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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Redefining Environmentalism

Air Date: Week of

Author David Gessner kayaks the tamed Charles River in his new book "My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism.” He takes host Bruce Gellerman along for a wild ride.



GELLERMAN: Let’s take a wild trip to a tame place. Traffic zips along route 128… known as America’s High Tech Highway- it circles Boston- passing through densely populated suburbs.


GELLERMAN: Here in Auburndale12 miles due west of Boston, just off the highway, the flow of traffic is replaced by the flow of the Charles River, sounds of the roadway fade and nature takes over.


Bruce Gellerman and David Gessner head out on the Charles River (Photo: Daniel Gross)

GELLERMAN: Here, at a historic Victorian boathouse there are kayaks to rent. I take two. One for me, and a double for my producer who’ll ride shotgun with the author of a new book about nature and the environment.

GESSNER: My name is David Gessner, and I’m a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. At this point, I’ve been cast as this kind of a nature writer. There are times that I rebel against that, but I feel like nature is a part of everything that I work on, just like it is part of my life. I don’t feel the need to be defined solely by it.

GELLERMAN: In his latest book, David Gessner searches for re-definition. It’s titled ”My Green Manifesto Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism,” kayaking the river seemed the natural thing to do while talking to Gessner about his book.


GELLERMAN: We strap on life jackets, grab paddles and squeeze into kayaks.

GESSNER: Alright, let’s set off….

GELLERMAN: I put my recorder into a plastic bag and my microphone on top of the boat.


GELLERMAN: We push off from the dock and paddle a few yards.


GELLERMAN: Then, my cell phone rings…I grab for it…And knock my mic…


GELLERMAN: Into the water. What a jerk. I fish it out…fearing the worst.


GELLERMAN: TESTING 1….2….3…4…5, 1….2….3…4…5 …Well, it didn’t take me long to ruin my microphone. I dropped it right in! Luckily, my producer Daniel Gross brought along another microphone.


GELLERMAN: And the three of us set off again paddling and talking about the 80-mile journey David Gessner took along the length of the Charles River that inspired him to write “My Green Manifesto.’

GRESSNER: Well, it was a little bit tongue and cheek, honestly. That’s why I put the ‘my’ in front of ‘Green Manifesto.’ I didn’t feel that it was going to be the end-all-be-all of environmentalism. I felt that ‘My Green Groping’ wouldn’t sound as good.


GRESSNER: And, really what it was is that groping toward some ideas about environmentalism that I have been developing for years, and break out of being paralyzed by my previous thoughts about the environment. Those thoughts included a sense that we’re all doomed, a sense that everything I do was fairly impotent and just an overall sense of hopelessness. And, what I came up with in this book is what I would call a limited environmentalism, a smaller environmentalism, but hopefully a more effective environmentalism.

GELLERMAN: There are thousands or tens of thousands of rivers you could have chosen to go on, but you chose this river, the Charles River. Why? I mean, it’s not remote, it’s not romantic, it’s an urban river.

GRESSNER: Well, particularly because of that. I felt that you don’t need to go to Everest or the Amazon to experience the wild. I love the fact that it is a limited river. I love the fact that you cross the highway- 128. I like the fact that we’re floating toward a Marriott Hotel right now and that when we go around the corner we might see muskrats, herons. I like the idea of an accessible, wildness and wilderness.

It really went with my thinking about a limited environmentalism. And we better understand that the way we fight for the environment doesn’t have to be pure, and the environment that we fight for doesn’t have to be pristine and pure.


GELLERMAN: Boy, you don’t have to go far to get beautiful here, huh?


GRESSNER: No, and I think at the next turn we’re going to start losing the sounds of the highway here too.


GRESSNER: We’re hearing red-winged blackbirds over there. And, we’re seeing, that’s loosestrife, the purple.


GELLERMAN: And, we’ve got some kids in a kayak here, they’re making a racket.

GRESSNER: Yeah, well, that’s good, right? We’re getting the kids out there, that’s where it starts! (laughs) Contact. We need to have that contact.

GELLERMAN: The word contact occurs again and again in your book- you have to touch it. You have to be in it. You have to be in nature.

GRESSNER: I think the missing leg of environmentalism with a capital E is the whole mucking around in the world itself. It seemed like- why would you fight for something…There’s a great blue heron right over there going over the loosestrife!



GRESSNER: The kids just saw that too, that’s what they’re yelling about. This time they’re yelling positively. So, you can actually still see it…just cruise ahead… no one is saying nature is a cakewalk, is easy. What I’m saying is that there are deep pleasures that we miss out on, when we remove it; when we push it into a corner. There’s a landing up here and we can land along the edge and climb up the hill into the trees for a little bit.


GELLERMAN: So, where did this book come from? Is it something that you’ve always wanted to write? It just popped into your head one day?

GRESSNER: Well, in a way, it built up for years and then popped into my head. And it came in 2007 at a time when environmentalism was suddenly hot. You had Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover of Vanity Fair next to a polar bear and supposedly a melting ice cap. And, you had Gore winning his Nobel Prize for his slideshow.

Twisty light bulbs were all in vogue. And, what I was saying was: that these things are great, anything that helps us or ignites us is great, but we need to have that contact- looking at birds, looking at plants, looking at trees. And, that seemed to be missing for me.

