How to Learn to Love the Struggle

Towards the end of my most recent two week-long trip to Sacred Stone, someone posed a question to our group: why are you here? As in, why do you care about stopping this pipeline? Why choose this issue above all the others on the long list of of social and environmental struggles you could be working on right now?

Bill works on fixing a truck that will help haul wood and water for the camp.

People watch as a rehabilitated eagle is ceremonially released back into the wild at Standing Rock.

Some people talked about how pipelines inevitably break, and no amount of clean-up (which is rare and inadequate to begin with) can un-poison the water and the lives that rely on it, ourselves included.

Some spoke about how the pipeline continues a long history of violating native land rights and killing off indigenous peoples. Dakota Access, the subsidiary responsible for the pipeline, called Standing Rock Reservation “expendable” on record.

Some expressed love and commitment to their ancestors who fought for their rights and this land, and to future generations who will inherit the earth in whatever state we leave it.

Megg keeps a log of what she observes during her nighttime security shift.

Each person’s answer conveyed part of the growing list of reasons I’ve been at Sacred Stone for three of the past four weeks. I went because this fight has huge consequences for ecosystems, native and non-native people, future pipelines, the global climate, all of it.

At the top of that list, though, is the reason I specifically was there, and not just why the issue is important: environmental destruction scares the shit out of me. Until recently, that fear was paralyzing.

The sun rises on campers sleeping around the main campfire, which burns 24 hours a day.

We’re drowning in headlines about the latest species driven to extinction, skeletal polar bears on our Facebook news feeds, unfathomable statistics about how much of the Amazon, the Great Barrier Reef, the ice caps are already gone. Facing environmental destruction means staring into the abyss that is the end of the world as we know it, and having it stare also into us. It’s overwhelming and shame-inducing and I don’t judge anyone who doesn’t feel emotionally capable of living with that weight on their shoulders. I certainly don’t.

Prairie, who grew up on the land we’re camping on, returns to her car after picking juneberries in the rain.

Subconsciously I felt that if I tried to stand up against some of it, I’d be consumed by feelings of inadequacy unless (and probably even if) I devoted my life to stopping all of it. Beyond composting, bicycling, and consuming as ethically and minimally as possible, I avoided thinking about whatever enormous sacrifices the scale of the problem actually warrants.

Campers play poker in the kitchen tent.

Being at camp has started to shift my thinking from ending all destruction to preventing the Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing the Missouri River. That alone is a huge uphill battle but it doesn’t make me want to curl up in the fetal position until the rainforests grow back.

What people say about tackling big projects is also true about environmentalism: break it down into manageable steps. I can’t singlehandedly end the fossil fuel industry, but I can support the camp, spread awareness that might get more people to stand up against this pipeline, and work with people using a variety of strategies to grind this project to a halt.

Is that “doing enough”? Not really. I’m not sure any one person can ever “do enough,” but that’s another conversation.

Cheryl feels the weight of that morning’s announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers has granted Dakota Access permission to construct the pipeline on Army Corps land, despite not having conducted environmental impact assessments or consulted with affected tribes.

Another reason I hadn’t gotten seriously involved in environmental activism before now is that it felt too abstract. Lost habitats I’d never visited, species I’d never cuddled – tragic losses that didn’t tangibly affect me or people I knew. It didn’t help that whenever the topic came up, it was discussed in academic or scientific terms rather than emotional ones.

It’s uncomfortable to admit that, but I think a lot of people feel that way whether they realize it or not. Environmental catastrophe can seem like a ghost when you don’t have to deal with the consequences in your daily life. It poses a scary threat but it vaporizes when you try to grab it.

Ronald careens down a rocky hill on a bike.

Since living at camp, the Dakota Access Pipeline is no longer a ghost to me. I’ve looked through binoculars and seen actual, material people ripping apart the earth to bury it.

The river, too, is real to me now. I’ve sat on its banks with my toes in the water, watching one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, speechless with awe at the landscape. Every day I woke up and fell asleep to to wind rustling tree branches above my tent, sometimes accompanied by the patter of river rain feeding their roots.

Part of a dead bird that Bill found on the highway hangs from a tree. “That’s why they call me road kill Bill!” he told me and laughed.

Wiyaka wraps rope around the poles of the tipi he’s helping to set up.

Living with the land can feel as intimate as living with another person. You’ll eventually come to know it so well that you can find your way through its darkness without a flashlight. At night, if you listen closely you can hear the soft pattern of its breathing.

Camping with the other people at Sacred Stone has also helped me see the issue as “real” in ways I didn’t before. We’ve shared meals, fears, hopes, chores, music, jokes, and the same cramped kitchen tent when the rain got torrential. We’ve laughed and we’ve bickered and we’ve been forced to deal with each other as the full, messy humans we all are, which is as frustrating as it is beautiful.

Campers spray painted the camp car with “No D.A.P. = Save the Water” and “Protector.”

All this is an attempt to more thoroughly answer that question, “Why are you here?”

I’m here because Dakota Access is threatening to destroy a river I’ve come to love, and because people I care about have sacrificed too much for me to back out now. I now understand in my heart, not just my head, that this pipeline will hurt my family and my home in the broadest sense of those words.

On some level it’s embarrassing that it takes being physically present for me to care this much. Shouldn’t I just get it? I could have this same experience with 1,000 resistance movements (“oh wow, Chiapas is beautiful and I’m now friends with Zapatistas”), so again, why work on this one in particular beyond the somewhat arbitrary fact that I happened to come close to it? Is proximity to an issue the determining factor in how hard I’m willing to fight for it?

My theory is that it’s more about emotional proximity than physical. I need to connect to an issue in my heart before I’m willing to make the necessary sacrifices to truly stand up for it. Fear about the end of the world wasn’t doing it for me. Neither were environmentalist guilt trips about my carbon footprint, nor statistics about ecosystem loss. Those helped create the context that eventually got me to stand up, but they weren’t the catalyst.
Love was.

If you’re interested in joining the fight, I strongly encourage you to visit the camp for your own enrichment and to support the beautiful people who have put their lives on hold to keep it running, who need other people there now more than ever.

I’m helping to coordinate carpools so contact me if you’re interested in going.

If visiting isn’t possible for you, you can help keep the camp running by donating here.

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