Monthly Archives: June 2014

The meaning and use of shared stories about our personal connections with nature

by Erlene Woollard

As Suzuki Elders for the Environment, we often think and debate about how our roles and actions can be most useful in helping to provide positive social change. We ask ourselves how we might make our stories useful and even essential to providing encouraging pathways for younger people and help them to manoeuvre the natural and political environments they will inherit from us. We, in turn, rely on each other and the many “others” we are engaged with for encouragement and guidance. Scholars and “doers” happily share their wisdom and observations and offer to communicate to us by “quotable” quotes that we can choose to enhance our journeys through this complex business of living well but lightly on the earth.

I want to share some of those quotes that I have sought or stumbled upon recently, starting with one by Nancy Lubin:

“In the long run, numbers numb, jargon jars, and nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart. If you really want to connect with our audience, give them what they’re waiting for, what we are always waiting for. Tell them stories.”

Taking this to heart, more than thirty Elders have recently written stories and this project is described in other documents. Ten of these Suzuki Elders are now working with a group of high school students who have shown more than a passing interest in our stories. We are seeking to capture the essence of the stories through conversations, planning meetings, interviews and an upcoming video to further capture this work.

This has led me to look back to the work of Marshall Ganz whose tools of telling stories (of me, we, now) has been a guide for communication staff at the David Suzuki Foundation who have thus guided our SE process. I note that Ganz’s work was inspired by Alexis de Toqueville’s quote:

“In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.”

On seeing this, things fell into place for me as I realized this important act of combining is often missed. When we look upon our stories as being an important part of a community seeking to connect as a system devoted to social justice and positive change it becomes more obvious how our stories can help.

The current system has its own storyline perhaps best captured by poet and philosopher Wendell Berry:

“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and less wasteful.”

This quote can help us define a way to change current public discourse from consumption, violence, death and jobs at all costs to a more balanced discourse of respect and love of a more natural life where we can combine leadership, inclusive discourse, thoughtful change and humanity while building community.

In order to offer encouragement in these times, when calls for civil disobedience seem our only resource, our stories may offer positive actions to complement them. This leads me to reflect on the life of Henry David Thoreau, the American guru on civil disobedience and his essays about his life, actions and observations.

His quotes that resonated (among others) were the following:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” 

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” 

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” 

Our stories and any other actions we choose to take as elders have the potential to encourage a better public discourse to inspire ourselves and others to make sure our song for a healthy world is sung loudly and clearly, long before we die.

This reflection linked back to Ganz’s concept of “combining” and led me to seek a better understanding of Ubuntu, a South African philosophy translated broadly as a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity. Molefe offers two maxims that have become popular definitions for ubuntu. The first is the Mbitian maxim:

 “I am because you are and since we are, therefore, I am”.

The second is the Nguni aphorism (in English)

 “a person is a person through other persons”

…..and suggests that one’s relationships with others are the foundations of one’s personhood or humanity.

In this completion of a circle I am led back to de Toqueville, then Ganz, then to the Suzuki Foundation and ourselves and our work with the community and those younger than ourselves. My passionate hope is that if we can keep this circle vibrant, the world will benefit from our work in a way yet to be determined…….

Shyamali – homage to a friend

by Archana Datta

ShyamaliEarlier this year the Youth and Literary Activities Sub-Committee of the Lower Mainland Bengali Cultural Society in Vancouver held its monthly gathering at which we hosted a young guest speaker from the Global Alliance of Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

He addressed a full house of 21 parents and children, and spoke eloquently to us on the environmental issues surrounding GAIA’s vision of a just, toxic-free world without incineration. GAIA mobilizes grassroots action against the spread of incinerators and other end-of-pipe waste technologies, helps build a movement for environmental justice, local green economies and for creative zero waste solutions. Our young speaker touched on the practical alternatives to incineration and what can be achieved through workshops at community and municipal levels, as well as individual and group efforts. He stated that being aware about the environment is the first thing one can do for one’s self, and then taking it further one step at a time. Whatever one does, it is important to always remember things in a bigger context as they affect life

I watched the reactions of the children and the parents alike. They asked questions on the challenges, what they could personally do, and how they could take the first steps. Our speaker made an obvious impression on the mixed audience. That was important for our small committee, so I let go a few items of our agenda and let the question-and-answer session proceed up to the end. All the while I watched the speaker fondly and intently, because he was the son of my dear, late friend Shyamali, and I have known Ananda since he was about 9 years old.

Shyamali was the daughter of an eminent Bengali artist, sculptor and educator from Dehradoon, India. Motherless at a very early age, Shyamali grew up with her grandmother in Shantiniketan, 160 km north of Kolkata. Shantiniketan (“home of peace”) was originally an ashram built by Debendranath Tagore, the father of India’s renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore. Today Shantiniketan is popularly known as a university town where anyone, irrespective of caste and creed, can come and spend time meditating on the one Supreme God. Shyamali grew up in nature, which had a profound influence on her.

