A Walk and a Talk

The Roost“In my walks I would fain return to my senses.”
-Thoreau, “Walking”

I managed to get out for a much-needed walk this morning, over to a nearby conservation area in Wayland, where I live. At the heart of it is a big, open swamp, a quarter-mile wide, surrounded by thickly wooded slopes, a pond at one end. The air was surprisingly cold. The water up a bit after last week’s rains. The geese were out with their young ones. Clear sky.

“I enter a swamp as a sacred place — a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength — the marrow of Nature.”

That’s also from “Walking.” (And yes, I have a thing about that essay.)

Yesterday morning I was a guest speaker, along with two of my fellow initiators of Transition Wayland, at the historic First Parish (Unitarian Universalist) in Wayland center. I’m posting my talk here (you can read the others here). It’s not an exact transcript of my remarks (there was some ad libbing), but it’s pretty close. If you’ve been following this blog, some of it will sound familiar. The interviews and exchanges I’ve posted here in recent weeks were very much on my mind.

Wen Stephenson

*     *     *

Remarks at First Parish (Unitarian Universalist) in Wayland, Mass.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Good morning. My name is Wen Stephenson. I want to speak to you now, not as a “member” of something called “Transition Wayland,” but simply as your neighbor. My wife and I have lived here in Wayland for 15 years this month. Our first house was right up the street at 23 Concord Rd., and I’ll never forget the first time I saw this beautiful building. We have two children: our son, who’s 12, and our daughter, who just turned 8 years old yesterday.

I want to be clear about something: I’m here today for them, my children. My children. But not only them — all of our children. Everywhere.

Last fall, I participated in a great Wayland tradition and rode my bike with my son’s 6th-grade class up to Walden Pond. Now, as some of you know, I’m a pretty big fan of Henry David Thoreau — so this was, like, one of the best days of my life! And I want to say a few words here about our neighbor Henry Thoreau, and why Walden matters now more than ever.

In his central essay, “Walking,” the essay that led to Walden, Thoreau wrote: “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present…. Unless we hear the cock-crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated…. There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament — the gospel according to this moment.”

Henry Thoreau understood the paramount spiritual significance of the present moment — or, what one of his 20th-century readers, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called “the fierce urgency of now.” Thoreau’s great subject wasn’t simply “the environment” (a term he wouldn’t recognize) or even “nature.” It was our relationship, as human beings — physically, morally, spiritually, politically — to the world in which we live, which is to say, to everything, both human and wild, right where we are, right now, in the present moment.

And we should never forget that Thoreau’s spiritual awakening in nature led him back to society and to political engagement. Thoreau was nothing if not engaged. He passionately and actively opposed slavery. He was deeply involved in the Underground Railroad. He sheltered runaway slaves.

I keep coming back to this passage near the end of his great abolitionist address called “Slavery in Massachusetts,” delivered to a rally in Framingham — just down the road — on July 4, 1854, where he said this:

“I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?… Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.”

But did it merely spoil his walk — or remind him of the walk’s real purpose? You see, for Henry Thoreau, living in harmony with nature meant acting in solidarity with his fellow human beings.

And if slavery was the great human, moral crisis of Thoreau’s time, then global warming — with its impact on countless innocent lives, far and near — is the great human, moral crisis of our own.

The hard truth — the scientific truth — about the present moment, our moment, is this: Given the global scale of the climate crisis, if we’re going to preserve a livable planet for our children and grandchildren — a planet on which enough crops can grow, on which storms and rising seas can be managed, on which peaceful, civilized societies can exist — it’s going to take more than small gestures of personal green virtue. Those small personal actions are beautiful and necessary. Morally necessary. But they’re nowhere near enough.

I’m sorry, but it’s going to require decisive government action.

And the only way that’s going to happen is if we make it happen – by building a powerful grassroots movement, beginning right where we live.

That’s exactly what more and more of us are doing – most visibly, with the growing, global grassroots movement 350.org, started by Middlebury scholar Bill McKibben, which has convinced the President of the United States to start taking climate change more seriously. And right here, as in many other states around the country, we’re building a new state-level grassroots network called 350 Massachusetts — 350MA.org. Because we need two U.S. Senators in Washington who take climate change seriously.

A Massachusetts politician once said, “All politics is local.” We have to change the political facts on the ground, at the grass roots, if we’re going to change the politics and the laws of this country. Only then can we begin to address climate change, and our children’s future, in a serious way.

Now, I know full well how hopeless and naive this all may sound. I spent two decades as a journalist observing national politics. But let me tell you something: abolishing slavery sounded hopeless and naive in 1854, when Thoreau gave that speech in Framingham. Ending Jim Crow seemed hopeless in 1955, when Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on that bus in Montgomery. Ending apartheid seemed hopeless in 1962, when Nelson Mandela went to prison. Even the election of an African-American law professor with the name Barack Hussein Obama seemed hopeless in 2007, when it was written off as a “fairy tale.” Now he’s the president of the United States — and it’s time to hold him to his word.

Yes, the hour is late. When you understand the science — the science that Prof. Kerry Emanuel of MIT explained to us, right here in this room, at a forum last January — the situation can appear hopeless. It’s easy to feel powerless.

Now, I’m about to go over my allotted time by about one minute. So I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s my own little act of civil disobedience.

Because what I really want to say to you, right now, as your neighbor, is this:

Don’t give in to the cynicism about our politics. If we do, then yes — it is, in fact, hopeless. So please, don’t retreat into cynicism. Don’t withdraw into your private fears. The remedy for cynicism and fear is action. Engagement.

So engage — here in your community, and in your state. Don’t give up on democracy. Don’t give up on your country. Engage.

Don’t give up on this planet. Don’t give up on your fellow human beings. Engage.

Don’t give up on your neighbors. Don’t give up on each other. Don’t give up on yourselves. Engage.

Don’t give up on your children, your grandchildren.

Don’t – give – up. Fight for your children and grandchildren. Engage.

The last lines of Walden are these: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Wake up, our neighbor Henry is telling us. Start here. Start now. The sun is climbing the sky.

Thank you. Peace.

1 Comment

Filed under The Roost

Comments are closed.