© 2011 Eiren Caffall all rights reserved

A few days ago the image of a green ribbon came across my facebook news feed.

The text went like this:

The pink ribbons have always bugged me…the idea of putting the energy and effort of well-meaning citizens behind “the search for a cure for cancer” just irritates me, because let’s face it, we know what causes cancer, and therefore we can do better than cure it, we can prevent it! Maybe not 100%, but we can take it back to the modest rates that previous generations of human beings enjoyed…If you really want to make a difference in the war against cancer, forget about those ridiculous pink ribbons. Use the power of your wallet and your ballot to insist that the government step up and do its job in regulating the industrial agriculture sector.

It makes sense that people are focusing on ribbons in the wake of all the controversy about the Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood. The quote was linked back to the original post on Common Dreams, and reading it through I find a lot to agree with here.

I’m like any good environmentalist, and I will go to the barricades to support folks who want to fight the causes of pollution and find the crazy subtle links between the toxic chemicals we’re hourly pouring into our ecosystem and the unintended consequences of disease, species collapse, mutation and global climate change that result from our little uncontrolled environmental experiments.

I want people to have their awareness of environmental collapse raised, I surely do. No denying the importance of that green ribbon.

But then, that ribbon could mean a whole lot of things. According to Wikipedia, a green ribbon can signify traumatic brain injury awareness, organ transplantation awareness, kidney cancer awareness.

Like the author of that Common Dreams post, ribbons bug me sometimes, too. I wonder, like Susan Niebur, a blogger who we lost last week to breast cancer, about the impact of “awareness” when we need cash for more research and more activism.

And I wonder about all the things that effect my life. How can I pick just one cause, and find the ribbon I’m supposed to wear to support it?

I love someone on the autism spectrum, so I could wear a ribbon with puzzle pieces. I have genetic kidney disease, so that green ribbon could be a three-time winner for me since it signifies kidney disease awareness, environmental awareness and organ transplantation awareness – which I can also claim since my father lived ten extra years as a result of the transplanted kidney he got in 1990.

Most days for me it is not my own health, or that of my family, that pulls my focus. It is the global climate, it is the global ecosystem. So the green ribbon would win, I guess, if I wore ribbons.

I write about the precarious fates of frogs and bats and bees and bison and the world’s oceans. I obsess about a changing climate that is arriving already in the warming winters we’re seeing here in the Midwest, in the snowdrops that bloomed in Chicago last week, in the January thunderstorms we’ve come to know.

But, I am not like those environmentalists who, in their frustration over the destruction of the global ecosystem, find only anger at the constructions of humankind – who hate our engines, our chemicals, our industrialization. I do not, in principle, hate what humans have made, because I believe that we have a purpose here, and so does our technology, even if the run of our species is limited by our own folly.

I believe in a spiritual work that we have to do, something energetic and grand and intangible that goes beyond my poor theology towards something I can barely articulate: I think that there is something fundamentally important in the fact that we are here to witness.


The word stops me dead in my writer’s tracks, with it’s echo and its import.

It may be the only word that I can find that helps me justify our presence here. But, I’ll be honest, some days it just seems too small. Some days that one word feels less than powerful, less than deep. Some days it feels woo-woo and inarticulate and vague.

That one notion – witness – can be punched full of holes, can’t it?

What good is our witness if we are destroying ourselves in the process of witnessing? What purpose does it serve?

I accept that, given our current path, our species is probably on the way out, and certainly showing itself to be unqualified for the work of planet stewardship. But somehow the witnessing still feels crucial to me, so much like an unalloyed good, and a uniquely human gift, that I, for one, will love our witness until we are gone, and feel lucky to have lived in this world as a human being.

I feel lucky to have lived in a time when we are able, through science, to see the earth so fully in the masterful intricacies of its patterns: the tiny molecules of it, the DNA strands, the Fibonacci sequence in its perfect glory. I feel lucky to have lived in a time when we are able, through art and technology, to make visible the beauty of all those intricacies for each other.

I feel lucky to have been given my limited and greedy human mind with which to see these things, not because it is better than any other creature’s, but because it is my own, and I know it, and I know its worth.

Here when the world is going to pieces, I do relish being awake and alive to the beauty of it, of being a human watching this end of all things.

