Waters of Life and Death: Poetic Injustice at Standing Rock

Monday morning as I sat in meditation, I felt my anguish over the poetic injustice of “water cannons” being used against the “Water Protectors” at Standing Rock the night before. I thought about the sub-freezing conditions and hypothermia, about my friends and colleagues there, and the Native American tribes who have gathered from many parts of the continent in order to protect the water for all of us. About how just yesterday morning as Don and our sangha brother John and I were visiting, I told them I was afraid the protest could turn into a massacre under the new authoritarian regime coming to power. And, I thought about how I could barely read the article in this week’s Time Magazine headlined “Trump’s presidency could mean the end of a livable climate.”

This past Friday night our Jewish congregation had a lovely musical service, potluck, and then a discussion with congregant and The Progressive magazine editor Ruth Coniff about the aftermath of the elections. The room was packed Friday night, as we all yearned for the comfort of community and to think together about what to do. Coniff spoke of a recent visit of the Russian feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot to the UW campus, and what we can learn from their advice: Repression can come down suddenly; don’t wait to fight back; and be prepared to go to prison for your fight.

Ever since my youth, I have admired activists who put their bodies on the line to stand up against injustice, and to protect the earth. Stories of Gentiles who protected Jews at the risk of their own life; Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a Redwood tree for two years to stop the lumber company from cutting it down; Rachel Corrie, who was bulldozed by the Israeli Defense Forces while trying to protect Palestinian homes from demolition. On and off for years I have imagined that someday, I would find a cause sacred enough, and be in a position where the potential benefits outweighed the personal risk sufficiently, that I would take such a stand.

One of my favorite role models when it comes to direct action motivated and informed by spiritual commitments is Starhawk. Her books inspired my move to Madison and my masters’ thesis research on the relationship between feminist spirituality and feminist politics. Although I’ve recently been cautioned not to glorify arrest, especially because as a white person it’s a completely different prospect than for a person of color, Starhawk gave me good reason to feel that there was a kind of power in risking arrest not available by most other means. She says, “Where there’s fear, there is power.” This has a double meaning – power “over” causes fear, and if there is fear, we can look for what power is causing it; but also, when we confront our fear and move through it, rather than letting it stop us, we reclaim the power intrinsic in each of us to act according to our inner lights.

A few months ago, at an anti-racism training, I had the opportunity to meet another direct-action heroine of my youth, Bonnie Urfer. Back when I’d just moved to Wisconsin and worked on the newspaper collective Feminist Voices, we used to have articles about Urfer’s civil disobedience to disrupt the Navy’s northern Wisconsin ELF facility, (extra-low frequency communications with nuclear submarines), and also printed her beautiful artwork. Bonnie spent plenty of time in jail, and when the Occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol started in Feb. 2011 and a colleague asked me to help figure out how to provide nonviolent civil disobedience training to the students occupying it, Bonnie was one of the first people I tried to reach.

When I spoke to Bonnie this past May, she said that she wasn’t sure she was ever going to risk arrest again. I assumed at first it was because of her age – mid 60s now. But it had to do with how prison conditions have changed, and with having been traumatized by watching something horrific happen to a close friend while they were locked up together. This certainly gave me pause. And as I mentioned in my blog about the direct action at the police station here in Madison, I decided I was not in full enough alignment with that action to risk arrest, though I supported it in other ways.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about Starhawk’s novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing. I was approached recently by Dr. Joan Haran, a researcher working to understand the impact of the innovative process being used to turn this book into a film and to further its utopian vision in the process. Haran uses the term “imaginactivism” to describe this kind of cultural change work. The book is set in a near-future where access to water has become a central battle line, and a diverse, consensus-based ecofeminist spiritual utopia set in the SF Bay Area is pitted against a repressive Christian/corporate regime invading from the south to try to take over their water. In addition to the powerful vision of inclusive and sustainable community life, a key take-away of the book for me was when one of the heroes, who was imprisoned and tortured, became more like his jailers, and that shift, in the end, helped bring about needed change in significant ways. (I’m being vague partly because I don’t remember the details, and partly to avoid a spoiler).

The actions and philosophy of a local group I’m connected with, the Milwaukee Water Commons, remind me of Starhawk’s utopian vision. The shared commitment to the safety and sacredness of water brings people together across age, race, class, and other lines of division, creating new ways of caring for one another, celebrating together, and shifting culture. In Starhawk’s future, a culture that celebrates, protects, and balances the four sacred things – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water – is one where the fifth sacred thing, Spirit, can also emerge and be protected.

Water has always had a spiritual significance for me. Poems number 2 and 3 that I wrote when I was 11 years old were both about water:

2. The Sea

Whitecaps splashing

Never boring

Seagulls crying
Waves defying
Anyone to swim

3. Rivers Rushing

Rivers rushing
Cold and clear
Sparkling, splashing.
I can hear
The rivers plunging
Down the falls
The sound of rushing
Water calls
I have to come
And listen more
To see what rivers
Have in store
For me, for you
For everyone
Rivers hold
Reflected sun
Moonlight, starlight,
Glowing bright
Upon the rivers rushing.

Around this period of time I also collected pictures that moved me deeply, and I remember two of them vividly; drops of water on a spider’s web, magnified against a green background; and a frozen stream in a snowy wood. This spiritual and emotional connection with water was so strong that I actually went by the name River for a few years in my 20s. This began when I was at a “Wiccan Summer Intensive” or “Witchcamp” led by Starhawk. I was walking alone across an open field, when I heard someone call out the name “River” in my direction. I turned, and felt that they were calling to me, even though that wasn’t really my name. Or was it?

When I sit by a river – a favorite pastime – I contemplate change, and changing perspective. From one way of looking at it, the river seems constant – the standing waves taking a more-or-less constant shape as the water flows over and around rocks and other obstacles. But then if you focus on a bubble or leaf on the surface and track its progress, it’s often moving quite fast through that seemingly-unchanging landscape. And of course, if we could sit there long enough, we would see the changes to the riverbed wrought by the water.

In addition to its life-giving, perspective-shifting qualities, water is also a great destroyer. In Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series, water is the greatest instrument of the “Unmaker,” the evil/entropic force which actively attempts to undo all that is good in the world, and all that Alvin is able to Make. Much of the destruction being slowly wrought (but not slowly enough) by climate change is happening and will happen through water — storms, drought, melting ice caps, rising sea-level.

And then there are the water cannons. Being turned on Native Americans and allies assembled peacefully to protect water. In 25 degree Fahrenheit weather. The week of “Thanksgiving.”

As we all face into what the impending Trump presidency portends, I am once again asking myself, what am I prepared to risk for the sake of justice? For the sake of water, and all that I hold sacred? For the sake of the planet?




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