DEVI LOCKWOOD: A POET AND A THINKER WHO DOES
“Defeatism is a product of linear thinking and I am not a linear thinker. I meander. I am a river and I am alive and that, at least, is cause for celebration.”
Devi Lockwood, a recent graduate of Harvard University, received a Gardner & Shaw Postgraduate Traveling Fellowship last year to collect stories throughout the world about climate change and water.
Devi has already travelled to Tuvalu and Fiji, and is now in New Zealand.
I’m one of her biggest fans, and was delighted when she agreed to let me interview her about climate change, what makes her an optimist, and what keeps her moving. Here is our interview. I hope you enjoy hearing what she has to say as much as I did.
What caused you to do this? Did you have an “aha moment” that woke you up to the problem of climate change?
I believe that storytelling (and, more importantly, listening) is a form of activism.
All struggles are interconnected, and I see my particular version of storytelling-and-listening-as-activism as having several complicated root systems, many of which are only becoming clear to me as I travel & become more self-aware. Let me try to tease out one:
I have been in love with life for a long, long time. I first voiced it to Julie Hartley, director of Centauri Summer Arts Camp (http://www.centauriartscamp.com/), sometime back in the early 2000s when I was a camper there in the poetry program. After one of our campfires (full of acoustic guitar and singing and storytelling and the beauty of people just being themselves), I went up to Julie and announced:
“I think I’m in love.”
I couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old. Julie’s smile was gentle, taking me in, my knotted hair and notebook and hopelessly big smile. I avoided washing my hair for days to keep the smell of the music and woodsmoke in my hair.
“Someone special?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s not a person!” I laughed. “I think I’m in love with life.”
Julie’s eyes softened. “That’s the best kind of love.”
It was during my time at Centauri that I started writing poetry under the fondly dubbed “Poet Tree” under the guidance of Laura Farina (https://onebikeoneyear.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/interview-with-laura-farina/), though I think I fell in love with poetry a few years before that, in the third grade. My teacher had a bookshelf that included the poem “Zinnias” by Valerie Worth:
by Valerie Worth
Zinnias, stout and stiff,
Stand no nonsense: their colors
Stare, their leaves
Grow straight out, their petals
Jut like clipped cardboard
Round, in neat flat rings.
Even cut and bunched
Arranged to please us
In the house, in the water, they
Will hardly wilt– I know
Someone like zinnias: I wish
I were like zinnias.
I had never seen or heard of a zinnia before, but suddenly I knew what it felt like ––– the power of that poem stays with me still (thank you, Valerie).
I strive to write things that communicate that kind of elusive truth: a fragment of a story that must be told. I am drawn to poems that change the way I breathe.
My environmentalism stems out of all this love:
the desire to be attentive,
to leave the world oh-so-slightly better than I found it.
Climate change? Well gosh.
I don’t think that there was a single moment, but I did take a course called “Natural Disasters” at Harvard with Prof. Brendan Meade to fill my physical science requirement. The course lectures focused on the physics of earthquakes, Prof. Meade’s specialty, as well as landslides, tornadoes, forest fires, and the like. At the end of the term we learned about the physics of ice melting and changing sea levels and the fact that some ice sheets are so massive that they have their own gravitational pull––when that ice turns into water, regions locally may experience a net sea level fall, whereas the sea level rise will happen on the complete opposite side of the planet. The communication of water from the Arctic to Chile fascinated me. I have since forgotten the finer points and equations we learned, but the basic concept (and this holds true in plate tectonics, to an extent) that a small movement in one place can have a massive effect elsewhere––how cool is that?
I’m attracted to complicated things, to questions.
I started feeling compelled to act on these issues after taking another course, Politics of Nature, taught by Prof. Ajantha Subramanian. We learned about the Environmental Justice movement (http://www.nrdc.org/ej/history/hej.asp) and then applied that kind of thinking from everything from the Bhopal disaster to the Boston transportation infrastructure: our own backyard.
Within this context, climate change becomes an environmental injustice: often the communities who contribute least to the problem are those most affected.
