Monday, September 30, 2013

An Urban Naturalist: Greg Gerritt

He dropped out of forestry school at the University of Maine “to hitchhike and live in the woods,” Greg Gerritt says. There were fewer forestry jobs available at the time, and he was “fed up with Western civilization as an ecosystem-destroying machine.” As he saw it, the school’s forestry school “had no more interest in forest, ecosystem, or community health than the corporate forest overlords who had paid for the brand-new Forest Resources building.”

He switched his major to anthropology, but he never stopped caring about environmental issues. The guy who grew up in the Bronx “spent the next 25 years in the woods, managing a woodlot, keeping my eyes open, gardening, building things of woods, reading quite a bit.” Today, Gerritt, an employee of the Environment Council of Rhode Island, is a leading advocate of making ecology “a component of efforts to create a sustainable economy” in his adopted state. He has led the council’s Compost Initiative and received a Merit Award last year from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for his work in this area. He is the founder of the think tank and Friends of the Moshassuck and a co-founder of the Green Party. For him, the ecology/economy connection is a vital one. “You cannot heal ecosystems without ending poverty, you cannot end poverty without healing ecosystems,” Gerritt maintains, “and you will not do either until we shut down the military-industrial complex that is at the heart of the inequality on the planet and uses violence to remove the original inhabitants from the forests of the world.”

Which is, when you stop to think about it, a very simple, straightforward concept. So why is it taking so long for people to grasp it? He does something of a mental shrug, remarking, “I bring a wider array of knowledge to the game than most. I strongly oppose the vested interests that do not want us to see the connections, as the separations allow them to maintain their power and control.”

It’s just one of the many subjects that Gerritt has explored as an activist, writer, and videographer. The Green Party’s 2004 presidential campaign...the fight to ban clear-cutting in the forests of Maine in 1996…and frogs.

Gerritt has been filming the wildlife around the ponds in Providence’s North Burial Ground. The ducks, geese, herons, kingfishers, cormorants, muskrats, otters, and amphibians there have been providing him with “a small wildlife fix” on his daily walks and finding their way into his blog. He began videotaping the development of Fowler’s Toads and Gray Tree Frogs, paying particular attention to the tadpoles. “I decided to focus on tadpoles because they were easy, visible, cute, and can be used to easily demonstrate development in vertebrates,” he explains. “I assumed some day, I would work with some sort of children’s program to do this. But it turns out, I did it mostly for myself.”

His delighted fascination with his amphibious subjects comes across in his prose. The tree frogs, for instance, remind him in their early stages of “pelagic shellfish on steroids. I often think of them as harried commuters living in tadpole cities during the morning commute, often with a predominant direction. It is a sight to behold, these little critters going every which way, bumping into each other, stopping here and there, then moving on.” And then there’s his description of the frogs calling “from the ponds, from the trees all around the pond”: “it is not only a sonic experiences, it is a visceral one. It is the most addicting thing I know. I get out there and just want to record all evening. And vibrate.” Now, there’s some writing that’s not just poetic – it’s downright Thoreauvian.

“I have never referred to myself as Thoreauvian,” Gerritt replies, “but I get where that comes from. America has a long tradition of nature writing, and it is one of the types of writing I do. I think I do it reasonably well, but I have my own style.” To him, Thoreau and the other major American nature writers are, well, not particularly major influences.

Interestingly enough, the author who does strike a chord with him is Ursula K. LeGuin, who is known for her Earthsea trilogy and other fantasy and sci-fi novels. “What she is especially good at,” Gerritt observes, “is creating alien worlds in which there is an internal consistency to the ecosystem, and…with how the ‘people’ (often aliens who differ tremendously from people) act and interact. She also has a great understanding of how things get done and the power of words and of giving things their right name. Much of my work is about speaking truth to power – in other words, calling things by their real names. Even her work about wizardry resonates in the real world.”

So, what does he see himself doing next? Well, for starters, Gerritt plans to continue with his video work: he still has this year’s footage to edit and post. If he does it again next year, he thinks he’ll “have the rhythm better and get more of the things I missed this year.” He has also received funding to write about the economy and prosperity in his community, which will enable him to bring the healing-ecosystems-ending-poverty equation into “more public forums in Rhode Island for the self-serving rich to stumble over…I expect to do more and more work around the idea that what we learn from environmental-justice remedies around the world needs to be applied to our own communities if we are to thrive.”

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