Notes from Iowa: We Are Gambling with Life Itself
As part of the National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions held at colleges and universities across the U.S., the University of Iowa invited activists and experts to participate in panel discussions. Blue Planet Green Living was privileged participate on a panel with Andrew Saito, a student in the MFA program in play-writing. After a short reading from an original play, Saito read the following essay to the audience. We found the images and the message so thoughtful, beautiful, and powerful that we asked him to share it with our readers.— Julia Wasson, Publisher
Some twenty years ago and half a continent away, my father recounted memories from his childhood in Southern California. He told me about setting plastic toy soldiers on fire in dirt pits in his backyard. He told me about the Red Car, a light rail and streetcar system that crisscrossed Los Angeles from Long Beach to Downtown to Pasadena to Santa Ana. Profusions of Western toads would make regular nocturnal visits to his house, a block from the Los Angeles River, in a neighborhood nicknamed Frogtown. When he would go to the beach, the water was so clear he could see not only his feet, but fish. Yes, fish!
Today, all of those memories are nothing more than that. The Red Car’s last operational line discontinued service on April 8, 1961. This was part of what is now referred to as the Great American Streetcar Scandal, when General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, among other corporations, engineered the replacement of light rail and streetcars with buses, to pave the way for broad public ownership and use of automobiles and freeways. In all honesty, I did not shed many tears when GM recently teetered on the brink. We reap what we sow.
Indeed, that seems precisely the position we currently occupy. We are reaping what we sowed, what our parents and grandparents sowed, and what we continue to sow. How many of us drove here? I am flying to Kentucky for spring break. I spent winter recess in Peru. It was long flight. I do not exculpate myself from responsibility, or hypocrisy.
The toads no longer visit Frogtown, and haven’t in years. I had the fortune of seeing one or two here and there when I was a kid, but that pales in comparison with the dozens and, as rumored, hundreds of toads that overran Frogtown in the 1950s. Perhaps they were looking for quarters more comfortable than the concrete channel that replaced a once free-flowing river.
My memories of Los Angeles’ beaches – Venice, Santa Monica, Redondo – are of brown water, parking lots within striking distance of waves, and large metal trash bins strangely reminiscent of oil barrels. Today, we have far more to worry about than just murky water.
The oceans are facing at least a quintuple assault:
- Rising temperatures due to climate change — certainly not helped by the premeditated extinction of the Red Cars and their peers across the nation;
- Acidification of the oceans, again due to elevated and exacerbating carbon emissions;
- The increasing presence of plastic — I’ve read reports of supermarket bags and Barbie dolls appearing on once pristine beaches of unpopulated islands, to mention nothing of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of trash twice the size of Texas that swirls in the waters midway between North America and Asia; in the long run, this plastic will break down to particles so small that they will be eaten by zooplankton, providing them with a fatal last meal, and thus threatening a foundation of the global food chain;
- Other threats include chemical pollution, from pharmaceutical, medical and agricultural sources, as well as petroleum and human waste — we deliberately dump this stuff into the home of blue whales, dolphins, orca, salmon, seaweed, coral;
- And, of course, there’s overfishing, when a human population forty times larger than when Christ lived demands ever more sushi, ceviche, lobster bisque and crab cakes from critically disappearing marine communities.
Let me not mention open-pit mining. Let me not mention deforestation. Let me not mention genetically modified seeds appearing in wild spaces. Let me not mention nuclear waste. Oops. My mind simply can’t keep these things in neat little boxes. Just as my father’s childhood has everything to do with my presence here at the University of Iowa, so do the disappearance of frogs, the rise of the automobile, and the assault on the oceans have everything to do with my life, and with playwriting. In Hamlet, Shakespeare describes theatre as “hold[ing] as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” While theatre has many functions, providing social commentary and an opportunity for introspection is a central one. I am a playwright. I love nature. I love life. I feel broken by the constant war we wage on our home. I feel broken by my own complicity in this war. Thus, I write plays about global warming. I write plays about rivers. I write plays about globalization. I write plays about the ocean. I write plays about life.
Writing plays does not seem like a very effective or practical way to “combat” global warming, as Al Gore puts it. I’m not sure how we can combat something that will continue to affect us for a very long time, even if carbon emissions dropped to zero right now. Carbon emissions need to drop to zero. Right now. Writing plays seems like a terribly indirect way to heal the Iowa River or protect sea turtles or the Amazon rainforest, which has been so generous to me in providing adventure, inspiration, and insight. Oh, and oxygen. Of course, the Amazon has been generous to all of us, in so many ways, asking nothing in return. Let me say that every ecosystem, every animal and plant, mineral, waterway, mountain, and wind current has and continues to be generous. Yes, nature is also violent, but when to the point of self-annihilation? Generosity is an essence of nature, of life, which only asks that we reciprocate, by taking what we need, and giving what we have. When we die, we give our own bodies, our own selves, so that the physical matter that we borrow while living our unique and beautiful, irreplaceable lives, allows some other, or many other, beings the opportunity to live as fully and unforgettably as we do right now.