I have written about those views before in my essay in The Time After, and have loved the writings on deep ecology of Joanna Macy. In her On Being interview with Krista Tippet she says that being alive to this moment is crucial, that we, as humans, must live out our witness to this time with as much grace as we can muster. She says that we are like children at the bedside of our dying mother:

I mean, say…she’s dying of cancer and you can’t go in her house or in her room because I don’t want to look at her. But if you love her, you want to be with her. If we love our world, we’re able to see the scum of oil spreading across the Gulf. We’re able to see what it’s doing to the wetlands and the marshes, what it’s doing to the dolphins and the gulls. When you love something, your love doesn’t say, “Well, too bad my kid has leukemia, so I won’t go near her.” It’s just the opposite.

We must be here to see, we cannot look away, and we must watch her live until she dies.

I have friends who lost their daughter Donna to cancer a few years ago. And, in losing her, they came to practice that kind of witness.

Donna Quirke Hornik

Donna Quirke Hornik

When the girl was dying, her mother, even though the family is not religious, followed the suggestion of their Chabad-Lubavitch neighbors: she wrote a prayer every day and sent it by email to be placed on the grave of the leader of the Hasidic movement, with the single phrase, “May she live until she die.”

The Rebbe’s grave is thought to have healing power by some, and people travel there for cures and miracles. But my friend did not ask for the life of her daughter to be spared. She asked only that she live until she die.

At her funeral, for she did die – poor luminous girl, she died at the age of four – at her funeral they did not bemoan her cancer or regret that they ever spent their time loving her. At her funeral, her parents shared this quote with the huge room of people who loved them, who loved Donna:

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
– Martin Luther

And then, in the wake of all they had lost, my friends went and planted apple trees. They made a nonprofit, Donna’s Good Things, and with that they raise money for other children facing adversity.

Donna’s momma planted an apple tree by joining the staff of bloggers at Chicago Now and spending a harrowing month writing each day the history of one month of the 31 months of Donna’s cancer treatment. The reach of her story has gone far beyond the girl herself, far beyond her family or the extended community that knew her; it has gone out into the world.

And today, Valentine’s Day, Donna’s mother and father would like to raise a bit more money, by asking people to raise $20,000 through St. Baldrick’s, the largest private funder of pediatric cancer research in the US, which has raised over $120 million since its inception in 2000.

For me, the question that occupies my mind isn’t whether that pink ribbon or the green one is where I should choose to focus my energy.

As Johanna Macy said in an interview reprinted on her blog:

TW: Do you think some fronts are more urgent to work on than others, or do you think it’s all equally urgent?

Joanna: Some clearly have more repercussions, deeper levels of causality in our planet’s system. Rising sea levels and shifting ocean currents caused by melting arctic ice, for example, could bring on famine quite rapidly. It’s just common sense that some issues are more urgent than others. But the problem with prioritizing is that we can start to compete in urgency, to say, “My issue is more important than your issue.” If we are fully, undividedly responding to this time of crisis, we won’t try to harangue each other. We won’t say, “What are you doing just working for women at the rape center when there are…blah, blah, blah.” I find that tiresome in the extreme. All these concerns are interrelated. An attitude that says: “I’m doing this, but I totally respect what you’re doing” will serve us better in the long run.

Now, I am not suggesting that we all try to back every cause. Doing that would not only be impossible, it would be dangerous.

What I am saying is that we must work, and work very hard, to see that in every way we are all connected to each other.

We must be able to see that the web of cause and effect binds us together. Monsanto’s chemicals to Donna’s cancer perhaps. But, more importantly, and more usefully, Donna’s light and life to a way of seeing the world that chooses to cherish and hope rather than despair.

Despair is an easy choice when standing in the honored presence of a dying child or a dying ecosystem.

And we could all choose despair a dozen times an hour.

But Donna’s family chose hope, and I, for one, choose it when I look out at a warm winter or a January thunderstorm or a snowdrop in the wrong time of year.

I would rather and find hope in the gorgeous act of being awake, worshiping life, going on with purpose and grace.

I would rather not find my fear of scarcity and loss dictating whether I wear one ribbon or another, or skimp on funds to cure the lives of those in need in favor of the money to clean up the mess that we have wrought.

Human lives have worth, and as someone whose whole family has benefited from the medical breakthroughs of the industrial age, I would rather not attempt to pick and choose which thing I love and support the most: the science that might help us mitigate all the mistakes we have made in the stewardship of the earth, or the lives of people who might try to help pull at the weight of repairing what we have broken.

So, today, at a moment when my friends are asking people to contribute to St. Baldrick’s in the name of Donna and all children who are in need of a cure, I will be giving money to them, and remembering that everything really is connected: life to life, earth to people, the dying ecosystem to the lives of her stewards and their children.

I, for one, in this time of everything going to pieces, will plant my apple tree.

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