Aleta George: Poetry and Activism Undammed

Aleta George
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Back from the Kaweahs
Back from the Kaweahs
Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder says that running a river is a lot like poetry: “You’re in the flow, there’s no time to stop and think before reacting, new vistas keep opening up, and in the end you’re happy that you made it through, but not certain that you’re glad it’s over.”

On a clear, warm Sierra day, one sunset before the summer solstice in 2005, poets Gary Snyder and Robert Hass were two of sixteen people that climbed into rubber rafts for a combination whitewater rafting trip and poetry reading on California’s American River. The trip was a fundraiser for International Rivers Network (now known as International Rivers), a small Berkeley nonprofit that helps people around the world protect their local rivers from large dams. Hass was a board member and Snyder on the advisory board. We would raft eight river miles that day with three large rapids, and after Troublemaker, the biggest and last rapid of the day, we would stop for lunch and a poetry reading at Marshall Gold Discovery Park where 160 years ago, a nugget of gold sent California spinning.

“Forward paddle,” commanded our river guide. “Stop. Back paddle. Stop.”

We navigated our first riffle and continued at a clip through the steep-walled canyon of metamorphic and volcanic rocks. There’s something about being in the company of a poet that makes you pay closer attention to the world. A deep channel revealed Volkswagen-size boulders that appeared like leviathans on the river bottom. In the shallow riffles, a diversity of smooth, rounded river rocks coated the river floor. Dry, straw-colored grass, oaks, and a few scratchy pines covered the hills on the right, whereas the shaded north-facing slope on river left hosted a jumble of alders, pines, and white-blooming buckeyes. Willows, alders and cottonwoods vied for space with blackberries and wild grapes at river’s edge, and a merganser sat on a rock in the river with its long, red hair blown backwards, looking like Elvis rising late on a Sunday morning.

Gary Snyder looked confident paddling in the front of his raft in dark shades and a well-worn hat. This river was the first that Snyder ever ran.

Gary Snyder
Gary Snyder
Luca Allieve

“Until the 1970s, I spent all my time on the ridges. It never occurred to me that anything interesting was going on in the valleys,” he said with a grin.

Poet, essayist, educator and intellectual, Snyder has published dozens of books including Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, Turtle Island, Axe Handles, The Practice of the Wild, Mountains and Rivers Without End, and Danger on Peaks. His numerous awards include the Bollingen Prize for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He taught at U.C. Davis where he helped found an undergraduate program called Nature and Culture, a cross-disciplinary program that became a national model.

Snyder is also an activist. Starting with his involvement in the San Francisco Beat Generation, he has written extensively about ecological responsibility, introducing concepts like stewardship, bioregion, and watershed, terms and concepts now commonly used in environmental circles. He has been active in regional, state, and international environmental issues and helped to found the Yuba Watershed Institute, a volunteer nonprofit that works on forestry and land issues in his own Yuba Watershed Bioregion in the Sierras.

“In Asia and Europe, tradition counts on poets to be public intellectuals and to speak out about political issues,” said Snyder. “Poets more than fiction writers are expected to be activists. Throughout history, poets have been engaged in society.”

Walt Whitman spoke out against slavery and nursed the wounded during the Civil War. Registering as a conscientious objector during World War II, Kenneth Rexroth helped Japanese Americans evade internment. New York-born poet Muriel Rukeyser used her poetry to protest inequalities of sex, race, and class. Black feminist Audre Lorde founded a group that protested South African women living under apartheid. Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Federico García Lorca, and Octavio Paz top the list of poets seeped in social activism.

“In America, poets are not given the same role as they are in Europe or Asia,” said Snyder. “The American public isn’t aware of poets as public intellectuals not because they have an opinion about poets per se, but because they don’t think that poetry is relevant.”

Bob Hass gives a toast at an International Rivers event
Bob Hass gives a toast at an International Rivers event

Robert Hass is also a public intellectual, educator, and revered poet. His collections include Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005; Sun Under Wood: New Poems; Human Wishes; Praise; and Field Guide. He translated the poems of Czeslaw Milosz and has written and edited a dozen other books. His most recent book of essays is What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World. As United States Poet Laureate (1995-1997) he addressed illiteracy and promoted watershed and environmental awareness across America. He teaches at U.C. Berkeley and has been a visiting faculty member at the University of Iowa.

Hass says that a case can be made that poetry is a form of activism. If you write things down that go out into the community they will affect change, he says. Offering the Romantic Age as an example, he says that prior to the 19th century people thought of mountains and nature as wastelands, things to be feared and tamed. But Romantic poets, composers, and painters redefined wilderness and celebrated the beauty of wild nature in their art. One of these poets was William Wordsworth. Henry David Thoreau read Wordsworth, and John Muir read both. By the time Muir went to Yosemite, he had a language for what he found, for what was beautiful and what should be preserved.