GELLERMAN: We’re only a few miles outside of Boston and it easy to get here! It’s not hard to get to nature.

GRESSNER: Well, it’s a little hard, we paddled.


GRESSNER: (LAUGHS). But, you know, I don’t know. I do think that the more we’re looking- we can hear a siren now- you can hear it in our little pastoral glen. The more we look at devices, we’re not outside and the more we are estranged from it and the more difficult it does seem. But, here we are, a half an hour into our paddle and I for one hope that my daughter will see and that her kids will one day see.

GELLERMAN: How do you do that?

GRESSNER: You make it fun. You make it fun, in a word. As far as grown-ups, you remind people that having a couple of beers around a campfire is joyous. And, some of the most wild times that you’re ever going to have are out there. The fire is heating your face, you’ve got this sort of primal thing going on, you’re having fun and you’re beyond social boundaries and bonds.

It’s not some church-like experience only. It can be that, it can be spiritual, but it can also be fun. For kids, it’s easy to make it fun. Granted, we just heard a bunch of kids screaming bloody murder back there, but I’ve had a bunch of experiences taking kids out canoeing and kayaking to know that at least some of them start to get the bug a little bit.

GELLERMAN: But what about despair? Global warming, the price of gas keeps going up and we use more of it? How do you reconcile that? How do you just not throw up your hands and say, ‘I give up!’

GRESSNER: Horrible things are happening. I know, as the population is skyrocketing and species are dying out but my question is: ‘OK, then what? What do we do?’ The tendency when we think about these things is to get into a kind of an intellectual equivalent of a panic attack. It’s like getting into an argument with a spouse who is always saying: ‘This marriage is over, this marriage is over!’ The world is doomed.

Well, what do you do with that? What do you do when you’re in a panic attack? You constrict, you tighten up, you don’t do anything. You get paralyzed. And, what I say is, OK maybe these things are true, but you still get up in the morning, and make your things-to-do list, you drink your coffee and you still go to work. If we are an environmentalism that works against human nature, we’re going to lose. You know, we’ll have an army of none.

GELLERMAN: You don’t use the word wilderness, you use the word wild. What’s the difference?

GRESSNER: To me, wilderness means some park somewhere far from your home, apart from your life. And, what I’m advocating is a wildness that is part of your daily life. I mention in the book that seeing my daughter’s birth and my father’s death were the two wildest moments in my life and I compared them to seeing breeching humpback whales on Cape Cod bay- to me, that’s everybody’s wild.

And we forget that we’re animals too. And, we all know it intellectually, but we really do kind of forget it. We’re like: ok, that’s over there, that’s sloppy, green, messy, biological stuff and we’re over here in our other world.

GELLERMAN: So, you can reconcile the wild world because it’s all one. We’re part of it.

GRESSNER: Exactly. Where the Charles starts, I saw a lot of wooded banks, I saw marshes, but I also saw backyards with old tire swings and broken down docks. And, I thought: How lucky these people are who live along this river. They’ve got a normal front yard, and they’ve got a watery secret in their backyard. And, to me, that’s a taste of wildness, even if it isn’t a wild river, per say.

GELLERMAN: What’s the secret?

GRESSNER: The secret is that they are connected to a larger world. And, I particularly like rivers for this. I have a very close friend who lives off of Temple stream, he’s a writer in Maine, and I live off of Hulett Creek in North Carolina, if we were ever feeling particularly ambitious, we could meet around Washington DC. John Muir said pick up one thing in the universe and you’ll find it is hitched to everything else. Well, rivers hitch you to everything else.


GELLERMAN: David, what is that bird- right over there, see him?

works fine.

David Gessner (left) and Living on Earth intern Daniel Gross (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GRESSNER: Ah, that’s an egret. Looking, looking over at something that snapped at him in the water when he was trying to catch a fish.

GELLERMAN: You say in the book that this is a young adult book. Um, what do you mean by that?

GRESSNER: Well, a couple years ago I went to Walden with my wife and my daughter who was then four years old. And she pointed to the stones that were where Thoreau’s cabin was and she said: 'That’s where the house was of the man who ruined Daddy’s life.'


GRESSNER: When I was 16, I read Walden, and you know, it’s been downhill ever since, and I want to do the same thing for some 16 year olds. At one point while writing the book I said- you know who I’m really writing this for?

I’m writing this for the 16 year old who used to be me and someone who is deciding ‘what am I going to do with my life, what am I going to throw myself into?’ And, maybe I can encourage some people to throw themselves into a life that has a mission and a goal but also that has something to do with the natural world. So, it was a more consciously an inspiration book than anything I’ve done before.

GELLERMAN: Are you happy with the book?

GRESSNER: Yes. (LAUGHS). I’m happy with the combination of the humor and direct moralizing of the sort you usually won’t hear outside of church. And, I’m happy with the kind of shaggy, unformed character- I meant it to be as meandering as the river and I think it’s pretty meandering. So, yes.


GELLERMAN: Well, David, back to civilization!

GRESSNER: Yeah, and quite the civilization. If the point of the book is to get kids involved in nature, we came to the right place.

GELLERMAN: You succeeded wildly. Thanks a lot for a great day.

GRESSNER: Thank you so much, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: David Gessner is author of: My Green Manifesto- Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. For some photos of our trip down the Charles, paddle over to our web site: loe.org. And, by the way,…my microphone dried out…it's still working.



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