Agency Breeds Hope
June 4th, 2022
By: Sr. Maxine Pohlman, SSND, director, La Vista Ecological Learning Center
I didn’t know what to expect when I read the invitation for a Barge Bash in late April, but I quickly accepted since I always wanted to see a barge up close, having observed them from the bluffs for so many years. On the parking lot of Alton, Illinois’ Melvin Price Locks and Dam I was given a life jacket before heading to the Living Lands and Waters barge docked there. I could not have imagined the impact the evening would have on me as I felt myself rocking between hope and despair. One young man with one boat began collecting trash on the Mississippi near his home in 1998 and sorting it in his parents’ back yard. Now his organization has a fleet of 4 barges, 2 towboats, 5 workboats, 5 trucks and a crane. All of these are needed to do the work of trash removal and sorting, watershed conservation, tree plantings and education on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois Rivers. His web site reports that he and his crew of 9 have collected over 12 million tons of trash with 120,00 volunteers. They say they are the only group doing “industrial strength” river cleanup in the world. And they do all of this in a spirit of fun. Their impact on the river made me feel hopeful; the fact that the amount of trash has increased over the years evoked a feeling of despair. The barge in the photo is one of three the crew filled during their 3 weeks in our area!
Part of the Barge Bash evening included a Sierra Club presentation on the Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative (MRRRI) This piece of legislation seeks federal funding to care for the Mississippi and its communities threatened by flooding and other extreme weather events, and pollution. Imagine that this river, which provides drinking water to 20 million people, is a flyway for millions of migratory birds, and provides habitat for endangered species, is only now about to get federal protection!! While the Initiative evokes hope, the fact that there has not been legislation to care for our precious river until now does not. This called to mind Thomas Berry’s desire for Earth jurisprudence which recognizes Earth as a living being with intrinsic value and every constituent, including rivers, as having the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill its role in the Earth community. Sadly, we are a long way from that visionary perspective.
Not long after my barge experience, I listened to the webinar The Language of Trees featuring Kathleen Dean Moore and Alison Hawthorne Deming who helped sort my feelings. Both women have been writing and teaching about the natural world for decades, and they are intimately familiar with the inclination to hope as well as despair. In response to a question about how to nurture hope Moore commented, If despair comes knocking at your door, double bolt it and pretend you are not at home. Despair denies meaning and relieves you of responsibility. It is moral abdication! Deming responded with equal sincerity, Hope is a moral choice. There is plenty of evidence that we should not be optimistic, but to be of use in the world, choose hope!
One webinar participant indicated that when she dies, she wants to be “fully used up”, and so she asked, what can we who are not writers and speakers do? Their reply: Use the gifts you have and do what gives you a sense of agency. Because of the extreme urgency of the climate crisis, ratchet up your activities however you can, making them happen on a larger, broader scale.
Hearing the wisdom of these two seasoned women shed light on my barge experience. I know I can’t match the energy of the youthful crew on the barge, but I absolutely can respond to life as Kathleen and Alison propose. Also, I felt confirmed in using my ability as a writer to continue these reflections as one of my gifts to our planet in crisis. Following are some opportunities for you to act and nurture hope.
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It is an act of hope to exert your agency in this way because we must not give in to despair, thinking sign-ons don’t matter!