentric rings. It is mirror and metaphor: a path into ourselves with each step, the center being the midway point on a journey of reflection. It honors a need for introspection and stillness. Frequented by many visitors to the hospital – patients, family, staff, friends – this labyrinth is a place to acknowledge illness and healing, death and birth and pain, a place to face fear, to listen for an inner voice, to seek hope or perhaps just take a breath. It is a place I imagine that holds every unspoken prayer and each footstep of those who walked before.
After organizing with close friends, and putting out a call to our community network, we invited people to join together for an evening at the labyrinth at week’s end. We did not describe what we would do; there was no ceremony or organized program. We simply invited people to come walk the labyrinth together. In honor? In solidarity? To move out of paralysis? To mark this step in our evolution, no matter how backwards a step it seemed? We suggested only that people tell others who might be interested, and that they bring a candle.
That night I was shocked as I watched some 50 people coming slowly and quietly over the hill — friends, neighbors, some I did not know, some with children in tow. Smiles of recognition as all gathered around. After a brief explanation of the ritual for those unfamiliar, we lit the candles despite the cool night breeze. Many shed their shoes. After some self-conscious shuffling, one by one, we flowed into the labyrinth in silence, walking round the circle, heading deeper into its center. The murmur of traffic faded away. The moment moved into deep silence.
I cannot remember if the stars shone that night or not. Far removed from any place of conscious thought, I was simply present in the movement of that community, that group of fellow travelers seeking some peace and understanding, flinging our grief and bewilderment to that ancient circle. Acknowledging our connection to each other and to the place on this beautiful, beleaguered Earth that is our home.
Gradually, the first walkers reached the middle of the circle, each spending a moment at that symbolic spot to take a breath, to pray perhaps. They closed their eyes. Waited, as if listening. Then, just as gradually and silently as it began, the movement flowed outward; we turned to walk back out — steps taken toward the world and the lives awaiting us. I think now, years later, we moved with the slow sway of sea grasses in the waves.
One by one, as people emerged from the circle, we sat on the benches surrounding the labyrinth, still in the arms of that ritual, watching the others complete their walk. We held our candles or set them down around the outer circle as if each knew just where theirs should go. I wondered if we should do something to bring closure to the walk, but was hesitant to interfere with the power of individual experience. And then, the moment took on a life of its own. As the last adult left the circle, two small boys remained walking; they’d entered following their own path, and were trying to make their way out of the labyrinth. Curiously, they didn’t simply run toward their parents but attempted to follow the bricks in the path.
Fifty adults watched these children make their way, uncertain but persistent, engrossed in their small journeys. Somehow, then, as of one accord, we all stood up, unplanned, unbidden. We walked slowly and silently from the perimeter of the circle toward the center of the labyrinth, the children unaware at first of our approach. We reached out our hands for each other and formed a circle around the children. They looked up from their walking, surprised and delighted to see us. We moved closer toward them in a sweep of steps choreographed like folk dancers. Moved until the the labyrinth took us all in, held us long and quiet. Then just as silently, of one accord, we stepped back to widen the circle once again until we reached the perimeter and the small flames awaiting us. The children ran to their parents, and we all turned to leave, woven stronger than ever as a community.
Evolution is messy. We need our sense of wonder and connection to the natural world more than ever, just as the Leafy Seadragon needs its kelp beds in the South Pacific. We need places where we can center ourselves and rekindle our commitment to action.
It is right here, in our communities, and with and for our children that we will find the strength and resolve, the will and the hope to move forward. Earth awaits us.
Get that tree in the ground!
Cinder Hypki is a community artist, educator, writer and activist in Baltimore, Maryland. Her first connection to the natural world on a Wisconsin farm inspired her early career in environmental education. That broad perspective on humans and environment still informs her teaching and design of workshops and participatory collaborative experiences. She uses creative expression in various media to promote healing, reconciliation, communication and teamwork. These socially-engaged projects “in the art of thriving” target nonprofits, community groups, classes and individuals of all ages in Baltimore and beyond. Cinder earned a Bachelor and Master’s of Science degree in Environmental Education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, respectively. Current projects include mosaic workshops during Baltimore Ceasefire events, a Wall of Gratitude at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and a How Are We Healing? initiative. She is author of the book, Far Field Farm: Stories of a Sturdy Dream.