Listen first and foremost to those stories that otherwise wouldn't be told. Listening is political, listening can be revolutionary.
I’m housesitting for an ex-Buddhist nun and her petulant cat, Dostoyevsky. I’m blasting Amy Winehouse’s album Frank. It’s the time of night when the sky turns indigo. I’m getting back into the swing of rowing and have been invited to race early on in January. I’m going to spend xmas with one of my favorite families on this island. Strawberries are in season and I’m eating them by the handful. I celebrated the solstice in the company of friends. I ate carrot cake in the shape of the sun. I chased kids around a paddock. The sky was sherbet. My hair smells like woodsmoke.
This time six months ago I welcomed the shortest day of the year in Australia. I gave my friend an asymmetrical haircut, communed with some sassy chickens, rode a penny farthing, learned how to drive a stick shift, and drove this here fine manual truck over a mountain, through lots of muddy puddles, OVER A TREE, and to a waterfall.
If you are anything like me, you read the above excerpt (a recent post from Devi's "One Bike, One Year" blog) and thought I need to know this girl. Devi's writing is suffused with a deep respect for place and a passion for everyday poetry. She's a touring cyclist and storyteller who is circling the world by bicycle and boat to collect 1,001 stories on climate change. Loam feels very lucky that we got a chance to interview Devi as she settled into work on a book proposal chronicling her experiences. Listen in and get lifted.
Many of us harbor plans for our passion project but sometimes struggle to find a way to dive in. What does it take to just do? Who or what helped you bring One Bike//One Year into being?
I won't sugar-coat it: beginning is difficult. It's painful. Beginning this trip brought up questions I didn't want to confront, but had to anyway. I wrote a bit about breaking up with Boston / beginning my travels for BuzzFeed.
One Bike One Year is an extension of a trip I began in August 2013. While cycling down the Mississippi River I collected stories from people I met and used those stories as fuel to write my senior thesis in Folklore & Mythology. The farther down the river I cycled, the more stories people told me about water and climate change. It was a project I wanted to replicate on a larger scale.
I was extremely fortunate to be selected as a recipient of a Gardner & Shaw Postgraduate Traveling Fellowship from Harvard for a year of "purposeful wandering" after graduation. I remember opening the email that told me that I was a recipient of the fellowship while in the locker room before rowing practice. I screamed. It felt so surreal. I'm actually going to do this.
People ask me all the time about fear. "Don't you get afraid? How do you deal with fear?" Yes, I am sometimes afraid. Yes, it is difficult. Music helps. I love Tami Neilson. Joy Harjo's poetry has guided me countless times. It's an ongoing process.
But really, the trick to beginning? Just do it. Start small, start narrow. I think the limited focus of my trip -- of collecting stories about water and climate change while traveling mostly by bicycle -- has let the project extend of its own accord.
Your work is considered "Listening As Activism." How can we learn to better listen?
Listening is a skill that can be improved by doing. When I am listening to a storyteller, I do my best to eliminate all distractions––even if we are in a busy setting, I zone in on their voice. Listening to the world through headphones and a microphone gives me permission to be more present, somehow. I liken it to magic.
Anna Deavere Smith is a big source of guidance and inspiration for the way that I want to be present in the world. She listens for rhythm. She listens from the heart.
The most important thing, I think, is to listen without judgment. So few of us do.
Loam believes that creativity and sustainability exist in symbiosis. How can poetry be an agent of change? How can we create spaces that support storytelling as a legitimate tool of environmental activism?
That's a great question. Poetry can be an agent of change in as much as it opens doors for connectivity where there previously was none. I view poetry as a sacred act of association -- the poet has the task of bringing pieces of the world together in a new way, in a way that opens up more questions than answers, that honors the silent spaces between words, and that connects people. The poets I most admire have an ability to take a piece of the natural / nonhuman world and relate it to my life. I turn to Mary Oliver's words again and again for guidance. Her words are the closest thing to a holy text that I have in my life.
Re: creating spaces that support storytelling as a tool for environmental activism -- I think the answer depends on the community. That said, face-to-face meetings are invaluable. Spaces for storytelling exist when we create them, when we shut down the screens around us and take the time to be, just to be with the people in our immediate vicinity. I'm doing this in a more out-in-the-world kind of way, but that doesn't mean that a smaller scale form of listening / storytelling is any less valuable.
The beautiful and complex thing about listening is that it fosters connections, improbable ones, even, across lines of human experience. Both poetry and storytelling have this power, though the kind of poetry I like best tends to be much quieter / individually experienced.
Creating a space for storytelling as activism is possible. The first step is and always must be to listen. Only through listening can we come to know what a community most needs.
Listen first and foremost to those stories that otherwise wouldn't be told. Listening is political, listening can be revolutionary. I'm doing my best to use the privilege that I have to elevate the stories that might not otherwise be told.
What was a recent moment during your travels that pushed you entirely into the present?
The salty vastness of the ocean never fails to bring me full into the present. In October I hitched a ride on a yacht going south on the east coast of Australia from Cairns to Bermagui. Along the way I was in charge of night shift: 11pm-3am. During that time I monitored the progress of the boat, the direction of the wind, and was in charge of waking up the snoozing captain if anything dramatic happened. My legs adjusted to the pitch and roll of the waves. I saw a humpback whale breach for the first time. A pod of dolphins came to surf under the bow of the catamaran. The sunsets were sublime. I honored the water. I sang to the water. I danced on the surface of it. On nights where we moored, I welcomed the morning with a swim. I felt stillness in the motion. There are few things as beautiful and as soul-affirming as sailing, and I hope to get more experience on sailboats in the near future.