"There's a starman waiting in the sky, he told us not to blow it cause he knows it's all worthwhile." - Starman, David Bowie
“My goodness! What does a man like you eat for breakfast?” one of the students asked me. He had arrived a day early and had been watching me furiously clean plastic chairs. After about 50 or so, he offered to help. In the mean time, huts made of brick and grass were being constructed, storage rooms were being converted into sleeping quarters, a makeshift kitchen was being erected out of bamboo and tin sheeting, sheets were being washed, and beds were being made. The grounds of the Eco-Ashram buzzed with laborers like ants in an ant farm.
This student I speak of arrived a day early, thus he was the first to arrive at what was essentially summer camp for environmental law students; a week of lectures from directors of national parks, leading scientists, judges, and lawyers, and including MC—two Goldman Prize winners (The Goldman Prize is considered by many in Europe and America to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalism). The climax of the week was a moot court, trials based on actual cases.
It was Saturday, June 4th, and as I said, for the last several hours I was cleaning chairs that had been in storage for who knows how long. In the room where they had been stored there was a hole in the roof and so the chairs were caked in mud from the previous storms as well as spider webs. I was zoning-out in the rhythm of cleaning the chairs when at one point I felt a bug on my hand and flicked it off. It was only at the last split-second, as my finger was already in the flicking position that I realized it was a baby scorpion. I sent him flying stinger over heels.
It was one of those days where despite being up since 5:30am and operating on very little sleep, I had endless energy - kind of like the first time you run after a long hiatus and you think, I’m not in that bad of shape after all, which of course is just adrenalin. In total I cleaned about 120 chairs. I was told at one point to finish the job the next day, but there was still so much work to be done and in 24 hours, 40 young, rambunctious law students would ascend upon the grounds of the Eco-Ashram.
Since I arrived at the Eco-ashram on May 31st, the place was a flutter with preparation for the 40 law students, several professors, honored guests, and a Swami, who was to lead the dedication of the new Climate Change Center on the first evening. On May 31st, we were a week out, most of the housing was not even nearly complete, and most of the beds were in storage. Plywood and junk seemed to cover everywhere. This was all due to the fact that while I was in Rishikesh, a storm came through and caused massive damage to the grounds, tearing parts of roofs off cottages and collapsing the dining hall.
“You see?” MC said. “These storms are unseasonable. This is nature’s way of saying things are not well.”
I didn’t think it could be done—I didn’t think the place would be ready by the time everyone arrived, but in a week the dining hall was deconstructed and from its remains five thatch-roof huts were created to house an 15 additional students.
When MC would ask me, “What do you think?” I kept my opinion to myself, that being that there was no way in hell this place was going to be ready.
“It’s coming along,” I would say. “It’s really starting to take shape.” And in fact, up until the students went to bed at the end of their first day, we scrambled to add beds and mattresses.
(My favorite part of this long-ish, uncut video is about 1:44 in, where MC is seen running through the background chasing the dogs away with a stick. Can't remember what they were doing but up to no good as usual.)
It doesn’t seem like it should take that much work to create a small hut, but its quite astounding how much effort goes into building one of these shelters properly. The reason why it collapsed in the first place was because the workers were incompetent. I was amazed watching the daily increments of progress as the laborers transformed the land from a weather beaten mess into a campus.
What the student who asked me what does a man like you eat for breakfast did not see was that with the exception of one day, for the previous six days I was sitting around like a sloth, asking for something to do but our managing resources had run too thin. Myriam took point on most projects, but she was one person trying to motivate workers who didn’t really understand what truly cleaning something meant. In most cases we had to redo the work they had done. Some of the workers could be self-directed, but the majority needed someone standing over them, literally showing them exactly what to do. When no one was watching them, productivity dropped off. In the meantime, MC was driving around the district and state trying to find laborers and to replace the ones who said they would show but never did.
The Commander in Chief
I think it’s impossible not to like MC Mehta, unless of course you are facing him in a court of law. He is full of simple wisdoms that make you pause and think, and then smile. He teaches by his character, that being the fact that his actions are in line with what he fights for. And while he is serious and focused in his will to protect the environment while doing what he can to mitigate climate change, he is always quick to smile, and I bet his laugh could even infect a death row inmate. I can’t really say enough about this man.
