Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The True Protest is Beauty

Ah, but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” – Phil Ochs

            In the spring of 2010 I was working part-time as a tour guide and environmental educator at the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center in Oxford, Michigan.  The headquarters is a 1970’s-vintage earth-bermed passive solar structure with a green roof, solar hot water, and a grid-tied photovoltaic array and wind turbine, among other features.
For several years running, teachers from a local middle school had been bringing their sixth graders to tour the Center as a year-end field trip.  During my tenure at the Center, I’d taught dozens of school groups like this and toured thousands of people young and old though the facility, and based on this experience I anticipated an instant murmur of Wow!’s and a quick barrage of questions about our modern, dual-axis tracking photovoltaic array, an eye-catching landscape feature and one of the principal attractions of the tour.  
That’s not what happened, however, with our local sixth graders last year. 
To my complete surprise, upon their arrival they ignored the solar setup that dominated the landscape and focused their Wow!’s on the nearby living roof.  They moved directly to the split-rail fence that keeps foot traffic off the roof and began pointing at the plants growing there as though they had seen animals hidden in a zoo exhibit.  This was unprecedented.
As a teacher, I prefer to ride the flow of attention rather than oppose it, so I immediately decided to shift the usual order of my presentation and instead begin with the green roof.  As I observed the children’s expressions and listened to their comments, I realized that what drew them to the roof was the same aspect that had made it my favorite part of the tours: it is, quite simply, beautiful.  In response, I decided to try something really different. First, I affirmed what I sensed going on in them by saying, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” 
Thinking about this later, I wondered how often teachers emphasize the perception and value of beauty in a child’s educational experience.  Generally, it seems, teachers lay stress on correctness, accuracy, measurable quantity, and sometimes creativity.  Beauty?  Well, it’s not on the standardized tests, is it?  Sadly, when I was teaching high school language arts full time and brought the word beauty into the discussion, many of my students associated it with an aisle at the drugstore—in short, as product.  Bringing beauty as a value back into education has been an interest of mine ever since grad school.
So I shared with the sixth-graders that the green roof was my favorite part of the tour.  I told them that in a few weeks’ time many of the plants they were looking at would be flowering, ablaze with color.  And, I said, while there are energy efficiency and other environmental advantages to green roofs, what I particularly liked about the idea is that the design achieves these benefits in a beautiful way.
 Does it matter? Yes, it does.
Most people find green soothing, and experience the colors and forms of flowers as bringing cheer and hopeful feelings.  We now know that relaxation and positive emotions are central to good health, and conversely that stress reduces immune response and puts body systems at risk. Psychologically, whether our moods are predominantly light-hearted or depressed also affects our relationships, our productivity, and our quality of life.  A beautiful environment supports the health and well-being of individuals and society.
The green roof  is an example of a design where beauty counts.  I invited the children to imagine building a world where it always does.
            As I reflected recently on these events, I began extending my thoughts about how the principles of permaculture and natural systems could apply to human communities, which is the principal theme of my current writings.   One of the remarkable things about the diverse and interconnected plant and animal communities of natural and permaculture-inspired landscapes is that they are both highly productive and lovely to behold. 
Granted, beauty is to a very large extent culturally defined, so much so that perhaps the only thing that’s clear is that there is no clear standard.  Nonetheless, I feel it’s worth bringing an aesthetic perspective not only to landscapes and architecture but also to organizations and social movements.  Given that the Green Hand concept is really about signs, I’ve been thinking about some of the signs I’ve seen carried in recent protest marches in US cities, and about the last time I carried such a sign on the eve of the Iraq war.  I have also thought about the aesthetic of the nonviolent US civil rights movement led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and what I’ve read about Gandhi’s methods to achieve social change.  Recently, a friend of mine told me about Estonia’s Singing Revolution, in which up to 300,000 Estonians gathered at once to courageously sing forbidden songs as part of that country’s successful effort to gain independence from the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s.
Conversely, there are slogans of hate, burnings of flags and effigies, and mob violence.  I would not say that direct opposition is never called for or axiomatically ugly  -Estonians also reportedly formed human barricades against Soviet tanks to protect radio stations.  But I’m wary of patterns of discourse where the prevailing motifs are characterized by garish contrasts.  Even the chanting at rallies feels like pounding, a tactic resorted to by those who feel they aren’t getting through.  Pounding anything is almost guaranteed to generate resistance and opposition.  But how would one oppose a melody?  With noise, I guess.  Nonetheless, even in the face of noise, it’s still worth singing.
So, the observation Phil Ochs made during the turbulent 1960’s is worthy of consideration today: when faced with ugliness, perhaps the true protest really is beauty.  Part of what keeps me talking, writing, teaching, and otherwise promoting the Green Hands concept is that I like the way it feels.  Although I see value in participating in various organizations, I also like the aesthetic of self-regulating and self-reproducing signs, and I celebrate unmediated person-to-person connection as a fundamental lever of social change.  I know this initiative is a long shot, but I feel it’s a better direction than the destructive, divisive rhetoric that dominates the airwaves and the halls of power.  I particularly like the way audacity and humility combine in the act of public reaching out through signs, and I find the wild, out-of-control economy of the concept both elegant and charming. 
The interesting thing is, while such aesthetic considerations are not particularly rational, it seems to me that, especially today, these factors may ultimately trump reason and thus help break through the logjam of human argumentation.  After all, the green plants that cover the earth and make the planet inhabitable are not reasonable, eitherthey’re more of a miracle, really!  Look at them growing everywhere, doing their thing, and breathing out oxygen!  Aren’t we lucky to have them?
Someone I met at a conference once asked me if I’d registered the “Green Hand” as a trademark.  No, I replied, it’s YOUR hand you’re putting out there!  This is a true and personal reaching out.  I see the Green Hand sign, perhaps with a phone number or email address on it, as an invitation that in effect says, and quite publicly: “I acknowledge that the current economic system is no longer viable. I want to create something else. I’m willing to talk, and I’m willing to share what I know with others to help make that happen together.”
Of course, other people’s signs may mean somewhat different things, but this is what I mean by mine.  Most importantly, like those children walking toward the green roof that day last spring, I am drawn in this direction because it feels like a beautiful place to stand.

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