I was hooked on doing something. And so here I am, listening.
You’ve been collecting stories about water and climate change in your travels. If you had to select one story to tell for Earth Day about your travels, what would it be?
It’s always difficult for me to choose just one thread of story, but these two come to mind:
What person or persons have you met that have touched you? Changed you?
I meet people who change me every day. Really, it is magic. Something about the cardboard sign opens up possibilities for face-to-face connection. Not everyone I talk to has a story to share, but most people are interested in the project.
I spent the last few nights in Riversdale, New Zealand with a new friend named Zella. Her whole house is awash in color––reds, oranges, affirmation. She is a being of light. Zella and I stayed up late watching movies and eating vanilla ice cream with frozen berries on top. We talked about Life with a capital L: the hard work of inviting our fears to the table, the necessity of mindfulness––of revolution. We pontificated on the kind of activism that begins within. After a few days of dancing in her kitchen, Zella started calling me “wood nymph.” It makes me smile.
Zella told me a water story about the internal geography of rivers in her life, how swimming in rivers in Colorado, Montana, and now in Riversdale, New Zealand brings a sense of continuity into her life. Her voice says it best:
Who knows what tomorrow will bring.
I heard Jane Goodall speak last year at All Saints Church, and she said we should not “think globally” because it’s too depressing. We should focus our efforts on what we can do locally, and gather with others who feel the same way we do.
Do you agree with that? Why or why not?
Oh, what a great question! As a peripatetic soul, my definition of “local” is a moving target. I feel most alive when I am constantly in motion, whether I’m on a bicycle cycling from town to town, dancing in the kitchen of a new friend, or engaging in a conversation that lets off at a different place than where it started.
I believe in activism that begins face-to-face.
I believe that listening is the best gift I have to give to this world.
I believe that when we focus in on bettering the lives of the people around us––of actively saying thank you and the little gestures that let people know they are appreciated, are loved––that there is a ripple effect out into the abyss.
I believe that our thoughts have ripples, and that we actively create the world around us.
I believe that the world is made by people acting in it.
I believe that no two people are alike, and that if someone garners more energy from thinking about global issues and someone else is inspired to act locally, that there’s absolutely no problem with that.
We need all kinds of thinkers. All kinds of doers. Most importantly, we need thinkers who do.
I focus on the particular nitty-gritty detail of one-on-one interactions because it is where I feel most comfortable, most myself––in that mode of listening.
And yet global thinking is so necessary. Dialogue about Antarctic ice sheets and sea level rise in Tuvalu and strengthening storms and changing weather patterns worldwide needs to happen. And yes, it can be depressing. But as long as that conversation is accompanied by some kind of shift, some kind of change––no matter how small––then we are moving somewhere.
And movement is what I’m all about.
To quote the promotional materials from the September 21, 2014 People’s Climate March in NYC (my first stop on this world-wide trip!), “Para cambiarlo todo necesitamos que todos participen.”
It takes everyone to change everything.
Many people have a “we’re fucked, we’re doomed” response to climate change, which makes it so hard to talk about. When I read your posts, I don’t hear anything like this attitude coming through.
Are you optimistic?
Hm. I don’t know what I am. I’m me? Let’s see.
I believe in the beauty of small things. Wispy clouds. Poems written by local poets. Nautical themed earrings made by an artist from the southernmost city on the planet. Small actions. Thank you notes (http://anincompletecatalogofthanks.tumblr.com/). Washing dishes while dancing to ABBA. Smiling. Storytelling.
Does this sound mushy?
I guess I’m an optimist after all.
I garner no energy from being fatalistic. I have listened closely to people who are fatalistic (and will continue to listen closely to anyone who has a story to share with me), but pessimism is not my jam.
The threats of climate change are very real. I feel their weight. I felt their weight when I lived for a month in Tuvalu, collecting stories from those people who called the coral atoll––highest point 4m above sea-level––their home.
And yet (and yet)––
there is joy in Tuvalu,
a nation that might be engulfed by the ocean in my lifetime.
