Mary Gilliland on Her Essay, “Eco-Logic”

Mary Gilliland is an award-winning author and activist. She’s the author of two poetry collections: Gathering Fire and The Ruined Walled Castle Garden. Her award-winning The Devil’s Fools is forthcoming from Codhill Press. She has extensive teaching experience primarily at her alma mater, Cornell University, where she taught courses such as “Ecosystems & Ego Systems” for the Biology & Society Program and “Mind & Memory: Creativity in the Arts & Sciences,” offered through the Society for the Humanities. With such intersecting interests, Mary’s love for writing and science are essential to her essay in From the Finger Lakes: A Memoir Anthology: “Eco-Logic.” In it, she recounts her experience fighting to protect her home and the surrounding nature from a hazardous solvent leak.

  • Can you tell me about being both an author and an activist and how those two identities intersect?

I see the two as complementary. Most people who write for no pay do so because they feel deeply. My first poem came when I was 6 years old and somewhere in that early childhood my father called me defiant. I’ve testified at NYS Department of Environmental Conservation hearings by reading my poems.

  • Your piece in the Memoir Anthology has an activist tone that made it stand out from the others for me. Why did you choose to write it in this way?

About the writing: I seldom start with a plan; I learn as I go. For this essay, I didn’t so much choose a tone as search for a way to link many experiences in my life that remembering this event put me in mind of. I’d like the essay to encourage others to stay alert to their surroundings and pursue the feasible in terms of change or remediation.

Social justice and protecting the earth have always mattered to me. One person’s energy is limited, so collaborating helps, as does focusing on the doable, the possible—I learned this from a dazzling community of people whom I lived among in my mid-20’s. And this is as true for writing, having a first reader, as it is for activism, having a first responder—to your thinking.

The chemical spill that I’m writing about in ‘Eco-Logic’ happened a while ago. And it worked out, chiefly because my husband and I had for 10 prior years kept a log of the signs of leakage and odors we observed. Good things have happened on the land since then, both private lands and the public South Hill Recreation Way. By the way, by attending town meetings, writing letters, making phone calls, I prevented the macadam paving of that 3-mile trail through the woods. I can’t save it all, but the Six Mile Creek watershed is my backyard.

  • People my age (22) are concerned about the environment—after years of environmental activism, how does the state of environment feel to you?

The mainstream media transmits much pessimism on this topic. Frankly, we’ve never had much time to change our ways. And lasting social change starts one person at a time. Innovation can happen quickly, and there’s reason to be optimistic about current research and practical inventions. I also think it’s best to take the ego out of this topic as much as possible. Human beings enmesh themselves in thinking they are the crown of creation. When I was 30, I worked on the Nuclear Freeze campaign. Folks were impassioned about how scary Reagan’s arms buildup was, talking about having to survive, how important it was that the human race not die out. At a gathering, Nanao Sakaki woke up the conversation: “No need to survive!” That’s true. And environmental activism is about far more than preserving a woodland; it’s about stopping war and dismantling nuclear weapons. The military and arms dealers create the most pollution, and the most deadly pollution, on this planet.

  • I really connected to growing up surrounded by nature—do you think being immersed in nature as a child contributed to your draw to environmental activism later in life?

Yes. I designed and taught a writing seminar called ‘Ecosystems & Ego Systems,’ and on the syllabus was a very brief essay by Gary Snyder about the vivid, living, lasting impression made on children by their surroundings ages 5 to 10. This essay resonated so strongly with my students! It’s not necessarily necessary to be immersed in nature 24/7. Cities are vibrant places and many of them have parks, rivers, botanical gardens. What’s needed is access to these healthy and healing areas for all children, regardless of socioeconomic status. The United States is very far from providing this human right to a healthy environment to all its people. The recent National Parks movement inviting BIPOC visitors and Artists in Residence is one good change.

I’ll also mention a guest lecture we heard when I taught ‘Mind & Memory: Creativity in the Arts & Sciences.’ Entomologist Tom Eisner who did a great deal of research in the Amazon (yes, the real, actual Amazon) was extremely concerned about its devastation and the leveling of rain forest for the cash crop of beef; for years he had presented zounds-worth of quantitative data in his lectures trying to convince audiences to help protect the region, but got little result. Once he shared about the creatures and the flowers, though, once he conveyed to an audience the being-ness of being there, they responded. He learned the lesson that it’s not information that changes people’s minds, but love. Whatever the inroads of greed, anger, and ignorance, we all deserve the opportunity to care.

