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Speaking Out for Mother Earth

by Eliza Perez on

On Friday, October 3, I attended Nina Wilson’s lecture, at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, on the rights of Mother Earth from a First Nations person’s perspective. Wilson is one of the co-founders of the Idle No More movement for the rights of native peoples to protect the lands and waters.

Though I’ve lived in San Antonio for a couple of years, I’d never been to the Esperanza building. As I walked up the stairs I saw a small concession stand selling melon, tacos, and aguas frescas near what looked like papier-mâché figures hanging from the ceiling. The smell of burning sage washed over me as a man offered the smoke to people to waft toward them. The room was filled with friendly faces, both locals and visitors passing through. 

A First Nations man led us in a blessing—or what some might call a blessing, for lack of a better word. He and his family sang as he kept a rhythm on a hand drum. Wilson greeted us in her indigenous tongue, and the talk began.

Wilson discussed environmental issues that have affected First Nations people in southeastern Saskatchewan, Canada, and made them easy to understand for those not familiar with the topic. Big industries have come to the land with promises of more jobs and local funding and have in turn contaminated the water, polluted the air, and introduced illnesses related to nuclear waste and radiation. Wilson’s sincerity shone through as she spoke candidly about the issues, although this has made her a social pariah among her people.

Despite being ignored by some and judged by the elders, Wilson continues to speak out. “We need to appreciate what’s natural,” she said, and encouraged us to learn about the land’s history. This won’t repair the environmental damage, but it can help teach future generations that the earth is important and that we all have a responsibility to keep it safe. “I may not be a scientist,” she said, “but I know it’s all part of the process.”

Wilson discussed the origins of Idle No More, whose name refers to the movement’s founders’ need to do something to make a change in the world. She’s honest about the challenges of being an activist, in terms of both the emotional and the economic tolls. Nevertheless, she continues to take on the big industries that are using up resources in Canada and leaving people ill.

She sees a parallel between the damage done to earth and the abuse inflicted on women. “Earth is abused when our women are abused,” she said. “Our species won’t survive [without female leadership].” Her youngest child is already able to point out systematic racism when she encounters it—a leader in the making.

By the end of Wilson’s talk, the audience was feeling energized and ready to defend the rights of the earth, even if we’d be risking our good standing. “Truth is freeing,” Wilson said, “but it can be dangerous.” 

For more information on the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center's campaigns against fracking watch a video with journalist and activist Amy Goodman featured in Rachel's latest blog post 

Artwork from the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

Spending Time at SXSW ​Eco

by Tom Payton on

Like any relatively media savvy, basically progressive person who finds himself living in Texas, I have longed to attend a SXSW-something. ​I finally did, and ​I'm glad I choose ​SXSW ​Eco. 

Now completing its third year, th​is international eco​-​​hip​ conference seeks to facilitate discussion about a broad range of fairly predictable interdisciplinary topics about all things green. The real focus is on no​t​ just​ debating and sharing, but turning ideas into action. Complete with a strong workshop-hackathon-venture capital focus, new ideas ​emerge to be applied ​to ​new world problems ​in practical and tangible​ ways. It​ even ​seems downright ​revolutionary ​at moments. 

​This sensibility rings true to me. ​The reason I diverted my career path some twenty-six years​ ago from the practice of architecture and urban planning into books and publishing was​, I later had the perspective to realize,​ for the same goals I'd ​studied architecture to begin with. Architecture like publishing, for many​ practitioners, ​is about ​creating the new and changing the old within society, rather than simply provide shelter. It is about looking forward -- albeit sometimes ​that requires a good look back -- ​to imagine solution​s​ to new and old problems​; finding new ways ​for ​people to live. ​Age and experience has allowed me to see this clearly, and to connect my two avocations in a way that makes complete sense to me now. ​More than to simply entertain or inform, books​ -- ​for most of the inspiring people ​I've ​had the privilege of working with over the years​ -- are meant to spark debate​, facilitate understanding ​, and ​lead to ideas and solutions​ in society in need. 

