Monday, February 1, 2016

Does the World Need Us?

Praça José Bonifácio in Piracicaba
My husband Jeff and I arrived in Brazil a week ago for a 3-month stay.  The 24-hour journey from Seattle was gratefully easy including a seamless plane change in Washington D.C. less than a day before a massive snowstorm hit the area.  Upon arrival in Sao Paulo, we drove north to the inland city of Piracicaba, where we will live for the next couple of months.  I first visited Piracicaba exactly 30 years ago.  At the time, I was a not so young mother of a 2-year-old boy and pregnant with our daughter.  Now, both children are grown adults, our son married for three years and our daughter, almost 30, will get married this summer.  It seems like a long time ago that I walked to the local bakery holding my young son’s hand and discovered that the cruzeiro had inflated overnight and was now the cruzado, with the value of 1000 cruzeiros.  Fortunately the cost of bread did not inflate 1000-fold. 

The Cathedral in Piracicaba
Amazingly, despite the passage of time, another monetary unit (the real) introduced in 1994 and population growth, the town feels very much the same as it did when I first visited.  Piracicaba remains a peaceful and prosperous university town with a thriving downtown core and several productive factories on the outskirts.  It sits in, and is supported by, a rich agricultural region.  Lush sugar cane fields stretch beyond the town as far as you can see.  Just as I did 30 years ago, I can still walk across the street from my apartment building and buy freshly baked pão francês from a family run bakery (the Brazilian style French rolls that are the staple daily bread everywhere in Brazil ) .  But back in 1986, the world, Brazil and Piracicaba were very different, perhaps more innocent places.  Brazil was a new democracy with an emerging if small middle class and just auditioning on the world stage.  It would be three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Cold War and five years before the Soviet Union dissolved.  Back then, I don’t think any of us imagined something like 9-11 or similar terrorist attacks.   There were threats of course but nothing like those we face today.  The big issues at the time in Brazil were national inflation and de-forestation of the Amazon rain forest.  Now thirty years later, no matter where you are in the world, there are much greater economic and political challenges – many linked heavily to the global economy and increasing inequality.  The challenges here in Piracicaba are not terribly different from those in my hometown of Seattle.  Environmental issues like de-forestation are now recognized to be part of larger, more complex global concerns including climate change.  Brazil is fully on the world stage now – about to host the 2016 Olympics! It has some of the best street graffiti in the world.

Great Street Graffiti in Piracicaba
My first visit to Brazil occurred in 1982, four years before I came with our young son.  I took a leave of absence from my job in Seattle and traveled in the Amazon region, assisting my husband and other scientists on a scientific expedition. The expedition evaluated the hydrology and geochemistry of the largest river in the world.  I was a trained geochemist at the time.  I remember feeling during the five weeks we were on the river as if I was living in a National Geographic travelogue replete with dug out canoes, exotic birds and floating villages.  One afternoon we passed through a hatch of beautiful butterflies that surrounded our boat in a magical veil of bright yellow wings for more than an hour. 

Some of the changes during the last three decades are unsettling, even alarming – and for better or worse, the changes we’ve experienced affect us all regardless of where we live in the world.  For example, last week I read that 2015 was the hottest year on record throughout the globe, breaking the high temperatures reached during the previous hottest year, 2014.  Everywhere I turn, whether I am reading about energy, education, global warming, security, social and religious freedom there is disheartening, and often bad news.  But at the same time there are exciting new innovations all around me that give a feeling of optimism.  Who imagined in 1986 that we’d all own personal computers let alone smart phones?  Probably Steve Jobs but not most ordinary folks.  Similarly did we imagine all being connected through the World Wide Web?  I didn’t but smarter folks did and they were inventing it just as I was walking to the bakery in Piracicaba holding my little boy’s hand.  Now all of us share music, news, knowledge, stories, everything on this amazing global information system.  Of course these systems have been and will be used for purposes that are threatening and even dangerous – we’ve seen that recently in Paris, San Bernardino and elsewhere.  But I believe the power of art, science, engineering, computers and associated technologies to do good and help solve our problems is greater than any downside. 

I was reminded of this belief a few days ago when I received a poetry prompt from the outgoing 2015 Washington State poet laureate Elizabeth Austen.  Ms. Austen is a talented poet and teacher – skilled in inspiring the rest of us to read and write poetry.  You can connect with the prompt at

She began a series of video poetry prompts in 2015 and sent out the fifth one earlier this week.  The prompt begins with an epigraph from Rainer Maria Rilke, a nineteenth century lyrical poet.  In the prompt, the contemporary poet Ellen Bass responds directly to Rilke’s assertion in a poem entitled “The world has need of you.”  After listening to Ms. Austen’s video, my poem is in response not to the statement but to the implicit question: “Does the world need us?”  Here is my poem:

Does the world need us?

Does the world need us?
Well you might ask.
As if the sky needs the swallows
Or the young eagles
Learning to fly as their mother
Sits high on the tall Doug fir.
Does the sky need the sun?
Or does the sun own the sky
What sort of a partnership is it?

The mere concept of need is curious
Does need mean want?
Is it a necessity?
As in I need a glass of water
My throat is parched.
It is so hot.  I need more liquids.
Of course they don’t need to be water.

There’s that need word again
Need suggests necessity
What about just want?
As in, I want a glass of water
Will any old liquid do?
Of course I need something healthy
Not mountain dew or dirty water.
If I was very thirsty and nothing safe was there
What would I do?
Are there times when we are so thirsty
That we drink polluted water
Or even something worse?
What’s worse than dirty water?
Is that why the world needs us?
To make clean from the dirty.

Perhaps the answer is quite different:
Perhaps the world needs us
To make beautiful things?
Poems, paintings, music, gardens
That touch our souls
Beyond the tumble and rumble
Of the natural world.

I wonder aloud again
Does the sky need the swallow?
Or the young eagle?
I ask now from the perspective of the bird
Yes.  The answer is yes.
Without the sky how could I fly?
If I answer for myself
It is still yes, yes and yes again.
Why you ask in return.
How can we look at the sky
And not long to see the swallow, the eagle,
Even hear the song of the bem-te-vi?

Songbirds chatter in my ear.
I sit high up in my apartment
Feeling the wind from the sky
Blowing gently over me.

I look forward to connecting you with my adventures in Brazil.  It is exciting and familiar to be back in this wonderful country – a part of my life for more than 30 years.  Stay tuned.


  1. This is a wonderful combination of memories of the past and commentary on the present and our possible future!. And in free (but priceless) verse!