Christy Hartman: Rolling in the Ashes, An Essay. Why I left environmental activism.
If you say you are quitting cigarettes, people are generally supportive. Maybe there's one person who rags on you, especially as you stand outside with them on a cold January night, the air begging for the combustion of a match, they say. But, in 2009, I didn't quit smoking. I quit environmental activism. And what I discovered was that people didn't really know what to say. Oh, so suddenly you hate trees? You hate polar bears. You love pollution? You don't care about humanity? Luckily, no one asked me these questions. Rather, I asked myself these questions. There was no one waiting to thrust a sign in my hand, and encourage me to break my temperance. Likewise, when the day came, there were no cheerleaders standing on the side of the empty road outside my house on 38th street. Instead, as I loaded my car, what I remember is the sound of ice crunching underfoot, a midnight blue sky. My roommates were both away. I pushed my key through the mail-slot, and heard it clatter on the other side. To the stillness that followed, I just listened.
I was departing from Pittsburgh just five months after arriving. This hadn't been the plan, wasn't in the contract. I didn't know how to talk about what was happening. I just knew that it had something to do with "The Feeling."
"The Feeling" was a desperate pull from deep within. It was an ancient sort of voice saying, "there's more to life than this, dig deeper." The first time I can remember "The Feeling," I was in middle school and leaving the movie theatre with my friends. We'd already seen all the good movies playing, but there was literally nothing else to do. So, we bought tickets. The movie, whatever it was, deeply irritated me; the film was boring and predictable, super Hollywood-y. But my friends? They didn't seem to notice. Walking out of the double doors to the parking lot, the cool rush of wind revived me from my anger. I breathed in ravenously, trying to understand it. Throughout high school, I would continue struggle to make sense of this disparity between me and my friends. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with them? Why weren't they angry?
I moved to Morgantown in 2004, and for awhile, the newness of college life at West Virginia University made me forget "The Feeling." I lived in the dorms, Boreman North on N. High Street. This was prior to the increased policing of parties by the city. I went to many house parties with my roommates, who were into getting all dressed up. I wasn't, but I let them doll me up anyway. None of the sparkly shirts I wore that year were mine. We did what you might expect young freshman girls who are away from home for the first time to do. We partied. Which was easy, as we were literally a stone’s throw away from all the fraternity houses. I remember at one party, I accidently knocked over a huge pyramid of Natty Light cans and a circle of sorority girls threatened to spit on me. At another, my roommate and I danced on hundreds of crushed cans while a band played Rage Against the Machine covers. We danced until everyone else was gone and we realized the band had been replaced with speakers. In the bathroom on the way out, my roommate slipped and fell on the floor which was covered in wet, soiled toilet paper. It was my birthday.
It was only a couple of months after my birthday that "The Feeling" returned. I was with my roommates, standing in line outside of Club Z on Walnut Street, shivering in a too-tiny jean jacket and pointy-toed shoes. What was the point of standing in line with a bunch of strangers in the freezing cold, when, once inside and transformed by alcohol and thumping base, these same cold strangers would be holding my hand and grinding on me like we were best friends? I looked across the street and saw a guy vomiting next to a pile of clothes on the sidewalk outside of Christian Help Incorporated. Desperate, I wanted someone to come and save me, to walk opposite the line of us fools, look back and hold out their hand. I wanted some angel to show me a better use of my time. That night, I went into the club anyway, but something had changed. I decided I didn't want to do this anymore. I began poking fun at the whole scene. But my attitude wasn't making me any friends. Instead, it seemed to alienate the only ones I had.
It wasn't days or weeks, but months that passed. I had stopped going to clubs with my roommates. "The Feeling,” the voice inside of me telling me, "There’s more to life than this, dig deeper," was still there. I began to spend most of my time sleeping or oversleeping. I was working in a Japanese Restaurant and always smelled like fried rice. Because grains of rice would get stuck to my shoes, ants invaded my bedroom, and eventually, the rest of our house. Soon, my roommates stopped talking to me completely except through passive-aggressive sticky notes they left on my door. "Ants are in the animal crackers now, thanks." My boyfriend and I broke up, but he'd still show up at our house once in awhile, drunk, and try to have sex with me. It continued on in this way for awhile. The ants had long since won the battle for my shoes and all my shit on the floor and I was too depressed to do anything about it. My laundry hadn't been done in over a month.
