This talk was presented on 14 May 2019 as part of the Australian Museum's 2019 HumanNature series.
HumanNature: Environmental justice and the power of the Pacific word
The Pacific region is at the front line of Climate Change. Can literature play a significant role in raising awareness and inspiring activism? Join award-winning Craig Santos Perez from the University of Hawaiʻi, as he reflects on the vital role of Pacific literature and poetry in environmental justice movements across the region. Perez, a Chamoru scholar, poet, educator and environmentalist performs his award-winning `Pacific Eco-Poetry’ and shares his involvement with a range of humanities projects aimed at raising environmental literacy.
Sue Saxon: Good evening everyone and welcome to the Australian Museum. My name is Sue. I'm a creative producer here at the AM. Firstly I'd like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.
We're so pleased to be presenting this landmark Human Nature lecture series in collaboration with our five major university partners, which brings leading academic scholars in environmental humanities from around Australia and the world to our audiences. The past and future intersect at the Australian Museum, where understanding is inspired by the research of our scientists and cultural specialists; by our exhibitions and by events like this Human Nature lecture series and the Oceania Rising program, through which we strive to investigate and communicate the relationship between people, culture and the natural environment; and to promote understanding of some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges in our region including climate change and the assertion of cultural identity.
Covering a third of the Earth, the Pacific is home to diverse cultures that speak a quarter of the world's languages. The museum's Pacific collection represents these living cultures with thousands of artworks, cultural technologies and archaeological material from across Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia; and provides a record of the region's environmental and cultural histories and diversity.
While the museum welcomes repatriation practices, some of these treasures can be viewed within the beautiful Pacific Spirit gallery on level 2, which if you haven't seen it in a previous visit, please come back and have a look. But also just next door in the Westpac Long Gallery. So on your next visit, possibly for the next Human Nature talk or just because you want to come back to the museum, please make sure you go and see both those spaces.
Tonight we welcome Pacific eco-poet, scholar and environmentalist Craig Santos Perez from the University of Hawaii. To introduce our speaker to you I'd now like to call on Associate Professor Thom van Dooren of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sydney Uni. Thanks Thom.
Thom van Dooren: Thank you Sue. Well it's a great pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce Craig Santos Perez tonight. Craig is a poet, a scholar, an editor, a publisher, an artist, an environmentalist and a political activist. He is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guahan, or Guam. For the past nine years he has been an associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where his teaching and research works across the English Department, the Center for Pacific Island Studies, and the Indigenous Politics program.
It's clear from just this brief description that Craig's work and commitments move across multiple domains. His poetry and his scholarship draw us into questions of indigenous sovereignty, of the pervasive militarism of the so-called Pacific Ocean, of climate change and environmental destruction. But Craig's work, in a way that's characteristic of the best scholarship in the environmental humanities holds these domains together, exploring their connectivities, their complicities, their possibilities.
Craig asks what it means to inhabit this world well—to be a poet, a teacher, a father in this context. In so doing, his work brings these big questions into the domain of the everyday. In his poem 'The Surrounded', Craig moves us between the birth of his own daughter and the displacement of millions of children by war and disaster. While his daughter sleeps he reflects on those children, in his words, 'surrounded by fear and threat, who don't sleep at all because the attacks happen at night. Because nightmares are the ghosts of shrapnel.' It's this movement that I find so compelling in Craig's work, his capacity to draw the reader into a sense of the inescapably shared and yet thoroughly unequal vulnerabilities and joys of life.
Over the years that I've been aware of Craig's work I've also been in awe of his dedication to growing this space of critical conversation and creativity, especially in Oceania, especially for indigenous voices. He's done so in particular as an editor and publisher, perhaps most significantly through his founding of Ala Press with his wife, Brandy Nalani McDougall, in 2011. Ala Press is an independent publisher of indigenous Pacific Islander literature, and I should note that Craig and Brandy will be talking about this work in a seminar at the University of Sydney on Friday morning, and you can either talk to me or look at the Sydney Environment Institute website for more information on that event.
So I shouldn't take up any more time. I'd like to just reiterate what a pleasure it is to have Craig here in Sydney to share with us some of his remarkable insight, passion and creativity. Tonight he'll be presenting to us on Environmental Justice and the Power of the Pacific Word. So please join me in welcoming Craig.
Craig Santos Perez: Aloha. On behalf of my family, my people, my ancestors, I also want to offer my respect to the Gadigal people of this place as well as to the Aboriginal peoples of country. There are so many shared cultural values that I think my people have with the Aboriginal peoples here as well as indigenous peoples across the Pacific. Despite our different experiences, I feel there are many things that we can learn from each other and I just want to offer my solidarity in their struggles for cultural revitalisation as well as their advocacy in environmental justice.
