Stumping for the Trees

What it means TO BE OF USE

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, subscribe, pls.

I keep thinking about this thing my friend T did a few years ago. The anemic kindergarten play area at our kids’ school was in want of some tree stumps. Rather than navigate a thousand requests and barriers and hurdles that would make the word Kafkaesque sound like a breeze, she found another way. T got a tree company to chop up some old logs and she dropped them into the playground, where they’ve been supporting tiny bums ever since. She’s the doingest doer I know. 

I would have written a letter to the principal, and then waited 12 years for a reply, and six more for permission to stump, by which time my kids would have graduated college with PhDs in How to be More Effective Than Your Mom. I too want to throw tree stumps into the playground while no one’s looking.

I’ve written in the past about #DOINGTHINGS, but this week reminded me that those who aren’t quick-draw doers might need frequent reDOs of this message. Maybe a weekly prompt to DO DO DO, because there isn’t time to DON’T. This Doing isn’t about being prolific so much as strategic. It’s about having the confidence to just get into the work in order to usefully help something along, without hemming or hawing. Or at least not too much hawing. A little bit of hawing is fun.

This revisiting of the idea of doing was prompted by our All We Can Save Book Club. Together, we’re reading our way through a lovely collection of essays by (surprise!) women who get things done. Our current section of the book, Advocate, really stuck with me because the work of all the women (stopping coal mines! creating the Green New Deal!) felt so active. As a person whose greatest daily activity is moving from standing to sitting desk (and back again on a good day!), there was something about the work of all these women that felt more like vivid doing. In practice, this may not actually be true — it probably takes lots of sloggishly sedentary paperwork, phone calls, and emails to get ’er decommissioned. But the idea of community outreach feels very active and physical and alive to me, as I sit in my office writing and designing and communicating through a tiny, glowing box. 

I seem to crave the outward machinations. Some physical manifestation of work tangibly done, and change swiftly dispatched. Which is also probably a bit made up, really! Mary Anne Hitt’s coal plant closures are a life’s work and not the result of merely knocking on a few doors. Hi, can you close this plant, K thanks byeeee!

Talking about the beauty of doing with these book club pals was helpful in and of itself. If you’re a petition-signer and rote route follower like moi, there are still ways to move into less orthodox doing. As I voiced this desire, I realized as much. And my friend S made the very useful point that behind all the traditional ENGO mobilization there are communities doing the work, and perhaps I might find a way to support that work. So wise. 

So how am I going to do? As Covid wreaks havoc, sucking up time and attention and money and anger in our province (and everywhere), our premier is quietly dismantling some very important protections to our Greenbelt. I’ve signed the petitions, kicked in a few bucks, retweeted, and agonized while making toast. But what more can I DO DO DO DO without sticking myself into a watershed and raging like the premature granny I am? Maybe that’s actually a good plan, as I’ve been wanting to start ice bathing anyway. Two birds.

My task these next few weeks is to think about how to amplify this cause, how best to support the people already doing the work. I’ll start by ... asking them!

A poem from the All We Can Save book that we read has stuck with me so much. It perfectly captures what it means to be straightforwardly serviceful in one’s doing. It’s called To Be of Use and it’s by Marge Piercy. Here she is, reading it. It explains these comics, which are inspired by the last lines:

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.


How do you DO? LMK.


Listen to this excellent podcast interview with Tara McGowan who talks about everything I wrote about in last week’s newsletter. Except more smarterer.


Have a beautiful, wonderful week!

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