Last week my mother introduced me to the first two stanzas of Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem, “Trees,” a poem she memorized as a child and has not recited since. The words slipped out when we came upon one of the last remaining trees along a favorite riverbank now defined by stumps. Raw, ravaged stumps.
For the almost-six years Mother has lived in Holland, she and I have walked arm-in-arm along Window on the Waterfront, delighting in the melodies of the robins, the chirping of the cardinals; the tweeting of red-winged blackbirds. We have been entertained by the schizophrenic soaring of the swallows, the dashing hop of the gray, black, and brown squirrels, the families of swan, geese and ducks seeking safety among the shadows of the trees and brush along the shore.
Window on the Waterfront, a park easily accessible to the elderly, was unique in its view of water and wildlife. Now that uniqueness is gone—along with the robins, chickadees, cardinals, swallows, and squirrels. Along with the brush that helped filter phosphorous-rich runoff flowing into an already impaired river. Along with the trees that provide the easiest solution to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases; trees, I was told by the city’s forestry department, that were “no good anyway.”
I was told people wanted a better view of the water—a view easily available at nearby Kollen Park and the Heinz Riverfront Walkway. What people? How many? What about us regulars? Who didn’t complain but also didn’t know the city was contemplating such a change? What was the process used to drastically alter the experience of all people enjoying the park? And how does this reflect the city’s commitment to engaging citizens in “Green Thinking and Action?”
Mother remembered the lines of the first two stanzas of Kilmer’s poem. We suggest the city of Holland remember the last line, “But only God can make a tree,” before it allows its staff to take a chain saw to the trees in our community. We suggest the city replant “good” trees this autumn along at least a portion of the riverfront, so the park meets the needs of all people in the community. We are happy to donate one of the trees.
to my mother, who co-signed this letter to the editor to the Holland Sentinel and on whose arm, I have paused to admire the gifts of nature . . . especially the trees.
I heard a knock on the door while I was editing this video about safe water and handed my first-ever “boil water” alert. The utility considered it a precautionary measure—expressing concern about a broken water main nearby and the potential for bacterial contamination in our water. Coincidence? I don’t think so. It was a wake-up call.
Our neighborhood was without safe drinking water for several days—nothing like the years Flint residents suffered. (Some still without water six years later.) When we were given the “all clear” from the utility with an accompanying report I did not understand, I knew only that the water flowing from our tap was anything but clear. And the messages shared in this video and in the documentary, Flint: The Poisoning of an American City, took on new meaning and urgency.
You think it can’t happen to you, until it does. Ask residents of Toledo (algae). Flint (lead). Parchment (PFAS). Three different communities. Three different contaminants poisoning the water flowing from peoples’ taps. What are the implications for all of us?
.In gratitude to those willing to reflect on the lessons we must learn from the Flint water crisis including Reverend Katherine Culpepper, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director, For Love of Water (FLOW); Lana Pollack, 12-year state senator for Michigan; Jumana Vasi, Vasi Consulting, Environmental Justice & Water Policy Strategist; The Presbyterian Church USA for the documentary, “Flint the Poisoning of an American City.”
It took lead contaminating the water in Flint and destroying the dreams of several generations now facing neurological disorders, learning disabilities, heart and kidney disease, and reduced fertility . . .
It took Michigan-specified testing, adopted in 2019 and more rigorous than the EPA, to discover that lead, which is not safe at any level, exists in communities like Birmingham, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Detroit . . .
It took the discovery of “Forever Chemicals”, like PFAS, contaminating the water in 138 Michigan communities and potentially triggering cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, asthma, and thyroid disease . . .
It took climate change, the force behind the more frequent and intense storm events that overwhelmed antiquated water treatment facilities and spilled thousands of gallons of raw sewage into Michigan’s rivers and lakes in cities like Traverse City, Muskegon, Whitehall, Ann Arbor . . .
It took unprecedented rain triggered by climate change to overpower outdated dams in mid-Michigan damaging 3,700 properties with a cost estimated at over $190 million . . .
It took climate change threatening to increase the number of “Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” notices because of nutrient runoff into warmer water, fueling the growth of harmful algal blooms . . .
It took President Trump’s efforts to rollback 100 environmental rules to include scaling back pollution protections for tributaries and wetlands; giving the okay for coal companies to dump mining debris into local streams; exempting power plants from a rule limiting toxic discharge into public waterways; proposing to double the time allowed to remove lead pipes from water systems with elevated levels . . .
And it took a pandemic, where washing hands is critical to limiting its spread, to alert people in this Great Lakes state that 2,477 Michigan residents were living without water because of the unaffordable price and utility decisions to shut off service.