I also want to thank Thom for bringing me out here. It was a long journey, and I'm so excited to engage with the scholars and poets and students here at the universities. I want to also thank Astrida and Cillian for organising the workshop this morning and to the students who were able to come out and join us. I want to thank Sue and the folks at the museum for having me. I've never read in a museum before, so a first time for me, I'm very excited. Mahalo, thank you.
So for today's talk/performance, I'm going to read some of my own eco-poetry, defined broadly as poetry about nature, ecology, environmental justice, food, animals, climate change, wilderness. I'll talk a little bit about some of the Pacific Islander eco-criticism that I've been writing, kind of speaking to the scholars, literary scholars who are here tonight. I'll talk a little bit about teaching the environmental humanities at the University of Hawaii where I've been for the past eight years. And then, lastly I'll talk about a few public and community engaged eco-literature projects that I've been involved with for the last couple of years in Hawaii.
And we'll start with a poem. This first poem is called 'Chanting the Water', and it was written a few years ago for a solidarity event we held in Honolulu to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who were fighting to protect their own waters. And we did an event and fundraiser where I read this particular poem. So that was kind of the trigger, but I also kind of wove into the poem some of the water rights issues that we're facing in Hawaii, in Guam, my home island, throughout the Pacific, and there are a few moments where the poem becomes global as well.
Now, this is a call and response poem, and so whenever I do that [knocks twice] I need you to shout, 'Water is Life.'
water is life, water is life, water is life
because our bodies are 60 percent water
because my wife laboured for 24 hours through contracting waves
because water breaks forth from shifting tectonic plates
water is life because amniotic fluid is 90 per cent water
because she breathed and breathed and breathed
because our lungs are 80 per cent water
because our daughter crowned like a new island
water is life because we tell stories about gods creating water
because our language flows from water
because our words are islands writ on water
because it takes more than 3 gallons of water to make a single sheet of paper
water is life because water is the next oil
because 180,000 miles of US oil pipelines leak every day
because we wage war over gods and water and oil
water is life because our planet is 70 per cent water
because only 3 per cent of global water is fresh
because it takes 2 gallons of water to refine one gallon of gasoline
because it takes 20 gallons of water to make a pound of plastic
because it takes 600 gallons of water to make one hamburger
because the American water footprint is 2,000 gallons a day
water is life because a billion people lack access to drinking water
because women and children walk 4 miles every day to gather clean water and deliver it home
water is life because our bones are 30 per cent water
because if you lose 5 per cent of your body's water you will become feverish
because if you lose 10 per cent of your body's water you will become immobile
because our bodies won't survive a week without water
water is life because corporations privatise, dam and bottle our waters
because plantations divert our water
because animal slaughterhouses consume our water
because pesticides, chemicals, lead and waste poison our water
water is life because we say stop, keep the oil in the ground
because they bring their bulldozers and drills and drones
because we bring our feathers and lei and sage and shells and canoes and hash-tags and totems
because they call us savage and primitive and riot
because we bring our treaties and the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous peoples
because they bring their banks and politicians and dogs and pay-cheques and pepper spray and bullets
because we bring our songs and schools and prayers and chants and ceremonies
because they say shut up and vanish
because we are not moving
because they bring their police and private militia
because we bring all our relations and all our generations and all our life-stream
water is life because our drumming sounds like rain after drought, echoing against taut skin
water is life because our skin is 60 per cent water
because every year millions of children die from waterborne diseases
because every day thousands of children die from waterborne diseases
because by the end of this poem 5 children will die from waterborne diseases
water is life because my daughter loves playing in the ocean
because some day she'll ask where does the ocean end
because we'll point to the dilating horizon
water is life because our eyes are 95 per cent water
because we'll tell her the ocean has no end
because sky and clouds lift oceans
because mountains embrace ocean into a blessing of rain
because ocean sky rain fills aquifers and lakes
because ocean sky rain lake flows into the Missouri River
because ocean sky rain lake river returns to the Pacific and connects us to our cousins at Standing Rock
because our blood is 90 per cent water
water is life because our hearts are 75 per cent water
because I'll teach my daughter my people's word for water, hanom, hanom, hanom
for the sound of water will always carry her home
water is life, water is life, water is life.
Maholo! Give yourselves a round of applause, that was great!
