On MSD and despair

Saturday, March 3, 2018 1 Permalink 2


Despair is such a seductive excuse for not taking action, and it is so easy to find.

While other people were fretting about gun laws and mourning the young lives lost after the shootings and aftermath at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I was mourning the Everglades and the lost legacy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas herself.

From now on, few will remember the great lady separately from the carnage in Parkland.

And my despairing, tired, middle-aged self adds, cynically, “Maybe it’s just as well,” because Douglas’ legacy is the beautiful Everglades, the Everglades which are my favorite place on earth, but which are also, at this point, a lost cause.

While she staved off their doom for a couple of generations, no one can save them now from rising sea levels, no more than anyone can save the next victims of America’s inexplicable love-affair with semi-automatic weapons.

Lost causes are all we seem to have anymore.

For a while, at least, Marjory Stoneman Douglas rescued a big part of South Florida from certain death at the hands of developers and the Department of Engineers.

In her day, the primary threat was cutting off the Everglades’ fresh water supply, but now the even greater problem is the increasing amount of salt water coming from the other direction as the oceans rise. How can we even begin to combat it?

By the end of my own lifetime, little will remain of the Everglades, and shortly after that, the entire park will sink into the ocean, and all its beauty and diversity will be lost permanently to the muddy waves. We are already in its final years.

More generally, we can expand that observation, if we dare to think about it: Our generation is seeing the end of nature as we know it on a global scale, and along with it all human life as we know it.

In that context, what is the point of remembering Marjory Stoneman Douglas as the Everglades’ temporary savior? What is the point of worrying about another school shooting?

None of it seems to matter in the end. We are doomed! Doooomed!

But I know for sure that MSD, were she here today, would not be participating in this pity-party but instead plotting her next move.

Consider the example of her life, and you will know why Parkland Florida named a high school after her.

An Abbreviated Bio

After a less-than-happy Yankee childhood and being hoodwinked by a con artist in her first marriage, Douglas had four successive mental breakdowns and moved on down to Miami.

Then, in the 1930’s and 40’s, when anti-development and environmental preservation was not just not a thing, but anathema to the “brave new world” being forged over and against nature, Marjory Stoneman Douglas began her fight to preserve what she termed the “River of Grass.”

This was the post-War golden age of swamp-draining, dam-building, DDT, and the dawn of industrial agriculture. Florida was booming. Douglas’ only weapons in her defense of its natural environment were her personal connections and a gift for words.

With only these in her favor (in fairness, it was said that she had a “tongue like a switchblade”), she fought for long decades (not just 2 or 3, but 6 decades) against dams and pollution, against the Department of Engineers and the Florida water boards, against highway construction projects, Big Sugar, big money, developers, corporations, corrupt state government, and quite often against the larger public in general.

She fought doggedly on, in her signature pearls and big floppy sun hat. She was often alone and often the sole voice of dissent.

Very often she despaired, all the while watching her beloved wetlands die right in front of her.

Early in her crusade, she published a pivotal work, The Everglades: River of Grass, coining an epithet and launching an environmental cause for generations to come.

In time, the tide began to turn – at least enough to say that, by the end of her life, she had had an effect. What remnant remains of the Everglades, in the national park and associated wetlands, we owe exclusively to her fierce determination.

She was a single, frail, tiny little woman, but aptly called Stone Man, because she was hard as granite in a sea of shifting Florida sand.

She lived to be 108, becoming a legend in her own time.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was the kind of person public institutions should be named for.

Despair denotes value

Trying to save some swampy wilderness from so many malicious and powerful forces must have seemed impossible, purely a fool’s errand.

Douglas had every reason to give up, both longterm and short. If she had, however, her name would not be in the news today, there would be many fewer alligators and ibises in the world, and I would not be writing this article appealing to her memory.

Valuing something and despairing for its survival may seem like urges in conflict, a cognitive dissonance, but in fact people, especially heroes, entertain the two together all the time. They are in many ways interdependent. If there were nothing to admire and cherish, there would be no reason to ever feel the pain of losing it.

What is more, Douglas gave us insight along the way as to the superpower secret of her stamina and pain management.

Was she powerful? No. She recognized her weakness for what it was and redirected herself to clarify a message. She became the singular authority on her chosen cause. She managed her few resources strategically, and she became a “nuisance where it counts,” as she put it. It was all she had.

Was she heard? No. Not for a very long time. She kept yelling anyway. She outlasted her opponents.

Was she immune to despair? No. She embraced it. She looked straight into that morass, spit to the side, pulled up her wellies and waded on through to crawl out on the other side, maybe sometimes emerging soaked and on her knees and bit hard by mosquitoes, but never falling into inaction.

MSD knew that despair and failure are the cost of caring about something. She experienced plenty of both.

Know your limits

Our modern despair is not so unique, you see.

