A Time to Keep Silence … and a Time to Speak
by Debbie Ouellet
The older I get, the more in tune I become with the finite measure of time — not just for me, but for the place and planet I call home. This earth calls to me — from the most basic joy of placing my hands in dirt to bring life into my garden — to considering the enormity of the threats against this planet’s future. My poet’s mind tries to reconcile the awe of nature and all she has to offer with the fear that this all could one day end. Generations to come may never know the abundance of nature as I have over my lifetime.
This April marks two events close to my heart and soul: National Poetry Month and, on April 22nd, the 41st anniversary of Earth Day. How are these two events connected?
The great bard himself, William Shakespeare, said, “And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” If poetry isn’t about life, this earth, and our connection with it, then what is it about?
Reflections of the Surrounding World
The Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, John Steffler, once said, “We live inside language, shape and share ourselves with it and use it to handle the surrounding world.” Since humankind first developed language, we have used it to describe our relationship with our world and the people who inhabit it. Most poets I know share a personal and deep reverence for nature. We personify it, use it in metaphor, shout it to the rooftops. We also mourn its loss and shake our verbal fists at the political and economic giants who would trade its future for a positive bottom line.
I have always considered a poet as a witness. It is our job to look, unflinchingly into our world and interpret what we see. We are, within the building blocks of our words, the voice of the individual and collective conscience. This voice is both a gift and an obligation to our children, our world and ourselves. Such is the nature of poetry.
National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month began in Canada in 1999 when the League of Canadian Poets petitioned “to help bring poetry into the lives of everyday people, through public events, youth initiatives, media promotion, and cooperative efforts with schools and other community organizations.” It provides our poets with the chance to be heard at public readings, festivals and through radio and television events. Poetry Month is more than just an opportunity to showcase our work. Poets, by our nature, are cultural mirrors. We reflect the emotional and cultural climate of our people. We say what’s on the mind of the masses.
What are poets saying? Is it any wonder that the theme of National Poetry Month in 2010 was Climate Change? Our fragile planet is at the top of mind within our society. The very nature of poetry demands that it must be so with poets.
“As a society, we continue to change: politically, ecologically, culturally and economically. Poet and National Poetry Month participators across Canada will be exploring these topics through readings and events: how changing climates affect you, your community and the larger communities of Canada … and the world. Each day becomes a defining moment in our history.” – The League of Canadian Poets.
April is the month of Earth and poetry — poetry and Earth; as interconnected as the sky is to the horizon. We as a people are, after all, a product of our environment. And unfortunately, this earth, our home, has become a product of us.
April 22: Forty-One Years Later
2011 marks the forty-first anniversary of Earth Day. Is it coincidence that the very first Earth Day took place in 1970, less than a year after humans first stepped foot on the moon? Anyone who is old enough to recall that day remembers it vividly. I know that I do. The sense of wonder. That first sight of Earth from space. Perhaps it was the distance — the ability for all of us to see our planet from another viewpoint — that reminded us of what a precious gift she is.
“We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth,” said Apollo 8 astronaut, Bill Anders from an earlier mission. Photos Anders took from his lunar vantage point were used on posters and pins on that first Earth Day in 1970. According to the first Earth Day coordinator, Denis Hayes, they’ve been “an environmental staple of Earth Days ever since.”
If you were able to return to that spot today — plant your feet again on a lunar surface and look across the black expanse of space — what would you see? What would you say?
A View Without Borders
Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American space tourist who flew to the international space station in 2006 said it well. “The sheer beauty of it just brought tears to my eyes. If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth….”
That is the trouble, though, isn’t it? Over the past forty-one years since that first Earth Day, we’ve lost ourselves in our struggles to claim borders, resources and our own little piece of this planet. We’ve sliced it up and divided it and nations are still not happy with what they have. We’ve allowed governments and corporations to plunder its resources without considering the consequences.
We have ignored this one simple truth: no matter what deed of land or right you hold, we don’t own this Earth. We only borrow it from our children. What sort of Earth will I leave for my children? My grandchildren? What will you leave yours? And, will they ever forgive us?
The Time for Climate Change
As a poet, I embrace the power of words. Climate. Change. They are words with great power. But words are just words, unless they move us to action.
Climate Change — let it be more than a change in the weather. The political climate must change as well. Governments must learn to work together and make the tough choices that will inevitably save us all. The social climate must change. Each of us must stand up and say, “No more, the line stops here!” The economic climate must change. Financial giants must take their heads out of the sand and endorse those products and efforts that contribute to the environment as part of its financial recovery. If not, then what are we recovering for?
What better time to stand up and be heard?
We must all accept that nothing worthwhile comes without a price. Saving our world from the destruction brought about by our own short sightedness will not be easy. But each of us has it within us to do something about saving our world. It will not be one single solution that saves us. We cannot only rely on governments and big business to enact change, though they must do their part.
Each of us must contribute, whether it is through recycling, planting a tree, or consciously doing business with companies that support environmental policies. Every effort, no matter how small, counts. As a collective voice and effort, we can change this destructive course and heal our world. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Reflections and Resources
By Debbie Ouellet
Sunlit fingers poke
through cloudy gauze,
scratch earth’s shoulder—
of brick and concrete,
adult community, semi-detached
lesions of urban sprawl.
Passing breeze nudges
hovering rain cloud,
rumbles of agreement,
“Fools can’t see;
if they don’t stop picking at it,
it’s never going to heal.”
Earth Day Videos
Two videos of the Earth from space
Earth Day: quiet, but makes a strong statement
Earth Day 2010: Includes song by Michael Jackson
Author and poet Debbie Ouellet lives in Loretto, Ontario, Canada. Her children’s book How Robin Saved Spring (Henry Holt & Company, New York) was named “Book of the Month” in Cookie Magazine and on Amazon.ca for April 2009. Her teen novel, A Hero’s Worth (HIP Books, Toronto), second in the Dragon Speaker trilogy for reluctant readers was published in September 2009. She is the chair of the Vaughan Poets’ Circle and editor of their 2009 anthology Earth to the Moon. More about her work can be found at: www.debbieouellet.com.