Spokane’s Riverkeeper needs some alone time. After attending a conference of 340 Waterkeepers from all over the world, Jerry White is in the mood to write a poem about some time he spent in an Aspen forest while in Utah.
Instead, he’s dealing with the stacked-up meetings on his calendar and unanswered emails that filled his box while he was gone. But when he sits down, hands wrapped around a mug of black coffee, his passion takes over as he begins to speak about his recent interactions with colleagues from as far away as Kenya and Cambodia, and as close as the Bitterroot Valley. “It’s a very emotional experience,” he explains. “You’re sort of swimming in this vibe of people who are deeply committed. I absolutely thrive on that.” His warm smile broadens. “Everyone rides the wave coming out of that experience with some sense of strength and power.”
But the time with the other Waterkeepers also reinforced something that has been part of Jerry’s journey all along: living and working with intention. “I keep asking myself: How does intention work in all of this?” He shifts, trying to find a way to explain this thing he’s been wrestling with. “There’s a dissonance,” he says. “Be an activist, a warrior. That’s the model. But sometimes being quiet is the best tool. There has to be a way to let the mystery happen, that allows for stillness. If you aren’t careful you can let achievements trample over something that could have been even more beautiful.”
At that moment, as so often happens when talking with Jerry White, the conversation turns to poetry. “I’ve been spending time just sitting, with no intention to create. I just make a space where I can get out of search and destroy mode. And the poetry begins to drift in.” He pauses again, searching for the words he needs. “The poetry has a deep and nuanced influence on the work I’m doing.”
When I met Jerry in 2009, he was sitting in a café writing poems. On leave from a teaching job, he was exploring ways to engage with the community around salmon preservation and environmental policy. But it was poetry that filled his journal, and poetry books that were stacked alongside his cup of coffee. Many of those books contained the poems from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, known as the Rivers and Mountains poetry of ancient China. These poems are still a touchstone for Jerry today.
“They’re touching nature and being in nature in a way that’s accessed through their aesthetic.” But he’s quick to note these poets don’t have all the answers for the challenges we face in the modern world. “They weren’t familiar with the world of advocacy. They were thinking about protecting what they loved.”
Sometimes Jerry’s quiet, artistic approach is misunderstood or undervalued by others working toward the same environmental goals. “In activism there’s a real tendency to work only in the world of politics and policy, but there’s something really important about engaging the aesthetic of the community around what we love.” Other times, he encounters people who don’t just misunderstand Jerry’s approach, they don’t appear to be interested in the common good at all. “It’s hard not to be oppositional. I try to have empathy and compassion for all the different ways people can approach the work.” A smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. “I mean they aren’t evil sock puppets; but they’re people with a really different orientation.”
Adding to the challenge is the fact that Spokane, historically, hasn’t embraced its waterways as a valuable part of community life. “Spokane was really alienated from its river,” he explains, citing dumping of garbage and sewage, rail yards, and the fact that the areas around the river were populated by marginalized people.
“Buildings faced away from the river. People lived away from the river. It was seen as a dangerous place.”
In fact, among the Riverkeeper’s greatest fears is that, because it’s always been there, the community will take the water and its health for granted. “One of the things that worries me is that people will endlessly lower the bar for the world around us. Our adaptability, our endless ability to move the baseline, could be our downfall.” He uses a Zen image to clarify. “It’s like we’re standing in the middle of the river, but we’re thirsty.”
Still, Jerry finds hope for the river in Spokane’s growing arts community. “If you look at art out of Spokane from the 1800s, there was no river there. Now the river is showing up everywhere.” He’s energized by the many local painters, writers, and other artists whose work is making his job easier. “The river insinuates itself into that art,” he explains. “It’s not about me making that connection. It’s already there.” And the more that art is experienced by the community, the greater the possibilities for the river itself. “There’s something about art that allows us to become more connected and intimate with the river. That mystery and magic is just essential if you’re going to be a part of positive change.”