​​I​ was in Austin for SXSW Eco with somewhat of an old world goal: to ​discover new writers and ​acquire books​ for publication​. ​However, on day one I found myself feeling ​a bit ​under-armed: not up on all the latest eco-lingo, ​connected with ​plenty of wireless devices yet in awe of the "techcreativity" surrounding me, and ​simply ​not finding many people who wanted to talk about the book business. Or, so I thought. ​That worry wanes quickly and, as the sessions unfolded, ​I found that ​almost every speaker ha​d ​written one or more books.​ How "old school" of them!​ 

Of the many sessions I attended, a few ​stood-out most. Meeting Dr. Robert Bullard, widely known as the father of the environmental justice movement, was a highlight. ​Favorite p​anels included: organic farming ​in an age soil quality crisis; ​exploring the ​fashion ​industry as the largest consumer of resources ​a​fter the petroleum industry; ​discovering ways to ​re​-​too​l ci​ties in an age of climate change; and, ​developing new models to demonstrate the economic ​viability if not vitality of environmental stewardship. All opened my eyes and sparked my own ideas. Along the way​, other topics as well​: updates on oceans, questioning eating versus feeding, imagining the future of the travel industries, optimizing technology to study endangered animal species​ behaviors​, how to market the urgency of the eco message to a largely unaware or misunderstanding public, and​ innovative redesign​s of public spaces. My favorite​, however, was "Slow is Fast," about intentional tourism in our own ​community,​ and slowing down to learn what is around us​; by a couple of guys who spent month​s​ traveling the California coast by bike to discover ​on a micro level ​what makes their state great​.

So, amid all of this talk of intentional disruption​, social revolution​, and energized eco-optimism, I was curious to discover that the backbone to much of this ​was the good old-fashioned book. It seems having written a good book remains a ​true ​litmus test, intentional or unintentional, for passage to authority status.​ I wanted to buy, and read, most of them (as ebooks, of course) while also falling in love with myriad new apps to allow my phone to help me restructure my eco-lifestyle. 

​Alas, in the end, SXSW Eco was an engaging few days and I can see why it has developed such a strong international reputation in such short time. And, I became really good as conversations with prospective authors that began with "So, what are you working on ... next?"

Amy Goodman and the Power of Stories

by Rachel Cooley on

Journalist and activist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! spoke at Trinity University Oct. 7 as part of the Maverick Lecture Series. Goodman has received the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes termed the "Alternative Nobel Prize" for “developing an innovative model of truly independent grassroots political journalism that brings to millions of people the alternative voices that are often excluded by the mainstream media.” She spoke about the power of stories—how if we heard the perspective of a mother in Iraq, an uncle in Palestine, or a son in Israel, the space between us would grow smaller. The conversations about the issues would change, just as they have been changed by social movements addressing the economy, or equal rights, or the environment. 

As a sociology and English double major, I couldn’t help thinking about the stories we tell and hear—as a culture, as an individual, as a writer—that influence our perspectives in significant ways. A single story can change how we think and feel about an issue, and how we talk about it or express our opinions to others. These stories can be found on independent media sites like Amy Goodman’s, in conversations, in travel, and most powerfully in literature. As Azar Nafisi said during her lecture at Trinity in March, where, if not in literature, do we learn to empathize with both the hero and the villain? 

In 2006 Rebecca Solnit (author of The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousnessoffered advice to graduates of the University of California, Berkeley: “The universe is made out of stories—go change them, tell them, bury them, give birth to them. A difficult task, but not an impossible one. Not if you remember, as readers and scholars might, that we are living in an impossible world already.” Though it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by societal issues and discouraged by endless debates that rarely reach conclusions or create change, I see telling stories as a source of hope, a place to start change from the bottom up.

Democracy Now! video of Amy Goodman covering the San Antonio Esperanza Peace and Justice Center's campiagns against fracking and militarization.

5 Tips for Becoming a Better Writer

by Rachel Cooley on

We’re always looking for authors who describe new ways to think about the craft of writing. As an experienced teacher, editor, and writer, Carter Wiseman, author of Writing Architecture, is just the person for the job. We asked him to share some matter-of-fact tips from his book, for architects and students of architecture—and for writers in any field or genre.

What challenges and fears do individuals face when beginning to write, and how can they overcome them?

Most people—including architects and architecture students—have a completely appropriate fear of writing. Our brains do not work in full sentences and paragraphs, so trying to clarify our random thoughts in a way that others can understand is not “natural.” However, simply spewing out whatever is on our minds is not likely to make much sense to others; we can’t expect them to read our minds. Organizing the mental chaos and expressing it clearly takes work, and most of us would prefer to avoid it.

How can architects develop their own writing style and tone?