Throughout the week it seemed like the place was falling down around him and yet he would just laugh and say in his accent, “What to do?” which is the common Indian way of saying, oh well—what can you do? “
This is India,” he would add. “Tis too much. Tis too much,” and laugh it off. But it was not a nervous laugh. It was a genuine laugh at the absurdity of how much was still to be done, how hard it is to get things done in India, and just how far we were from the finish line.
MC is this brilliant man who is scattered and pulled thin by all of his commitments and by all of the people who are vying for his attention and relying on him for action and change. He is the only hope for many people whose livelihoods or land are being threatened by development or polluting industries. When he is not engaged in conversation or preparation, he sits outside the office on a little concrete patio in his chair immersed in deep thought and contemplation, partially slumped, legs crossed, elbow resting on the arm rest, and chin resting on his hands.
I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to know MC the man before I knew about MC the public figure. The more I get to know about his career, the more humbled I am. His cases read like the best episodes of Law & Order and I was amazed and awed that on the first day students held him in such high regards that they tried to bend down to touch his feet, but MC wouldn’t have it.
“Every landmark environmental case in India that has been brought to the court was filed by Mr. Mehta,” one student said. “Every environmental case we study in law school is MC Mehta vs. the State of India, or MC Mehta vs. some polluting industry. And he’s the only one who has been able to beat the government. The first and the last case you study when entering law school is about Mr. Mehta.” What’s even more remarkable is, as far as I understand, he is not paid in these cases. He has fought more than 100 cases in the Supreme Court of India and never lost. At one point a special court was set up every Friday to hear his cases. 5,000 factories along the Ganges River have been directed to install pollution control devices and 300 factories were closed as a result of his actions. Approximately 250 towns and cities in the Ganges Basin have been ordered to set up sewage treatment plants. He has won additional precedent-setting suits against industries that generate hazardous waste and succeeded in obtaining a court order to make lead-free gasoline available. He has also been working to ban intensive shrimp farming and other damaging activities along India's 7,000-kilometer coast. MC has succeeded in getting new environmental policies initiated and has brought environmental protection into India's constitutional framework. He's almost singlehandedly obtained some 40 landmark judgments and numerous orders from the Supreme Court against polluters, a record unequaled by any other environmental lawyer in the world. Countless corporate and government lawyers are getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to fight him, to outwit him, and yet he is an unbeatable, a one-man legal brigade.
The first thing MC does when he arrives at the ashram every day is stop by the temple to pray. This says mountains about the man and from where her gets his stregnth. He is a man of deep faith and conviction. Many people of his stature and accomplishments would be arrogant and rest on their laurels, thinking themselves to be the god and creator of their own universe, but MC is an incredibly honest and humble man. He rarely talks about the past or his accomplishments unless prompted or unless the conversation dictates. Instead, he is focused on the future and what is yet to be done.
On top of all of this, he is funny—damn funny. Several times during the week we laughed so hard he had me in tears. When I did ask him about his cases, in recounting the details he laughs hysterically and slaps his knee as he describes the surreal details, how he outwitted his “very cunning” opponents, or how he used the press and media to his advantage. It is no wonder he is so greatly respected in India, but he has not always been in the favor of the public. As the press often excels at obfuscating facts or picking and choosing an angle to a story, there have been many times when industries that are the target of his wrath have worked hard to disparage him. At one point in the 90’s, 20,000 workers burned images of him in effigy while protesting the lawsuit he brought against the polluting industries that were pitting and staining yellow the Taj Majal’s marble as a result of acid rain. In ten years these industries did more damage to the national landmark than hundreds of years of war. MC has been offered pay-offs to shut up and disappear and has had death threats against him to the point where he needed security.
At one point he was called to the Prime Minister’s residence for a discussion about the development and plans for damns along the Ganges. The two sat outside to have tea while several peacocks, the national bird, ran around the grounds. Almost nothing had been said to each other when a peacock came towards them. Always looking for the simplest way to drive home a point he said, “Can I kill that peacock?”
