by Steve Trombulak
At Feast of Lights last month, Deirdre invited me to participate in the Saturday morning plenary, called “Walking on Uneven Ground.” The purpose of the plenary was to involve the entire community present for Feast of Lights in a common conversation about the recent earth-shaking shifts in our country’s social fabric. For most of us, the results of the election in early November and the subsequent administrative appointments have fundamentally altered our sense of the ground upon which we walk. The gains we have struggled to achieve over the last 100+ years for peace, justice, and the environment are now under assault at a level that we have not seen in decades, nor at a level that we thought we would ever see again.
Indeed, we now walk on uneven ground. We are at a point in history, and in each of our own personal narratives, where each of us needs to answer the question, “how is it that I will now choose to walk?”
My life’s work is as a teacher, environmental scientist, and conservation advocate, and it was with the context that Deirdre asked me to participate in the plenary. How does someone with my interests choose to walk now that everything I hold dear is threatened?
My response ended up coming in two parts, the first about science and the second about my own personal approach to the path forward.
How I choose to move forward as a scientist and in the domain of scientific inquiry is actually quite straightforward: Regardless of the issue, if it is affected by data, you need to (1) know what you are talking about, (2) speak your truth, and (3) repeat your truth, over and over again. It’s that simple, and I can speak more about all of that at another time if any of you are interested.
What’s hard, however, is finding a way to maintain the strength and the courage to do this in the face of such resistance and outright evil. Fundamentally, I have done it for myself by finding my anchors that allow me to translate spirit into action. For what it is worth, these four questions have been my anchors … through Nixon, Reagan, and Bush the Lesser; through Vietnam, Iran/Contra, and the First Gulf War; through 9/11 and every market crash since I had to worry about a job; and through every environmental fight waged and lost, of which there have been too many to count.
My anchors are simple. I continually ask myself four questions, reminding myself of my answers and thus reminding myself of who I am, moored firmly on the ground despite how uneven if may be, and what path I travel.
Where do I come from? This keeps me connected to my past. Where I come from has many dimensions: geographic, cultural, emotional, social, experiential. We all come from somewhere, and if we lose sight of that, we not only risk losing a piece of ourselves, we also risk losing our real connections – our bonds – to others. For example, I am the son of an immigrant. If I ever forget that, I risk losing my ability to empathize deeply with any assault on the plight and rights of immigrants today.
Where am I now? This keeps me connected to the present. Where do I choose to live now, and why? How do I imagine that place to be beyond the labels that others may put on it? For example, some would say that I live in the State of Vermont. However, I tend to say that I live in the People’s Republic of Vermont. Why? Because it reminds me in a forceful way of how I conceive my landscape to be not just in terms of its geography but the social fabric that knits together the people there. If I ever forget that, I risk losing my sense of true community.
Why am I here? This keeps me focused on the future. It is far too easy for me to go through each day trying to simply go through each day. Demands of work, family, finances, health, and so forth can too easy consume every waking hour. And with that comes a growing sense of powerlessness in the face of the evil that thrives when the social fabric is torn. And with powerless comes resignation, fear, and withdrawal. If I ever forget that I am here to honor, protect, and restore the diversity of life on this sacred Earth, I risk surrendering to the forces of evil and withdraw from the fight.
Who do I speak for? (Okay, technically this should be “For whom do I speak?” but that wrecks the symmetry of the four questions, so I tend to cut myself some slack on this. After all, these are just questions that I ask myself.) This keeps me focused on the world around me. It reminds me that I am not alone. It reminds me that my work and my actions are not just about me. There are always others that are affected by what I choose to do. If I ever forget that I walk on this ground with others and that I have a responsibility to consider them as well, I risk making too much of my life just about me, and thus risk losing my soul. And this question has been so important for me in my life, that I have tattooed my answer to it on my body so that I will never forget.
So, these are my anchors that continue to give me the strength I need to walk on uneven ground, and I give them to you to use or ignore as you will. So mote it be.