Roots and Branches – Stabilizing, Centering and Receiving Guidance From Past Toward Future, and From Below and Above
The following is a speech written and delivered by Bioneers Co-Founder Nina Simons at the 2018 Bioneers Conference. View the full keynote video here.
All of us know that these are frightening, enraging and uncertain days, and I also know in my heart that we need each other in community more than ever – both for our individual well-being, and for our collective change-making and movement-building.
To try and bring forth my best in these traumatic times, I feel I have to strengthen and center myself, so that I can act more effectively on behalf of the people and places I most love. And this may sound strange, but trees have become a great help in this quest.
To a scientist, trees are a perennial woody plant with a main trunk and a distinct crown. To a poet, a tree literally means truth, from the old English word troth, which means something deeply rooted, with a strong trunk, something that sweeps the sky. In many ancient spiritual traditions, trees have been seen as a symbol of wisdom, wholeness and healing.
Too often, I’ve found, I live as if I were mostly a trunk, focusing on the urgency of now, neglecting what’s available to me through my roots and branches. Roots provide nourishment to trees, drawing up water and nutrients from the soil and mycelial networks underfoot. We, too need roots to offer us stability and to help inform our actions from the wisdom of our intuition, dreams and ancestors.
As communities, our roots entwined underground can strengthen and stabilize us to endure high winds, floods and catastrophic weather events. To strengthen myself, I am practicing honoring my roots. I’m remembering that I am here because of my ancestor’s prayers, suffering and resilience.
I personally feel most rooted these days by my love of the natural world, of Mother Earth, by remembering and listening for guidance from my Jewish ancestry, and from my deep connection to all women and those who identify primarily as she – to an archetypal gendered embodied experience.
Because of the persecution and slavery my Jewish ancestors faced over thousands of years, they were forced to migrate often, without ever putting down roots in any one place for very long. They’ve had to learn how to carry culture, stories and their sense of the sacred on their backs, or hidden deep within their hearts. They developed rituals to strengthen remembering and community which helped them survive traumatic times. One of the most beautiful traditional Jewish teachings is called Tikkun Olam – the responsibility to help heal and repair the world. That feels more relevant now than at any prior time in my life.
The Kabbalah, the ancient book of wisdom in the Jewish tradition, says that the brokenness of our world is due to the masculine and feminine aspects of the divine turning away from one another. We can help heal the world, they suggest, by helping the feminine and masculine aspects of the sacred to reunite. I continue to work toward healing both the feminine and masculine roots within myself, so that I can better serve that larger rebalancing I believe is so central to navigating our way forward with a reoriented compass.
Then there is my lineage as a woman, which roots me both through my embodied experience, and also through the historical and cultural violence – the many generations of women who have fought, died and suffered before us for freedom, health and justice – which lives on in me. This connection reminds me that we are all born of Mother Earth, and in truth, belong to her. And that often, what we do to women, we do to the Earth, and vice versa.
I remember that whether we are biological mothers, or childless by choice, a mothering impulse to nourish and cultivate life lives on powerfully within each of us. I’ve seen the most indomitable and persevering love – perhaps our greatest resource for change – from women. And, I believe the only thing stronger than a determined woman is a group of women who have each other’s backs.
As medicine to heal our hyper individualized culture – acting in communities (of all genders) is essential to strengthen and nourish our resolve. It can stabilize and fortify us, the way tree roots weaving together underground can do.
Branches and leaves are essential for the health of trees. They extend a tree’s capacity to reach for and absorb light. Aided by sunlight, leaves perform alchemy that literally grows the tree – converting water, sap and light into new growth. My branches uplift me, inviting me to stretch upward, providing an updraft under my wings, filling me with inspiration and vision.
My branches are many of you in this extended community of doers, thinkers, dreamers and organizers. You buoy me, and help me flex with the winds of change. You nourish and widen my perspectives, informing my vision. I am especially inspired and fortified by the youth and women’s movements emerging all over the country, and the world.
After a suicide wave ravaged the Lakota Sioux reservation, teenagers began healing by learning their culture’s sacred ways. They formed One Mind Youth Movement, establishing a small “prayer camp” on the north end of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) paid for One Mind members to be trained as organizers, and they learned how the struggle against the pipeline was part of the same struggle as the one against alcoholism, poverty, suicide and abuse.
They organized a 500-mile relay run from the Sacred Stone Camp to Omaha, to deliver a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers. Young runners participated from all seven communities of the Sioux, spread out over an area spanning five states.
Their vision, actions and perseverance helped launch a movement, creating unifying bonds among people from many scattered nations devastated by centuries of genocide and systemic abuse. Practicing peaceful and prayerful protest, they attracted many more. The connections woven among diverse communities are helping them work together now to defeat the outrageous voter suppression efforts currently assaulting North Dakota.
Meanwhile, Earth Guardians, with youth from all 50 states and in partnership with Our Children’s Trust, are suing the government, in a suit known as #YouthvGov, for failing to act on climate change. Seeing it as a constitutional right to have clean air, clean water and a healthy future, their case seeks to hold the government accountable. So far, in spite of several administration efforts to derail it, the trial is going forward. And meanwhile, Earth Guardians’ membership has spread across 6 continents, spanning 40 countries.
