I was behind Bill McKibben in the grocery store today. Bill McKibben! We were in the express line of the local Hannaford’s, me holding pesto and organic bananas, some birthday cards for my niece, and he with a few miscellaneous items, butter and cheese — locally produced, of course.
This was some kind of dream-come-true moment, the kind of synchronicity that you hear about at writer’s conferences, a cue, if you will. McKibben’s book, Oil and Honey, sits squarely on my writing desk, and there I was, an emerging environmental writer still acclimating to my recent move to Vermont, now standing next to him in line at the Hannaford’s, with the chewing gum and Tic Tacs, staring opportunity in the face.
What I should have said was, “Excuse me, Mr. McKibben, but I am a huge supporter and fan of your work. I am also an environmental writer, and just recently moved here to Middlebury, so I just want to introduce myself.” I should’ve told him that in fact, I was also a contributor to Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, and that I thought his essay, “Why Not Frack,” was brilliant. I should have told him that I’m so honored to have my work published between the same book covers as his. We would’ve exchanged pleasantries and shaken hands, and I would have felt like a real writer, on cloud nine for the rest of the month.
But instead, I took notice of the little earpiece he was wearing —the kind you wear when you are a very busy, very important author and environmental activist who must talk on the phone all the time to senators and congressional leaders, to publishers and agents, to attorneys who help release you from jail for your civil disobedience— and I told myself: Who do you think you are? This poor man is probably never home because he’s so busy saving the world, and he just wants to buy his Cabot butter and cheese in peace, without being interrupted by some frizzy-haired mother with perspiration rings under her arms.
So I said nothing. Did nothing. And watched one of my heroes walk away.
I try to tell myself that it’s probably for the best. That, given the kind of harassment to which McKibben will be subjected by the Republican opposition research group, American Rising —harassment which will entail following the man around with video cameras and employing trolls to comb through his body of work, digging for hypocrisies and inconsistencies to fuel their political attacks— given the anticipated harassment, I tell myself, it’s better to leave Mr. McKibben alone.
But then, if I’m honest, I will admit that my paralysis had nothing to do with America Rising, except perhaps that it is grounded in exactly the same thing that motivates the donors behind their work, which is to say fear.
My pathology of literary ambition and social anxiety is a distinct hell, a condition from which I was certain I suffered alone, until I read Rick Bass’s “Shy” several years ago. Bass perfectly characterizes this unfortunate state of being, and while I can find camaraderie in his admissions and excuse myself for being a shy writer, the thing that fills me with self-loathing is calling myself an activist when my introversion and anxiety prevent me from being very active at all. Rick Bass may be a shy writer, but he is a badass environmental activist, with the arrest record to prove it. How can I expect to exert any change, I scold myself, if I cannot even find the courage to speak to my own tribe?
At home, I confess to my husband, who reassures me by admitting to his own star-struck awkwardness. “I saw Bill McKibben skiing up at Rikert,” he offers. “I couldn’t bring myself to say hello.”
Fine. But this is what I do, I say. Or at least am trying to do — but honestly, how much doing am I really doing when the thought of Twitter and self-promotion and direct-confrontational activism makes me nauseous, heart racing like I’m stuck on the high-dive, writhing like a worm?
Stop, my husband says. Breathe.
It’s finally springtime in Vermont, mud season, and the local Agway is setting out flowering trees and hearty perennials, the mulch and materials for maintaining your compost bin. I remember teaching my girls about compost back in Oregon, how they would deposit found earthworms from the yard into our bin, after letting the creatures blindly explore their outstretched, open hands.
It’s an ecosystem, I told them. The worms are doing the decomposition work to make the soil healthy for the plants — and it’s just now that I’m finally seeing where I might fit into this larger world. There is much quiet, underground work in sustaining the plants that bloom and inspire us with their tenacity, with their never-ending hope.
Bill McKibben says, “The real task for activists is to change the zeitgeist.”
Zeitgeist. Spirit of the age. Spirit of the time. Our culture, in other words: how we see the world, what we value, how we might defend the things we love. You find it in the art that we make, the stories we tell, in the lessons we teach our kids.
So maybe, for now, it’s okay to be a shy environmental writer, to express my activism through my art. Maybe today it’s enough to be the mother who still volunteers in her daughter’s classroom, who nurtures her classmates’ knowledge about, and wonder of the world. Maybe I can forgive myself for being so reserved around the big players, the ones with environmental arrest records. They have their roles in this activist ecosystem, and I am still figuring out my own.
Excuse me, Mr. McKibben. My name is Mary Heather. I am an environmental scientist, writer, and mother. I am a fellow Vermonter now, and a huge fan of your work. Thanks for everything you’re doing. And, hey, if you need me, I’ll be down here for now, making change from the forest floor.
Photo credit: Chesapeake Climate Action Network, from Wikimedia Commons
I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.