Monday, December 13, 2010

The Power of the Pen: Memory of Earth, Wind and Fire

[Above: Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager presents a bike to Connor Dinnison whose submission “Autonomy” received first place in an energy-themed essay contest organized by the Sierra Club as part of its “Beyond Coal” campaign. ]

Environmental writing from the edge of world of fiction, poetry brings truth

By Paul K.Haeder

(part one of two)

There’s much shifting going on in the area of American arts and letters, and plenty of books, articles and analyses discussing the end of the Humanities.

Attacks on universities are largely in these areas, including literature, sociology, and the general study of our culture, our interrelated struggles, and the complexities that make up civilization.

Look up “humanities” in the Oxford English Dictionary or Wikipedia, and you can see how broadly the humanities encompass most of things that make our world interesting.

More and more, social media, blog blurbs, and insipid celebrity mongering – everything that Jon Stewart, Juan Williams or Al Gore have done in their respective hybridized and fake worlds making it on NPR or in the LA Times – strips away our cultural language and literacy into something quickly becoming digital noise, consumer hucksterism and unprofessional and uninspiring blathering. Andy Warhol’s phrase, “Everyone is famous for 15 minutes” has been morphed into “everyone is famous every day, everywhere, online.”

In the past, mainstream magazines and newspapers published short stories, poetry and creative non-fiction. These seemed to be niches in people’s lives to deal with strong literary threads.

Past cutting-edge topical stories– civil rights, Viet Nam, Latin America, the Generation Gap, and, Rock ‘n Roll, love and drugs – all made it into creative writing and received decent play in the mainstream media.

Today, published prose/poetry seems quaint and anachronistic amid the 24/7 blaring and flashing TV and internet junk that bombards the very structure of Americans’ ability to think outside the proverbial polarized and largely corporate-constructed box.

But wait! The word is coming back, thanks to climate change and environmental collapse. The literary bug is also catching on in Spokane.

Brad Hash, who has a master’s in environmental studies from University of Montana, and now the regional Sierra Club’s organizer for clean energy, put on a community writing contest this fall specifically because he believes art – and the art of the word – needs a place in “the movement.”

“Words yield power, influence and inspiration,” Hash says. “As print media wanes and library visits plummet, the word is perhaps ironically more popular than ever given the onslaught of social networking tools.

The challenge is to embrace and utilize these communication options in ways to reconnect people to their environments and/or demonstrate the critical need to protect and restore these environments. We must be able to integrate these tools into our communication options in order to engage and be engaged.”

Hash sponsored the “Shift to Green: Spokane’s Transition to Clean Energy” writing contest during Sustainable September Spokane, which limited writers to one page, any form, any style, any literary genre. He got 20-plus entries, not bad for the greater Spokane area.

The top prize, a new commuter bike worth $550 from Spoke “N Sport, was given as part of the Sustainable September Sierra Club activities. It went to Connor Dinnison for his poem, “Autonomy.” Hash said more than 50 attended the event, including Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager who spoke about the TransAlta coal plant and efforts to get it shut down by 2015.

“The audience was captivated by the poem – compliments poured in afterward,” Hash said. “Connor was extremely humbled, excited, shocked at winning the bicycle – he did not have a bike of his own and had been borrowing one. Eight of the writing contestants attended the event.”

I’ve spoken with Brad, and interviewed him for my KYRS show, Tipping Points. His life in West Virginia landed him degrees in psychology and geography respectively from Shepherd University. His Montana graduate work brought him back to Appalachia where he focused on the people and culture tied to mountain top removal (a destructive and permanent environmental scorched earth method of extracting coal).

The other writing winners were Adam Membrey, who earned second place for his creative non-fiction piece, “Bringing Growth to Light,” and Sophie Dituri, a Lewis and Clark junior, who earned third for her hip-hop poem, “Coal.” (All three of the top submissions can be read by clicking on “related documents )

Hash and the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign aims to cut the amount of electricity generated by dirty coal-fired plants in Wyoming and Montana that comes to the State of Washington, as well as shutting down the TransAlta plant, Washington’s only coal-fired electricity generating plant. It’s owned by a Canadian firm, and the energy is sold and transported out of state. It’s the state’s single biggest contributor of greenhouse gas and mercury pollution.

Think taking off 1.8 million cars from Washington’s roads and that’s TransAlta’s carbon footprint for the year.

Hash was blunt when asked what the biggest challenge is working in the environmental field to engage youth: “Overcoming the distraction of current social networking tools and the sound-bite culture those tools encourage.”

Yet, Hash sees hope in the power of the word: “Words can be linked together in so many literary styles transcending age, professional spheres, education levels (unless of course one is illiterate) communities of faith, cultures and sub-cultures. Therefore, the printed word is the critical link to reaching these demographics.”

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