In a Newsweek article last year, Michael Foster wrote about “why I turned off the Keystone pipeline and face 21 years in jail.”
My friend and fellow Keystone Pledge of Resistance Action Leader, Jim Poyser, mentioned that Michael was a friend of his, and would probably appreciate letters while he is serving his prison sentence (3 years with 2 deferred). Our first exchange of letters follows:
TO: Michael Foster
North Dakota State Penitentiary
Bismarck, ND 58506-5521
March 27, 2018
Jim Poyser told me you are a friend of his and kindly gave me your address, so we could correspond if you like.
Jim and I first started to work together in 2013 as Action Leaders in the Keystone Pledge of Resistance in Indianapolis. We spent a lot of time providing training for local folks regarding nonviolent direct action. And a lot of time on the streets trying to raise awareness. Since then he has drug me into some of the many outstanding things he was and is involved with, especially related to kids and the environment.
I am so impressed with your witness to protect our environment. I wish more people would have worked harder years ago. I fear we have damaged Mother Earth beyond repair. If one believes that, the question becomes should we just enjoy our last days or continue to work to at least slow down our demise. Or hope that somehow, we might survive.
I was raised on various farms we rented around central Iowa. I think farmers have a unique connection to our environment. We had dairy farms. When I was around 10, Dad began to work in various positions with the Farm Bureau co-op, Farm Service. That meant both that we left the farm and moved a lot from town to town.
I was raised as a Quaker. I attended Scattergood Friends School, a co-ed college prep boarding school on a working farm in eastern Iowa. There were only about 15 students per class. Partly for financial reasons, but also what I eventually appreciated as a wonderful educational approach, the students did all the work at the school and on the farm, supervised by the faculty. We rotated through the various crews-meal preparation, dishes, cleaning, farm crew, orchard, bread baking crew, etc. There was a pottery and kilm for art classes, and every student had to be in a theater production every year. There was also mandatory study hall after dinner, so pretty much every minute was scheduled. The other wonderful education we received was learning how to live in community, because that was how the school ran. Weekly community meetings were where we all were involved in community issues, and learned how to make decisions as a community, and come up with and implement solutions. We didn’t really realize until years later that gave us a confidence and skills in community building we didn’t know we were getting at the time.
I was at Scattergood from 1966-70, at the height of the Vietnam War. I struggled deeply with my decision related to the Selective Service System. I organized a draft conference at the School. During another of the Moratorium Days to End the Vietnam War, the entire school walked to the University of Iowa in silence with a couple of signs reading Peace March.
I eventually concluded I had to be a draft resister and turned in my draft cards. A case someone else brought to the Supreme Court meant I was not indicted for draft resistance. (Dodged the bullet, so to speak.)
While struggling with that decision, though, I joined Friends Volunteer Service Mission (VSM), a Quaker project to provide meaningful work for young men doing their alternative service. The idea was to live in an impoverished community during the two years of alternative service. The first year was to do one of the usual alternative service jobs and save enough money to support yourself during the second year. And to get to know the neighborhood during the first year so you could come up with what you wanted to do the second year. I was in the VSM project in a white inner-city neighborhood in Indianapolis. My first year I worked as an on the job trained respiratory therapist. During that year I saw there were no programs for kids in the neighborhood. That became my focus. We would play games at the local city park. I set up a darkroom in the bathroom of the house we (VSM) were living in and taught the kids how to develop film and photos. We took bike trips around town to take photographs. During my second year I spent full time in the neighborhood working with the kids. We organized a 4H club, had Young Friends come to pour concrete in the Second Friends parsonage driveway for a basketball court, continued with photography, etc.
When the two years were up, I returned to Iowa and went to community college for a semester. But I missed working with the kids so much, I returned to Indianapolis. I got work in another Indianapolis hospital as a respiratory therapy technician, and later graduated with a degree in Respiratory Therapy from Indiana University.
I continued to be involved with some of those neighborhood kids as we lived our adult lives. I was godfather to the kids of the neighborhood kid who became my best friend.
As soon as I could I got a position at Riley Hospital for Children, since I realized how much I liked working with kids. After a number of years working in Riley’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I got in on the ground floor of a new research laboratory devoted to studying infant lung development and disease, where I spend the rest of my professional career. I began learning how to write computer software while at Scattergood, when the University of Iowa gave free computer time to surrounding schools. I continued to learn about computer programming after that, which became invaluable in the Infant Pulmonary Function research lab. There was no commercial equipment to do lung function studies in babies, so we had to build our own equipment and write the testing and analysis software needed to do our research. That is what I did. I was co-author on 40 peer reviewed publications about our research by the time I retired last summer.