The Prime Minister’s (apparently an expressionless man) jaw dropped and he nearly fell out of his chair. “What? What are you talking about? Of course you can’t kill that bird! Are you mad?”
“Then how can you allow these dams to be built and kill the Ganges, our national river?” Point well served. His mind is sharp and agile and is always working at this level. To hear him tell this story is fantastic.
One thing he always does as a lawyer and investigator is visit the environmental sites he is working to protect, several times he has had to do this in disguise. He told me of one case in which he was working to close down an industry that was contaminating drinking water for the surrounding villages. People were getting sick, skins of animals were peeling off, trees withered away, and crops were burning up in the fields. As the courtroom drama played out, opposing lawyers worked furiously to defame him. They spoke for an hour to the court how MC was out for publicity and his own self interests. “How could I be out for my own self interests?” He asks me as he recounts the story. “These people will do anything for a dollar and they are very clever.”
MC waited very patiently and when it was time for him to speak, he pulled out a bottle from his bag.
“What is that, rum?” someone joked.
“This is contaminated drinking water from the site. If any of the opposing lawyers will drink this water, I will withdraw the case right now.”
The opposing lawyers knew they had lost the case. The judge asked what do you want? MC asked for clean drinking water, medical relief, compensation for damages, and the industry to be closed down. These were all granted.
“I do not take a case unless I know I can win it,” he says. “Sometimes I wait a long time until the conditions are favorable on the bench or until I have sufficient evidence,” he says, continuing. “In my view, you are fighting on your principles. If you are speaking the truth, if you are guiding the court properly, respectfully, and presenting the facts, even the hardest judges become soft.”
I think like all great men, he is driven by an inner vision, truth, and an ironclad faith, and like all great men who have left their mark upon history, their legacy is not built on the size of their palaces but on the quality of their thoughts. There is nothing that can compromise his values. He is of the rare breed of men whose actions are truly in union with his words. Professionally speaking, whether I move in a new direction charted by my experiences with him or whether I go back to what I was doing before I left on my travels, personally, MC the man is a true inspiration and a model of the greatness I would lke to aspire to.
“MC is perhaps the most important barrister in India since Ghandi, and no one outside India knows who he is. He’s like a John Adams figure,” said Sam Labudde.
Sam Labuddy, an American biologist and has a vendetta against economists. “Economists are the new lawyers,” he said, “And I hate every last one of them.” Then again, he has a vendetta against a lot of people and industries. If you are looking for an opinion regarding the environment, foundations that negligently hand out grants, or some of the NGOs who are “working” to protect the environment, chances are he has an opinion. When you have done what he has done, including won the Goldman Prize in 1991, I suppose you are entitled to that opinion. He can also tell you anything about the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols which he worked upon, two of the biggest environmental global policies in history, yet his crowning achievement was probably getting onto a Mexican fishing boat as a crewmember in order to expose the great secret of the tuna fishing industry.
At some point after WWII with the creation of hydraulics, someone came up with the idea to make a mile wide fishing net to fish for tuna. The thing is, for some reason that no one understands, while dolphins generally are near the surface, tuna shadow them below, so when these massive nets were being hauled up, millions of dolphins—the most intelligent creature of the sea—were being killed for no reason except they were in the way, then simply just discarded back into the sea like trash.
“A woman would never think to do something like this. Only an idea as stupid as this could come from a man,” Sam told the class. "If we came upon dolphins on another planet, we would probably not disturb them, rather study them for their intelligence."
And so Sam worked for several months on a Mexican fishing vessel because he could not get on an American one. To get on an American tuna fishing vessel, because of the dirty secret no one discuess, you had to sign countless non-disclosure agreements and could not bring any video equipment on board. After capturing the footage he needed on the Mexican fishing vessel, however, he left the fishing boat and brought it to the press, essentially shutting down the illegal dolphin killing practice. He also fought to protect the Tigers and created a boycott of Taiwan for selling Tiger parts with to-the-point ads on the back of the first section of the NY Times. His WMD’s have always been a video camera and the press.
