• Sue McDowell

Learning during a pandemic


The pandemic has been a blessing in one way - I have had a lot of time to read. In the old busy days I'd read a book and then, inevitably, toss it down when I was done and rush off to a different topic. Now, I have the benefit of reading a book and then following all the threads that arise from that book down research paths (or rabbit holes). I have had an interest in sustainability and a concern about Climate Change for a very long time. So June became an intense focus on the natural world and, specifically, our response to our environment. I'm listing out the books here so I have a memory of this time and so anyone with similar interests can join me along the path!


I started the month with Desert Cabal, by Amy Irvine. Amy is sixth-generation Utahn and was asked to write this book in response to the 50th Anniversary of Edward Abbey's seminal piece, Desert Solitaire. She packs a lot into a slim book - immigration, a woman's sense of space and safety, and the juxtaposition of native american experience, settler experience, and modern-day land-use including the over-use of modern day recreationists. A nice interview with her about this work can be found here.

As I finished Amy's piece I decided I really needed to go back and re-read Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. I had family that were making the best of being stranded in the Southwest during the early days of the pandemic. Abbey's reflections on his time as a Seasonal Park Ranger at Arches and his love of all things desert aligned nicely with the pictures I saw of their hikes posted on their blog. Abbey was one of the last people to float down the Colorado River before it was dammed to be the Glen Canyon Dam and was a passionate advocate for the American West. (see an interesting speech he gives here). But Abbey is a controversial figure - cited as both an environmentalist and the a proponent of eco-terrorism. He was also a man of his time - running through five wives and extolling the rugged individualism (inherently male) available to those willing to live on the land. Reading Desert Solitaire now I can see what I didn't have the maturity to understand when I first read the book and I re-read Desert Cabal with Abbey's book fresh in my mind. It has been rare that I've given myself the time to read, re-read, and then truly analyze books as I once did in Lit classes. The only thing I wished I had was a cohort/reading/book club to walk along with me. It's always nice to have others to challenge our assumptions.


Reading Irvine's latest work inspired me to circle back to her first book, Trespass. This earlier work is a passionate piece about discovering self - trying to navigate your sense of place, your sense of belonging, and then adding to the mix the broader concerns of how to responding to the land where you live or where your soul is anchored. Irvine adds in the complexity of Mormon history and her own religious upbringing as well as her first naive interactions, and increasing maturity, about the complex relationships of Native Americans and the American West.


This last piece, our complex relationship to indigenous people and their teachings of respect and stewardship for our world, led me to Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I'll admit that this was, in part, a detour and I devoured it as such. Kimmerer had me walking with her in the NW forests and the Adirondack woods. Learning new facts about plants while gaining new insight into native use and wisdom was a breathe of air. I had been slowly reading Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett, Jr. This collection of articles Bennett wrote for Ebony Magazine from 1962-64 is an account of the history of black men and women in the discovery, founding, battling and living history of the United States. I started both books in the context of my recent genealogy research and my attempt to understand threads of my maternal family (that were on Cape Cod in 1640). In this time of #blacklivesmatter, it's become clear to me that I will need to do much more study to truly understand the early days of this country. Ultimately, Kimmerer's book challenged me to think of other ways to work on climate recovery and it restored my faith that I can find a way to re-engage in a healthy relationship with our natural world. As such, it scored a place on my "books I'll keep" shelf. Bennett's book restored my faith that if I keep my heart open and follow the recommendations of so many good teachers out there now, I can find material that will continue to open my eyes and heart to a fuller history of this country. His book, when I finish it, has scored a spot right next to my dog-eared copy of Nathaniel Philbrick's The Mayflower.


The last book on my June list was Raw Material by Stephany Wilkes. Wilkes follows her passion for knitting to trace the supply chain in California for organically raised, locally processed wool. It's a fascinating trail of how our country had (by 2015) divorced itself from manufacturing. And how a new breed of American's are re-thinking this movement and trying to re-institute safe, sustainable, and local farming, textile, and garment manufacturing. Wilkes learns to sheer sheep, to understand eco-friendly farming methods to capture carbon, and how to use natural dyes to counter the toxic pollution of synthetic dyes and other fabric ingredients. I'd started June with The Coat Route, by Meg Lukans Noonan which tracks the creation of a bespoke $50,000 vicuna overcoat. Both books helped me understand the painful environmental costs of fast fashion (the 2nd most polluting industry on earth)

and the great new movements like the visible mending movement.


I'm inspired knowing that there are others who are directly challenging the ethos of offshore manufacturing while recognizing the increasing complexity of our global interactions.


Enjoy the reading.


Or share your thoughts if you have other books along this path. I'm not sure I would wish a pandemic on any culture, but I am grateful that I have access to online resources and the budget and time to pursue these works. It does make the evening hours fly and it gives me a lot to think about as I consider my own making and my impact on the earth every day.

-Nameste






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