  • The situation with Therm was eventually resolved, so why did you decide to write about it?

I wrote about it against despair and pessimism. The damaged area was never restored, although there was verbal assurance this would happen. Heavy, noisy machinery was stationed there for months, purifying water flowing downhill. When the machinery left, the area was abandoned. A friend of ours compiled a list of native vegetation, but it’s filled now with invasive vegetation. I’ve observed that there’s usually lots of energy and funds for destruction and to get behind emergencies, but so much less goes to restoring, protecting, and beautifying natural areas that people could enjoy.

The story of that chemical spill and its cleanup is an example of the effectiveness of person-to-person interaction. We could have brought a lawsuit. Instead, we reached out to the company. Let’s go large with this: CEO’s have been persuaded by their children to change the way company practices affect the environment. This happened years ago with Weyerhauser; because his kids spoke up, the owner switched company practice from clearcutting to sustainable timber harvest. Let’s keep the good stories alive! Youth awareness and passion can change corporate culture.

  • What advice would you give to a young writer who might want to begin writing environmental activism pieces?

Notice what you notice. That’s a little advice from Allen Ginsberg that I’m passing on to you. Start with people, places, situations that magnetize you. Find what you want to follow. That might vary from the pristine, if you can locate it, to the deadly; there have been many environmental activists murdered in many countries. Travel to Alaska; what’s new there? Investigate the ecology, including the political ecology, of Puerto Rico. Do a lot of camping, hiking. Learn the flowers.

Develop and show up for your writing practice, whether that’s first thing in the morning or last at night, or 15 minutes per day, or 1 round-the-clock weekend during each of the 4 seasons, or a journal you draw pictures in as well as words for the same 2 hours every afternoon. Find the way that works for you. And do it because you have to and want to. Not everyone has to write. Somebody’s got to run for office.

Barbara Regenspan

The Chessmaster’s Daughter is available on Amazon and at Buffalo Street Books.
An interview with Barbara Regenspan in regards to her published book of poems, The Chessmaster’s Daughter.
  • How does your Jewish heritage influence your writing?

My specific Jewish heritage is situated in the understanding of both of my parents that “living a decent life” requires a belief that all human beings deserve adequate resources: food, housing, education and the ability to imagine a gratifying life for their children. Both my mother and father were influenced by socialist movements that were heavily populated by Jews during their relatively constrained young adulthoods, although neither of them were activists. Both associated their tremendous respect for knowledge of history and literature with their Jewishness. My mother continually conveyed that she should have been a teacher, but that she was discouraged by dynamics of both classism and antisemitism when she was growing up in the Philadelphia public schools during the Depression. She was very proud of my own desire to be a teacher, and she was never impressed by higher paying careers. She herself became a secretary to the head of curriculum in the city school district when I was a young teenager.  My father shared this pride in my commitment to teaching, but I believe that his pride in both my career choice and commitments to community engagement were also influenced by sexism, particularly the belief that women should fulfill care-taking roles. I participated in a Zionist youth movement in young adulthood, not initially processing the contradiction, but eventually I rebelled against both Zionist politics and a level of classism I observed especially among many suburban Jews. I have been married for forty years to an ordained Reform rabbi whose ambivalence about both the patriarchal nature of the religion and his resistance to Zionism made him too uncomfortable to continue to lead a full-time congregation after less than ten years. Yet both he and I continue to pursue study of Jewish texts, and I even lead services occasionally in the local Reform temple, which makes a home for politically progressive Jews, some of whom share my ambivalence about both Judaism and organized religion. I don’t experience my attachment and sometime love of Judaism as strictly rational, yet I also don’t believe that rationalism includes enough of the stuff of being human. I detached from Judaism for a period in my twenties when I pursued non-violent revolutionary politics, even briefly joining a Trotskyist movement, but eventually found the rationalism of the Left to be only slightly less troubling than capitalist rationalism. I reconnected to Judaism through the progressive New Jewish Agenda around the time I met my husband, and we led a chapter of that movement during our early marriage, coinciding with his decision to go to rabbinical school.

  • Your poems are rich with imagery—do you have a process in picking which images you include?

The imagery of my poems come from the “newsreel in my head,” that I think of as conceived equally by political, psychological, and spiritual life experience. The connection between my relatively recent evolution as a poet and my social science research modality of auto-ethnography—that is the illumination of one’s own life experience through critical political, psychological and spiritual lenses and the reverse—examination of the critical political, psychological, and spiritual realities of the historical era in which one lives using personal life experience for data, is not an accident.