For the first day, everyone was worried about what happened to Sam. It was a 6-hour journey from Delhi to the ashram and he was supposed to be picked up at 6am. He didn’t show up until about 5pm that night, because, as it turns out, MC had sent a car for him and the hotel operator lied to the taxi driver, telling him that Sam had left at 5am with someone else. The hotel operator lied to him so he could get the money for the taxi to drive Sam to the ashram, except the driver the hotel hired had no idea where the Eco-Ashram was.
For having slept only a few hours in a few days, Sam was remarkably and impressively on when he arrived, right as the induction ceremony for the climate change center was getting underway. MC asked him to introduce himself and immediately Sam captivated the students.
In bare feet, Sam walked amongst the students and said, “OK, I want you all to stand up.” And so the students stood up.
“Before I berate you and belittle you over the course of the next several days, I’m going to make the bet that you don’t even know who you are. And I want you to think about that over the course of the next few days.”
“Who you are?” He asked. The students nervously looked at each other, wondering if they were going to be called out. “Who you are is 3 billion years of evolution. You are the crown of creation. Do you know what that makes you?”
They looked around again. “A force of nature. As man has evolved in his technology and conquered survival, do you know what he has lost?”
Again blank stares. “Harmony with nature.”
He continued with his opening statements, and then in barefeet walked out into the rain and went to his room.
And so every time Sam started a session over the next several days, it began with this exercise, the students standing up and he asking them who they were, what that made them, and what they have lost as a result.
For the first few days, I thought Sam was a professor, because he had the uncanny ability to captivate these kids with a combination of science and irreverence. Two minutes into him speaking on the first day I thought, I would have loved to be in one of his classes. You would have thought that he had spent 25 years in the classroom, but at the age of 54, 25 years ago he was only in his second year of college. Sam had left Indiana at the age of 18 and decided he was going to save the world, but after a decade of traveling from Alaska to South America, he realized he didn’t have the knowledge to save the world, and so he entered college at 28. And might I add he has never been a professor.
His central message throughout the week was, “For so long human survival was about overcoming nature, but our victory is going to be incomplete. The same blind momentum we marched forth with in the conquest of nature, with the same zeal and fervor we now fondle machineguns and nuclear weapons. Human society is all about growth and momentum and we have made great strides as human beings, but if we don’t do something now, all the luxuries we’ve created, such as human rights and woman’s liberation, won’t matter. We are nearing a tipping point and unless we begin acting globally, we are going to do irreversible damage that is going to have catastrophic consequences.”
My favorite thing he said during the week, however, was, “Every time I give a talk somewhere, someone says to me, ‘what can I do as an individual to make a difference?’ I tell them, ‘you know how you can make a difference? Pick one issue that drives you mad and that you can’t live with or without—and own that issue. Learn everything you can about it. In the process you will meet people who think the same way you do, and before you know it you're talking about a movement, and right after that you’re talking about strategy and goals—and that’s when real change happens."
Students Take Justice Into Their Own Hands
I found it funny to learn around day 2-3 that the students thought I was the disciplinarian. I should have maintained that facade. The fact of the matter was that when students were arriving, I was in the office, and when I came out I didn’t have the energy to make small talk and introduce myself, so I simply walked past them to my room. I think I was just in my own head, because apparently I barely looked at people and didn’t have a smile on my face—at least this is the way it was recounted to me.
Another reason why perhaps they thought I was a disciplinarian was probably because the only thing I couldn’t stand was when they talked through lectures. While I can agree with them that some of the guest lecturers may not have been the most scintillating speakers, I was hoping they would at least have the respect to be still and listen to some of the best minds of India in their respective fields, but many of the students would just talk the entire time through lectures. I was sitting in the front row most of the time and I would turn around and leer at them. Several times I went so far as to mouth “Shut the f#&k up!” (The inflection in my whisper and emphatic body language warranted the exclamation point in this case.) At one point I held up a session to separate two students. I said class wouldn’t go on until he moved. “Come on big fella,” I said, as he was on the more portly side. “We’re not going until you move up. Come on everyone, cheer him on. Encourage him—tell him he can do it! Yeah!” And I began a clap. He looked around mortified and finally moved up. Regardless, he talked through the afternoon session.
