Yesterday I dipped into the deep grief that’s been masked by depression over the last few months. It’s been hard to access my sadness, deeply buried and rarely excavated as is my sorrow about the state of the planet. It made me reflect on a time where I had hope and idealism, and believed that anything was possible. I have always believed deeply in social justice and environmental protection. I wanted to be a politician, and believed I could make a difference. I remember as a 10 year old wearing a Shirley Chisholm for president button on my shirt which read “a woman’s place is in the house… and the senate”. My parents were McGovern supporters. We lived amidst a sea of Lockheed engineers who backed Nixon. Although I felt like a voice in the wilderness, I felt that I had a moral obligation to stand up for what I believed was right.
So when did that stop? When did I become disillusioned? I remember writing a letter to the editor to the San Jose Mercury as an 11 year old entitled Miracle of Orchards. In it I asked people to protect the few remaining orchards in Sunnyvale. Just years before I would run through acres of apricot and plum trees, and sadly watched as each orchard was summarily sent to oblivion. Without thought of long-term destruction, or the loss of some of the best top-soil for crop growing anywhere. I wrote to Nixon about this and got a photo of his family back. I remember being enraged that he didn’t do anything or suggest anything. As a 9 year old, I would get into arguments with my Uncle Joe about the importance of environmental protection. He would argue that “progress” was necessary and trumped protecting the earth. I often felt like the Lorax when arguing with adults, as they would shout my desire to defend the earth down. Perhaps as they had once been shouted down. And like the Lorax, after such debates I would lift myself into the air and disappear through a hole in the clouds. Never to reappear.
Then my parents separated. Their relationship had become increasingly violent, marked by almost daily raging from my father and crying and withdrawal from my mother. As the only child, I did my best to play mediator for my fractured family. My heart broke when my father left. I loved him dearly and unconditionally, rage and all. My heart has never really recovered. I spent the next many years secretly hoping that my parents would reconcile. I didn’t even dare admit it to myself, let alone tell anyone else. It would leak out in moments when I could no longer keep up the facade that I was okay. I wasn’t. I was broken, bereft of love, and didn’t believe I could heal, or that life was worth living.
It’s probably no accident that I gave up on idealism when my parents divorced. In my broken heartedness, I lost my belief in the power of the people to change the world. I no longer participated in environmental activism. I felt fatalistic about the fall of the environment and powerless against corporate greed. They had money, lawyers, and the time to wait out environmentalists. In high school I focused on school, sports, journalism, and speech and debate, as well as a little theater.
I was torn about where to go to college. I wanted to impress others and was tempted by the status of the Ivy League and comparable schools on the west coast, but decided to follow my heart. I chose UCSC because I needed a soft landing, a place where I could fall apart and put myself back together. I enrolled as a Physics major, in large part inspired by my first love who had studied Physics at Princeton. I was enamored with astrophysics and had excelled in both math and science. However, after only a quarter, I could tell it wasn’t right for me. Not because of academic achievement, but because I wanted to study a breadth of subjects, and doing 2 years at UCSC in Physics and 3 at UCB in Electrical Engineering wouldn’t allow me any breathing room. After two quarters, I went paused my studies (that was an actual choice) and enrolled in the local JC to let myself explore my interests. I ended up staying at Cabrillo for 2 years, taking fun classes like creative writing, feminist visions of the future, African dance, modern dance, improvisational theater, swimming. After that I took several quarters of chemistry to cover some of the prerequisites for an Environmental Studies major at UCSC. You may wonder why I hadn’t done that initially, given my childhood propensity for environmental activism. Somehow I believed that what I cared about didn’t matter. I’m not sure how I ended up believing that, but it caused me to question my bliss rather than follow it. Maybe it was all the times I told my dad about something that excited me, only to realize that he wasn’t listening. Or the times felt alone in my endeavors to change things for the better. Whatever the cause, I had deeply internalized the belief that what I cared about didn’t matter and wasn’t worth defending. Studying environmental studies was a big contradiction to that belief. Nevertheless, it was hard to see all the environmental injustice in the world, and it was easier for me to focus on topics that felt less overwhelming like natural history, policy, and planning.