And, over the past eight months, the survivors of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school’s shooting have altered the debate about gun violence in this country. Launching national campaigns and mobilizing marches and voter registration drives, their determination to challenge the status quo, hold politicians accountable and get stricter gun laws passed has been truly spine-tingling.
Internationally, too, youth-led revolutions are ascendant. In India, the Global March Against Child Labor mobilized hundreds of thousands of young people, while in Bangladesh, thousands of girls unified to defy tradition and defend their rights to education and self-determination. In Russia, protests were coordinated in over 100 cities against state corruption, led mostly by high school and college students. The issues vary, but the trend is unmistakable – globally, and aided by social media, young people are mobilizing in huge numbers and with fierce commitments to demand change.
My other great inspiration is women, who are awakening to proactively speak out and demand accountability for systemic gender and racial violence, while standing for human rights, climate justice, democracy, and economic equity. Persevering women are doing what they’ve often done – building relational structures through grassroots organizing that develop over time into real social movements, by standing together to protect and defend what they love.
While past demonstrations had focused on specific issues, The Women’s March built upon years of organizing by women from Black Lives Matter, the Dreamer immigrant youth movement, Indigenous women and leaders such as Tarana Burke, founder of “Me,Too,” to mobilize millions of diverse women to forge connections. The executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of Caring Across Generations, AiJen Poo observed “women began to listen to our own stories, and each other’s, and – realizing the immensity of the commonalities and challenges we faced – began responding at scale.
Inspired by the courage of the truth-telling they heard, from farmworkers to Hollywood celebrities, the number of voices speaking grew, swelling the cultural momentum of #MeToo into a wave. (This also provoked a predictable backlash from an entrenched patriarchy so threatened as to become even more repressive and dangerous in response.)
“We stopped looking up to those in power,” she noted, “and started looking around at the women standing beside us. We realized our strength is in our diversity not our singularity, and the power that we need to claim is our own. We shifted from focusing on protesting laws to lifting each other up to become the lawmakers.”
In only three years, the founders of Black Lives Matter – Patrisse Khan Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometti – have organized a decentralized network of people across the US and around the world to demand accountability for police brutality. Through their work, countless other organizations have formed, including the Movement for Black Lives, the Black Youth Project, Black Voters Matter and #SayHerName. Mujeres Unidas y Activas, an immigrant rights group, was able to get the historic California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights adopted into law through their work.
Indigenous women have been coordinating strategic campaigns for Earth and climate justice across nations, from Idle No More to Indigenous Climate Action, to Amazon Watch and the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, to name only a few. Women-led grassroots movements are also growing in size and influence around the planet.
Both these branches – the youth and women’s leadership movements – share common ground. Each is defining leadership as raising up other leaders. All are developing leadership structures that are deeply inclusive, mutually respectful and non-hierarchical. Notably – to counter the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that’s been undermining progressive movement-building for so long – each is recognizing diversity as a source of strength, and engaging in the hard work needed to bridge differing worlds.
They are also embracing the mutual mentorship that occurs when youth and elders work together, without succumbing to the divisive trope of ageism. These movements are also taking a whole-person, long-term view. All are modeling, in their care and treatment of each other, the free, healthy, dignified and loving world they seek to co-create.
This letter, written recently from Tarana Burke and others of the MeToo movement to Professor Blasey Ford, intending to offer their love and support, sums it up so eloquently:
Dear Dr. Blasey Ford,
We witnessed you show up for duty not as a superhero, but as a fully human woman. You showed us that the new hero – the kind of heroism called for in this moment – is a woman facing the patriarchy with no weapons other than her voice, her body and the truth.
And, I would add: her dignity, which never flagged.
Here’s how a tree shows what we are capable of accomplishing together. Dr. Nalini Nadkarni – a tree researcher and Bioneer – loves to debunk false stereotypes about trees, like how we imagine trees as stationary, non-moving beings. She knew them to be dynamic entities, so to prove it, she turned a tree into an artist.
On a Douglas Fir, she tied paint brushes onto the tips of twigs, held up paper, timed their movement for two minutes, and measured how much distance each twig had marked. By multiplying the amount of movement by the number of twigs per branch, the number of branches per tree, and the number of minutes per year, she was able to come up with the distance that a single Douglas Fir had moved in a year.
Want to guess? It was 186,540 miles.
As she observed, when we shift our attention from the immovable obstacle of the trunk to the dynamic movement of the twigs, branches and leaves we learn that a tree can actually move seven times around the world in a year.
May we remember the value of our every action, however small it may seem, as each twig travels thousands of miles, and each leaf is an alchemist.
May we invest our vision, our hearts and our purposeful hands in the magnitude and vision of what we can accomplish together – and in the emergence of the joyful and liberating future we can co-create.
Like the Douglas Fir, together our movements are powerful beyond anyone’s imagining.
May we navigate the long road ahead, in community, remembering to listen for and call upon our roots and branches.