I suppose my writing, then, is an act of gratitude to the world. It is an act of fear, an act of grief, an act of anger, and an act of hope. Hope that I will become better at living what I write. Hope that we all learn to live in concert with life, and not as obstacles to nature, and therefore ourselves. I have read and studied a great deal about global warming and renewable energies, and somewhat on deforestation, water pollution, desertification, and extinction. I have taken introductory classes on building greywater systems and solar cookers; I have yet to put what I learned in either of those classes into practice.
When I spent several months in the Peruvian Amazon, I felt a burning urge to support reforestation, yet I knew not what to do, nor who to turn to. This is a recurring frustration in my own life, what I view as a gap between thought and action, between passion and practice. I know more than enough, but I find myself having difficulty knowing how to get started. I recycle and compost and commute by bicycle, even in this cold — I refuse to own a car. I refuse to take plastic bags 99.99% of the time. In fact, I reuse plastic bags, generally until they are bedraggled with holes. This feels like scratching the surface. It is. I write plays about nature, and how we’re killing nature, and therefore ourselves. This also feels like scratching the surface. It is.
And it will always be scratching the surface as long as I view my life and actions in isolation. I cannot do everything, despite how much I may pressure myself to the contrary. Self-flagellation and guilt are not helpful, and certainly harm my writing. But apathy and inaction harm more than guilt. I will say that the very American, very modern obsession with individualism profoundly violates nature and life. Nothing exists in true isolation, and the sooner we learn and live the lesson of interdependence, the better for us, and everybody.
I mentioned four stories my father told. Three are now memories, but perhaps not forever. The other is a nightmare. Plastic soldiers. Armies of them. Armadas. Armies of soldiers riding roughshod over Sudan and Somalia, over Afghanistan and Iraq, over Gaza and Guantánamo, over Ciudad Juárez and Chiapas, over Richmond, California and Washington, D.C. An armada of plastic suffocating Los Angeles and Orange County, Beijing and Shanghai, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, and the Pacific Ocean. We are killing ourselves for the fleeting convenience and ease that plastic provides. Plastic cups. Plastic forks and sporks. Plastic packing peanuts. Plastic bubble wrap. Plastic packages of Cheetos and Doritos, Oreos and M & M’s in vending machines in the UI hospital, a blaring contradiction in the hallowed halls of health. I must say, I doubt that Texas’s plastic doppelganger will prove particularly convenient or easy, now or ever.
Writing these words, I feel rage and despair. But I need to write them, I need to fight the urge to censor myself, to remain polite and politic, to smile and not offend. We are gambling with life itself. No. We are assaulting life, which is more beautiful than any play I, or anyone, will ever write. More extraordinary than any NASA telescope, or any cancer-curing discovery. More inspiring than Martin Luther King’s eloquence or even the Buddha’s enlightenment. Life is what I am, and my life is miraculous, but no more or less than yours, or the grass frozen and dormant, or the jungles of Peru, or the toads in Frogtown, or the bald eagle I saw fly overhead last November; I had never before seen our national symbol fly free. Life is a miracle, so I write in honor of life, to thank it, to defend it, to grieve its illness and to fight for its survival. Our survival.
The human brain cannot function without human lungs, which cannot breathe without the human heart,
which cannot beat without the entirety of the body working in collaborative concert. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony cannot be played by a single musician. This university is far from a one-person operation. Theatre is never the work of the playwright alone. Just as my plays depend on actors, designers, dramaturges, producers, directors and audiences to bring characters and stories to life, so I depend on all of you. So I depend on the Iowa River. So I depend on the Amazon, and the Congo, and the Pacific and Atlantic. So I depend on Arctic ice and wild, unmodified corn in Oaxaca, Mexico, even if its kernels never grace my lips.
Each of us is a collaboration of atoms, of organs, working together for our success. I don’t know about you, but I want a strong heart, and strong lungs, strong hands and legs. I want to work with strong actors and directors. Their strength enhances my own. Let me speak very selfishly now. I pray for each of your health, happiness, and runaway success because it will make this world better for me. I need strong rivers. I need strong forests. I need healthy bats and hummingbirds, butterflies and bees, to pollinate the peaches and pears whose juice I want to drip down my chin this summer. Me. Me. I want a healthful, beautiful planet for me. But in looking in myself, if I quiet my mind and really look, I see rocks. I see lakes. I see my father at five years old. I see you. I see the world.
Al Gore argues that we need a shift in human consciousness. I agree, although that shift needs to occur on a level far deeper than installing solar panels and driving plug-in hybrids. These technologies are helpful, even vital, but alone are doomed to futility. The solution, or rather, point of departure, that I propose, as an artist and writer, very much untrained in science, is that each of us fall entirely and speechlessly in love and in awe with the world, recognizing that nature is beauty, and nature is sacred. Let me fall so in awe that I become appalled by the very thought of dumping toxins in a river, for in destroying a river, I am destroying myself, and destroying God. Let me fall so in awe that I will organize and communicate and sacrifice superficial ease for long-term health and prosperity.
My prayer today, and every day, is that I, and we, can find a way to become worthy of the Iowa River, worthy of the prairie, worthy of the oceans, of the Catskills and the Rockies, of the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef, of the Amazon, of the Earth. Let us be worthy of being alive. Let us be worthy of being who we are.
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