Okay, now for the nerds in the house. So part of the scholarship I do, I kind of describe as Pacific Islander eco-criticism. And I've been developing this research from my studies in Native American, Pacific Islander and global indigenous literary studies. And I've been thinking about Pacific Islander eco-criticism, first looking at customary Pacific literature in orature, such as chants, genealogy, songs, oral narratives, and how they employ ecological images, metaphors and symbols to express indigenous beliefs—such as the Earth is an ancestor, all life is interconnected and sacred; land and water are the foundations of genealogy, identity and community; and human beings should act according to the values of reciprocity and sustainability.
From there I also look at contemporary Pacific Islander literature and spoken word, and the ways in which it critiques ecological imperialism such as the displacement of indigenous peoples from our ancestral islands, the establishment of plantation, industrial and chemical agriculture; militarism, and nuclearism, deforestation and desertification; the extraction of natural resources, species extinction and endangerment, as well as climate change.
And then I look at Pacific literature, how it can be a symbolic site through which to revitalise indigenous environmental stories which have often been repressed and silenced by other colonial stories and education systems. And to advocate for environmental justice, decolonisation and climate change activism, and to imagine sustainable futures.
Of course environmental themes have always been present in Pacific literature, from earlier generations such as writers like Patricia Grace or Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt, to younger generations of writers such as Selina Tusitala Marsh, Haunani-Kay Trask and others. And it's been very exciting to me over the past couple of years to see a Marshallese poet, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, to really be at the forefront of climate change poetry.
So this kind of forms the foundation of my critical research. And I have two new essays coming out, I mentioned to the workshop earlier that I would mention these. One is an essay called 'Native Tomorrow: Eco-poetry and the work of Cecilia Perez', who is a well known Chamoru poet, also my auntie. That's in an anthology called Ecopoetics and the Global Landscape which was published a few months ago.
The second essay is called 'The Chamoru Creation Story: Guam Land Struggles and Contemporary Ecopoetry' which is forthcoming in a special issue on English Language Notes. And that particular essay does an eco-interpretation of our creation story, which has a lot of environmental lessons to teach us. And I discuss how land struggles on Guam kind of reference these creation stories as a way to advocate for the protection of our lands—in particular from the US military. And then I look at how the Chamoru creation story is rearticulated in many younger Chamoru poets as a further way to revitalise our environmental aspects by reclaiming our creation stories. So that's two essays if you folks are interested in that kind of research.
And that leads me into my next poem called 'Family Trees'. This particular poem was written for the Guam Soil and Tree Conservation Group, which had a conference a couple of years ago and they asked me to write about the importance of trees in Chamoru culture. And the poem I ended up writing talks about that but also connects it to what's happening on Guam right now in terms of US militarism.
So Guam has been a US colony since 1898 and is mainly used by the US as a strategic military base in the Asia Pacific region. Currently the US military occupies 30% of our entire island, and so it's one of the most militarised places in the world. And one of the many environmental impacts is deforestation, so the destruction of our native rain forests. And this particular poem references a new proposal that the US military is doing to create a live firing range on a wildlife refuge in Guam.
And so they are bulldozing a bunch of our native trees, and what is particularly sadistic is that the US military kind of greenwashes what it does and claims to be considerate of indigenous and ecological issues. And so what they've done is they actually invited a bunch of Chamoru cultural practitioners as well as carvers and other plant medicinal healers on to this land to claim the trees that they want to keep. So then the US, after they bulldoze it, they will deliver these trees for the people to have.
Another thing that's quite horrible about this is that in this area is one of the last remaining native trees called hayun lågu, and it translates as a fire tree. And there's only one of these native trees left on the entire island—the last mother tree. And it's in this area. And what they're going to do is to put a fence around it. And that's their idea of conservation. And so this poem talks about those issues.
Before we enter the deep jungle, my dad
asks permission of the spirits who dwell
within. He closes his eyes and says, 'Ekungok'. Listen.
As we walk he names each tree, each elder,
'Niyok, Lemmai, Ifit, Yoga, Nunu,'
who has provided us clothes and tools,
canoes and shelter, food and medicine.
'When you take,' my dad says, 'Take with
gratitude, and never more than what you need.'
When we reached the fence he tells me how the
military uprooted trees with bulldozers,
paved the land with concrete, planted toxic chemicals and
ordnances. He translates 'eminent domain' as 'theft'.
To turn a place of abundance into a base for destruction.
Barbed wire spreads like invasive vines,
whose only flowers are cancerous tumours
that bloom on every branch of our family tree.
Today the military invites us to collect
plants and trees within areas of Litekyan
slated to be cleared for the construction of
a live firing range complex.
Fill out the appropriate forms
and wait 14 business days for a background
and security check. If we receive their
permission, they'll escort us to
mark and claim what trees we want
delivered after removal.