She was an artist, activist and a mother. In the early 70’s she went to central America with her architect husband and their very young son. In the mid 70’s they came to Vancouver. She was a very social person and introduced herself to me when I was a new arrival in the city. From the first day I knew she was different to anyone else to whom I was introduced in the Bengali community.

Shyamali was a keen observer of what was going on in the world beyond her four walls, and a lot was indeed going on. She participated in public meetings, forums, artists guilds and rallies against nuclear armaments, war and the irradiation of food crops. She joined the artists’ guild and lived in a tent on Jericho Beach for a period. She was jailed in the U.S for protesting nuclear armament proliferation.

Her young son Ananda was always with her, but there was friction. On one side there was the tumultuous period in the USA with its effects on Shyamali, and on the other side there was an affluent life style. It was considered not to be healthy for the child’s soul, so Ananda was sent to an elite residential school in Ooty, situated in the mountainous Nilgiri Hills in southern India. Shyamali was not happy with this arrangement. By attending public lectures, rallies, forums and workshops with speakers the likes of Margaret Mead, Helen Caldicott, James Douglass and David Suzuki, she realized she needed to go back to her home base if she really cared for Shantiniketan and her son. She went back to India and brought her son to Shantiniketan where he finished high school.

As long as she lived, she did whatever she could do to protest against whatever she thought was wrong and she sided with whatever was right for people, for the soil, for the air, and for the water. Once in Shantiniketan she protested against a vintage car rally, arguing that the already polluted air of Shantiniketan should not be subjected to a few rich elitists’ pleasure. The organizers did not pay her any attention. She had much conviction and was a believer in non-violence as a great tool, so on the day of rally she just quietly laid herself down on the dusty road in front of the starting line and stayed there in a matter-of-fact way without any publicity and media attention. The rally could not take place. In all her artistic works, be it in a painting, in her story-telling with her home-made puppets or in her origami, she was one with nature.

She was a very gentle soul, yet uncompromising for the causes she thought were right – a tough but extremely loving role model for any child. According to Indian custom, once the body is done with living, it is incinerated. Shyamali wanted to be alive and remain part of living nature. Today her mortal body is buried under the soil in a village close to her beloved Shantiniketan. She chose that particular village because it did not discriminate against people of different religions, castes, creeds or social positions.

After he completed high school, Ananda came to live in Vancouver with his father. Since arriving here, he has never worked for any corporation, company or organization other than environmentally dedicated ones. Growing up during his formative years in Shantiniketan, with its particular social and physical environments, he realized what his mother had tried to instill in him throughout her life, namely that life is precious, not only for a privileged few, and that a healthy life is a right for every living being.

Elders of quality

by Stan Hirst

global-village-avatarsWhat are the qualities of an Elder?

Just a year ago some of the Suzuki Elders exchanged views in this blog on what it means to be an Elder.

Our Elder Emeritus, Phillip Hewett, reminded us of the cardinal underpinning of eldership, i.e. a spiritual world-view to motivate efforts towards achieving a sustainable future for our planet. He cited David Suzuki in further reminding us that the label ‘Elder’ was traditionally a title to honour individuals who have experienced a profound and compassionate reconciliation of outer- and inner-directed knowledge, and have revealed a sense of empathy and kinship with other forms of life, rather than a sense of separateness. Such Elders view an appropriate relationship with nature as a continuous two-way dialogue rather than as a one-way vertical monologue.

The Suzuki Elders have sought a common platform to bring their members together in common cause. This has been labelled the Elder Perspective and focuses on the ways in which the Association attempts to fulfil its mandate, including using realistic and positive frameworks for tasks related to conservation and achieving sustainability and social justice.

But how would one identify Elders going about their chosen tasks? Judgement by age or appearance? Hopefully not. Is just application and acceptance of the label Elder enough, or should there be some obligation to meet and maintain standards of behaviour or attitude?

Alternatively put, how does being an Elder translate in terms of qualities and behaviour as we go about the day-to-day, often tiresome, usually frustrating and always challenging business of engaging and attempting to secure a sustainable future for Earth? The Suzuki Elders have never considered these aspects in any depth, but it seems our Australian counterparts have.

In 2009 a group of 25 elders gathered in Perth, Western Australia, to participate in a public forum sponsored by the Eldership Project. They were charged with sharing their thoughts, feelings and ideas around the theme What are the qualities of an Elder? Their key thoughts and conclusions were captured, and have been reproduced here, courtesy of the Eldership Project.

The Perth forum concluded that eldership is about two things: qualities and roles. A person may have the qualities of an Elder but may not necessarily fill any meaningful Eldership role. Alternatively, a person may attempt to fulfil the role of Eldership without possessing the essential qualities. The forum noted that true Eldership only happens when a person with the qualities fulfils the role.

Some of the possible qualities of an Elder which were identified and recorded are as follows.

LIFE – their life experiences have led to deep learning.

GENEROSITY – they are willing and able to give of themselves.

ACCEPTANCE – they have come to accept life as it is, including their current condition, mistakes or injuries of the past and the insecurity of the future.

ACTIVITY – they are still active in life.

