Walking on Uneven Ground

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?SteveT

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.


Looking for like-minded community as you walk this uneven ground?  Registration for Rites of Spring is now open!

Confronting Racism, Yankee Pagan Style

by Cat Chapin-Bishop

I am a Yankee.  Right down to my Pagan soul.

My understanding of what it means to be a Pagan is to try to live in right relationship with the gods, the land, and the people, including the ancestors.  My gods are those that are comfortable in New England’s woods and hills.  My land is this rocky landscape of New England.  And my people and my ancestors–on Mom’s side, at least–are New Englanders: sea captains and dairy farmers, teachers and laborers.  Whatever granite is in this place or in my ancestors lives on in me and in my Pagan practice.

Old Man of the Mountain stamp

And that granite is why I am so driven to speak out against racism.

To help me explain what I mean, I’m going to go ahead and borrow an ancestor: my friend Kirk White‘s father.

A Yankee like a Rock

Kirk’s ancestors, like mine, were among the first Englishmen to arrive in North America.  Like mine, this landscape was where they found their home.  And like me, my friend Kirk and his family before him has loved New England–Vermont in his case, Maine and Massachusetts in mine.

Now, Kirk grew up on the farm his family had owned for over a hundred years.  Farming in New England, though, has never been an easy way to earn a living, and, like other families before and since, Kirk’s family found other ways to pay their bills.  So when Kirk was growing up, his dad Ron was a contractor.

During the real estate boom of the 1970s, Ron got hired by a big developer to build houses for vacationers in Vermont.  There was a lot of money changing hands.

Now, standard practice in construction, then and probably now, says that the people under you get paid when you get paid.  So the construction workers get paid when the contractor gets paid, and the contractor gets paid when the developer gets paid.  But sometimes, there are delays.  And on this job, there were lots of delays.

People have to eat.  Ron had a crew under him, filled with workers who needed to eat, and who couldn’t wait until next month or next year to do that.  So Ron took out loans, and did what he had to do so that all the people working under him got paid. Because he knew what it was like, to need to feed your kids today on money you won’t have until tomorrow, and he wasn’t going to make people deal with that.

Then it turned out that that particular developer wasn’t going to pay anybody; his deals had gone sour. He declared bankruptcy, and Ron and his crew were way too far down on the food chain to ever get a share.

Ron had paid his workers.  They were fine.  But Ron’s debts were all in his own name, and he had no way to pay them.  Worse: that was the year his house burned down.  One of Ron’s sons died.  His wife had a heart attack.  It was just that kind of year.

The sensible thing to do would have been to follow the developer into bankruptcy, but Ron couldn’t make himself do that.  He felt himself honor-bound to repay all those loans, all that money.  No court would have held him to it–but his own integrity did.  So he busted a gut doing every kind of work he could lay hands on.  His wife went back to work, despite her heart. They couldn’t rebuild the house, so they moved into a trailer… and Kirk grew up in something very near poverty.

Ron scrimped and saved and drove himself for years and years… and in the end, he paid it all back.  Every last dime.

Well, almost.

In the end, it was Kirk himself who paid that last $40,000, when he took possession of the farm–and the integrity–that came down in the family to him.

When I began working on this essay, I called him on the phone.  I’d only heard the story once, though obviously it had left me with a strong impression.  Then, after some basic fact-checking, I asked Kirk the question that had been on my mind.  I asked if, growing up, he’d ever resented it–making do with so little when, if his Dad had been a little less unyielding, he might have had so much more.

“To be honest,” he said, “I never thought of it until just now, when you asked.”

He paused, thinking.  “It always just seemed to me that it was the right thing to do–the honorable thing.  I guess I just… admired him for it.”

And that, to me, is integrity.  Integrity like bedrock, like the land itself.

When I say that “I’m a Yankee,” what I mean is, I consider myself to be walking in the footsteps of men and women like Ron White.  Granite integrity may be hard to live up to, but like Kirk, that’s the kind of person I aspire to be.

That is what I’m proud of.  But–and if you are a black or brown reader of this blog, you’re probably here way ahead of me–I don’t get to hold onto the pride of my heritage unless I’m willing to own the shame.