People who write about architecture often worry about style and tone. They also worry about a related issue: audience. Insecure writers tend to think that using big words and convoluted sentences conveys an impression of profundity. It doesn’t. What it does convey is that the writer has not thought the subject through sufficiently to make a direct statement. That is why so many in the profession rely on “archispeak,” using words likematerialitydiscourse, and intervention when they could say materials, debate, or action. The best writers always use simple English. Their style and tone emerge naturally from their choice of words. Hemingway didn’t set out to write the way he did. He wrote that way because of who he was. Writers should not try to be what they are not.

What must architects consider about the built world to write persuasively and clearly about it?

To write persuasively and clearly about the built world, architects need to identify at the outset what it is they want to say. Writing rarely leads to thinking; thinking often leads directly to writing. Is the goal of a project to keep the rain out, or to inspire? Both are valid, but the reader (client, patron, critic, voter) should have no doubt about which is which.

Why is clear writing important for architects specifically? 

Clear writing is important to every profession, but especially to architecture. The reason is that the stakes are so high. Architects make things that last a long time, and if those things are designed in response to a murky program or unclear specifications, the impact will be felt for years. An architect friend of mine once said he thought the greatest challenge of bad writing in the profession was not the difficulty of being understood, but the danger of being misunderstood.

Why did you write the book and what do you hope readers will gain from it?

I wrote Writing Architecture to give students and practitioners—as well as users—of architecture some ways to appreciate the value of the art, and therefore to advance it. Most clients are not trained to read architectural documents, so a floor plan is likely to seem mysterious. If an architect can write a proposal that convinces the client to go beyond mere building to create something uplifting, civilization takes a step forward. 

World Animal Day is October 4th

by Rachel Cooley on

 

October 4 marks World Animal Day, set aside to consider how animals enrich our lives and how we can be in a respectful relationship with them. The day was created in 1931 at a convention of ecologists in Florence, Italy, who wanted to draw attention to endangered species.

I’ll be thinking of the earth’s animals and the role of pets that have enriched my life and become members of my family. The connection between human and pet can mirror the connections between humans and the natural world.

As early as the second century, many Roman philosophers, Claudius Aelianus among them, were obsessed with documenting animal characteristics. The conclusions Aelian comes to in On the Nature of Animals are sometimes humorous, sometimes fanciful and disproven by modern science, and sometimes insightful. His book constitutes an early encyclopedia of animal behavior, affording unparalleled insight into what ancient Romans knew about and thought about animals—and about animal minds.

Below are some of the descriptions I found especially amusing and interesting. Many species Aelian catalogs are now endangered, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. 

“Though they are without reason, animals do not bother one another and are frequently clement. I once heard this story: A hunter had a LEOPARD that he had found as a cub and raised since then, caring for it as he would a friend. He loved the leopard dearly. One day he brought it a kid to eat. The leopard had already eaten and was not hungry, so it left the kid alone. On the second day, though it needed to eat, it left the kid alone again. On the third day, even though it was plainly hungry—even its voice sounded hungry—the leopard did not harm the kid, for they had been together three days, and the kid was now its friend. The leopard ate another kid, though, that was brought to it. Yet men betray their brothers, their parents, their lifelong friends. We know of many examples.”

               The Amur leopard is critically endangered. 

“Indians and Libyans tell different stories about animals, based on what they have seen. In India, if an adult ELEPHANT is captured, it is usually very hard to tame and so bent on regaining its freedom that it becomes quite bloodthirsty, and if you try to tie it down it will only make the elephant angrier. The Indians try to placate such an elephant with nice food and treats, but the elephant will have none of it. So the Indians do this: they take an instrument called a skindapsus and play music, and the elephant listens, and in time its anger subsides and softens, and it takes notice of the food and eats. When this happens the elephant’s bonds are loosened, and it eats and eats and has no thought of running away, because elephants love music.”

               The Sumatran elephant, Asian elephant, Borneo Pygmy elephant, Indian elephant, Sri Lankan                    elephant, and African elephant are all endangered or vulnerable species. 

“The DOLPHIN is said to love its own kind, and here is proof. A dolphin was captured at Aenus, in Thrace, and wounded in the process. Smelling its blood, other dolphins came racing into the harbor and jumped around, subtly threatening the fishermen. The people of Aenus, frightened, freed the captive, and the other dolphins escorted it out of the harbor. People, on the other hand, will barely lift a finger to help a relative, man or woman, in need.”

                The Ganges river dolphin, Hector’s dolphin, and Indus river dolphin are all endangered                               species. 

Many of us can recognize the human-like emotion and intelligence in animals that Aelian notes. What animals have touched your life or reflect the qualities we ascribe to the human world?