Friday, May 27, 2005

Time out in the Marin Headlands ...

The intensity of the past few days of writing demanded a break. I should re-word that -- it's not the writing but the thinking that is so troublesome. The writing comes easily, but with each new fragment upturned there are glimpses into things long forgotten, and when night comes I can feel my jaw muscles begin to relax. Hadn't realized how much energy gets locked up there until they're released ... .

I'd been looking forward to spending all day on Thursday with the board of directors of Ma'at Academy at the Marin Headlands Institute. This is an amazing program designed by its founding director, Sharon Fuller, to bring awareness and educational opportunities to the local minority community around issues of environmental injustice. This issue is of critical importance to Contra Costa County since recent studies show that there are 300 toxic-emitting facilities in the city of Richmond. There are 5 petroleum refineries in Contra Costa County, the most in any area in the nation. Despite the constant redefining of what constitutes a brownfield, this and surrounding cities are awash with them. The statistics on breast cancer, asthma, and autism are stunning. From a speech I wrote two years ago for my former boss, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock of the 14th Assembly District -- the alarming statistic for autism showed a 97% leap in four years and a chilling rise of 634% since 1987 (West County Times, Wednesday 5/14/2003).

Consider that ours is a city with a large population dependent upon public assistance due to joblessness. In order to supplement what foods are available through food stamp programs, a good number of folks still try to grow their own vegetables in small kitchen gardens only to find the ground in which they're grown is highly contaminated by pesticides -- and that serious illnesses came along with nourishment. Much of the bay water is now so contaminated by mercury and other toxins that the fish caught are no longer edible without treatment. The most popular fishing spots sit over what has been long designated as Superfund sites. It's been a major job to get the state to post warnings to that effect; an effort that Ma'at Academy has worked to encourage for years.

The problems of environmental justice are major issues in communities of color. This is true across the country. It will be a growing issue as awareness of the dangers loom larger in years ahead. Ma'at is at the forefront of the struggle to educate the local minority community to the hazards ahead through a variety of approaches, including conducting afterschool programs in the local high schools. It is important work. I'm honored to be a part of it.

It was a good meeting, scheduled to end at four o'clock in the afternoon -- but we were actually on the road back to Richmond by two. It's that "road back to Richmond" that I found so exciting. As we drove up the backside of the headlands -- up the hillside to the cliffs that overhang the ocean side of the Golden Gate bridge there comes into view the most astounding vista that I have ever seen. And that in an area of the world where stunning vistas appear framed by your windshield with such frequency that those of us who've lived here all our lives simply yawn and drive on.

It is only matched by my first view of Mt. Shasta experienced only a short time ago. Maybe it's even better than that, because it brings together the magnificence of nature with the magnificence of human-produced architectural splendor and incomparable beauty! It gives one the best of both in ways that affirm our ability to be a part of creation.

And I knew that somewhere not too far away -- but out of view -- I was about as close to the Farallons as ever I'd been from land -- and that I'd played a part in both the creation of the GGNRA (Golden Gate National Recreational Area) by having served with others on its founding board and that I'd had a role in that remarkable film on the automation of the light on the Farallon Islands that saved it as avian habitat.

I'd just spent the day (for the first time) here where hundreds of school children can be seen with teachers and guides hiking the trails and sitting around in small study groups learning about the environment and biota of this beautiful area. How privileged have I been over time! How wondrous that I've lived long enough to witness the full bloom of those activities entered into so long ago by those of us with little sense of the impact of sitting in those beanbag chairs in Berkeley livingrooms with other dreamers and planners -- drunk with our ability to make real for some future generation the vision of "swords into ploughshares!" We'd just come through Vietnam, after all. It was the drama of our Ann vs. the Department of Interior -- and Ann won the Presidio, the Marin Headlands, and actualized the first urban national park in the nation!

It's possible that there are young people now sitting in trees, around campfires, and working in labs, creating the answers to global warming -- without any idea that their efforts will someday be rewarded in just this way. Each adding their small piece to the whole that will bring an end to the greed of over-consumption, pieces that may slow the melting of the glaciers and the rising of the oceans. Maybe those redwoods will not be lost after all, and some 80 year-olds in the far distant future will know (only in retrospect) that placing their bodies against those chainsaws and hanging banners across freeways really worked.

That's the way it felt when I climbed into bed last night. Those feelings were not stated on the drive home -- it was just that I was filled to overflowing with words that got pressed behind the words that made it out of my mouth! I felt as though I dominated the conversation all the way home by answering every question raised by anyone and holding back on the feelings that were causing my breathing to be shallow and thin and my voice to sound reedy with echoes in my head as I heard the sounds of my far-too-many words fill the van.

I think that Ma'at Academy will be one of those Bay Area wonders that will someday sweep the nation as a replicable model and that those involved will be the elders of tomorrow looking back in wonder.

I won't live long enough to reap the benefits of their work, but at my age I have the ability to see how it all fits together and to try to voice that for those caught up in and discouraged by the hopelessness of the struggles of the moment.

Maybe this describes the progress of civilizations ...

But what explains wars?

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