They called this benevolence yet why
does it feel like a cruel reaping?
My dad never showed me
the endangered hayun lågu, fire tree, the last
struggling to survive in Litekyan
its only home. Don't worry, the military said. We'll build
a fence around the tree. They called this
mitigation, yet why does it feel like
the disturbed edge of extinction?
Ekungok, ancient whispers rouse the jungle!
Listen, oceanic waves stir against rocks!
Ekungok, i taotaoʻmona call us to rise!
Listen, i tronkon Yoga' calls us to stand tall!
Ekungok, i tronkon Lemmai calls us to spread our arms wide!
Listen, i tronkon Nunu calls to link our hands!
Ekungok, i tronkon Ifit calls us to be firm!
Listen, i tronkon Niyok calls us to never break!
Ekungok, i halom tano' calls us to surround
i hayun lågu and chant: 'We are the seeds
of the last fire tree! We are the seeds of the last
fire tree! We are the seeds of the last fire tree!
Ahe'! No! We do not give you permission!'
So that struggle is still going on right as we speak.
So I just want to talk about some of the teaching I've been doing at the University of Hawaii. We don't actually have an environment institute or environmental humanities program, and so a lot of the courses I teach are just within the English Department. One of the major courses is Pacific Islander Literature and Theory, and as I mentioned earlier, pretty much every Pacific writer you read writes about the environment.
Another course I love is Food Poetry, and it's a creative writing course. And one of my favourite or one of the students' favourite assignments is something we call a reci-poem, so it's part recipe and part poem. So we talk about food stories, food culture, and of course being in Hawaii we talk a lot about food colonialism, food justice, and food sovereignty as well.
And then the third signature course I teach is Eco-poetry, and again it's a creative writing course, so we both read eco-poetry and then the students write their own eco-poetry in response.
Some of the units I've taught are a unit like hydro poetry, so writing about water, the ocean. Queer Eco-poetry, we have a unit on plastic, a unit on nuclear poetry. Cli-po, or climate poetry. Extinction, and more. And I found it's a great way for students to get engaged in these environmental issues, learn about them, through the poetry—be more creative by writing their own poetry. Then of course throughout the course we have various kind of community-engage requirements where we actually attend different kinds of environmental events happening in Hawaii.
And so the next poem I want to read is also an eco-poem, and this one begins with the epigraph from Thom (I didn't tell him, but…)
I was very inspired by your book Flightways, which I read a couple of years ago, and the quote is: 'What is lost when a species, an evolutionary lineage, a way of life passes from the world? What does this loss mean within a particular multi-species community in which it occurs? A community of humans and non-humans of the living and the dead.' That's from Thom's book Flightways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction.
This poem is called 'The Last Safe Habitat' and is dedicated to a native Hawaiian bird called the Kauaiʻi ʻŌʻō, whose last song was heard in 1987, which is when it went extinct.
The Last Safe Habitat
I don't want our daughter to know
that Hawaiʻi is the bird extinction capital
of the world. I don't want her to walk
around the island feeling haunted
by tree roots buried under concrete.
I don't want her to fear the invasive
predators who slither, pounce,
bite, swallow, disease, and multiply.
I don't want her to see paintings
and photographs of birds she'll never
witness in the wild. I don't want her to
imagine their bones in dark museum
drawers. I don't want her to hear
their voice recordings on the internet.
I don't want her to memorise and recite
the names of 77 lost species and subspecies.
I don't want her to draw a timeline
with the years each was "first collected"
and "last sighted." I don't want her to learn
about the Kauaʻi ʻŌʻō, who was observed
atop a flowering 'Ōhiʻa tree, calling
for a mate, day after day, season after
season, because he didn't know he was
the last of his kind––until one day, he disappeared,
forever, into a nest of avian silence.
I don't want our daughter to calculate
how many miles of fencing is needed
to protect the endangered birds
that remain. I don't want her to realise
the most serious causes of extinction
can't be fenced out. I want to convince her
that extinction is not the end. I want
to convince her that extinction is
just a migration to the last safe habitat
on earth. I want to convince her
that our winged relatives have arrived
safely to their destination: a wondrous
island with a climate we can never
change, and a rainforest fertile
with seeds and song.
So next I want to talk briefly about some of the public and community engaged environmental humanities projects I've been working on. This first one is called a Poetry Feast, and it was a poetry event that my food writing class did in collaboration with a place called Kokua Market, and it's Honolulu's only food co-op and they do a work around food justice, local and organic foods. And basically we wrote a lot of poems related to food in Hawaii and then we did a poetry reading at the grocery store.
