Sandra Steingraber and Charlotte’s Web

By: Leah Sienkowski

As the kickoff to the third annual Women & Environment Symposium on Friday, February 7, Amy Dunham Strand, Ph.D., offered a surprising answer to the question: “What do women and the environment have anything to do with each other?”

Her reply was: “Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.”

In this classic children’s novel Fern Arable and Charlotte A. Cavatica befriend a pig, a runt named Wilbur, and continually come to his defense. The theme of the book harmonizes sweetly with that of the symposium: there is power inherent in compassion, vulnerability, and well-chosen words—not to mention, being a woman.

With every environmental issue we straddle opposing allegiances. We are caught between the present and future, the political and the biological, our families and our watersheds, and we must decide whether to act quickly or cautiously. Do we find ourselves with Fern, between the axe and the pig in compassionate identification? Or with Charlotte, using carefully-spun words to open and change the minds of others?

Somehow, Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., the keynote speaker at the symposium, embodies these conflicting loyalties, without giving in to what she calls well-informed futility syndrome. As a scientist and a poet, a mother and an activist, she is devoted to defending those who cannot speak for themselves. As a cancer survivor, she understands personally what it means to be invaded. Her resistance to this toxic trespass extends from herself and her family to the wilderness which surrounds her home in New York State.

Steingraber divides her time between speaking engagements, writing, lobbying, raising her children, and most recently as an inmate in the county jail. In pursuit of a clean energy future, for the health of her family and her neighbors and the surrounding ecosystem, she advocates against “induced hydraulic fracturing,” or fracking. Fracking fouls bodies of water, air, cellulose, and skin, in a process Steingraber describes as “tantamount to burying giant cigarette lighters in the earth.

Recognizing that all bodies are permeable to invasion and that those of air and water do not follow zoning laws or boundary lines, Steingraber demands a total ban on fracking. On April 17, 2013 Steingraber was admitted to the Chemung County Jail for asserting her opinions during a fracking protest.

In a statement to the crowd at the time of her arrest, Steingraber said,

“My small, non-violent act of trespass is set against a larger, more violent one: the trespass of hazardous chemicals into water and air and thereby into our bodies. This is a form of toxic trespass.”

Ten days later, upon her release from jail, Steingraber reflects on the experience:

“I would do it again in a minute…Being new to civil disobedience, I’m still learning about its power and its limitations… But I know this: all I had to do is sit in a six-by-seven-foot steel box in an orange jumpsuit and be mildly miserable, but the real power of it is to be able to shine a spotlight on the problem.”

By defending the ground beneath our feet, Sandra Steingraber is, by extension, defending everything.

Steingraber admits to the challenge of working away from home for much of the year, returning to her children’s questions, including, “Oh hey, mom. Did you ban fracking yet?” For her, these sacrifices are necessary. Just as radiation and chemotherapy were necessary to defend the health of her own body, civil disobedience and the accompanying jail sentence to defend the health of the earth seemed just as necessary.

In an article published in Orion Magazine entitled, The Whole Fracking Enchilada, Steingraber emphasizes the centrality of this environmental issue:

“Fracking is linked to every part of the environmental crisis—from radiation exposure to habitat loss—and contravenes every principle of environmental thinking. It’s the tornado on the horizon that is poised to wreck ongoing efforts to create green economies, local agriculture, investments in renewable energy, and the ability to ride your bike along country roads. It’s worth setting down your fork, pen, cellular phone—whatever instrument you’re holding—and looking out the window.”

Sandra Steingraber has identified the runt of the litter—an overlooked issue which symbolizes our communal lack of empathy. Her poignant speech at the February 7 symposium brought attention to what she calls the “unleashed interior” of the earth. Sandra’s poetry paired with her staunch political stance resonates with the words which bring Charlotte’s Web to a close. In the words of E.B. White, Sandra is “in a class by herself.”

White goes on to say, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

Sandra Steingraber is both.

Sandra Steingraber’s original speech, delivered at GVSU’s L.V. Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids for the Women & the Environment Symposium on February 7, 2014, can be found here.

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