Monday, February 24, 2014

Convergence: Bruce Hopkins' Book Connects Nature to Human Resilience

English: Loess Hills, east of Mondamin, Iowa
Loess Hills, east of Mondamin, Iowa (Wikipedia)

“It’s the nature of some folks to practice oblivion.”

Bruce Hopkins isn’t that guy. For most of his life, the poet, essayist, environmentalist and educator has communed with nature.

But in his poem, “The Art of Noticing,” he asks “where then, is the awe?” as both an observation and lamentation of the average human’s ignorance of the plants, animals and birds that surround them.

The poem is one of about two dozen others sandwiched between sections in his new book, “The Truth in the Rivers,” also featuring watercolors by New Jersey watercolorist Howard N. Horii.

They were in the Cedar Valley last week. He was joined by his wife, children’s book author Jeanette Hopkins. She is the author of “The Ladybug Waltz” and “The Juggler,” and will introduce her husband. She also presented a program in classrooms at Waterloo’s St. Edwards School.

Nature has always been part of Bruce Hopkin’s life, beginning with growing up in the Catskills Mountains. These days, he finds inspiration and solace in the Loess Hills region of western Iowa.

“I love wilderness, and I believe we should take care of it like we take care of our families. The saddest thing is the cavalier way we’re treating our world, that we can use it up anyway we’d like. It’s not endless, and somewhere down the line we’ll pay the penalties,” said Hopkins, 72, who was administrator at the former Area 7 Agency on Education in the 1970s.

The book’s title also reflects the Hopkin’s belief in the connection between Iowa and other rivers and the convergence of the character of place, human nature and the health of communities.

But nature isn’t the only compelling subject explored in the book. Hopkin's writings explore human resilience, determination in the face of adversity and the ability to sustain a creative voice in a challenging society.

The first section is devoted to Horii’s recollections as a Japanese-American art student sent with his family to internment camps during World War II.

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order detaining and relocating Americans of Japanese ancestry from their homes into camps. Horii, now 90, was interned first at California’s Santa Anita Racetrack facility and later in Arizona.

“Howard called it ‘the most desperate of times,’ and because he had nothing to do in camp, he sketched scenes of what was happening. Later he painted them as watercolors,” said Hopkins, who is Horii’s brother-in-law.

Another section is devoted to civil rights based on Hopkin’s experiences as an educator and activist without “sugar-coating.” In addition to teaching in Waterloo’s gifted program, he taught African-American studies. That included making trips to southern states to recruit black teachers for Iowa schools.

Among his recollections is a visit to Mississippi universities with Lou Porter, who is now president and chief executive officer at KBBG-FM Radio, Iowa’s first African-American-owned public radio station.

The author concludes with the need for people to “teach their children well.” He is concerned about the “deep alienation that forms when children are detached from nature, when they don’t feel they are part of something permanent, natural and necessary.”

He worries children are being taught that nature is something to be feared, contained and exploited rather than experienced and appreciated. Nature enhances the experience of learning, he said, and fosters the connection between nature and humanity, all things he is trying to teach his 11 grandchildren.

Hopkins continues to believe “young people need to figure out how to be a person of conscience, to raise the questions that need to be raised, to have people love them, to reach for the opportunities they are given.”

"Diversity makes our culture strong, and I have to find the strength in that.”
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