And so we invited all our friends, had a good crowd, we brought some good business to the store, and we read some poetries in their courtyard as well as we serenaded the bananas and pineapple within the store. And it was funny because a lot of people came for the event who knew about it, but then there were many just random shoppers, who were like, 'What's going on?'
And I'll interrupt my slide show to share one little thing that looking at these pictures just reminded me of, is that you'll see the Marshallese poet Kathy in the middle of this picture wearing the blue, so she was a former student, and she was actually still pregnant with her daughter during this class, so this was before her big United Nations reading.
And then the other student over there with the guitar is a Tongan American scholar and poet, and the three of us are actually co-editing an anthology of Pacific literature and the environment which is forthcoming from the University of Hawaii Press in 2021. And so it's been great to work with so many Pacific Islander students at UH and to see all the great things they've done after they graduated, and to be able to continue this work and bringing Pacific literature and the environment into an anthology that we think will be a wonderful resource in the classroom as well as in the community
The second project I want to share is called the My Hawaii Story Project. And this is in collaboration with a non-profit that I'm on the board of called the Pacific Writers' Connection. And what we do every year is a writing contest for middle school students across the Hawaiian archipelago, and basically we give them the theme that is also the theme of the annual Hawaii Conservation Alliance conference which is Hawaii's biggest annual environmental conference. And so the students have the theme this year as He ʻAʻaliʻi Kū Makani Au, which means resilience in the face of change. And so we worked with the students' teachers to give them lesson plans, and then the students write poetry and submit it to our organisation. We judge the poetry, choose winners, and we invite the winners to come to the conference and we do an eco-poetry youth reading at the environmental conference. And we invite the kids' families as well.
And so it's great to bring the kids, and they learn about environmentalism because they're attending the conference, and all the environmentalists come to our event and they can be inspired by the youth reading their poetry. It's a beautiful event every summer, and if you're interested, we archived all the anthologies that we've done for the past 12 years, and so very inspiring work by the youth of Hawaii. Last year we were scheduled the same time as the Governor was and I was told we had more attendees in our poetry reading than the Governor for his statement.
And so the poem I want to read actually is not on the slide but since Thom mentioned some of the other writing I've been doing in response to the global refugee crisis, I wanted to share this poem that was written for World Refugee Day, which is every June, June 6. And we had another event in Hawaii, another kind of solidarity event for Syrian refugees. And it was a way just to raise awareness as well as to raise money. And so I wrote this poem for that event which I shared there. So I wanted to share it with you tonight.
The poem is called 'Care'.
My daughter wakes from her nap
and cries. I pick her up, press her against my chest
and whisper "Daddy's here, daddy's here,"
Here is the island of O'ahu, 8,500 miles
from Syria. But what if Pacific trade winds suddenly
became helicopters? Flames and shrapnel
indiscriminately barrelling towards us? What if shadows
cast against our windows aren't plumeria
tree branches, but soldiers and terrorists marching
Would we reach the desperate boats of
the Mediterranean in time? If we did, could I straighten
my legs into a mast, balanced against the pull and drift
of the current? "Daddy's here, daddy's here," I
whisper. But am I strong enough to carry her across
the razor wires of foreign countries and racial
hatred? Am I strong enough to plead: "please, help
us, please, just let us pass, please, we aren't
suicide bombs." Am I strong enough to keep walking
even after my feet crack like Halaby pepper fields after
five years of drought, after this drought of humanity.
Trains and buses rock back and forth, back and forth,
back and forth to detention centres.
Yet what if we didn't make landfall? What if here
capsized? Could you inflate your body into a buoy
to hold your child above rising waters? "Daddy's
here, daddy's here," I whisper. Drowning is
the last lullaby of the sea. I lay our daughter
onto bed, her breath finally as calm as low tide.
To all the parents who brave the crossing: you and your
children matter. I hope your love will teach the nations
that emit the most carbon and violence that they should,
instead, remit the most compassion. I hope, soon,
the only border between a legal refugee and
an illegal migrant will be how willing
we are to open our homes, offer refuge, and
carry each other towards the horizon of care.
Okay, this is my last poem. This piece is called 'Praise Song for Oceania' and I wrote this for World Oceans Day and it was featured at the UN Oceanographic Institution's portal, their online portal. And I had a chance to perform this at an event in Honolulu, a World Ocean Day event, and then a Hawaiian filmmaker named Justyn Ah Chong, who was actually one of the filmmakers on the Hokulea, the Hawaiian Worldwide Voyaging Canoe Tour. He transformed this poem into a short video and we were lucky enough to have this video screened at various film festivals around the world. It was screened here in Australia at the Transoceanic Visual Exchange, which screened some films in Melbourne and Sydney as well as in the Caribbean, for that was their exchange.