The other big part of my life was related to concern about our environment. Besides my connection to nature while we were on the farm, we were also blessed to visit many of our National Parks as we grew up. We didn’t have much money, so we would rent, and later own, simple fold up campers, and camp in the parks, Rocky Mountain National Park being everyone’s favorite. We loved spending the whole day hiking in the park and sleeping there as well. I previously mentioned my love of photography. The beauty of the National Parks, and the mountains of Colorado especially, were nearly overwhelming. The last time I was there, last fall, I took over 1,000 photos that week.
All this sensitized me to environmental damage. I first moved to Indianapolis in 1971. This was before catalytic converters began to be used (in 1975), so I would be riding my bicycle through clouds of noxious fumes. I distinctly remember having a horrible vision of the Rocky Mountains becoming enveloped in smog.
So, although I did have a couple of cars for trips home to family in Iowa, this being before car rental was very common, I was uncomfortable about the environmental damage I knew I was contributing to. When the car was involved in an accident, I had become uncomfortable enough about having a car, that I decided to see if I could live without one, since I lived on a city bus route. With a good deal of trepidation, I decided to try. Although it took a while to learn how to do so, it eventually became my way of life since then, about 40 years ago. Each time I moved, the first requirements were that the apartment had to be on a bus route and had a grocery store within walking distance. I learned to be careful about the weight, size, and perishability of things I had to get from the grocery store to the apartment.
There were a number of unanticipated benefits from this. One was my running improved dramatically, because I would take a city bus to work, and then run home every single day. Around the time I started this, I lived seven miles away from the hospital. Each time I moved, I looked for something closer.
When I eventually lived close enough to walk to work some days, I began to be more aware of the flowers and scenes along the walk. I started to take my camera to work with me, and that soon became a daily habit. And I found the more closely I looked, the more I saw. Of course, the other part of this was I actually had the time to stop and take photos of what I was seeing. For years I was coming home with 30 or 40 photos every day. I had to plan an extra 15 minutes or so for the walk in order to take photos.
The other effect of this was it gave me a certain authority when I began to speak out against environmental damage, fossil fuels, tar sands, etc. Almost without fail the first thing someone who disagreed with me would say would be something like “well you drive a car, don’t you?” I grew to look forward to the reaction when I said “no”. But it was being able to create that disruption that often lead to more than a knee-jerk reaction, so we could have a deeper conversation.
Well, I’ve gone on and on as usual. But I hope we can have an ongoing exchange.
I really appreciate your environmental witness and would love to hear more about you.
I write nearly daily on a WordPress blog I call Quakers, Social Justice and Revolution. Often about environmental subjects. I you are interested I would be glad to post things you want to tell the world on that blog.
Indianola, IA 50125
FROM: Michael Foster
Thank you for reaching out to me. Any friend of Jim Poyser is partly nuts and OK by me! We all share a common pursuit, working with youth and the outdoors. You can pick up bits of my story in the NYT Magazine and in Seattle Met magazine last summer, so I won’t bore you.
One thing you wrote, “I fear we have damaged Mother Earth beyond repair,” touches on why I devoted myself to this emergency at this moment. Reading James Hansen’s research on “Avoiding Danger Climate Change: Required Reductions in Carbon Emissions to Protect Yong People, Future Generations and Nature” I realized this is the last moment when returning a stable planet to our children might yet be physically possible, and nobody seems interested in how quickly we must drop pollution. After this time, the efforts we make to restore health, bold and drastic, even revolutionary, will only matter for a little while, like hospice care for parents before they go, so important yet a return to life is not an option anymore.
What we do now, today, either slams the door shut against our own kids and most life forms on Earth, or turns off the gas in this chamber we share, and leaves the door open a crack, just enough that this place might start to cool down in another 30 years or more. But today we decide whether future Earth has life. Tomorrow, not so much.
11 % cuts in pollution each year PLUS 1 trillion new trees EQUALS an outside chance our kids get to raise kids.
Nobody speaks of this is media or leadership or policy. If we delay until 2015 to begin, a mere 7 years:
25% cuts in pollution each year PLUS more than1.5 trillion trees just to do the same thing. Get back to 350 ppm CO2 in the air near 2100.
Massive global cuts don’t happen if we think and live as “consumers”, but OK then. As you discovered living car-free, life without opens doors you can’t purchase on a Tesla. As opposed to annoying, inconvenient, incremental change, dramatic about-face changes turn around everything so quickly, shedding dull routines and thinking promises mere adventure in life, and our pace quickens.
Is it possible for humans to leave a healthy planet for youth? Only today, not tomorrow.
That does it for me! If I am lucky enough to live in this moment when life goes forward or not at all because of my/our waste, then I can only remain human if I refuse to destroy everything I love. I am accountable.
Your letter got me all worked up, ready to preach, something I’ve enjoyed doing as a guest in pulpits since shutting down Keystone 1. Maybe when I get released, we can cook up some tasty plans for youth seeking justice.
Thank you for writing. I’m doing great, more relaxed, smaller footprint, well-fed (vegan diet), and for the moment, on the right side of history.