Saturday, August 31, 2002

Book review: ‘The Colors of Nature’

Book: "Colors of Nature"
A diverse group of authors explore the intimate connection between the environment and the many races of people who inhabit the earth in The Colors of Nature: Essays on Culture, Identity and the Natural World, (Milkweed Editions, September, 2002).

The book was compiled to address a “lack” of published nature writing by people of color — which its editors, Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy, feel reflects the limited perspective of the publishing community and its target audience, rather than an absence of interest on the part of the writers.

According to Deming and Savoy, these essays include “themes of historical legacy, of dispossession, displacement and return, of relational identity and relationship to place. The book speaks across the lines of cultural identity — those defined from within and those imposed from without — to consider our place on earth and connections with each other.” That’s a pretty tall order, and the book’s contributors pull it off admirably and eloquently.

Nature writing as a distinct literary tradition originated in the late 18th Century, but don’t expect these writers to limit themselves to Romanticism, with its idealization of “nature” as something separate from man. The men and women in this anthology draw upon their own cultural traditions, as well as personal experience, in exploring their connections with the world around them.

Sandra Jackson-Opoku (“Writing the Diaspora: One Black Writer’s Journey from Cultural Isolation to Multicultural Inclusion”) can still recall the moment that she first realized there was a world of black experience beyond her limited vision. It was 35 years ago, in fourth grade, during an assembly that featured a performance by Haitian dancers.

“The Haitian dancers didn’t just dance and sing,” she recounts. “They burst onstage in a syncopated fury of drums and limbs and voices. Athletic brown limbs bent and swayed. Gaily colored prints unfurled like tropical flags. Even their slip-ups seemed stylish.”

Melissa Nelson (“Becoming Métis”), has had to reconcile the land management practices of her Native American ancestors with the environmental views of her European ones. “Many deep ecologists adhere to a myth of pristine wilderness and consider Indians anti-environmental because they want to ‘use’ the ‘untouched’ wildlands,” she writes. “Yet more and more people are finally realizing that the precontact North American landscape was well cared for and highly managed by its original inhabitants.”

Several writers, Robert D. Bullard among them (“Confronting Environmental Racism in the 21st Century”), tackle the controversial subject of environmental racism: “In 1996, the 54-mile stretch along U.S. Highway 80 was designated the ‘Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail,’” he states. “The trail is also designated an ‘All-American Road’ under the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program.”

He continues, “Despite these federal government designations, and strong sentiment among black people, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in 1998 approved a 200-acre landfill permit on the trail that many consider ‘sacred ground.’ This action makes real the extent to which environmental racism is allowed to operate. It is highly unlikely that a garbage dump would be proposed next to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.”

Not everyone will have an easy time with this book. It brings up a lot of painful history — people bought and sold as property, indigenous populations exterminated in the name of progress — that some people might prefer not to face.

Likewise, for a writer to suggest that, despite our best efforts, racism is still entrenched in our society, may not be palatable to someone who doesn’t see a problem with the way things are.

If, however, you’re strong enough to face another point of view — that European-Americans committed atrocities in the name of progress, and that real, living, breathing people suffered for it; and that our actions have a direct impact on the lives that share our Earth — then go ahead and read this book. Nature writing as a genre is richer for these authors’ inclusion in it.

Published Aug. 31, 2002 in the Lake County Record-Bee

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Filling in again at Observer American

I’m working at the Clear Lake Observer American again, for the remainder of this week, filling in for managing editor Dirk Damon. Today I started scanning columns, building pages and writing a guest column for Saturday’s paper. My topic is waste diversion, and the need to hold manufacturers accountable for the wasteful packaging they create in the first place.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Book review: ‘Nickel and Dimed’ by Barbara Ehrenreich

Book cover: "Nickel and Dimed -- On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich
Can a woman with every advantage in life -- affluent, healthy, well-educated, unencumbered by children -- really put herself in the shoes of someone less fortunate, someone who, unlike her, does not have the option of calling it quits if the experiment doesn’t work out?

It is to Harper’s magazine contributor Barbara Ehrenreich’s credit that she decided to have a go at it. From the late spring of 1998 to the summer of 2000, she presented herself to employers as an unskilled homemaker returning to the work force and worked at a series of low-income jobs: waitress, hotel maid and retail sales clerk.

The result of Ehrenreich’s first-hand investigation is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001; Owl Books, 2002). The book is a revealing look at the difficulties low-income wage earners face when trying to keep a roof over their heads and put food in their bellies.

Nickel and Dimed is endorsed by no less of an authority than Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the first former welfare mother to be elected to U.S. Congress. But therein lies a subtle distinction, which has to be acknowledged if Ehrenreich’s book is to be accepted for what it is intended to be, which is an in-depth look at life in society’s lower economic sectors.

Unlike Woolsey, who actually lived through it, “warts ’n’ all,” as Molly Ivins would say, Ehrenreich is an investigative journalist who was able to establish ground rules ahead of time and provide herself with financial resources to draw upon if necessary.

No matter how harrowing it became for Ehrenreich to make ends meet -- and at times it became pretty harrowing indeed, to the point that working for a national retail chain was costing her money -- Ehrenreich always had an escape hatch leading back to her comfortable, upper-middle class existence as one of society’s opinion-shapers.

Fortunately, Ehrenreich was smart enough to realize from the onset of her investigation that -- short of her customary lifestyle disappearing -- there is no way that she will ever, truly, have to (not) get by in America.

But her temporary co-workers did not have her advantages. They faced educational, geographical, economic, political and psychological barriers that prevented them from bettering themselves, and Ehrenreich writes about their struggles with compassion and more than a little outrage.

“The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society,” Ehrenreich tells us. “They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes can be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor to everyone else.”

Don’t look for detached objectivity in Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich became fully involved in her co-workers’ plight to such an extent that, when working for a national retail chain in Minnesota, she actively encouraged them to organize for better wages.

The experience also took its toll on Ehrenreich in ways that she had not expected. After a spiteful exchange with a co-worker, Ehrenreich reflects that “‘Barb,’ the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as Barbara. ‘Barb’ is what I was called as a child, and still am by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I’m regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you’re left with is this original Barb ... So it’s interesting, and more than a little disturbing to see how Barb turned out -- that she’s meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I’d hoped.”

Ultimately, Nickel and Dimed is an uncomfortable book to read, but it is also a necessary book to read. Necessary, if for no other reason than to expose just how heavily our society depends on the toil of its poorest members -- and how little it gives them in return.