What do I Say "Yes" to?
Watershed moments come along for all of us, whether in our personal lives or in our communal lives. Around 1992, Ched Myers faced his own watershed moment, and at the time, he said, “The question that kept bubbling up for me is, what am I for? What do I say ‘yes' to? What is a vision of life and place?” The answers to those questions led him to his work around Watershed Discipleship.
The Fox River in April; 1000 Islands Nature Center; Kaukana, WI; Great Lakes Basin
Myers, an activist theologian, writer, educator and organizer works on the staff of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries. When we talked towards the end of June (see the video below for the full conversation), he told the story of what he experienced during the years of 1991 and 1992, or, as he put it, “a season of personal and political reckoning for me.” In 1991, the U.S, invaded Kuwait, and Myers was working against the war. In the middle of the war, Myers’ father died suddenly. His father was his tie to five generations of his family in California, dating back to the Mexican period.
Then, in 1992, he was involved in social justice efforts around the loss of Indigenous lives and land starting with Columbus’ coming to Turtle Island 500 years earlier, the legacy of which lasts to this day. Also that year, the police beating of Rodney King took place in Los Angeles. After the police officers were acquitted, he witnessed the civil uprising and the burning Los Angeles, “the city of my birth,” for the second time in his life, the first time being the Watts uprising.
During that period, Myers said, “I was really coming into consciousness, particularly after my dad’s passing, of my own deep-spiritual rootedness in this land of fragile chaparral and oak savannah landscape. It’s etched into my soul. And yet, like everyone else, I’ve seen too much of the land I love relentlessly bulldozed, paved-over and disfigured by over-development.”
“One of the great continuing sadnesses of my life is to watch my home place be destroyed,” Myers reflected. “I really struggled with feelings of rage and depression around that. I later learned that there’s a word for this, coined by ecopsychologists called ‘Solastalgia,’ the condition of being homesick in one’s own home place because of all the degradation.”
Myers' anti-war efforts, the passing of his father, the work around the 500th anniversary of the European invasion, the civil uprising in Los Angeles, and the grief he felt over the degradation of his homeland in southern California all led him to examine what he was working for and not just against. The answer, initially, was bioregionalism, a way of framing how we live our lives according to the bioregion or ecosystem in which we live, versus seeing our society organized around political boundaries.
In 1994, Myers made some initial efforts around bioregionalism, but it wasn’t until about ten years later, after refining his perspective to a watershed approach, that the work found some resonance with the wider community. In 2016, Myers edited and published the book, Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice.,The book is a collection of essays by younger watershed activists about their efforts to protect the watersheds where they live and how those efforts are spiritual- or faith-based. More information can be found at the Watershed Discipleship website.
For Myers, Watershed Discipleship is a triple entendre that means:
1. We are in a watershed moment, which at the present includes battling the twin viruses of Covid-19 and institutional racism;
2. We must take a bioregional or watershed focus by acting locally; and
3. We are called to be disciples of our watersheds, to learn them, to know them, to love them, to save them.
In particular, I was struck when Myers quoted Senegalese environmentalist, Baba Dioum: “We won’t save places we don’t love. We can’t love places we don’t know. We don’t know places we haven’t learned.”
So, what does Myers’ story and work mean for a spirituality of the Great Lakes? First, it may mean that we need to mourn what we have done to the ecological vitality of the Great Lakes Basin because of development, either intentionally or inadvertently. Part of that mourning must include an acknowledgement of the loss of life and land by the Indigenous people of the Great Lakes Basin caused by those of us in the dominant culture and our forebears.
That mourning should also recognize the “Solastalgia” that many of us feel, no matter what our background, when we experience or read about the degradation of our home place here in the Great Lakes Basin.
Second, by acknowledging and grieving these losses, we can honestly assess and address the “watershed moment” we find ourselves in now. As current circumstances painfully show, we cannot deal with the coronavirus without honestly facing the seriousness of the threat and the measures that need to be taken. With white supremacy and institutional racism, we cannot change our society for the better without realizing where the injustices lie and how far back into our history the roots of these injustices go.
With issues ranging from climate change to invasive species to plastic pollution and beyond, healing the Great Lakes means supporting research that gives us a clear picture of the problems we face. We also must take seriously, as Myers puts it, an “older Indigenous wisdom... Indigenous science that is pre-existing in these watersheds.”
Third, we must build upon and foster the love people have for the Great Lakes by supporting educational efforts about the Great Lakes Basin. I’ve enjoyed seeing some of the wonderful resources that have been promoted during our coronavirus shut-down, like the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and their Fun Fact Friday series, and the Alliance for the Great Lakes and their H.O.M.E.School series. All the state Sea Grant agencies, like Michigan’s, as well as the Center for Great Lakes Literacy, have some wonderful resources as well.
Mourning, assessing, and learning are not ends unto themselves, but rather steps taken towards love... love shared in our communities and love expressed for the Great Lakes. Mourning may be the most “spiritual” of these steps, as we try to understand where we are in relation to the rest of creation and to the Divine or Ultimate Reality, and to also understand how we have fallen short in those relationships. But that spiritual perspective is, in the end, a hopeful one. It can lead to love, and when I ask myself, "What am I for?" or "What can I say 'yes' to?", I can think of no better answer than love.