  • How do you remember some of these specific memories; did you keep a diary as a child/teenager?

Although I have not journaled with any consistency, I have periodically since childhood written both angry and positively determined-toward-future-behavior manifestos of either rage or good intentions towards the future. My father was an intellectual and often-charming-but-narcissistic man with related troubled psycho-sexual boundaries. His humanity was in equal measure empowered and damaged by his experience of childhood and adolescence as a Jew from a working class family in Roumania at the turn of the century who literally brought his family to this country as an older teenager, escaping and saving them from the worst of the rise of fascism in Europe. My mother grew up in a working class Jewish family in West Philadelphia. Her own father was briefly conscripted into the tsar’s army, and when he came to this country, he was briefly a “Wobbly” (Workers of the World) activist. I have a powerful memory from when I was about ten-years-old of him when he was dying of cancer, lying naked in shallow water in the bathtub of the garden apartment he shared with the woman with whom he lived after my grandmom died. My mother and her siblings did not like this woman, Ida, who gave me costume jewelry clip-on earrings I treasured. I remember one Mother’s Day wrapping them in Kleenex and re-gifting them to my mother. These memories are all so psychodynamically colorful and vivid that I have not needed journals for them to construct the “newsreel in my mind.”    

  • What kind of research do you conduct to help write your poems?

My academic career in Educational Studies as both an existentialist philosopher and a social justice-focused teacher educator required me to be an intellectual generalist. I have had to acquire survey knowledge from the fields of the humanities and the socially critical social sciences. Also, during my time as a Trotkyist, I studied Marxism and its derivatives in feminism very seriously. I had tremendous respect for the psychoanalyst, Otto Thaler, who eventually resigned from my dissertation committee because my feminist interpretations of Freud felt too uncomfortable for him. Later in my career, I read all of the books by Deborah Britzman, a Lefty teacher educator like me who eventually pursued formal psychoanalytic training. She and Sherry Turkle have powerfully influenced my own thinking about my life as female Jewish teacher and academic of my era. So, I have processed my own life experience through many different research modalities, including what I learned as a social work student in therapy at a psychoanalytic institute when my husband was a rabbinical student in Cincinnati. It was also at this time that our first baby died at birth, and I learned a tremendous amount in grief counseling with my husband, which we pursued until our son, Ben, now thirty-five, was born. I later also gave birth to my wonderful daughter, Sarah, whose unusually vast emotional and spiritual intelligence has also educated me more powerfully than any formal research could. But in the sense of formal active research, I often consult Wikipedia when I feel a need for more background knowledge or musicality when a poem leads me in the direction of a memory around which I need specific historical or mythological information that I can deliver with cadence.  

  • Do your poems come to you randomly throughout the day, or do you have to sit down and really have to concentrate and think for them to come to out?

I have almost always written my poems in response to qualities of form and/or content I admire in other poets’ poems, by “filling in” my own vivid memories. So, I typically use a published poem as a kind of loose template for some quality or combination of qualities that inspire me. I have been co-leading with my husband, David, and a few close friends the Cascadilla Writers’ Group every Monday morning for six years. We have almost consistently followed this same process of presenting a published poem, collectively deconstructing it, and then each pursuing our own writing for about a half-hour, using that poem for anything inspiring we find in it. I learned this process when I took classes with Amherst Writers’ and Artists and workshops with the Northampton, Mass. poet, Patricia Lewis, on a sabbatical in 2009 that began with a workshop with the poet Tony Hoagland who became a friend with whom I corresponded until his death in 2018.  I also had one incredibly educative term in an MFA program in 2015 when the poet Leslie Ullman was my mentor.

  • In your book of poems, why do you repeat “My father lived on oranges the week he beat Botvinik at the tournament in Atlantic City” in both Education 1 and Construction of Plea by Keychain Association 2?

It’s a seminal memory of my childhood.  My memory is that Botvinik was the name of the Russian chess champion who became the international chess champion in the year my father beat him in one game at the tournament in Atlantic City during my very early childhood when he (my father) was the Pennsylvania state chess champion. My father was a healthy eater, and he also had certain ascetic qualities. He regularly exerted a kind of “less-is-more” influence on my thinking that I believe was actually quite healthy and part of what shaped my own anti-capitalist thinking from an early age.

The idea of “living on oranges” for a week impressed me from the perspective of both sacrificing plentitude and range and also making a healthy choice about what to choose for sustenance during a challenging time.