It took all these things for candidates wooing Michigan voters to finally make access to affordable, safe drinking water a priority this election.
And that’s a good thing. But “talk” is easy. How does it compare to reality? Translate into action? Results? I asked Lisa Wozniak, executive director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan organization that elects, educates, and holds accountable elected officials working on behalf of Michigan’s land, air, water, and Great Lakes to share her thoughts as we head into the 2020 election season.
For Phoebe (“Miss Febb”) Burns
Perhaps it was the translucent effect of the sun on the petals of its namesake’s drooping head that caused her to pause. Perhaps she, too, felt her shoulders lift in the sun’s light, shedding, for that moment, memories of her husband’s futile battle with typhoid four years earlier, the long list of responsibilities, like milking the cows, churning butter, mending, cleaning, cooking, ensuring the success of the farm while raising their four children. Alone.
Taxed without representation. Governed without say.
Perhaps on that day in August of 1920, it was the radiant light across the shadows of a cut flower that prompted her to stop and write a note to her eldest son that would change the course of the nation. Had it been cloudy, a day free of the normal heat and humidity of a Tennessee summer, would she have taken the time to pen a seven-page letter? And would he, a junior statesman from the east side of the state, bombarded by lobbyists on both sides, troubled by the intensity of the arguments, the endless marches down Broadway, the pressure from constituents, still unsure of the right thing to do, would he, that morning of August 18, 1920, after reflecting on his mother’s words, have tossed his red rose to the floor and replaced it with yellow, the color of the suffragists, the color of the sunflower in the vase on his mother’s kitchen table?
For more information, read my August 2019 blog reflection, "Welcome Her with Yellow Roses," on the passage of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago.
In gratitude to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and the many women who persevered for over seven decades to pass legislation that gave women the right to vote, and to Phoebe (“Miss Febb”) Burns and all mothers who take the time to acknowledge and speak their truth.
Sunday morning, I walked down the pier to our boat, looking forward to escaping the news and recharging my spirits. To my dismay, hoisted up the forestay of a neighboring sailboat, was a Trump 2020 flag.
All people in this country have a right to their opinion. But because it seems as if there has always been an unwritten rule that politics, family feuds, and other potentially controversial and stressful subjects are left in the marina parking lot, the flag was a jolt. I felt betrayed. A little bit angry. I would have felt the same had it been a Biden 2020 flag. I don’t want to be bombarded on the water. It is sacred time and space.
But I was also more than a little dumbfounded that someone who sails these Great Lakes could support a president who--in my opinion—cares so little about the quality of the water, about reducing the stressors that put such an essential resource at risk.
I considered interrupting the boat owners’ morning coffee and launching into a fact-based spiel based on fifteen years of research, but then I remembered Brian Doyle’s book, One Long River of Song. In the essay “His Listening,” Doyle describes his extraordinary and unforgettable experience of being in conversation with his father.
“. . .when you said something to him, anything at all, anything in the range from surpassingly subtle to stunningly stupid, he would listen carefully and attentively, and silently, without interrupting, without waiting with increased impatience for you to finish so he could correct or top or razz you, and he would even wait a few beats after you finished your remarks, on the off chance that you had something else you wanted to add, and then he would ponder what you had said, and then, without fail, he would say something encouraging first, before he got around to commenting on what it was you said with such breathtaking subtlety or stupidity.”
My grandmother, a mother of seven including two sets of twins, a young widow who endured cancer and whose insides were charred by early attempts at radiation, listened to me like that. One of my greatest memories is sitting on a wooden bench at the foot of her bed chattering about school, friends, boys, and dreams. My mother “inherited” that same skill.
So, rather than rattling off the top three reasons I think boaters should not vote for President Trump if they care about the health of the water on which they sail, I’d like to understand the other point of view—to really listen, learn. I’d like to help build a bridge of understanding rather than contribute to the divide ripping across our country.
If you are one of those boaters and willing to engage in “listening time,” contact me. Perhaps we might even learn each other’s names, wave to each other as we sail out the channel.
One would never know it doomscrolling through the headlines. Too many crises. But thanks to the “Three Things Thursday” email from Lisa Wozniak of the League of Michigan Conservation Voters, I learned that effective August 3rd, Michigan will adopt tough new standards to regulate the levels of PFAS in our drinking water! AND with overwhelming bipartisan support (310-107), the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Great American Outdoors Act! The legislation will ensure public lands are preserved and protected by permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. As it has already passed the Senate, the bill now goes to the President for signature.
If you are interested in staying on top of issues related to our drinking water, clean air, the Great Lakes, our parks, and good government, sign up for the “Three Things Thursday” update. And while you are on the site of this nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, check out the “snapshot-in-time” scorecard for Michigan’s governor, attorney general, and your state representatives on these five focus areas. It’s good information to have as you cast your vote on August 4 and again on November 3.