“I can also make a case that poetry is not activism,” says Hass, using George Oppen as an example. Poet and printer Oppen lived in New York City, where during the depression he quit writing poetry to help organize strikes for unemployed workers. For 25 years he chose not to write poems, and in 1968 gave his reasons to an interviewer:

If you do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.”

Hass likes that clarity. “Politics is politics and art is art. When I’m making art, I’m not trying to get anybody to do anything in particular. I’m not trying to change other people’s minds when I’m writing a poem."

For many years, Hass didn’t have time to be socially active. In America, he says, artists are forced to have two jobs. One full-time job is their art, and the other is a job to support their art. If you add a relationship and a family, it’s difficult to do any of it well. He figured that once his kids were grown, he could give a portion of his time to political activism. And that's what he has done.

River of Words, kids art and poetry contest
River of Words, kids art & poetry contest
A project of St. Mary's College of California

Hass got involved with International Rivers in 1995 during his first year as US Poet Laureate. Under the umbrella of International Rivers, Hass co-founded a poetry and art contest for children on the theme of watersheds with writer Pamela Michael. The contest grew into an effective forum for environmental education and was recently was adopted by Saint Mary's College in Moraga, CA.

When the contest was housed at International Rivers, poetry and art began to soften the spaces between policy papers and campaign strategies. Children’s art adorned the copy room doors and poems were read at staff meetings.

“Fear was my first reaction,” said International Rivers' former executive director Juliette Majot. “Activists don’t like to be vulnerable. We are calculating and technical in all that we do and tend to shut out our emotions. But I’m convinced that after Pam started bringing poetry to our staff meetings, the organization changed. We paid more attention to our emotional selves. You can’t be a good activist if you are closed down. Poetry reminds us of that vulnerability.”

Looking at the work that International Rivers does, you can see why they wouldn’t invite vulnerability. The organization has delayed and stopped the construction of dams, fought for and won resettlement packages for displaced people, and played an active role in international decision-making arenas. Driving their work is the belief that human rights and environmental protection are intrinsically linked.

When International Rivers invited Hass to join the board of directors, a formal discussion never took place about how poetry would fit into the organization. The two rivers were merely allowed to share the same floodplain.

Troublemaker was the last and biggest rapid of the day.  Although the river felt wild on that stretch of river, we were actually sandwiched between dams. There are 13 of them upstream of where we put the boats in at Chile Bar, and downstream is the 340-foot Folsom Dam. If we ran the whole stretch of river from Chile Bar to Folsom reservoir, we would hit the slack water of the reservoir and feel the life of the river stagnate. If dam builders had had their way back in 1977, there would be four more dams between Chili Bar and Folsom Dam and we’d be paddling canoes on still water. But local activists successfully fought the project.

Not all dams can be stopped. After a decades-long fight against the Three Gorges Dam in China, the floodgates closed and the water flooded the centuries-old cultural hearth of the Three Gorges Valley. The monolith created a 365-miles long reservoir (as long as mainland Greece), and displaced over one million people.

What can activists do when the dam is built, and the floodwaters rise? How do they recover from setbacks, survive defeat, and find inspiration?

Hass says that poetry and art can help activists with the bigger picture. He has talked to watershed managers who said they get so involved with their campaigns that they forget why they’re doing the work in the first place. Poetry can help remind them.

“Activists, like everybody else, need to find ways to be reflective,” said Snyder, “to look at the full frame, to be open and creative and not always caught in a single-minded linear focus. You have to step back and smell the breeze. Part of that comes with going for walks, watching birds, running a river. You can also get that perspective from looking at art, dancing, or reading poetry.”

The day ended with a late lunch and poetry reading. In wet clothes and hair like mergansers, Hass and Snyder read new, unpublished poems to a small group of activists on the banks of the American River.

“It will be the local people, the watershed people, who will prove to be the last and possibly most effective line of defense,” Snyder said in Coming in to the Watershed.

Our future depends on the watershed people, and that goes for poets as well as activists. Win or lose, they are our best line of defense.

Lori Pottinger and Aleta George at the International Rivers 2012 Day of Action for Rivers event
Lori Pottinger and Aleta George at the International Rivers 2012 Day of Action for Rivers event
Ian Elwood

Journalist Aleta George is a former staff member of International Rivers. She attended the First International Meeting of People affected by Dams in Curitiba, Brazil, where the International Day of Action for Rivers was established. This essay first appeared in Divide: Creative Responses to Contemporary Social Questions, Issue #3, Art and Politics, September 2005, University of Colorado at Boulder. It was updated March 2013.