On a particularly bad day, I might step onto the porch to go to class, taking in the blooming flowers and a grey sky, and I'd hear the girls who lived above us, arguing with their boyfriends. I'd decide I hated everyone and because I was going to be late for class, I hated myself too. I'd turn back around and forget about entering the world that day, letting my backpack off my shoulders to the floor. I'd then spend all my waking hours hiding in my dim, wood-paneled room, filling notebooks with places I wanted to visit. I imagined working as a tour guide in Tibet, or maybe picking cranberries in Oregon. A good day wasn't much different.
It was Bobby who saved me. My angel had unruly hair, a messy beard, and liked to collect toxic water from Boone County. I met Bobby on spring break on an Adventure West Virginia trip. I hardly knew him, but I knew him enough to stop and say "hello," and one night when I ran into him on campus, I said "hello," and he gave me a postcard. The postcard would have been just another scenic snapshot, except for brightly colored arrows pointing to various spots on the card. "That's Marsh Fork Elementary," Bobby said. "And that's a slurry impoundment." I had never heard these words before. Never tasted the words, "coal waste," in my mouth. Until that night, I hadn't even known our electricity came from coal, I'd just taken it for granted. Despite growing up just outside of Washington D.C., strangely enough, I hadn't known electricity could be politicized. Nonetheless, I tried to understand what Bobby was telling me about the kids who attended Marsh Fork Elementary, how some of the families living nearby slept with their shoes on when it rained, and prayed like hell for a dam to hold.
It was shortly after this random encounter with Bobby that something happened that changed my life. I got spammed on Facebook. The message was from a stranger and read something like this:
"Do you care about the environment and want to change the world? Live in Washington D.C. for a semester. Learn how to organize campaigns. Learn how to use media and become a leader in your community. Learn how to climb industrial buildings and drive boats used to stop whaling ships. Apply today!"
Okay, I did not want to be a leader. I had never cared about politics. I just wanted to spend a semester away from Morgantown with people who wanted more out of life. Maybe this was the answer to "The Feeling." But the application asked, "what issue did I hope to apply my training towards?" I didn't have an issue. I knew my application had to be the best thing I'd ever produced. If I continued on my current path, if I didn't do something to change my life, I knew I would continue to fall off the face of the earth. With a jolt, I turned and pulled Bobby's postcard from the wall and re-read everything it said about coal waste and mountaintop removal mining. I wrote about the kids at Marsh Fork and submitted my application that same day.
I am happy to be able to tell you that I did leave Morgantown, and I did learn how to drive the boats used to stop whaling ships, and many other things. I am also pleased to tell you that seven months later, I was excited to come back. If you crossed the street in front of the Mountainlair, the student union at WVU in Morgantown, anytime in 2007, you've probably seen me. I was the girl handing out flyers and talking about the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), the most active environmental organization on campus, and one of the oldest in the nation. I was the girl who tried to get you to sign a petition while you were just trying to go to Burger King. And sometimes, once in awhile, I was the girl in the polar bear suit. 2007 was a time of great exuberance, passion, and growth in the organization that I had just joined. We were doing a lot more than just playing dress-up. Behind the scenes, during our weekly planning sessions, something was happening. We were planning how we were going to change the state of West Virginia, starting with WVU. We began to realize we could challenge authority and create the world we wanted to live in. We began cooking and eating together. We become a family.
During these meals, we came to realize that if we wanted to change the world, we would have to change ourselves. We decided that the SSC wasn't going to be the kind of club where you go into a meeting and sat politely while one person, usually the president, spoke. We would abandon hierarchy altogether. We wanted to shape a world where every voice was heard and every person was treated equally. Leadership was enthusiasm based. Everyone who wanted to could help create our yearly plan. No one was president. Instead we had rotating facilitators. The group swelled. One Wednesday night, a guy I'd never seen before came in with his wife. He said he wanted to make Morgantown "more accessible for people in wheelchairs." Okay, we didn't have anyone working on that. Our main focuses were: improving energy efficiency on campus, promoting campus investment in renewable energy, ending mountaintop removal coal mining, and recycling. But, our vision included a space for all voices to be heard- and he was heard. His name was Dan and he was welcome here. This was what we made.
Yet, the cost for this education was high: to others, it was a strange plaid of semi-successful projects, a lot of missed classes, mediocre school grades, and poor "real world" career prospects. Some people didn't get it. Some die-hard recyclers were always pissed off that we were running "campaigns." What were those? At times, WVU's administration's refusal to take us seriously was unbelievably frustrating. But respect has to be earned, and I believed without any doubt that we would change West Virginia. I believed it was such force that it was contagious. Here we were, a group of young people actually doing something to change the world. It was more satisfying than going to the movies. It was more exhilarating than Club Z. No longer was I dreaming about wading around on Oregon's coast, picking cranberries. I was right where I wanted to be. I loved my new friend-family and would have done anything for them. And an amazing thing happened; "The Feeling" went away.