Woe is us. We think we are the end of history. The oceans are rising, our children are being slaughtered, the corporations control the government, and the rich have all the resources. We see our pitiable selves as the very centerpiece of the banquet of Armageddon.

But this is a vanity. Every generation thinks they are the crescendo moment in the great tragedy called Life, yet the planet toils on. Time has never slowed and will not end.

Sure, the stakes have never been higher. These catastrophes in our day are of dire consequence to us, but they are of no importance at all to the cosmos at large.

Douglas spoke eloquently but almost dismissively of her own sense of despair, which was no small thing. It was deep, constant and reasonable.

She knew from the start that she might, with a disproportionate sacrifice of personal fortune, sweat, and humiliation, achieve some small victories, but that any way you look at it she could not ever win absolutely.

By the time she died, MSD surely knew that the Everglades would finally be lost. Climate change science was already well established by then, as was the global indifference to countering it.

… and defy them

Yet strangely this did not alter her course in defending her national park. Her most enduring and famous quote was a ragged general’s rallying speech to mustered troops about to be slaughtered. It was a permission to panic while continuing to fight forward, taking out as many of the enemy as possible along with us:

“Be a nuisance where it counts; Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics – but never give up.”

Never give up. Feel powerless and hopeless and lost, but do not surrender, not even to reason. Remain defiant, even when ground into the dust, even when watching your cause destroyed – or, to pull it forward to our own depressing times, even when watching your friends bleed out on a classroom floor and your legislators have stopped answering your calls.

There is no way not to feel depressed in the face of such huge odds as we face. MSD named it and owned it. But she knew also that cynicism is a trap.

Giving up on a losing game will not stop you from losing the game, but continuing to play while studying hard just might result in a lessening the cost of losing.

Mind the nest

In nature, life never gives up. Giving up on life is a strictly human capacity.

The birds in the Everglades nest directly above alligators waiting to catch their young as they leap from the nest, unable to fly. Imagine the odds! It takes countless losses of life to make one chick able to survive to adulthood and continue the species. All odds against them, the trees are still full of nests each year, just as the waters are full of waiting alligators.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas more closely resembled the Everglades, in that sense, teeming with thrashing, struggling, suffocating, thirsting nature. Unlike her fat and greedy opponents, she never gave up, even in the face of certain defeat.

She exemplified that life is not answerable to the larger disaster, but that it is lived daily in the small victories.

An ibis still lays her eggs in the nest while the sea water rises around it, just as a cancer patient in their last months can enjoy beautiful and meaningful days – maybe more so than when in perfect health and taking those days for granted.

We can let disaster inform us without allowing it to paralyze us.

It’s actually in the worst moment of larger crises and despair that the real advantage is sometimes won.

A coach and teacher and janitor can throw themselves at an armed assassin in order to save the little lives huddled terrified in the next room.

As a result, those little lives that do survive can defy their attackers and bear witness. They can discover their own maturing voices as weapons, and they can scream and slay politicians in vengeance for their fallen peers, using their own “tongue like a switchblade” on the internet.

Parkland’s attacker and the NRA together created a crop of young media-savvy experts immune to trolling, and with the advantage of many more years ahead of them than their opponents. Do you think they will ever stop? They now have 60+ years to play the long game.

Douglas would most certainly consider that comeback worth the effort, risk, and sacrifice.

We can keep saving the pieces, one correct move at a time, no matter how tired, no matter how confused, no matter what it costs – even if it costs us everything.

Alma Mater

Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ motto of “Never Give Up” may sound trite to us today, eliciting mockery of motivational posters, but should we take it too lightly, we risk giving up.

We won’t get anywhere with indifference – not with environmental destruction, and not with the gun lobby. We are better off recalling our numbed attention from yet another spectacular waste of young life to an old lady who had something important to say about living well in the face of doom.

Her name was written over the door that gunman entered, and for that namesake she now has a say on behalf of the survivors, I think.

“Say your prayers, surely,” I can hear her intoning (she was an avowed Agnostic but always politically savvy), “Pray for deliverance, but row toward shore! Keep pushing. Do whatever is still within your power.”

Tweet your everloving brains out! Hammer and excoriate and cut them down before they know what hit them. Dance circles around their inertia. Become better informed. Learn how to fight, and fight back most of all from the lowest places where they expect you to fall silent and still. Stand there smeared with blood and force them to see what they have done. Do not stop.

If that does not work, then keep fighting anyway. Never give up.

So far the “Never again” Parkland kids have lived up to the spirit of their Alma Mater. They show no sign of giving up and every indication of becoming the permanent, agitating “nuissances” that Douglas would approve of.

I think they are doing her proud. Shot at, traumatized, bereaved, and attacked by those who should have rushed to their aid, they got back up and fought back. My bet is that they are going to fight all the way, as long as it takes.

We should all follow their example. There is no other alternative. My despair for the world withers in the face of such strength.