Receiving Stolen Goods

Our Yankee forebears were not innocent of the stain of racism.  Neither, for that matter, am I.

I’m not just talking about slavery–though all the New England states had slavery; they just ended it a little sooner than other parts of the country.  (Should we make a virtue out of having ended the theft of lives sooner–through a gradual emancipation–than other parts of the country?  “We Stole a Little Less Than Some White People!” what a ringing endorsement of our integrity!)

Rugged Coastline near Pemaquid Point.  Jacklee, 2015.

I do not stand apart from these injustices.  My ancestors profited from a system that marginalized and robbed people of color.  Those sea captains I’m so proud to claim in my family tree?  The New England shipping industry was built on the Triangular Slave Trade.  Whether my direct ancestors ever participated is almost beside the point: the industry was created by it.  Likewise Maine farmers owed their prosperity, in part, to supplying that same industry, before as well as after the abolition of the slave trade.

It would be one thing if the injustice had stopped when the Age of Sail had ended.  Then I could at least hold my father’s side of the family innocent bystanders to the crimes of racism!  But it’s not so.

Did you know, for instance, that Maine wouldn’t allow Native Americans to vote until 1953? And not only was the land I love so much stolen from its original owners, but Indian children, growing up in Maine,  were stolen from their families in order to “kill the Indian” in them right up through the 1990s.

Then there are the ways that, during my lifetime and my parents’ lifetimes, my prosperity, as a white woman, was assured in part by denying people of color equal access to government help.  From the benefits of the GI Bill to FHA loans, my government colluded with banks, realtors, and colleges to be sure that my (white) ancestors would prosper through programs deliberately designed to discourage access by people of color.

I never asked for this.  My parents never asked for this.  Nevertheless, the fact remains: my family’s prosperity was paid for in part by the marginalization of people of color, in New England and elsewhere.

Honoring my Ancestors; Honoring my Debts

Here’s what I conclude from all this: I owe a debt.  If you are a white American, until and unless we stop getting preferential treatment in hiring, education, housing, and law enforcement, you owe a debt.  Whether our specific ancestors ever intended to cheat anyone really is not the question–at least, not to me.

Ron didn’t set out to steal from anyone, after all.  He didn’t sit back and say, “That was so long ago,” or “It wasn’t my fault,” or “It’s not my problem.”  Knowing he had a debt, he worked until he managed to pay it back.

If I am to claim that bedrock as my own, can I do less?  As Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed,

One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte.

What will honoring this debt entail? Will it involve reparations, a financial recognition of hardships imposed?  Perhaps.  At the very least, it will involve breaking the silence, listening to an honoring the experiences of people of color, and confronting the complicity of white Americans.

Racism exists.  It hasn’t gone away, and in fact, it’s still killing people, still destroying lives.

I am a white American.  I didn’t ask to have anyone cheated out of anything.  I never signed up for it; I never wanted it.  But I am also a Pagan and I honor my ancestors.  Here is the lesson I choose to take from them: It doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault.” Before there can be Reconciliation, there must be Truth.

We need to be like Ron. Pay our debts.

Speak the truth, work like hell, and pay that goddamn debt.


Cat Chapin-Bishop is a longtime member of the EarthSpirit Community and a regular presenter a A Feast of Lights.  To hear more from her, check out her blog, Quaker Pagan Reflections, on the Patheos Pagan Channel, where this post was originally published in March of 2015.  Special thanks to Cat and to Pagan Channel editor Jason Mankey for their assistance in allowing us to repost this.  

Sparks and Ripples: Keystone XL Protest

We’re proud to say that EarthSpirit community member Isobel Arthen was part of last weekend’s XL Dissent protest.  Along with over a thousand other students, she traveled to Washington, marched from Georgetown to the White House, and then zip tied herself to the White House fence while others students lay on top of a mock oil slick on the sidewalk.

Photo by Overpass Light Brigade

Photo by Overpass Light Brigade

You can read a summary of the issues with the Keystone XL pipeline from 350.org here.  Speak out by telling President Obama what you think.  Contact information for the White House can be found here.