The thing that I don’t get is that Indian students, at least Indian law students, don’t understand how to whisper; they just lower their voice and it carries out over the whole class. I discussed this with MC and what we should do about it, but it’s not his personality to be the disciplinarian. He was simply let down by their laziness, entitlement, arrogance, and apparent lack of caring.
It was clear by day 5 that sadly, a good number of the students could not have cared less about being there. The first day, four students left because the conditions were not to their liking and some students confided in me that they thought they were going to be doing outdoor sports the whole time. On the 3rd or 4th night, I was sitting in the dark behind my cottage, the only place on the property where I can get an Internet signal, and one student came up to me and asked me if I liked to party. I was somewhat caught off guard, not to mention blinded in the darkness by my computer screen, and while I didn’t come outright and say anything, I may have alluded to it. Not really a smart move. This student admitted to me that they had been drinking and smoking cigarettes and other things since the first night. It later made sense to me why several people missed a few sessions that afternoon—they were hungover. As a result of this conversation, I went to bed feeling somewhat let down. I was personally expecting so much from these students, these individuals who I had hopes and dreams for being leaders in a new era of environmental litigation and social justice, but instead they were just at the ashram because having MC Mehta’s name on your resume carries a lot of weight.
MC would ask me how things were going and I would tell him it was like herding animals or very young children with very short attention span. I would tell MC that they were like puppies; you could throw a stick and whatever they were doing their attention would be diverted by that stick and off they were running. I also acted this out, which he seemed to appreciate. I like to get a laugh out of him.
I do not want to cast the lot of them into the fiery pits of hell where most people believe the archetype of lawyers came to form. Some of them were quite impressive, self-disciplined, and driven. I would say all of them had the smarts, just not necessarily the drive.
On Wednesday, in the middle of the week, we all went to Rishikesh on an Indian school bus. Just like most Indian buses, we packed in as many as we could. I grabbed a seat on a bench all the way up front thinking I would have space and that I would have a better view of the landscape. Instead, by the time everyone packed on the bus there was no more room. It was standing room only all the way through the bus, so 3 of 5 guests who were from an NGO and observing the happenings packed onto my bench.
“Well,” I said. “Looks like I’m going to have a real Indian experience after all.” The student to my left leaned in and said, “No sir. If it were a real Indian experience we would have several people on the roof as well.”
To my left was a student and to my right, the man from the NGO could have been the Indian version of Rico Sauvé. Because of how tight we were packed onto the bench, one person would be leaning back and the other leaning forward. I was leaning back and Rico was leaning forward. Since there was no where to stabilize himself as the bus made its way through forest roads, his very dark hand was very comfortably—and might I add somewhat intimately—planted on my very white knee the entire 40 minute drive. He was so relaxed and nonchalant about it you would have thought we had been dating for years. I was not aware of it but my friend Priteeka was watching the whole episode and giggling. I told her afterward that I felt dirty, like I was violated, and that I needed a shower. Now this type of behavior would not be suitable on a bus in Seattle or New York City, but I was in India, so I simply put on my headphones, listened to Eyes of the World, by the Grateful Dead and smiled—I was smiling at the absurdity of it all; how I was in the middle of India going on a field trip to Rishikesh with a bunch of Indian law students; how I was working for argueably one of the most important men in India; how I was on a bus that would probably not be considered road-worthy in the U.S.; how I was supposed to be an authoritarian figure; and how a strange man was taking our non-existent relationship to the next level. And I was smiling at how grateful I was for all of it.
As I have admitted, while I was friendly with the students, I was very critical of them, and they were certainly testing my patience. But on the bus listening to Eyes of the World, the consummate songs of my adolescence, I got to thinking about myself in college and I realized I was expecting too much from essentially kids—kids doing exactly what kids do—and doing exactly what I did. The fact of the matter is I probably did a lot worse things than these kids will ever do. But in India, they go from high school to law school. Law school is part of college so these weren’t even grad students, as I first thought they were. They were 18-23 year-old kids for the most part.
