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Poets and Artists to Speak Up for the Earth

The event is inspired by poet Robert Bly’s activism against the Vietnam War

By Julie Pfitzinger

Like many of his generation, Minneapolis writer and activist James Lenfestey vividly remembers seeing the iconic "Blue Marble" photo of the Earth — the first image of its kind — taken in 1972 by the crew of the Apollo 17. "It was astonishing to see," said Lenfestey. "It was transformative to see how fragile our planet is."

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To do their part to protect the fragility of the Earth, Lenfestey and a group of approximately 20 Minnesota artists, most 50 and older, are gathering to raise their voices in spoken word and song in support of the planet, encouraging citizens of all ages to engage in the fight against climate change. For the second time, Poets and Writers and Musicians Against the War on Earth will take place in Minneapolis, this time on Jan. 10 at the American Swedish Institute. A similar event was held in June 2017 at a local church, drawing more than 350 to celebrate the Earth on the summer solstice.

Inspired to Take Action

The inspiration for these gatherings comes from Ruth Bly, wife of poet, essayist and translator Robert Bly. In 1968, Robert Bly (now 91) won the National Award for Poetry for The Light Around the Body; he is the author of several other books including A Little Book on the Human Shadow and Iron John.

In 1966, Bly co-founded a group called the American Writers Against the Vietnam War which offered poets and writers the opportunity to speak out in opposition to the war. Lenfestey recalls being in the audience at the University of Minnesota in 1969 at one of Bly's events, finding inspiration in the words shared by a roster of poets. "It just had a huge effect on me," Lenfestey said.

After President Trump announced last June that the United States would exit the Paris Climate Accord, Ruth Bly said she believed the time had come to spearhead an event similar to the war protest launched by her husband, but this time on behalf of the planet. Gathering the collective energy of artists could help draw attention to climate issues, she said.

"It's so good to have a big group to share their wisdom and carry that out into the world," Bly said. "People who have been around for a long time have a lot to say about the earth. Now is the time to talk about it … so was yesterday."

Freya Manfred, poet and author of books including Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers, has helped coordinate these events, along with Bly and Lenfestey. She believes it is incumbent upon all people, but perhaps especially the older generation, to recognize how important and precious all forms of life on earth are (like animals and fish) and to act on their behalf. "We need to give them the same sense of dignity that we give to humans," said Manfred. "They need a voice."

Giving Voice to the Issues

Lenfestey, who has been covering climate science as a journalist and community activist for 30 years, agreed, in light of the fact that, he said, "we are facing some terrible political headwinds."

At the June event, Ruth Bly said, the audience "was surprisingly tranquil, given the situation." But, she added, "I'm expecting a little more voracity this time."


She said the artists who are participating are not given any specific direction. "Everyone offers their message in a different way," said Bly, "and everyone will experience those messages in a different way."

Environmental groups, including Citizens' Climate Lobby and Climate Generation, will also participate by setting up information tables, encouraging people to learn more and become involved in issues surrounding climate science.

Reaching the Next Generation

Both Bly and Lenfestey are grandparents, and along with Manfred, concerned about preserving the planet for young people and making them aware of its many gifts.

"Getting children and grandchildren out into the world is so important," said Manfred. "There is such pleasure in nature; they should have the opportunity to see how sacred, vulnerable and amazing the outdoors is."

Lenfestey is also keen on giving his older grandchildren the tools they need to make their own voices heard. "My Christmas gift to my four college-age grandchildren was to invite them to join me at a Citizens' Climate Lobby conference this summer in Washington, D.C.," he said. "There are climate scientists who give presentations, talk to volunteers and offer information about writing letters and lobbying members of Congress. I want my grandkids to get the understanding of what they can do."

The Power of the Arts

Bly, Lenfestey and Manfred have been in contact with other poets and artists across the country to encourage them to host their own versions of Poets and Writers and Musicians Against the War on Earth. "We've heard from some that they are having smaller gatherings in peoples' homes," Bly said.

Recalling the events held by her husband, Bly said the spirit of the anti-war sentiments can be translated by artists into protest against what she called the current "war on the environment." She added: "We have to say what we need to say while we can. And people are so appreciative. It helps to get people together to see they have fellowship in this."

According to Lenfestey, the arts provide a way "to activate the spirit" in a time where he said he believes "people need some bucking up."

At readings he gives, Lenfestey frequently closes with his favorite lines of a poem by Robert Bly called Listening:

The hermit said: "Because the world is mad, / The only way through the world is to learn/The arts and double the madness. Are you listening?"

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Julie Pfitzinger is the managing editor for Next Avenue and senior editor for lifestyle coverage. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email at [email protected]. Read More
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