Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
How does one go about summing up, in one volume, the long life and huge impact of someone like Joanna Macy? How does one describe her? Teacher, workshop leader, author, translator, Buddhist, peace activist, climate activist, pilgrim … a woman with a gentle but powerful voice, slow, careful diction, a lively, amazing mind, the soul of a poet and a heart so big that it encompasses the whole planet…
That is the aim of this anthology, edited by Stephanie Kaza. After a beautiful, luminous foreword by David Abram, forty or so other people who have spent time with Joanna in one capacity or another tell their experiences of being with her, what it meant to them and what impact those experiences have had on their lives. In amongst these accounts are sprinkled ten pieces of original writing by Joanna herself.
Taken together, the pieces of this anthology describe all the strands that have gone into the weave of Joanna’s work in the public sphere. These range from the lesser-known ones such as her translation, from the German, of the inspirational poetry of Rilke and her academic work at the California Institute of Integral studies, which is where I first met her myself, to the two strands she has become best known for: peace activism and climate change activism. As one of the contributors, Susanne Moser succinctly puts it – albeit with mixed metaphors: Joanna Macy’s life of nine decades on planet Earth has spanned so many endings, but none so grave and ultimate as the threat of nuclear annihilation and the destruction of Earth’s life-support system—its biota, climate, waters, and soils. She entered the public sphere through the door of the nuclear threat and remains a ringing bell tower on climate change.
When I read Joanna’s landmark book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age back in 1984, the take-home message for me was that the way out of grief and despair was not to find some way to escape from the pain of it but rather to summon the strength to face into it, feel it fully, and eventually move through it to the other side, empowered. Exactly the same formula applies to dealing with our grief and despair over climate change and species extinction. This formula has now been articulated even more clearly in her latest work Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, co-authored with Chris Johnstone in 2012 and now revised in 2020.
One new thing I learned about from this book was her work on nuclear guardianship. Squatting by the cooking fire at the Greenham Common peace camp in 1983, the realization came to her that, in her words, These peace camps had modeled a possibility from the future: that even after disarmament, even after the last reactor closed, something like a citizens’ presence would be needed to care for the containment of the radioactivity. For every element of the nuclear fuel chain—from uranium mines to the warheads—would remain both contaminated and contaminating for many millennia to come. Many years later, this was to blossom into what became known as the Nuclear Guardianship Project (NGP) which, afterthe Fukushima disaster in March of 2011 became known as Guardians of the Poison Fire.
This was a whole new take on the problem of what to do with poisonous nuclear residue: Not to bury it in the ground where it can continue to damage Earth, her waters, and her creatures for hundreds of thousands of years but to bury it above ground so that all can be reminded of our power for evil. Not to let it be out of sight and out of mind but to set it up in sacred sites guarded by trained, committed citizens who will stand vigil and teach future generations of the dangers of our species and its inventions when we ignore Gaia.~ Matthew Fox
Contributor Andy Fisher, in his chapter ‘The Thrumming Relationality of All Things’ says: What Joanna’s life shows us is a rich model of worldly rather than otherworldly spirituality. In other words, green spirituality in its purest and most grounded form. Joanna Macy has been a role model for us all. Her words and wisdom will long outlive her. One can only hope that they will be better heeded by the world’s decision-makers in the future than they have been in the past.