In my days as an environmental activist at WVU, I would estimate that I talked to more than 3,000 people about environmental and other world problems. I led workshops on leadership, organizing, campaigns, media, outreach, event planning and time management. I traveled to southern West Virginia and met Larry Gibson, a leading activist against mountaintop removal mining, and many others fighting the powers that hold a firm grip on West Virginia's mountain communities. I protested at a power plant, led Morgantown's first toxic-tour, sat down with the school's president and brought forth proposals and more than 1500 petitions signed by students. I refused to leave an Ohio power company's corporate office, and even protested the Ku Klux Klan in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is fair to say that I was on top of the world. "The Feeling" that had plagued me for so long was gone, and it had all started because of that one random encounter with Bobby.
I almost wish I had died at that moment on top of the world. But death would have been the easy way out. I didn't die. I graduated. Graduation swooped in fast, like one of those unexpected sticky-notes on my bedroom door. I didn't really know the people I was walking with at graduation, and by the time of the actual ceremony, I already missed my friends. In a flash, I was thrown from this great wave I'd been riding. I took a strange pounding, struggling between sand and sky. Buoyed more by force than by will, I resurfaced. I looked around. Everything that had once been home was gone. I caught glimpses of my friends paddling away towards some horizon line I couldn't see, until finally, I was alone in the vast, unknowable sea. As the last streaks of pink and orange left the sky, I just sort of bobbed there. I had made no plans.
I treaded water until I came to a stream, a current slicing through the ocean. So tired was I from treading, that I let the stream carry me until I arrived at a desk job in Pittsburgh. Beginning in August, 2008, I was a paid Regional Organizer for the SSC. This was the same SSC that I had been a part of on campus, except that now I was to work regionally in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. My home base was in Pittsburgh, but I was to travel those three states and support the work of students, offer resources and advice, and one other little thing: a unified national agenda. Before being hired, I was warned that the plan for the fall of 2008 was to stop global warming through political action. I was told that this was so important, that now was a time to put local work on hold in order to elect a "climate champion." In my post-graduation shock, I convinced myself that this was a dream job. I told myself that after the election, I would be able to get back into the business of "enthusiasm based leadership," helping student groups work on the issues that they felt empowered by, rather than a national agenda. It was 2008, and everyone was talking about college graduates facing bleak futures. But I had a salary. I had benefits. I wasn't working in a restaurant anymore. I had made it.
As weeks turned into months, the voice protesting inside my head could not be quieted. I turned the national strategy over in my head, unpacked it, and repackaged it. Still, it didn't feel right. I was on the road, trying to sell the vision of climate champions to high school and college students, and I didn't even believe in it. I felt like a parasite, feeding off of young people’s vibrancy. Electing “climate champions" to congress just didn't feel as empowering as using my hands and my power to change my communities from the inside out. Very few people I talked to were excited by or understood the campaign. A good regional organizer knows when to stop putting forth a national agenda, I thought. A good regional organizer listens. A good regional organizer encourages people to discover their own quest. I voiced these opinions with my manager, and other co-workers but didn't find much support. I felt alienated from my new peers. But this, I realized, was only half of my problem.
Living in a new city, being at home was only slightly better than being on the road. I missed my friends and had scarcely given time to process the grief of what I had lost. I began to care less and less about the students I was working with. I cannot tell you how many times, sleeping in my car in random rural counties throughout Pennsylvania, that "The Feeling" returned. "There has to be more to life than this, dig deeper."
To Romany Gypsies, the greatest curse you can aim at someone is isolation. To be bereft of your ancestors, squabbling brothers, inspiration, and livestock, is to be only just alive.
And so, I quit. I left Pittsburgh. You'll remember from the beginning of my story that as I left, I heard only the sound of ice crunching underfoot and saw only a midnight blue sky. I was only beginning to understand the importance of grieving, how joy and sadness can be felt at the same time. I will say only of what has happened since. After I left Pittsburgh and the Sierra Student Coalition, I spent not days, or weeks, but years, laying low. I will tell you that I worked briefly on a farm, and that I traveled a good bit, and that I tried to love other people, but that I was angry all the time and realized that I still wasn't ready to love or help others. I will also tell you that I went back to school, where I did exactly zero activism, although I did work long hours with my pen, unraveling unfinished friendships and abandoned revolutionary projects. I will tell you that it has taken me even longer to unravel my heart and accept responsibility for my mistakes. Now, I am listening. I am learning to trust "The Feeling," the bird in my heart who sings when she's hungry.