Poverty and Conservation -- Making the Connection

Students in Ghana planting trees with A Rocha's Climate Stewards project

If ecology is the study of connections, then the ecologists should be the first to rally against the injustices of environmental degradation and the subsequent human suffering that accompanies it. The reason why many don’t, as Peter Harris points out, is that we live in a time of complete disconnection. He writes, “products conceal their origins, academic disciplines operate in expert solitude, social relationships fragment.” But the poor do not have the luxury of disconnection from their environment. There are no presto logs to burn when their forests are decimated, no stashes of bottled water when the spring runs dry, no fertile fields around the bend when their crops sizzle during a prolonged drought. Stella Simiyu, a native Kenyan and a Senior Research Scientist in plant conservation at the National Museums of Kenya, writes this about the predicament of the poor.

If you look at Africa, the rural poor depend directly on the natural resource base. This is where their pharmacy, supermarket, power company and water company are. What would happen to you if these things were removed from your local neighbourhood? We must invest in environmental conservation because this is how we enhance the ability of the rural poor to have options and provide for them ways of getting out of the poverty trap.

It is only too easy to live in happy naivete when it comes to the social and environmental costs associated with our extravagant Western lifestyles. What we need are some clarion voices to draw those connections for us. Enter the words of Hosea.

Hear the word of the Lord…There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery…Because of this the land mourns…the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying. (Hosea 4:1–3)

Blessed Stillness

credit:  Brooke McAllister

I woke this morning with my “to do” list playing a loop track in my brain. It’s longer than usual and my insides felt tight as a result. But remembering the words of my gurus (Martin Luther: “I find I have so much to do that I must spend two hours a day in prayer;” and the equally sage Anne Lamott: “Keep moving or you die.”), I pushed myself outside for a quick walk before tackling the tasks of the day.

I strolled off our property and into the adjacent woods. The first thing that struck me, besides the tangle of green that has burst into being in the last few weeks, was birdsong -- so clear and bright and immediate it seemed each bird had an amplifier on his little scissor mouth. The woods were full of throaty exuberance. “Listen to me! I’m a bird!” each one seemed to be trumpeting.

Then it was off the woodland trail and down to the Little Campbell River to a bench my farmmates have dubbed “the Listening Bench” where I go to, well, listen. My practice is to sit quietly and practice the presence of God through contemplative prayer – be present to the Presence that finds me there. I hadn’t been sitting for more than three minutes when he came. In the river’s current, brown from the recent rains, a bigger brown – a square face, flat ears, sturdy body and wide flat tail, like a flipped rudder. A beaver. Four seconds and he was gone – carried swiftly downstream and out of view.

The whole incident -- the temptation to tackle “to do's”, the invitation to stillness, the blessings of the birds and beaver -- put in mind of a Mary Oliver poem:

It Was Early
(from Evidence)

It was early,
 which has always been my hour
  to begin looking
   at the world

and of course,
 even in the darkness,
  to begin
   listening into it,

 under the pines
  where the owl lives
    and sometimes calls out

as I walk by,
 as he did
  on this morning.
   So many gifts!

What do they mean?
 In the marshes
  where the pink light
   was just arriving

the mink
 with his bristle tail
  was stalking
   the soft-eared mice,

and in the pines
 the cones were heavy,
  each one
   ordained to open.

Sometimes I need
 only to stand
  wherever I am
   to be blessed.

Little mink, let me watch you.
  Little mice, run and run.
   Dear pine cone, let me hold you
    as you open.


Dancing Deformed

Credit: Mikey O.

     I taught at an international college in Lithuania. My students were lovely. Most had been about twelve years old when the Baltic republics succeeded from the Soviet Union. And most had stood in the human chain which stretched hand from grasped hand from Vilnius in Lithuania, through Riga in Latvia and north to Tallinn in Estonia – 600 kilometres of solidarity and peaceful resistance. Thanks to the drama and suffering they had survived nearly every student was an old soul and a survivor.

     One of my favourite classes was Oral Communications – a.k.a., How to Give a Speech. I taught my students to make eye contact, to speak in a moderate but varied tone and to use simple, but efficacious hand gestures. As they gave their speeches I scribbled comments on a sheet of paper and graded them on the spot. I made helpful suggestions like, “Make sure to look at your whole audience and not just the cute girl in the corner,” and “Bring a glass of water with you next time for that tickle in your throat.” On one occasion, mid-way through the semester, I wrote, “Hey, Laura, where’s your other arm!?” I thought I was being so jocular, cleverly drawing this student’s attention to the fact that she had given her entire speech with one arm tucked firmly behind her back, leaving her free hand the sole responsibility of making all the gestures. I docked her a few points for this bizarre oversight.

     I passed out my comments and grades at the end of that day’s speeches and traipsed off to my suite in the student dormitory. But the image of Laura standing at the front of room, one arm doing all the gesturing, stayed with me, so much so that I started to piece together a “portrait” of Laura in that class. Long, thick blond hair always cascading over her shoulders. A winter coat always draped over those same shoulders like a shawl. A shy and demure spirit. And as this portrait formed in my mind a sense of mortification grew within me. I slithered down the hall and found my friend Natasha.

     “How many arms does Laura have?” I blurted as soon as I saw her.

     “Well, one.” She replied as if everybody knew this, as if this was the dumbest question she’d ever heard.

     I collapsed into the nearest chair. “One, only one!? Are you sure!?” I buried my face in my hands and groaned.