During my junior year, I began working for the engineering department, then geology, at EMCON Associates, a company that managed hazardous waste. I felt like I’d sold out. Writing reports for clients like Chevron, I didn’t feel I could advocate for the planet I loved so deeply. After a few years, I decided to change course, doing more education and research. I reached out to the Office of Toxics and Solid Waste at the County of Santa Clara, and there spent three years working on pollution prevention with other hard working staff, creating workshops to educate about how to reduce hazardous waste generation amongst various industries. I would never have left that job except that there was tension among a few employees, and our funding was uncertain from year to year. Reluctantly, I left before getting engaged in yet another career opportunity at SLAC to write a manual of employee procedures. There had been a changing of the guard and the new president was disturbed to find out that none of this gad been written down. Then a car accident changed my plans. With my car totaled, I decided to try my hand at computer tech writing. I had a friend who worked at Apple, and he alerted me to a job fair. I was honest about my limitations but promised to work hard and be diligent. I got hired to work on the Inside Mac team, and felt very lucky, as I didn’t have any programming experience. It was a steep learning curve. I took courses in UNIX, and C and C++ programming, and wrote compilable code for API documentation. Despite the challenge, I felt I was doing nothing to better the planet.
One day, while working at Apple, I walked in the hills above Lake Almaden near Los Alamitos Creek trail. I was brought to tears by the beauty of that wild land, the boulders and green hills studded with new vegetation after a winter rain. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen in Santa Clara Valley. It had been a very important site to the Miwok/Ohlone people. I found a cave facing Mt Umunhum, and ducked into the roundish shelter. On the ceiling was a ochre spiral probably drawn in cinnabar. I later learned that to many native tribes, spirals were doorways to another world. I wondered whether this was such a portal. I left transformed by my visit. Later that night, I found out that my newly-discovered magical place was slated for destruction. A golf course.
My heart broke yet again. I could not handle any more loss. Especially of a place that was so special. I somehow got myself to go to some of the hearings and speak against the project. A woman from the Santa Clara Valley Water District told me that she was impressed by my eloquence. But that didn’t stop the project. I met Craig Breon at one of the hearings, who was the environmental advocate at Santa Clara Valley Audobon Society at the time. He invited me to volunteer for their Environmental Action Committee, which I did. I’m still a member 20+ years later, having chaired the group for a number of years. But I had lost my heart in the struggle. I couldn’t face more defeat. Ignorance seemed a better option than eyes-open realization of what was at stake.
Within a few months, I got word that Coyote Valley, another beloved magical land through which I rode my bike for years, was also slated for the chopping block. Developers at Cisco were chomping at the bit to destroy the only wildlife corridor (and last significant parcel of open space) in Santa Clara Valley. I wrote a detailed letter in response to their EIR, and a call to action with my friend John Beall. We both fought hard for several months. I had always admired John for his fighting spirit. A good Irishman. Months later I ran into him at Sunnyvale UUFS (the church I’d attended with my parents as a kid). I asked him how it was going, and he told me that he couldn’t bear continuing the fight for his beloved Coyote Valley. Because it broke his heart. I understood completely.
Like ghosts from a forgotten past, these and other struggles knock on my door as I feel the despair, anguish, and hopelessness triggered by the daily despotic actions only two weeks into the most destructive presidency in the history of this country. I am not sure what direction I will go. Perhaps I will move to another country. Perhaps I will stay and fight. I only know that I am very afraid, and afraid that I and others will let apathy and fear keep us from acting. Some say that we are overreacting and should let him finish destroying the country before protesting.
I really enjoyed your story, Lisa. I appreciate how you care so much about tbe environment. I felt your pain when you shared your personal experiences around the local environmental tragedies.
My parents were broken too. I’m sorry that as an only child you felt the responsibility of being mediator for them. I was too scared of my father to dare butt into his raging at my mother.
I don’t know if you are aware but your story was cut off before it finished. I would like to read the rest of it… ❤
Thank you Janet. I appreciate your interest and kind words. I finished the story.
And the orchards were part of controlled agriculture. Are Truffula Trees garden-managed by Stewards or are they part of the wild we may ignore completely? Where i am the same thing that happened in ‘Silicon Valley’ lo those many years ago (which i also watched somewhat, as a far more ignorant child than you) is now ongoing (terraforming orchard culture into vineyard culture and later “development” culture from which builders will profit).
Hold on, kin, it will get better and worse. Know that this life is about loss and suffering, and that all of the animals and plants who have no voice will need us to do like you are so valiantly doing: lending your voice to their need and cause. Rise, Lorax, rise!
Yes, I agree – it will get better and worse, and yes, the orchards were not the wild nature. They were cultivated for human consumption as you say. It’s just that they were nature to me. I loved the blossoms and the spring. Thank you for your kind words.
Thank you for your Blog, Lisa. I truly believe that “we” can make a difference at this point. This is a flexion point, the world is
bending. But our rapacious system of 1% greed is going down and we need to be prepared to pick up the pieces locally.
I think you’re right Glenn. Thanks for all that you are doing for the planet.