There is dancing,
community feast days,
card games, big stars,
volleyball matches played on the airport runway at sunset,
the crashing of the waves.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is always little bits of beauty wrapped up in the awful stuff. I’m off to find those. That’s where my focus lies.
While the world still moves,
and we are still alive in it
there is reason to celebrate life.
If I ever feel that “we’re fucked” kind of despair, I withdraw into the beauty of motion. What is happening outside me and what is happening inside me are not distinct. It is my job to find the beauty in the everyday. To listen.
Defeatism is a product of linear thinking and I am not a linear thinker. I meander. I am a river and I am alive and that, at least, is cause for celebration.
Naomi Klein sees in this crisis the impetus to make changes that will benefit us all in the long run.
What changes do you hope we will make?
What is the first thing we should do?
I wish that people had more courage to ask questions,
to question authority.
I wish that political decisions (or possibly all decisions?) were not ruled by a utilitarian calculus that hinges on the question: “Will this make me money?”
What would happen if we asked, instead:
“Will this action enrich the lives of the people around me,
the non-human world, too––
will this action benefit the place I call my home?”
And home is wider than four walls and a roof, mind you.
We get out of the community what we put into it.
I use the word “community” here to denote human and nonhuman actors: the ocean and sea lions and the air and tui birds and the groundwater supply. Everything, gloriously interconnected.
I wish that we did not glorify those who stockpile money. What use is there in that?
Do you have information you want to share about the kickstarter campaign you started so that you could travel by ship and not by airplane?
Well, it’s done now, but I’m happy to announce that I will be taking a cargo ship from Auckland to Melbourne in mid-May aboard the ANL BINDAREE.
The campaign was a massive success––the goal I set to raise in 30 days was achieved in a day and an hour. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that I couldn’t sleep.
Where are you headed next?
At the moment I’m in Invercargill, New Zealand––totally amazed that I managed to get myself all the way down here to the southernmost city in the world. It’s practically in Antarctica! Well, not quite. But still. The wind is positively Antarctic in origin.
From here I’m meandering back up to Auckland. From Auckland I’m catching a cargo ship to Melbourne where I’ll be a writer in residence at Montsalvat (http://www.montsalvat.com.au/Artists/MontsalvatArtsCommunity.aspx) for six weeks.
After Australia, who knows?! Possibly the Philippines? or Indonesia? It depends on where I can get to by boat and by bicycle.
If you could recommend one book to read, what would it be?
Today I picked up a book of poems called Markings by Bluff poet Cilla McQueen. In it she meditates on the landscape of Bluff. Environmental themes weave in and out.
Here’s a few stanzas I love from her eighteen-page poem “The Autoclave.”
It was magical finding these poems in my friend’s crib in Waikawa (crib is the word they use in the south island for a bach / cottage / get away from home-home), just two days after having spent the day wandering and writing in Bluff myself.
I’ve been enjoying your poetry. If you have a poem to share, I’d love it.
Well, this poem is oldie but goldie––and recently won me first place at the Geraldine Future Living Festival (http://www.futurelivingfestival.co.nz/) poetry competition! For this honor I was the proud recipient of a bottle of local beer, a locally grown apple, face oil, and many hugs and well wishes from those gathered at the poetry reading. This is without a doubt my proudest poet moment of late.
But the birds? On that day
rain rose not fell. Every-
one stood with their heads to
the ground, doctor’s orders,
to increase circulation
touch the divine, or maybe
to levitate). But those birds
trapped in puddles, caught
in a mid-day bath (as fear of
a fire when showering)
just disappeared, up:
Did they know? Did they bother
to say goodbye? And on the ground,
what held up the trunks of trees,
if not flow of water upside down?
In the evening newsreel, Niagara Falls
was a torrent, a vertical column of water
and some poor soul in a barrel
was just going up and up and up,
a drip a speck a drop in the ozone layer.
Then we were all on a quest
to ask the sky for our water, please
we are thirsty and dizzy from pressing
our ears to the ground. And she said:
it was never yours to take.