So you could check it out on YouTube, 'Praise Song for Oceania'. You get the live version for today, which is fun. This is also a call and response poem, and so when I raise finger one I want you to say, 'Praise', and two, 'Please'. Thank you again so much for listening, and for having me today. I know we'll have a Q and A period after this poem, so I look forward to your questions as well.
Praise Song for Oceania.
praise your capacity for birth,
praise your fluid currents and trenchant darkness
praise our briny beginning, the source of every breath
praise your capacity for renewal, your ascent into clouds
and descent into rain, your underground aquifers, rivers
and lakes, ice sheets and glaciers
praise your watersheds and hydrologic cycles
praise your capacity to endure
the violation of those who map you aqua nullius, who claim dominion over you, who pillage and divide your body into latitudes and longitudes
who scar your middle passages.
praise your capacity to survive
our trawling boats
breaching your open wounds
and taking from your collapsing depths
praise your capacity to dilute
our heavy metals and greenhouse gases'
sewage and radioactive waste, pollutants and plastics
praise your capacity to bury our shipwrecks and ruined cities,
your watery grave, your coral reef of bones.
praise your capacity to remember
praise your library of drowned stories, museum of lost treasures,
repository of secrets, your uncontainable mysteries, your vast
archive of desire
praise your tidalectics, our migrant routes and submarine roots
praise your capacity to smother whales and fish and wash them ashore
to save them from our cruelty
to show us what we're no longer allowed to take, to starve us
like your corals are being starved and bleached,
your liquid lungs choked of oxygen
praise your capacity to forgive
please forgive our territorial hands and acidic breath
please forgive our nuclear arms and naval bodies
please forgive our concrete dams and cabling veins
please forgive our deafening sonar and lustful tourism
please forgive our invasive drilling and deep-sea mining
please forgive our extractions and trespasses
praise your capacity for mercy
please let my grandpa catch just one more fish
please make it stop raining soon
please make it rain soon
please spare our fragile farms and fruit trees
please spare our low-lying islands and atolls
please spare our coastal villages and cities
please let us cross safely to a land without war
praise your capacity for hope
praise your Rainbow Warrior and Peace boat
your Hokule'a and Sea Shepherd, your Arctic Sunrise
and freedom flotillas
praise your Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement,
your marine stewardship councils and sustainable fisheries,
praise your radical seafarers and native navigators,
praise your sacred water walkers
praise your activist kayaks and traditional canoes
praise your ocean conservancies and surf rider foundations
praise your aquanauts and hydrolabs,
praise your ocean cleaned up and Google Oceans
praise your whale hunting and shark-finning bans
praise your sanctuaries and no-take zones
praise your pharmacopeia of new antibiotics
praise your wave and tidal energy
praise your hash-tag ocean optimism and hash-tag ocean elder
praise your blue humanity
praise your capacity for echolocation
praise our names for you that translate into creation stories and song maps,
tasi and kai and tai and mana nui and vasa and tahi and lik and waitui and daob and wonsolwara
praise your capacity for communion
praise our common heritage
praise our pathway and promise to each other
praise our most powerful metaphor
praise your vision of belonging
praise our endless saga
praise your blue planet, one world ocean
praise our trans-oceanic past, present and future flowing through our blood.
Thank you, mahalo.
Audience question 1: I may be on the wrong track, but is Guam where the green tree snakes have eliminated 99.9% of the bird life?
Craig Santos Perez: Yes. One of the most devastating invasive species, the brown tree snake, came to Guam aboard US military ships, post World War II, and there were no snakes on Guam prior to that. The impact is that it has destroyed our entire native bird population, and so the situation on Guam is even worse than in Hawaii, which is also a difficult space for native birds. And so…I didn't read any poems about that today but I do have poems in my poetry books discussing the impact that brown tree snakes have had and still have. And so they're still a major invasive species and there's been all kinds of efforts to eradicate them, as well as to bring back our bird population.
And in relation to what happened was in the '80s a lot of bird conservationists came to Guam and captured the last native species of several birds. And so now they only survive in zoos across the US, and some have returned back to Guam, but haven't had much luck in terms of being reintroduced back into the wild, because the snakes have still colonised the entire island, sadly. But thank you for asking that.
Audience question 2: Thank you for the beautiful words and beautiful thoughts. I was wondering if you could say something about the spirituality that comes through in your work, especially in the last poem, the Praise Song, when you talk of communion. I wonder what kind of spirituality?