While I think I would have been more reverent and respectful than many of these kids towards the speakers, I thought how I would have been the leader plotting and planning the party that night. I was the one who probably would have had illicit things in my possession. I certainly had an attitude towards authority figures that I did not agree with, specifically my college soccer coach. On this final note, I will admit that while I put a lot of effort into the classes I was interested in during my college years, I also very nearly lost my full soccer scholarship to college for—let’s just say having too much fun. Guilty as charged, and so I let up on my expectations and let it go. And in the process, my friendship with a lot of these kids blossomed and I developed a new found compassion towards them.
On the way to Rishikesh, the bus stopped at a nursery where each student was instructed to buy a plant for the ashram, which I thought was a wonderful idea. When we got to Rishikesh, Sam and I hung out with a few of the students and then the group broke off and it was just four of us. We had a great time cruising around and shopping, and Sam brought three watermelon and several other fruits for the student body.
Of course, several of the people were late getting back to the bus, causing most of us to wait an hour. They showed no guilt or repentance when they got back on the bus and Sam said something to the effect of, “Maybe next time you're late you could let us all know so we don’t have to come on time.” The message fell on deaf ears and was not even acknowledged.
What the program lacked was structure and enforcement of rules, so as the saying goes, you give an inch, they take a mile; or perhaps over here, you give them a centimeter and they take a kilometer. I guess that is India though, and even the instructors were late most of the time. When we all got home that evening, there was no talk of a curfew or anything of the sorts. Sam and I hung out and smoked cigarettes and drank shitty whiskey and cokes until about midnight, during which time he told me the harrowing details of working as a cook on a fishing boat out of Mexico, how sketchy it was filming these sailors, and how several times he was terrified for his life. It’s not too hard to make someone disappear at sea, after all.
When I went to my room, a large gathering of student had accumulated in the courtyard and they were being quite vociferous. I asked them to go to bed. About 20 minutes later I came out because most of the students had gathered and there was a riff between the schools. One girl said, “Sir, this is between schools and we are sorting it out. Please let us be.” And so I did. But it went on and about 25 minutes later around 1am I opened my door, yelled at them, and slammed my door. I thought my tantrum might have an effect but it didn’t.
A little while later, one of the students came to my room to apologize and to alert me as to what was going on.
“Sir,” he said, “I am very sorry and I am embarrassed that this is all happening, but we will take this matter into our own hands.”
I will tell you that I learned an important lesson the first time I kept a blog while traveling through Tanzania. The lesson was this—what was simply reporting to me as I looked for colorful language to entertain and describe events, turned out to be really hurtful to someone I liked and whose friendship I valued. I had forgotten that she was following my blog, and what I had said felt to her like I stabbed her in the back. I was completely oblivious to what I wrote until I read it through her eyes and it struck me hard. I’m sure she has completely forgotten about it, but to this day, five years later, I still feel bad about what happened.
And so in writing this entry I have edited out parts, in fact, throughout all of these chapters I have left quite a few details out (you’re probably saying, thank God—he writes too much as it is). Perhaps if I turn it into something some day all the details will be there, but it’s not my intent to disparage anyone when writing or to be a judge of anyone, although I certainly have an opinion about some of the things that have happened. With that said, being that I don’t know all the details from the parties involved in the incident above, I will just say that some of the students took crime and punishment into their own hands that night. I suppose you could call it the street form of Indian justice.
The competition between the Indian law students was intense, but apparently this is the way Indian students are. It’s no wonder with all of these overachievers that India is a surging world power, no doubt poised to pass the United States in many arenas, as several expats who live here have said to me.
