My path to activism

All my life I’ve loved the natural world. As a child I spent as much time outdoors as I could, climbing trees and chasing my sisters and brothers around. I took pictures of the clouds, and of our apple trees in bloom.

I still get outdoors whenever I can. I ski, ride my bike, walk, garden, swim, kayak, go camping. But I haven’t been a political animal. I joined environmental groups but didn’t go the meetings. I read books about the natural world and about threats to it, but I didn’t do much about them. I’ve been an armchair environmentalist.

Oh, I’d occasionally go to a demonstration, or write a letter to a lawmaker or an editor. And for one year I chaired a citizens’ advisory committee for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District. But over the years I wasn’t consistent, I didn’t work on any one issue, I didn’t taken a stand.

This reticence of mine wasn’t due to a lack of firm convictions. I think we unwisely separate ourselves from the natural world, objectify it as the other, and then hurt it willy-nilly, all to our peril. This is at the heart of my belief system. It is who I am.

But there have been barriers keeping me from becoming politically active. One is the nature of political work, the endless stream of details you are required to manage and master. There is always more that needs doing, and the results, no matter how hard you work, are uncertain and variable. The work appears endless, thankless and exhausting.

Another reason I hadn’t gotten involved in environmental politics is that I am a heavy introvert. I like to spend time with people, but I need lots of time alone to regroup.

Activists are connectors, they are always talking, talking: calling each other, organizing meetings and demonstrations, and then attending them. Phew. This, too, sounded exhausting to me.

Then this fall I began going to events around town about climate disruption. Mostly I felt like an introvert in an extrovert sea. It didn’t seem like there was a place for me, or a way to be heard over the din. I felt worse with each event I attended. What had motivated me to get involved weren’t just my convictions and concerns. I wanted to find my people. I began to wonder: “Climate activists: What are you going to do about your introverts? How are you going to attract us? How are you going to keep us?”

But, because I am an introvert, I just thought these questions, I did not go out there and ask anyone. I did not actually put this challenge to the people running the events.

I might have just quit the work altogether, but there were glimmers of an opening to come. One was my reaction when I first heard about the Pachamama movement in Latin America. Their goal: an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just human presence on the planet. The compassion and comprehensiveness of that goal made me cry, but what especially moved me is that they included the wellbeing of the spirit.

Then this February I went with people from my church to a lobbying day at the Minnesota State Capitol organized by the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. Though we were working on what are called social justice issues, rather than on climate or other environmental issues, I got a taste of what it is like to do political work when it has spiritual underpinnings. I came home elated. I’d begun to find my way.

I am now working at my church on climate issues. We have subscribed to Internet news services like EcoWatch and InsideClimate News. People in our group have gone to demonstrations — including the one in Washington, D.C. against the Keystone XL Pipeline. We are passing around a DVD, “Tipping Point: The End of Oil,” about the problems with tar sands oil.

We’ve written letters to President Obama, to the State Department, to our Congress people, to our state legislators, and to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission urging those making the decisions to reduce the flow of tar sands oil coming into this country from Canada.

Maybe it is just that I am older and more ornery, but I haven’t, for the most part, felt overwhelmed with this heightened level of activity. I pick and choose where to put my energy and attention, which is to say, I put it where I feel like putting it. I ignore the rest.

Sometimes this political work is depressing, sometimes it is exciting, often it is both at once. It helps me that I am part of a low-key community. And that we are doing environmental activism in a way that honors the quiet heart of us all.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.