Craig Santos Perez: Definitely, thank you. I think at least in my culture a lot of our stories have formed a foundation of our spirituality, and a lot of our—both the creation story as well as other ancestral stories—teach us that our land and waters are sacred, and our ancestors and our kin, and we should act in accordance with that belief so that everything we do should be in relation to the world and to the environment.
And so that belief in the sacredness of the lands and waters and that we are part of this larger kinship network, at least for me, forms my spiritual belief system, and then I try to express that through the poetry the best I can.
Audience question 3: Hi, thank you. With regard to the actions against the military and trying to prevent them from damaging the land more than they already have, what is the likelihood of success with that, I mean what kind of recourse do you have, given the fact that they've basically taken over since they got there?
Craig Santos Perez: Great question. Resistance against US militarism has been ongoing for many generations now. And there have been some successes in terms of advocating for certain environmental protections. Sometimes that has to do with the land, sometimes it has to do with protecting native species who might exist in a certain area. And unfortunately there are also many losses, because as I mentioned, Guam is a colony of the United States, and so the US military has absolute power in terms of doing what they want and taking whatever land they want. And they call it eminent domain, so if they want to take more they have that power.
And so it's been a very difficult resistance, and this particular military build-up project has been—it was first proposed in 2006 and the resistance has been ongoing since it was first announced, but it's still, in every step of the way it's still being approved, no matter our objections, no matter how many acres of rainforest get destroyed, no matter how many habitats are disturbed by the live firing range or other military activities. And so it's very disheartening as well, and the situation is similar in Hawaii, too.
So as I'm sure all of you know, the US military is one of the largest carbon emitters in the world, and that's compounded with the fact that they also cause so much environmental destruction—not only where they put their bases but also where they conduct war. So it's a fight that we continue to fight, where poetry becomes an important element of that fight, a space where we can express ourselves and protest and critique what they are doing. Also to expose what they're doing.
What's interesting in Guam too is that when they have public hearings where people can come and give their input on the military proposals, many poets show up and read their anti-military poems. And many activists show up and maybe they'll sing songs that are like songs of freedom, for example. And so our movement is very creative, as is the climate movement in general. And I think we have to continue to be creative in the face of all this destruction and we have to continue to be creative to inspire and empower our people against these forces that are always trying to disempower us. But thank you for asking; it's been a difficult fight.
Audience question 4: Thank you, Craig. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about your teaching practice and the kind of conversations that are happening with the young generation (I don't know if the students are both indigenous and non-indigenous), and what sort of spaces for hope you're finding in those conversations in the classroom setting.
Craig Santos Perez: Wonderful, thank you. The University of Hawaii has a pretty diverse student body. Mainly composed of Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Asian-American students. In my classes, especially in the eco-poetry class, the students who enrol in it usually have some interest in the environment already. Some are surfers. Some just like to go to the beach on the weekend. Others go hiking. Some were involved in various environmental non-profits. But a lot of them I think are drawn to it because they see the changes on island, they feel the temperatures getting hotter every year. They see how we've had more hurricanes or more storms that cancel class.
We're in the middle of eco-poetry class and we get flood warnings on our cell phones. So they see these changes happening and they're concerned, and it's great having them in class because it gives them an outlet to express what they're feeling, to express their anxieties—their eco-anxieties and their worries and stuff like that. But then it also gives them a space to understand that poetry can also be empowering, and where they can amplify their voices. They're just young folks, so they feel like they can't make a difference and they feel very small. So I think through the writing of poetry they feel more powerful. And we share the work with each other.
We also do community events as well, so we'll go out and if there's like a 350.org Honolulu event maybe we could read some of our poetry there, and then that gives them a sense of community and solidarity beyond just the writing of the poem itself. And so I've been happy that students have gone on to continue writing poems, to join environmental movements, to work with me as editors, to go on and to share their poetry at the United Nations and around the world. I feel like that's really…I think when the young people have an outlet to express themselves, I think it can lead to wonderful things that will help all of us. So that's kind of the space I try to create in the classroom.
Audience question 5: Thank you so much. You might already have answered this at least partially, but I wanted to reframe the question in the terms of the environmental humanities, from what might be a more scholarly angle. One of the things that one notices once one works in the environmental humanities is a kind of interest in identifying different kind of eco-hyphen modes that are meant to be particularly efficacious. Those generally tend to be narrative modes rather than poetic modes, despite the fact that lots of people write about eco-poetry, if you're a scholar of visual studies then your mode is a visual mode or a cinematic mode or a pictorial mode. So I was curious to know if you could say a little bit more about how you think about poetry, eco-poetry…as I said, you've answered some of these already, but as an eco-critical mode in the context of the environmental humanities and what its particular functions or abilities are.
