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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Green Devotional: An Interview with Karen Speerstra

Our planet, our home, is in crisis. Author Karen Speerstra, who lives and writes on a mountain in central Vermont, is keenly aware of our planetary crisis. In her book, The Green Devotional, she gathered a collection of quotes, poems, essays, and prayers meant to inspire all of us to actively reverse the man-made cause of global warming, stem the tide of environmental destruction, and reconnect to the good earth.

As Karen says in the introduction, “For the voices within these pages call you not just to prayer, but to action. They form an eight-part polyphonic chorus in support of our green planet. They’re a ‘shout out,’ a call to ‘step up.’ Open this book anywhere, anytime, and hear what the voices are saying. Choose one of the devotional thoughts to think about – alone or with friends, meditate on it, and act upon it. For when we are devoted to something, we cannot help but fervently live it.”

Included are selections from such people as Rachel Carson, Cornel West, Bill McKibben, Alice Walker, Sue Monk Kidd, Dean Koontz, Barbara Kingsolver, Daniel Pinchbeck, Arundhati Roy, and many others. The Green Devotional ends with a section of “closing prayers” that prepare us not just to go to sleep but to rest up for another day of passionate action.

I was really excited to talk to Karen more about what we can do to help our planet, especially after watching everything that’s unfolded in the Gulf Coast in the last few months.

Shelly Rachanow: Where has your “green” interest come from?

Karen Speerstra: I’ve been around this great planet of ours for a while. In the 70’s, especially during a fuel shortage - people today wouldn’t believe the lines we were in waiting to fill our tanks - I began to think very seriously about this little spaceship earth and how we were overpopulating it, denigrating it, quite literally destroying it. We read Paul Erlich and were “into” zero population growth. I wrote articles about ecology. I made my own yoghurt. My husband and I deliberately decided to have only two children - just to replace ourselves. I’d have loved more. Being pregnant was the greatest time of my life. But we felt there are limits to everything. Jimmy Carter put solar panels in the White House; we turned down our thermostats. Then we drifted into the “me” decades and forgot about the “us.” Thank the goddess we’re now coming back to realizing more is not necessarily better and there is likely no better living through chemistry. I love a slogan on some T shirts here in Vermont: “I like butter better than margarine because I trust cows more than chemists.” I mention this with great trepidation because my daughter-in-law is a chemist. But a very savvy one.

Shelly Rachanow: What is your personal view of climate change?

Karen Speerstra: I believe there are natural cycles our earth goes through, but I also see evidence that our meddling and greed has created conditions that are hastening changes - changes we as humans are not equipped to deal with no matter how “in control” and smart we think we are. Earth will survive. Many of us may not. We see in the Gulf writ large what’s happening all around us. Our oceans have dead zones. Our coastal populations will be threatened. Even slight temperature risings cause ice to melt; oceans will rise. I believe bio-diversity is crucial to our planet’s (and our) well-being and when we pluck one tiny thread out of our immense life-tapestry (and believe me, we’re destroying species at a horrendous rate—it’s not just tiny threads) the whole tapestry frays. We’re acting like silly, self-centered adolescents rather than responsible adults. It’s time we grew up.

Shelly Rachanow: Why have you called this a collection of 350? And why “devotions” in the title?

Karen Speerstra: When I first talked with Conari Press about this book (and they approached me with the idea—“How about a book to ensure the well-being of your grandchildren.”) I wasn’t sure exactly what it would be. I knew I wanted to write some original essays in addition to gathering quotations. We have one grandchild, Josie, who is now three. I dedicated the book to her. I live in Vermont and have met Bill McKibben. I was and am close to the 350.org movement which is an attempt to remind us all of the dangers of rising carbon dioxide. It’s now perilously close to being irreversible no matter what we do. 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our air is a “planet-saving” number. I felt this book might further remind folks of that. The editors thought, even at the outset, they wanted 365 “prayers”—loosely defined. I doubt people read one a day, but I complied by adding 16 more at the end—one for the extra day in leap year.

“Devotions” was the publisher’s sales and marketing people’s idea. At first I felt it might be too “religiousy” but as I lived with the text, it grew on me. We do need to be “devoted” to saving our planet. And we do need to recognize that we need help from inner/higher/other sources. As I say in the Introduction, early prayer books were devotional aids called Books of Hours. They measured out the day in eight three-hour increments. The book has eight parts. Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Time, Space, and Essence (soul if you like) and a final section on those 16 closing prayers as early books of hours had.

Shelly Rachanow: You have a chapter in Green Devotions on hope. How can there be hope amid such despair over the inevitability of climate change and things like the oil spill in the Gulf?

Karen Speerstra: Good question, especially when the looping videos keep it ever-present in our minds. But that’s also good. Too many oil spills have been covered up and forgotten. We only usually see the edges of our oceans and they usually look pretty good. And we have very short attention spans.

Hope is a fragile bird-like thing as Emily Dickinson pointed out. Easily squashed. Easily killed. Hope is, as another writer, Gabriel Marcel, pointed out “a memory of the future.” We have to “remember together” now what tomorrow and next year might look like. It’s our creative visualizing that can make or break us. I’m hopeful that we can do that. Hope is not positive thinking or a Pollyannaish attitude. Hope, I believe, is like steel. It’s our core. It’s what gives us the energy and strength to “get up and do what has to be done” as Garrison Keillor says about Powdermilk Biscuits. We all have to get up and “do” now. We can’t leave it to the government, or even to the Bill McKibbens of the world. It’s up to me. And you.

I’m an ovarian cancer survivor (diagnosed n 2003) and one of the things I firmly believe about hope is what Dr. Jerome Groopaman says in The Anatomy of Hope. “Hope, unlike optimism, is rooted in unalloyed reality…Hope is the elevating feeling we experience when we see - in the mind’s eye - a path to a better future. Hope acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along that path. True hope has no room for delusion.”

Shelly Rachanow: What are some things people can do right now to make a positive impact on our environment?

Karen Speerstra: While it’s buying local, taking bags to grocery stores, driving less and changing light bulbs, I love what Bill McKibben says:  "You’re going to fix global warming by changing lightbulbs? Try changing your politicians instead. Screw in a new Congressperson."

I believe we have to elect people who have the best interests of our planet at their core. We can as individuals, families, and neighborhoods do a lot, but regulations and enforceable consequences for the larger impacts are mandatory.

I was one of the co-authors on a book called Our Day to End Poverty and here’s what we said: “Here’s the good news. Just as the problems are interconnected, so too are the solutions. Solving one part of the problem can have a positive ripple effect.” Every little ripple helps. We know what to do - it’s now just a matter of will. Will we?

Shelly Rachanow: And last, the “If Women Ran the World Blog” question for everyone: What would you do if you ran the world?

Karen Speerstra: If I ran the world I’d need a lot of help – but the right kind of help. I’d listen more to children. They know the importance of play. Of smiling. Of wanting to be healthy. They know how to pick up and use whatever is at hand (the French call that bricolage) to make it into something. They also know they don’t need to stockpile things for a later time. That’s because they live in the present and not the future. Or the past. I’d encourage people to listen more to their hearts and not only their heads. I’d encourage people to listen more to the earth. Really listen. She’s vibrating. She reminds us we’re all energy. We can raise our energy - and hers - by loving or lower it by fearing. It’s our choice.

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