When the Act of Doing Speaks Volumes: Notes from the Great Climate March
It was my second day on the Great Climate March. I was in Macedonia, Ohio, just south east of Cleveland. The United Methodist Church had graciously opened its rooms and halls to more than 20 of us the night before. Some of the participants had walked from Los Angeles where the journey began on March 1.
On the morning of my second day, I saw a poster with the text: "As for us, we can't stop speaking about what we have seen and heard. Acts: 4:20."
At the time, I did not know the quote's biblical context -- that the disciples, Peter and John would not be silenced in talking about Christ's resurrection -- so I interpreted it as a social justice message, one that, as a communicator, resonated with me.
I heard much the day before. I was to hear and see plenty in the days that followed. During my four-day walk in eastern Ohio, I would encounter the stories and evidence of fracking in the region. I was shocked to learn that this controversial extractive method that releases gas from shale rock was active in a Cleveland suburb, pitting neighbours who allowed fracking on their properties against neighbours who were impacted by the noise and smell, and at times, water contamination.
Joining the march, I didn't expect to march right into a fracking frontline. I signed up because I wanted to understand what motivated a group of climate activists, some in their 70s, to go beyond personal attempts to reduce their carbon footprints by undergoing a gruelling test of endurance.
The marchers had walked through severe drought in the southwestern United States, cutting up to the American heartland through industrial wastelands in Nebraska and Illinois. From Ohio they would journey through Pennsylvania's mountainous terrain toward their final destination -- Washington, D.C.
What did they witness? How did they process it?
How much of this was about introspection
Spiritual development? Awareness raising? I had parcelled out those questions as if they were silos. During my time with the marchers, the answers bled together.
I was intrigued by 22-year-old Sean who spent the first three months of the march in silence to help shake depression. Graduating from Emerson College's theatre department, she felt she faced a future caught up in a high-carbon lifestyle, which made no sense to her.
In a way, the March helped her literally and figuratively carve another path for herself. She chose silence for a number of reasons. She wanted to stand in solidarity with those who do not have a voice in the climate crisis, and she wanted to curb her anger.
"I was expecting to run into deniers the whole march long," Sean told me. 'I thought, if I were talking I'd be yelling at people about what they should be doing. Just a lot of anger, judgment and frustration."
She and the other marchers were surprised to discover that climate change deniers were not in huge supply.
"I was walking in silence to learn and listen to what's going on across the country," Sean said. "I came to the March knowing a bit about climate change, but really excited to learn the specifics about what's going on everywhere regarding food, water and air. And everywhere we go people talk about these things."
Sean was also listening to the earth. When I met her I was shocked to see she walked barefoot. She told me she did so for much of her walk across the country.
"You have a whole new awareness when you are barefoot and feeling what you are walking on. I was really inspired by a Thích Nhất Hạnh quote going into the march about massaging the earth with every step. I am massaging her and she's massaging me back. Sometimes it hurts but it's always good."
Inspired by Sean and Thích Nhất Hạnh, I took my shoes off to walk along the highway. I didn't last five minutes.
Sean clearly had more time to build her stamina to everything from asphalt to spiky plants. The latter reminded her of something many of us either don't know or forget. "That's their defence mechanism and we stomp over them. You learn that things aren't meant to be stomped on all the time."
Sean also learned that her silence had a certain energy that encouraged her to relinquish a sense of herself to the group, while attracting others to her.
"I went in silence to hone in on positive, loving and supportive energy. It was a time when I could really let go of my own story. The marchers created a loving supportive self for me. It was humbling, and I'm grateful for all the patience and energy they all brought along with it. Silence often brought that spiritual, careful energy when I met people on the streets. They learned that I was walking in silence for those who have been silent, and really felt, understood and appreciated that."
Sean isn't sure what she will do after the March, but this transformational process seems an important part of her recalibration to help her bring about the world she would like to see.
Other marchers took up silence too. It was agreed that at least one person would walk without speaking at all times. Judy, a 67-year-old coach and consultant for non-profits and small businesses in Portland, Oregon, walked in silence on my last day with the March. She joined the March in Arizona, left in Colorado and rejoined in Cleveland. For her, the act of walking is a way of remembering who she belongs to.
"It's significant to walk mile after mile, step after step and be outdoors most of the day and night because we’re camping," she told me on my first day. "It changes the thinking. Even though we have technology with us, there is something about how you process information when your whole body is doing it and not just your eyes and mind. It's a felt sense of noticing things and being aware of all the ways we are complicit in the wasteful use of the Earth's bounty because we use resources like we own it. Actually, the Earth owns us and we've forgotten. The body remembers."
Judy went on to say that the March helped her solidify a realization that she wasn't against anything anymore.
"I was against logging in Oregon for years, but I'm not against anything because it's not useful. I am interested in being for life. And so it's not rocket science to look around and ask, is putting chemicals in the aquifer to take out something that's been in the ground for a millennium to run a vehicle that's spewing gas and building the carbon in the atmosphere for life? No? Well we probably shouldn't do that then."
For Fernando, joining the March was a matter of standing for something too. Fernando is from the south east side of Chicago, an area that he describes as a toxic environment due to heavy steel mills, trucking and landfills. He found the Climate March while searching for a Native American healing walk. Fernando is part Prairie Band Potawatomi and Spanish.
Joining the March in Chicago, Fernando realized that in walking to Washington, D.C., he was giving voice to people in his community who are concerned about local environmental impacts but are too busy with work and family to take action. As a Native American, he also feels accountable to multiple generations.
"For seven generations my ancestors prayed for me and my family," he said. "When I pray for my future generations, I realize that I'm praying for generations that may not exist because of our accelerated global issues. I want to do something, and not be your average consumer and drive a gas guzzler."
Fernando confided that he is marching for his 16-year-old son who dreams of owning a sports car. When I spoke to him, he said hadn't yet told his son about the March. He wanted to ensure that he completed his journey before doing so.
"I told my son, if you don't stand for something then you will fall for anything," he said.
Walking through Lordstown, Ohio, a woman in a car stopped me and asked what we were doing. I told her that we were marching across the country to raise awareness about climate change and that some of us, including a 71-year-old woman, had marched all the way from Los Angeles.
"You're giving me shivers," the woman told me.
For marchers like Fernando, the act of doing communicates volumes, something articulated by Miriam, that 71-year-old who was walking every step of the way. She told me she kept her comments to people brief but clearly told them how far she had walked.
She and others like Sean, Judy and Fernando spoke with thousands of people throughout their journey and reached thousands more through front page articles of local newspapers, galvanizing local groups and seeding new ones. This rag-tag group of road weary climate activists clearly had a pull on people, just as they were pulled to the locals who greeted them.
I imagine the woman who told me we gave her shivers, telling her family and friends about us, just as I felt compelled to speak (and write) about what I had seen and heard on the Great Climate March.
The Great Climate March concludes in Washington, D.C. on November 1. For more, visit www.climatemarch.org
© 2014 Cheryl McNamara