     Natasha hurried on. “Yeah, she was born with only one arm. She’s really self conscious about it.” She paused. “That’s why she always wears her jacket over her shoulders.”

     I thought I might throw up. I had never felt like such a jerk. Hey, where’s your other arm?! I had jeered like a snot-nosed schoolyard bully. Ten points off for the missing limb, you freak!

     So I wrote a very long, very grovely note to Laura, apologising profusely, explaining my ignorance of her one-armedness, awarding extra points for bravery and begging her forgiveness for my incredibly insensitive comment. I might even have included a small sketch of a sparrow. (“Look! I drew you a picture!”)

     I learned something important that day. We are all disfigured. Some people’s disfigurement is more obvious (whether in body because they are missing a limb or whether in character because they mock those who are missing a limb). But we are, each one, disfigured. And therefore we journey imperfectly with moments of sheer knee-buckling insecurity or, worse, moments of self-aggrandising narcissism. But, never mind; we hobble on toward the good goals of kindness, of justice, of creation care and godliness. We are a mixed bag. But the point is to keep showing up, keep dancing, keep grasping the hand nearest and giving the speech.

Living with Lentils

credit:  FelixLeupold

As a family and at A Rocha we try to eat real food from a bit lower on the food chain. It’s our meager stand of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world for whom a locally grown, mostly vegetarian diet is the norm. Most long-term guests take our food agenda in stride, or at least they try to. In the beginning lentils are novel, and they feel noble eating like the rest of the two-thirds world. But after a week or two this wears off and there is a clamoring for meat—big chunks of it. In this regard I’m reminded of one of our first A Rocha interns, Martin Lings. I was in charge of the food during the early days of our Environmental Centre, and while I’m not a terrible cook, I was run a bit off my feet and my culinary craftings suffered as a result. I recall one particular day when I had morphed leftover lentils into their third incarnation. This simple little act of efficiency caused Martin, normally the height of English civility, to positively lose it. The scene went something like this:

 Me: Sauntering to the table with a child on my hip and casserole dish in hand—the very picture of female domesticity. “Dinner’s served!”

     Martin: Staring hungrily from the table. “Smells good, what’s for tea (read: supper)?”

     Me: Coyly. “Oh, just a little lentil thing I refashioned.”

     Martin: Face falling, eyeing the casserole dish suspiciously. “Huh?”

     Me: Smiling a bit too brightly. No comment as I lift the casserole lid.

     Martin: Wailing. “Nooooooo, not Lentil Goo again!”

Indeed, it was Lentil Goo again! But in the years since, I have perfected Lentil Goo into Lentil Dahl, which, if I do say so myself, is rather tasty. For a couple of years it became a weekly standard at the A Rocha table and was almost always appreciated even by the more carnivorous in the crowd. I offer you now, a rough sketch of that dish in case you want to try it in your own kitchen:

credit: mode
Leah’s Dahl

1. Sauté two onions in plenty of olive oil    

2. Add spices, salt and sugar: 
    4 T. curry powder
    4 T. cumin
    3 T. coriander
    2 T. garam marsala
    1 t. cardamom
    2 T. salt
    2 heaping T. brown sugar

3. Add water (aprox. 10 cups) and red lentils (aprox. 5 cups) – add more water if needed as it cooks.

4. Bring to a boil and then turn down to simmer for one hour -- stir every once and a while.

5. Taste and spice as needed (sometimes I end up more than doubling the spices and salt because I’ve just “eyeballed” it to start with).

Serve on rice with plain yogurt and chutney.

Serves 8
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Practicing Gratitude

credit:  Brooke McAllister

The hallmark of a truly “simple” life is gratitude. “Gratitude is the heart of faith,” writes Mary Jo Leddy, author of Radical Gratitude. In this vein, she relates a lovely prayer of gratitude the Jewish people pray every Passover as they celebrate the deliverance of the Hebrew people from Egypt. The prayer centres around the Hebrew word Dayenu, which in English means, It would have been enough.

– If you had only led us to the edge of the Red Sea but not taken us through the waters, it would have been enough.

– If you had only taken us through the Red Sea but not led us through the desert, it would have been enough.

– If you had only led us through the desert but not taken us to Sinai, it would have been enough. 

Leddy suggests using this template as a helpful spiritual exercise in reflecting on one’s own life. For example: If I had only been born but not had a twin sister, it would have been enough. If I had only had a twin sister but hadn’t visited Orcas Island, it would have been enough. If I had only seen the sun set off Otter’s Point, but hadn’t experienced a snowfall in the Rockies, it would have been enough.

When we are satisfied with our lives as being enough, we are able to resist the whispers of consumerism that tell us we don’t have enough or we are not enough. When our sense of satisfaction is rooted in an amazement at the givenness of every gift—from friends to home to our very own lives—then we are grounded in the firm grace of abundance.

Gratitude’s starting point is wonder. I love what the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel says about true spiritual living: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.” He encouraged his students to take nothing for granted. “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” The amazement comes as we realise everything we have and every gift we experience is pure grace. To be born would have been enough, but then I’m given a loving family. Wow! To be raised in a loving family would have been enough, but then I am surrounded by caring mentors. Amazing! We are invited not only to consider the big gifts, but the little gifts as well—the light slanting through the fir trees on a fall afternoon or the caress of a small child’s hand on our arm. It’s all grace. It’s all amazing. It all warrants our gratitude.

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