In which I propose a broader definition of restorative action


As a resident for the last twenty-five years of Baltimore, I have spent many days on the Chesapeake, usually in a sailboat. Like many Marylanders, I am acutely aware of the state of our great estuary and her many tributaries. The Bay is a complex ecosystem, her watershed sprawling over parts of six states, including major urban areas and ports, intense suburban development, industry and farmland. Many organization, locally and regionally, have been toiling for decades to raise public awareness and do restoration projects. A recent report card gives the Bay a D+ and includes this language:

“All of us, including our elected officials, need to stay focused on the Blueprint, push harder, and keep moving forward.”

Pushing harder is the mantra of the human-centered mindset that has been destroying the Bay since French and Spanish explorers came through in the 1500s, followed by Englishman Capt. Smith’s expeditions in 1607. It’s time to try something new. Or ancient. In this uncharted territory of climate change, species extinction and the general breakdown of our old cultural stories, imagining new pathways is a first step towards taking them.

I have begun dreaming about going on a “Water Walk,” following the example of Grandmother Josephine Mandamin, who has circumnavigated the Great Lakes with blessing and prayer ceremonies and inspired many others to follow her lead. The shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries presents quite a challenge, as it measures over 11,000 miles, longer than the entire west coast of the United States.

Since last fall, I’ve been working on a piece of writing that captures my fascination, fear, awe, wonder, and love of the Chesapeake Bay. It started as a creation myth, and following feedback from an online journal that I submitted it to, has now morphed into more of a combination of creative non-fiction and memoir. Last week, the journal editor emailed to tell me, in an encouraging and kind way, that my revised piece didn’t quite fit their mission:

“When we requested the revision, it was with the hope that you would be able to share what you are doing to embark on your own water walk of the Chesapeake. In re-reading your piece, it seems that your vision for such a journey is still in the contemplation phase. As a result, this version of ‘Song of the Chesapeake,’ beautiful and moving as it is, is still not quite right for [our journal]. We would be interested in learning more of your water walk should you undertake the endeavor. While the history of the Bay is interesting, and your love for it is clear, the principal mission of [our journal] is to explore gestures of restoration.”

I have felt this tension between dreaming and doing my whole life. As I’ve considered my own relationship with the wider community of Life, I’ve come to believe that awakening and noticing and even dreaming and writing are all more active than one might assume. They are all “gestures of restoration.” Starting with the restoration of my own kinship with these wild places, and continuing as I use my voice to tell of this revelation.

Certainly, an actual Water Walk is more tangible, especially as it would involve other people, planning, promotion, and the walk itself. But seen through the eyes of our culture, it’s still “only” prayer and ceremony and walking. Okay, maybe walkers pick up trash if they see it, but still. Those “gestures” are pretty much relegated by our culture to the same category as imagining and writing. Writer Paul Kingsnorth addresses this in his intro to the section on story, in the new book, Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered, by Lucy Neal:

“In a time of crisis, writing becomes not less important but more. It becomes more important because it is a way that we access deep truths about ourselves, and express them in a manner which is beyond the rational. Reason is a wonderful instrument, but it rarely touches the human heart. Writing can, and so its importance is magnified when certainties are thrown up in the air.

“Most people don’t believe this. We live in a culture which associates writing with entertainment, and we don’t think entertainment is ultimately very important, so when we are faced with a serious challenge, the last people we want to hear from are writers. We want scientists, engineers, business people, perhaps politicians: practical men and women of action. We believe writing is not action. Why do we believe this? Because we live in a utilitarian culture which likes to be able to measure everything by results, and it is impossible to measure results when it comes to writing.”

I’m fascinated that a journal of writing—and this is a fine journal very much aligned with Kingsnorth’s premise—might slip into thinking that writing itself is not restorative enough. I must consider that this journal probably received many other submissions with more tangible, perhaps even measurable, acts of restoration. I can appreciate that they have to draw the line somewhere. My own inner skeptic assures me this is all justification on my part, for my own lack of active engagement. Why don’t I take up a copper bucket and start walking? It’s easy to sit at a writing desk and research and imagine and jot some words down. Isn’t it?

Still, I return to this thought that all I can do is listen to and follow my heart. Thinking and writing are forms of action. Again, the skeptic chimes in: Maybe, but only if someone reads the words. Only if lots of people read them, and others are inspired to go on their own Water Walks, and the whole thing spreads, and we all stop driving and drilling for natural gas, and the ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere drops, and we avert climate change, and Donald Trump drops out of the Presidential race, and the Koch Brothers suddenly go solar, and, and, and, and, and . . . . .

And here comes the reminder that I have no control over the outcomes of my actions. Whether they seem like legitimate, effective “actions” or self-indulgent fantasies. I can’t even know what those outcomes will be. If any. All I can do is trust that the longings of my heart are my guidance system, and the rest is out of my hands. Again, Kingsnorth is a help:

“This is what writing is for: to bear witness in dark times and light. Words bore deep into the heart and lodge there, and they will not be moved. It is writers and artists who refine and redefine how we see the world, and it is the way we see the world today that is creating the mess that is enveloping us. The stories we are telling ourselves about who we are, and our place in the world, are the root of the destruction we are wreaking on all else that lives.

“Who can change the stories? Storytellers. Men and women of words. But before we can get down to it we must begin to believe ourselves that writing matters. I have a sense that even many writers believe that what they are doing is in some way valueless; flippant, a bit silly, not real work. They believe this because this is what their culture tells them. But their culture is wrong, about this as about so much else.”

Thinking and writing may be only a first (or second) step, but it’s in an entirely different direction and miles away from the disconnected “doing” that I used to pursue as an architect. That I still pursue in many other areas of my life. It’s likely that I will never entirely shed this coat of habitual doing, but I can’t think of anything more restorative than spending a few hours each day imagining new stories.

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