It would be heavenly if she could see
her children on the front yard again,
glance at them through the window
above the sink as she fills the house
with the sweet smells of her baking;
if, when she called them for dinner
they came running, knowing what was
waiting in the oven after vegetables.
If only she again could use lard in her crusts,
ample sugar in her fillings. If only
she didn’t have to worry about her health,
or theirs. She lies on the kitchen floor, staring
at the dark spot on the ceiling above the oven,
trying to ignore the pain slicing through her side.
How long ago was it? That day smoke filled
the kitchen? That day her children told her
to quit baking? That day everything changed?
She hears a strange voice calling her name,
asking if she is alright. Commotion in her entry.
Closing her eyes, she smells the fragrance
of a freshly baked pie, sees angels bounding
in her direction, notices God reaching toward her,
a dessert plate between thumb and forefinger,
and hopes she remembered to add enough sugar.
In gratitude to those who use their talents, while they can, to bring joy to others.
And speaking of angels, take a peek at this 1995 Humanitarian Award performance featuring angelic voices including that of my cousin, one of the lead singers whose voice is the first you will hear in the song.
Michigan, like most states in the Great Lakes region, is transitioning from the manufacturing mecca of the 1900s to an economically vibrant, safe, healthy and just place to call home. All our cities are in various stages along that journey, but few have my respect and admiration like Muskegon. Formerly an industrial city with one of the forty-three most toxic harbors in the Great Lakes, it is well on its way to being removed from that list of environmentally degraded waterways and evolving into an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
Join musicians Ruth and Max Bloomquist and me as we share our love for this special place, a place that gives me hope for the transformation of all communities in the region. And when you visit, be sure to “wave and blow a kiss to Bicycle Bob.” (?? Listen to the video to learn more!) And while you're on the Listening to the Voices of Water channel, consider taking another five minutes to listen to their inspiring song, "Michigan Girl."
To be a part of the West Michigan's transition, consider making a donation to help purchase 43 acres of forested dunes to add to the Flower Creek Dunes Nature Preserve in Muskegon County at:
In a book rich with metaphors, award-winning English teacher Eric Stemle describes how to listen—not just with one’s ears, but with a mind that savors every word, with eyes searching for the unspoken, and most importantly, with a heart that is non-judgmental and accepting, willing to love, unconditionally, and learn with every student in the classroom.
While targeted to education majors and new teachers, I Was Not the Blossom: Growing with Your Students in a Nurturing Classroom, offers insight into what it means to be in relationships that create possibilities and paint the world with hope.
What if all of us could do just that? What if we cared less about always being “correct,” or being “the star” and more about creating a robust, colorful garden that respects and balances the unique needs of all? What if we, like Eric, viewed ourselves as the stem, “a conduit, rooted in the soil and delivering water and nutrients to the petals?” Could we create a healthier, cleaner, more just planet?
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” says Stephen Covey, author of the best-seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
That is why I was Not the Blossom, written by a childhood friend who has mentored my own journey into writing, resonated with me. I am a person of passion—particularly when it comes everyone’s right to clean, safe water. And passion, a fuel for engagement, can be a detriment for discussion, for negotiated solutions—unless one channels that exuberance into creating a learning environment where everyone blooms.
I picked up the book of a friend. I read the book of a visionary.
What if more of us chose to be stems?
Remembering the stems and blossoms of the fire-ravaged AZ mountains
to the creativity, passion and perseverance of teachers, particularly during this unprecedented time when producing “the room where it happens” involves rethinking what it means to be in a room. Please share this message with every teacher and aspiring teacher you know.
They deserve our support.
I wonder how many newspaper pages it would take to list all the unarmed people of color who have lost their lives unfairly in this country? Or the property owners who have incurred damage in cities ravished by violent protests? Or the women and girls who have been discriminated against, assaulted, killed, or worse because of behaviors incorporated into cultures centuries ago? Or the people who have suffered harm from the extreme storm events sweeping across our planet because of climate change?
So many names. So much suffering. The walls of the heart feel as if they are collapsing.
“It is only when the seed is broken that a tree begins to grow,” Gary Jensen writes in his book, Station to Station: An Ignatian Journey through the Stations of the Cross.
Perhaps we can find a way to nurture the seeds of our brokenness, find ways to grow a tree, maybe even a forest. Perhaps we can fill the air with oxygen so all people can breathe. Perhaps this time we will find a way to listen, learn, negotiate our differences, and nurture God’s forest.
In gratitude for what may be learned while walking through a forest.
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