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In my backyard now

Green Cross volunteer El Salvador 1981 distributes aid at La Bermuda refugee camp later closed by army.
Green Cross volunteer El Salvador 1981 distributes aid at La Bermuda refugee camp later closed by army.
Photo © 1981 Diane J. Schmidt. All Rights Reserved.

I am stunned, but should not be, by the ease with which people are conned these days. We want to be sold on what to believe. It makes it so much easier than having to think for ourselves. Yet our spiritual poverty is reflected in what is happening all around us.

Our stock market threatens to collapse whenever the economy starts to look rosier, because then we might stop printing money, which would cause stock prices to fall. So, Wall Street reaches all time highs while unemployment grows. And the general population of America is peculiarly silent.

I remember a Polish filmmaker who lamented the lack of any particularly brilliant or powerful films being made in Europe over the last fifty years except during moments when severe repressions were momentarily lifted. Is it possible we have too much ostensible freedom and too little understanding of how we really are not free at all?

I am reminded of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.” Language had been shortened to doublespeak. A word like ‘excellent’ would be rendered ‘doubleplusgood.’ One remaining piece of damning physical evidence, a newspaper-printed photo of a politician, whose image had lately been erased because he was now unpopular, was incinerated. Words and images no longer existed to articulate complex ideas.

The Internet has destroyed the value of intellectual property over the last fifteen years by its inability to protect copyright. In November the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Cariou appeal of Richard Prince’s appropriation of his photographs. See story at Now newspapers are disappearing. Encyclopedia Britannica almost disappeared and will only be digital now. Who profited? Google, the en-Cyclops, the all-seeing, whose stock in 2004 first sold for $84 a share, traded this week on Wall Street for over $1,000 a share.

Now we see the erosion of privacy. The NSA siphons your emails by tapping into the flow of information moving through overseas cables between the heavily secured ports. ID theft is reaching monstrous proportions. It’s not entirely clear where this is leading or what is left of our souls.

Typhoon Haiyan, with the most powerful winds ever recorded on the planet, plowed through the Philippines in November. Aerial images reveal a landscape like an atom bomb struck, with trees and buildings flattened for miles.

I feel frustrated and a bit powerless before the forces of climate change and the swiftly dissolving middle class in America. I am not sure what bothers me the most, that this is happening, that people don’t recognize it, or that if they do, they are either resigned to it, or they actually welcome the destruction of modern civilization either because they have been disenfranchised, or because they believe this heralds the End of Days.

Once again, I would remind folks, follow the money. Who profits?

I remember 32 years ago standing in a refugee camp 50 miles outside the capital city in El Salvador. I was there as a photojournalist during their civil war.

I had traveled to this camp with the Green Cross, the country’s local humanitarian organization that, unlike the Red Cross, was actually out in the countryside every day helping people. A volunteer, a young woman backlit by the heavy sunlight that blinded my camera, was holding a carton of cigarettes she had brought to distribute and smiled fearlessly at me. Their director had recently disappeared and been found tortured to death. The underexposed photo I took of her shows nothing of what I felt in that moment.

In that moment I came to understand the transcendence of the human spirit over death and destruction.
That week I had also interviewed one of the wealthiest women in the country. Asked about any concern for the workers who picked coffee beans on her plantations for slave wages and who had dared to revolt, she spoke with disgust, “They live in the dirt, like pigs,” she said. I worry that is how the uber-wealthy in this country today think.

I think about how what is going on in the world shows up in my backyard now. West Nile virus spread by mosquitoes, an apple tree that did not flower or bear fruit this year, a water well polluted by years of farm run-off, an elderly coyote that comes regularly and brings messages of worry about the way things are going, nudging my conscience. Crows have replaced songbirds, and the worms of moths instead of the caterpillars that become butterflies.

Sometimes of course there is joy, and hope. On November 6 I attended a panel talk that included a presentation by gardener Miranda Jacobson of Bees Knees and Hummer Hangout on how, on a low budget and in a few short years, she turned her rocky backyard behind her double-wide into an urban wildlife sanctuary that now attracts birds and bees and butterflies. I was most amazed that 40 people showed up at 8:30 on a cold morning to hear about organic approaches to gardening and wild plantings with low water use at the Gutierrez-Hubbell House on Isleta Boulevard in Albuquerque, in the Backyard Farming Series, a collaboration of the Hubbell House Alliance with Bernalillo County Open Space and Erda Garden and Learning Center.

In Judaism we speak of Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase that signifies it is our responsibility to repair and heal the world. Quite a mess we’re leaving to our children and our children’s children if we don’t get started now.


A print version of this column was published in The New Mexico Link, December, 2013 and another version in the Gallup Independent, Nov. 16, 2013, p. 20 Religion, Spiritual Perspectives column. Diane J. Schmidt is an award-winning writer and photojournalist in New Mexico who was raised in the traditions of Reform Judaism and is an admirer of all things spiritually resonant.

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