Reconfiguring the Enemy

Sun bursting through forest

Photo from Stock.Xchng

by Susan McCaslin

Lately I’ve been learning how to see the “enemy” as a potential friend who might not be so “other” as first assumed.

I became involved recently in a local grassroots effort to save an endangered mature rainforest near my home in British Columbia – a 25-acre parcel of land filled with western red cedars, big leaf maples, western hemlocks, and an enormous black cottonwood that is possibly 300 years old.  Wildlife biologists told us the area is suitable habitat for some species at risk, such as the Pacific water shrew and the spotted tree frog. Our local government had determined to sell off this unique ecosystem in order to raise money to build a recreation centre in a neighbouring community.

Though I’ve spent most of my life as a quiet college instructor and poet, in response to the beauty of this forest I suddenly found myself organizing arts initiatives designed to bring attention to its plight.

With the support of a local conservationist group, my husband and I organized an “art in the park” event that brought together poets, environmentalists, concerned residents, musicians, a dancer, photographers, painters, and high school and university students to speak to the issue and perform their art. Renowned Canadian artist Robert Bateman showed up to speak to the media about the irony of selling off an ecological treasure in order to build a recreation centre elsewhere: “The real recreation centre is right here,” he quipped. The story made both the local and national newspapers and television.

I then came up with the notion of The Han Shan Poetry Initiative.  In the spirit of an ancient Chinese poet named Han Shan, who suspended his poems from trees and scrawled them on rocks, I invited poets from all over Canada and further afield (the U.S.A, Britain, Australia, and Turkey) to submit tree poems to our cause.  Soon more than 200 poems dangled like white angels from the trees.  The community showed up to stroll through the woods and read the poems.  This initiative uniting art and activism was also reported in local and national press.

But what does all this have to do with loving one’s enemies?

Only three out of nine members of Council seemed persuaded by our arguments.  Developers were poised at the forest’s perimeter, hungry to build estate homes. I found it easy to demonize the recalcitrant, pro-development council members, some of whom referred to this beautiful living ecosystem as “surplus,” “idle land,” and “inventory.”  Many locals expressed cynicism about the councillors, and said we were wasting our time with such pro-development politicians.

A few nights before Council cast its final vote determining the fate of the forest, I desperately began phoning some of the politicians to speak to them one on one.  On my third call,  I  reached “John, ”  who kept asking me about myself and where I had taught before retiring.  “You seem so familiar,” he said.  Then he asked a few more questions about my poetry, ferreting out I’d taught at a university he attended way back in the late 70s.  “Yes, yes, you were my English prof!” he exclaimed.  “I wasn’t your best student, but you’re the one who taught me how to edit, and that skill has served me well in politics.”  I began to think I remembered him and I certainly recalled the novels and poems he mentioned I’d taught all those years ago.

“But back to the forest…” I coaxed. “You know,” John confessed, “I’ve written a few poems myself over the years.  In fact, I’ve written quite a few about nature and the changes wrought by development.”  Mind if I run a few of them by you sometime?”

“Absolutely,” I responded.  He emailed the poems right away and I was bowled over to see he’d written evocatively about how the Fraser Valley where we lived had been devastated by development over the past decades.  “What gives?” I wondered.

I’d love to end this anecdote by reporting how he voted to spare the entire forest.  But he did stand up for a surprising compromise position that would preserve 60% of the forest and sell the rest to a developer. In fact, the entire Council, in response to all the publicity and public outcry, voted to save 60%.  Now, a private donor, who had read about the issue in the local papers, is purchasing the entire parcel and donating it as a nature preserve.

So my first venture into activism was successful, though I realize not every local initiative can succeed.  Throughout most of the process I struggled hard not to become attached to outcomes.

Besides celebrating the stunning realizations that art matters, poetry matters, and that a grassroots movement can indeed save a forest, I’m left with gratitude and wonder that one whom many considered to be an “enemy” was in fact a friend in a surprising disguise.  The incident made me aware how intimately interconnected we all are.

How could I have dreamed an apparent adversary might have once been my student; that one of the “pro-development jerks” wrote poetry and cared about the environment; that there was less distance between me and the supposed “enemy” than I had ever imagined?

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Categories: Arts, Daily Life, Ecology and Environmental Issues, Ethics, Featured, Leadership, Nature, Peace, Justice, and Equality, Susan McCaslin, World

Author:Wood Lake Publishing

At Wood Lake Publishing we are passionate about supporting and encouraging an emerging form of Christianity, which is rooted in ancient wisdom and attentive to the movement of spirit in our day. Visit us online at


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2 Comments on “Reconfiguring the Enemy”

  1. Leslie
    September 9, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    This is wonderful — wonderful example of how it so easy to demonize others, and these days especially, politicians, among others, That personal contact made all the difference. I commend your bravery in making that personal connection and calling the Councillor. Sometimes I force myself to find one commonality or even one small agreement in the policies or personal life of a politician I’m particularly furious at, and usually, I find it. This is healthier for me but doesn’t stop me from continuing to act to make the changes I want to see in my world, either. Thank you.

  2. September 10, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    Susan, I so enjoyed reading this post with that perspective on the concept of “enemy”. Food for thought!

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