Fortunately though, as the week wore on, the group became tighter and the competition seemed to lesson somewhat as new friendships were formed. History was made on the final day during a moot court, where for the first time an American clerk (yours truly) and an American judge (Sam) presided over court, with the assistance of a real High Court judge from Delhi who treated the students as professionals—not as students. In the third and final case, a case in which both sides prepared endlessly, the defense pulled out a clause that said if a similar trial is being conducted, the current trial can not be heard until the similar trial is concluded. The court was adjourned in a matter of five minutes and the students from the palntiff side were incredulous. They could not believe that they had put all that work into the moot court, just to have the trail suspended.
“But this isn’t a real court. Please your honor, this is a moot court. Just hear our case.”
“I’m sorry,” the female judge replied. “The law is the law.” It was a lesson the law students will never forget, which is the point of all of it, right?
After each trial, the judge took her job very seriously and dictated her deliberations to me. I tried to get out of the job but she really liked how fast I typed. The problem was, I had serious trouble understanding her accent so I kind of made it up as I went. All eyes were on my as I pounded the keys furiously. It was probably the most stressful job I've ever had. OK, perhaps I am exaggerating.
On the final afternoon, MC gave some insightful parting words and he asked Sam to say a few words followed by what each student learned.
Sam began his speech like every lecture prior. Stand up, who are you, what makes you that, and what are you missing. The students looked at each other proudly as they recited what Sam had taught them. Then he said, “Who told you that bullshit? You gonna believe everything you’re told?”
Sam then proceeded to give what could rival any of the best commencement speeches I have ever heard. His passion, fears for the future, and hope in this generation that we can do something about the accelerated deterioration of the environment eloquently poured forth from him as if the spirit were moving words through his breath. As he spoke of his love for the environment, he had to catch himself several times as tears welled up in his eyes, and everyone in the room was experiencing the same emotion. It was like Robin Williams’ speech at the end of Dead Poet’s Society, except we didn’t have desks to stand up on.
Next we went around the room and each student, at least the ones who bothered to show up (several were missing) told what they learned, and you could very clearly see a shift had taken place in them from the first day they arrived. Even those who were there just to be there had been touched by the week. Each one had a similar story about how when they arrived they were alarmed by the basic facilities and the fact that they could barely get a cell signal, etc., and yet now most of them didn’t want to leave. One could tell that a few of them had had epiphanies, and that—at least in that moment—they pledged they were going to fight for the environment. Those who said they probably would not take up environmental law did say they have a whole new understanding of the environment, and how they will always take this into account in their cases, and how if given the opportunity they would take pro-bono work for the environment.
I had a million thoughts running through my mind and was quite emotional myself when it was my turn to speak. I tried to lead with a joke, telling MC that maybe next time he should start the week with a grade school teacher teaching the kids how to listen, how to whisper, and how to show up on time.
I’ll never use that one again. That one fell flat.
I don’t even remember exactly what I said, but I started out by thanking them for giving me a new understanding of compassion and for the new friendships we had forged. I told them how the experience of spending time with and learning from MC and Sam over the past week was like a tornado or a tsunami moving through my internal landscape. It had rearranged what was. I tried to tell them a little bit about my journey that began a year ago at my mother’s funeral and about some of the events that had brought me to the point where I stood before them. Fortunately one thing I did noticed midway through was that no one was speaking and I had everyone’s attention, because if they were speaking I would have lost what I wanted to say, but after all many of us had become new friends over the course of the week and so they respected me to listen.
I'm not sure how my speech landed. I think in the long run though, it's not the words of speeches that are remembered, but the sincerity and the emotion behind them, and I hope I delivered on at least those aspects. Of course, afterward I thought about all the things I forgot to say when I was sitting in my seat and composing it in my head. There is a reason why I am a writer and not a speaker, after all. I like the controlled environment of the written word.
What I tried to express though, was my view of life—that we are all our own creators and that the world is first created in our thoughts, brought forth in language, and then constructed in action. And through this point, I tried to hammer home the fact that that reality conforms to the boldness of our thoughts and to push through their fears. I told them that in my experience the most destructive force in the world is fear. On the macro it’s what causes people and countries to raise arms against one another; on the micro it causes banality and complacency, and it is fear that keeps us from living the inspired lives we dream of living.
Derhadun, June 22nd.