CONNECTION – they are connected to nature/spirit and to community.

FREEDOM – they have the freedom to speak their mind because they are no longer seeking to ascend in life and do not need to be concerned with the politics of success. They are also not attached to much.

COURAGE – they are willing to stand up and speak out. They have the courage to face their own lives.

SELF-VALIDATION – they have a deep appreciation of their own self and, while they may enjoy the validation of others, they do not seek it in the way younger men and women do. Their validation comes from the Spirit or from within.

JOI DE VIVRE – they have an easy joy for life.

PRIORITIES – they have developed a sense of what is – and is not – important.

CURIOSITY – they are still curious, still interested, still fascinated by life, still learning.

HOPE – despite the darkness in the world or of their own life experience, they have hope.

CALMNESS – they are not afraid, not hassled, not rushed.

AWARENESS – they have developed a keen awareness of their own self (psyche, personality, mind, shadow, etc). They may not have a perfect or complete understanding, but they have dedicated themselves to self-awareness – to “know thyself”.

EMPATHY – they can sense and feel and understand the feelings of others.

COMPASSION – they are sensitive, forgiving and compassionate.

MORTALITY – they are aware of and actively developing a final relationship with dying. They can face death, eyes open. They can think and talk about it. It is safe to explore death in their presence – and develop a deeper appreciation of life.

LISTENING – they listen actively, carefully, lovingly. They know when to speak, when to ask questions and when to be silent.

SAFETY – they bring a spiritually grounded safety to relationships and interactions.

CONTEMPLATION – they relish and require silence and contemplation, as distinct from passivity, boredom or listless inaction.

ACTION – they know when to act or speak and their actions are grounded in that depth of contemplation.

RESOLUTION – they have mostly resolved the grievances, hurts, mistakes and lost opportunities of their lives. They are not still kicking themselves or mentally imprisoning others for the past. As well as they are able, they have learnt from those things, healed and left those things behind.

RESPECT – they respect others and are respected by others.

HEALING – they may be able to bring healing arts to new or old wounds.

ALCHEMY – they have the capacity to affect, influence or lead transformation in conflicts, situations or individuals.

GRACE – is difficult to define, but true Elders have got it.





Climate Change In British Columbia

Climate change is a naturally occurring phenomenon that has shaped the Earth’s environment since the Earth was formed. The Earth and its creatures, including humans, have adapted to these changes over time, living through ice ages and periods of heat. However, the pace of change has increased dramatically since the dawn of the Industrial Age in the early 1900’s due to humanity’s introduction and use of petrochemical-based industrial processes and wholesale extraction and destruction of Earth’s natural resources.

A major result of these activities is an ongoing and accelerating elevation in global temperatures due to an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, particularly CO2 and methane. The impacts of these changes will affect all life forms on the planet for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to come.

Climate change affects us personally and on local, provincial, national and global scales. The safety, security and health of future generations depend on the actions we take now. It is time to reassess our priorities and values. We need to transition from competition and confrontation to cooperation and compassion. To create a world of social justice and sustainable living for all the world’s peoples and for all the life that depends on a healthy environment, each of us should start making positive change at home, in our communities, and throughout the world.

This brief overview describes the changes that may be experienced in British Columbia, and the adaptation and mitigation actions that each of us can take to prepare for these significant changes. Please use this document to help prepare for the climatic changes to come and to make BC a truly super, natural place to live today and for generations to come.

The impact of climate change on you, your family and your community

  • Increase in the frequency and duration of extreme weather events – heavier precipitation, stronger winds, larger storm surges.7711118
  • Hotter and drier summers; warmer and more variable winters; fewer frost days; higher warming effect in the northeast section of the province.
  • More snow in winter, but faster melt. Spring melt could result in more flooding. Less snow remaining in mountains during summer and fall, resulting in lower river flows throughout the province. An increased probability of drought.
  • Sea level rise up to 1 metre by 2100 CE.
  • Increase in ocean acidity; disruption of salmon migratory patterns; decrease in the ability of sea creatures to produce shells.
  • Shift in the distributional range of insects and other life-forms northwards from warmer climates.

What you can do to help

  • Reduce, reuse, recycle waste.
  • Drive less – walk, cycle or use public transit.
  • Plant trees.
  • Buy locally.
  • Use water sparingly.
  • Lower the thermostat; wear warmer clothing if necessary.
  • Live sustainably.

What you can do to adapt

  • Store food and water for emergencies.
  • Relocate away from sea shores and river deltas. Raise your home to alleviate flooding.
  • Grow your own food, and share it with neighbours.
  • Compost food wastes.
  • Develop a neighbourhood emergency response plan.
  • Use nature-based fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Learn about local medicinal plants and practice preventative health care.

Source references

The following reports have been referenced in the preparation of this document:

  • Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2012, City of Vancouver (available at
  • Fifth Assessment Report 2013, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (available at

Please read both reports for additional information about climate change in BC, particularly in the Greater Vancouver Regional District, and in the world at large.

The above post has been made available as an information pamphlet for distribution to community centres within Vancouver.
Posted by Jim Park