If you are unfamiliar with the term “beatnik,” you are in the spring of life, so to speak. The term refers to a movement of artist, poets, writers and musicians in the early 50’s and the 60’s. They were to those years what hippies were to the 60’s and 70’s, except they believed in the free and radical expression of creativity. They rejected the dominant narrative of society’s culture and politics and opted out of conventional lifestyles. Words like “daddy-o, cat, digging this,” and even “hip” were birthed by the mostly young beatniks. But the word “beatnik” itself was created by San Francisco poet Bob Kaufman.
In the U.S. beatniks are often associated with the names of Ginsberg and Kerouac. Given that race defines almost every aspect of American life, it is no wonder that Bob Kaufman’s name is rarely heard or his poetry rarely spoken of in anthologies and American poetry collections.
Kaufman was born in New Orleans. His parents were of African American and Jewish American descent. After some active years in the Merchant Marines, living in California, exploring the literary scene, Kaufman became quite disenchanted with life. Imprisonment and drug use lead him to take a 10-year vow of silence. “Morning Joy” comes from a collection of Kaufman’s poems, The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978, written before his vow of silence and his new works which came after it in 1973. In 1978 Kaufman took another vow of silence. He had a large following in France. Kaufman died on January 12, 1986 in San Francisco.
Piano buttons, stitched on morning lights.
Jazz wakes with the day.
As I awaken with jazz, love lit the night.
Eyes appear and disappear,
To lead me once more, to a green moon.
Streets paved with opal sadness,
Lead me counterclockwise, to pockets of joy,
Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World: Replenishing the Earth, Wangari Maathai, Doubleday, NY. 2010.
“You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself. That values itself. That understands itself.” Wangari Maathai (April, 1940-September, 2011)
I did not know who Wangari Maathai was until September, 2011 when I heard that she had transitioned. I later learned that she was a Nobel Laureate and founder the Green Belt Movement which sought to help the people, mostly women, in rural Kenya plant and nurture millions of trees. Her call was impassioned by her love for the earth and the people on it.
Briefly, Maathai believed that the problems that the rural women in Kenya experienced were because of the erosion and degradation of the rural environment. As with most people in the modern world, these rural Kenyan women believed that they lacked the money to heal the land, and it was Maathai who went about tirelessly speaking in churches and community gatherings to convince them that money was not the problem.
Maathai recognized that the separation experienced between the “others” and the environment was at the root of environmental degeneration. Having been raised in the Christian tradition, Maathai used the Bible to convince rural Kenyans that it was their divine responsibility to care for the environment.
There’s a lot of information about Africa’s environment to take in. For example, scientists refer to the Congo Basin’s forest as the planet’s “second lung,” by the sheer volume of carbon dioxide it absorbs and the oxygen that it exhales. Maathai believes that the world must be educated about the Congo Basin’s role in maintaining a healthy planetary environment. Unfortunately, timber companies are responsible for felling many of the trees in the Basin in an attempt to satisfy the “global” demand (U.S and Europe) for wood.
Kenya’s Kikuyus are experiencing the negative impacts of the erosion and degeneration of the land. Originally practitioners of traditional culture and spirituality, Kikuyus have been fed a steady diet of European Christianity. Nowhere is this more evident, Maathai, argues than in their diet. Where once these traditional peoples ate meat occasionally, they now require it daily. “This craving for bush meat has meant an increase in poaching, as the animals’ skins, horns, and now flesh have a price tag on them. The land on which these animals used to roam free has been commercialized, fenced in, and privatized” (pg. 53).
As is the experience with many Indigenous nations around the world, the economy and culture has shifted from a collective responsibility to an individualistic elite that focuses not on community, but on self and the bottom line.
Maathai traveled the world as a United Nations Messenger of Peace appointee coming from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In Japan she observed how the Japanese have held on to their traditional farming methods that at the heart reflects their spirituality and relationship with the Earth. Although Japan is free of many of the challenges that face the Kenyan people, they are noticing and attending to practices that have resulted in waste. For example, on average, the Japanese throw away roughly 24B pairs of wooden, single-used chopsticks every year. Traditional, they carried their own reusable ones, but over the years resorted to disposable ones. They are currently attempting to revive the tradition of reusable chopsticks, a tradition referred to as “mottainai” which means non-waste. In 2005, Japan announced a ban on plastic bags.
Maathai, in urging the rural Kikuyus to return to the traditional ways, relied heavily on biblical stories to draw parallels between the people of the Bible who violated God’s words and laws and the people of the world who until today continue to violate biblical injunctions to honor the Earth in service to its Creator.
“We all live in different environments, with their own challenges and opportunities to create meaningful change. Our cultures and religious backgrounds may be different, and you may cherish different values. My aim is not to dictate how you should react to your circumstances, but to inspire you to use your own tradition’s principles and culture to make a difference and heal Earth’s wounds” (pg. 191).
For more on Wangari Maathai: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography
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