On July 15th, for my birthday, I set my alarm to wake up at 3am, even though the day ahead was a marathon of zoom calls. My partner and I left the house at 3:30, and by 4am we were parked on the Mt. Wilson Observatory road, gazing north east and marvelling at the comet NEOWISE.
The comet NEOWISE was 'discovered' just a few months ago. Discovered is an interesting word, because people saw NEOWISE 11,000 years ago when it last buzzed by Earth. Before light pollution, when the sky was a part of normal life, the comet would have been obvious. What did it mean to those humans? As Daria and I passed our binoculars back and forth, we pondered what life was like back then.
It's called the overview effect. When you zoom so far out, you see the whole differently. The overview effect is typically used to describe seeing the earth from space, or from the moon. From that vantage point, the little divisions disappear, things like our smallness and fragility become more apparent. I reflected on the 11,000 years of rises and falls of civilizations -- we could assume that's roughly 5,000 generations. I reflected on the 250 years of American democracy, and how most of that time voting was limited to so few people in this land.
I also reflected as well on our 120 years of Sierra Club history. With the overview effect, the story of the environmental movement starts to feel very condensed, and the actions of our past leaders seem very close at hand.
This week the Sierra Club began 'pulling down our monuments' to our problematic past. John Muir's words and actions have been the main focus, with news headlines such as "Sierra Club Denounces Founder John Muir for Racism" (NPR). I think that when we 'denounce' we miss two key points. First, the Michael Brune blog post which sparked this round of introspection was titled "Pulling Down Our Monuments" and I read it more closely as a 'dismantling' than an outright dynamiting. I like the word dismantling because it's intentional. When you dismantle something, you pick each piece up and set it aside so that, if it's needed again, it can be used. When you dismantle something, you find the pieces which are no longer serving you, and then you can reassemble it to be stronger, updated, more fit for our current age.
The second major point that many of us might have missed in this emphasis on John Muir is the simple fact that racism is not a problem of individuals holding racist views, but rather a problem of structures and policies that serve racist ends. Whether John Muir made racist comments, and how exactly he changed later in life, are missing the point. The system of wilderness conservation promoted in this country for a century is deeply problematic because of the ways it has excluded people from the land, notably native peoples. I find the conversation about racist policies more interesting than racist people.
Deep breath. The comet might only visit us every 11,000 years, but we get to view it for weeks. There is enough time to see the comet, and there is enough time to dismantle the racism of the Sierra Club.
The Angeles Chapter is helping to lead the way. Our leadership has launched a process of training and assessment to support our growth. We are having uncomfortable conversations, and we are learning.
I had a great birthday, full of calls with amazing Club leaders who volunteer their time to support our mission. As Daria and I sat on the Mt. Wilson road sipping tea and marveling at NEOWISE’s majestic tail, we kept returning to gratitude. Gratitude to be alive right now, gratitude for the opportunity to do important work, and gratitude to those thousands of generations of people upon whose wisdom we draw, and whose legacy we continue forward.