Craig Santos Perez: Yeah. Great question, thank you. Yes that's definitely interesting, especially in the English Department and thinking about literary studies where most of the focus goes to cl-fi, or climate fiction, eco-fiction, and kind of ignores all of the wonderful eco-poetry that's been produced. And so I feel like a lot of my work is to create a space for eco-poetry within the larger environmental humanities conversation. Specifically I think poetry is powerful because it's kind of a crystallised expression of emotion and feeling. Oftentimes it's more personal and embodied, whereas fiction…usually a fictional character is not necessarily connected to the author. I feel like there's a deep sense of authenticity to that kind of work.
And in general, if you have a climate convention at the UN, it's better to open with a poet as opposed to a fiction writer, you know, trying to read their whole novel, or chapter. And so I think there's also a performative element that is more connective and immediate than a long narrative or fiction, or even non-fiction.
In terms of Pacific eco-poetry, I definitely feel like there could be a lot more focus and attention on Pacific Islander literature within the conversation of the environmental humanities. And so I'm hoping this anthology we're co-editing, which is multi-genre, will kind of be a good intervention, hopefully leading to—you know there always being a Pacific Islander author, whether a poet or a fiction writer, within a course within the environmental humanities whether it's taught here in Australia or in Arizona or New York or wherever. I feel like in the Pacific the poetic voices are resonating in very powerful ways in this discussion.
Audience question 6: It's a complex question but I'll try to make it simple. How would you decolonise policies about the environment in Hawaii? For example I'm thinking of New Zealand, where they passed a law two years ago in 2017 where they gave legal rights to a river and a forest, and they based their decision on Maori ontology and viewpoints. But it was a huge battle that lasted decades, and it was a battle between Maori and British settlers, because they had very different conception of nature and the environment. And so do you think that in Hawaii or more broadly in all the colonised places of the Pacific like New Caledonia or French Polynesia, do you think it has a chance to be decolonised, do you think that the indigenous Hawaiian viewpoint can be included in policies, and do you think…I mean how would you do that? You've covered some of the points like empowerment…I don't know if it's clear or not.
Craig Santos Perez: Yeah, it's a great question. It's definitely very difficult in those settler colonial spaces, especially the US settler state is very different and in some ways less collaborative, perhaps, than here or New Zealand. What's interesting is that the environmental movement in the US and specifically in Hawaii is starting to be more collaborative with native peoples. Not always, obviously we think about pipelines as my first poem talks about. But in Hawaii there is an effort to collaborate with native Hawaiian people in terms of protecting watersheds, fish ponds, other parts of the island. However a lot of this effort is what I call 'native washing'. It's like this kind of superficial attempt to collaborate with indigenous peoples and to say, Oh look, we're acknowledging the indigenous peoples, we're using Hawaiian words to describe this valley, or we're talking about Hawaiian watershed practices. But we're not actually doing that on any kind of substantial level, and we're not really giving Hawaiians back their land to steward as they see fit. We're still kind of overseeing the entire process.
And so it's a very long way, I think, in Hawaii. Guam is even worse, because we're a US territory, not a US state. And so I think the practice of decolonisation, it's happening and a lot of Hawaiians are very vocal and active in terms of protecting their lands, whether it's from US militarism, from the tourism industry, or just from capitalist urban development.
It's a very difficult struggle because Hawaiians are a minority in the islands. But I think they have a strong moral standing and the Hawaiian movement is becoming stronger with every generation. And so it's exciting for me to see that there are more Hawaiian lands and waters being protected, being returned in small spaces. Right now a big fight is over water. A lot of the water in Hawaii was diverted for sugar and pineapple plantations. And so a lot of Hawaiians are now taking these plantation owners to court to get the water to flow back through the watersheds so that they can plant their traditional crops such as kalo or taro.
So there are small victories but overall it's going to be a long struggle.
This landmark lecture series offers a range of talks by leading international and Australian scholars in the Environmental Humanities. It will draw on insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and related disciplines and explore the important role humanities can play in addressing some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our day.
About Craig Santos Perez
Craig Santos Perez is an associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa, where he teaches Pacific literature and eco-poetry. The author of four collections of poetry, and co-editor of four anthologies, he is the first Pacific Islander to receive the American Book Award, and first Micronesian to receive the highest literary award from the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council. Dr Santos Perez has lectured and performed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, the UNESCO Ocean Literacy conference, the Indigenous Book Festival, the Festival of Pacific Arts and the International Conference on Environmental Futures.