For Shodo Spring, the reality of climate change got personal eight years ago when she visited her laughing newborn grandson.
“I thought, ‘We can’t do this … He’s expecting a good life and so we have to change this,’” Spring said.
Since then, Spring, of Northfield, has become an environmental activist and trained as a Zen Buddhist priest.
While training to become a priest in 2011, she repeatedly envisioned walking the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to transport petroleum from Canada to Texas. It’s the final phase of the Keystone pipeline and is still awaiting U.S. government approval.
As a result of those visions, this summer she’ll embark on a 1,200 mile “Compassionate Earth Walk” from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb., following the pipeline’s path.
Spring considers it “a spiritual walk” with the dual purpose of “returning energy to the earth” and engaging with people affected by the pipeline about its impact.
Environmentalists oppose the pipeline because it will carry tar sands oil, a dirty, heavy substance that requires a lot of energy to extract and refine. They cite the likelihood of spills — and the fact that the pipeline crosses the world’s largest intact ecosystem and land with spiritual significance to Native Americans.
The walk, which starts July 1, will likely end in late October, Spring said. About ten people plan to trek the majority of the way, with others joining them for portions.
Personal reasons for walking vary, but collectively they want to raise awareness that “we’re coming very close to irreversible climate change,” said Spring, brought on by our fossil fuel use.
“I’m choosing to think that it’s not irreversible at this point,” she said, but “we get worse every year. That really scares me.”
Jon Biemer of Portland said he sees their purpose as “not to stop the pipeline per se — it’s much broader than that.”
Personally, he’s “kind of thinking of this as a vision quest,” he said, in keeping with Native American Indian spiritual practices.
Spring, 65, who has been backpacking and once completed a month-long Zen pilgrimage, said they’ll have to cover 20 miles a day. But 20 miles “is too much,” she said, so they’ll split into groups of morning and afternoon walkers.
“Physically, I don’t have any question that I’ll be able to do it,” she said.
A support vehicle — a converted school bus running mostly on vegetable oil — will travel with them. The group will camp some nights and stay with individuals and groups other nights.
But interacting with locals could be just as challenging as the terrain. Along the way, the walkers, all from different faith backgrounds, intend to plan community events and discuss environmental issues with the people they meet.
The bus will carry environmental films, a projector and a screen for impromptu screenings. They’ll also be planting seeds like milkweed and wildflowers, said Mark Chavez, a Denver activist who will also drive the bus.
Many people who own land along the pipeline’s route “see its short-term benefits rather than the long-term consequences,” said Chavez. Some have sold property to the government so the pipeline can go through.
Spring knows it will be “very easy for people to see us as outsiders who are telling others how to live their life,” she said, noting that “those against the pipeline are in the minority.”
But “we’re offering the idea that we have the choice of being friendly with the earth,” she said, and they’ll greet people with openness.
They’ll also have interdenominational prayer sessions, in the Zen Buddhist way of “sitting meditation.”
The walk’s principles are consistent with Zen Buddhism, Spring said, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things and acts as an antidote to the idea that humans must control the earth.
Chavez spent nine months on the “Pick Up America” walk in 2011, an effort in which participants picked up thousands of pounds of litter across the country.
He said he sees “the Keystone pipeline as one of the most pivotal environmental issues of our time.”
Though he’s unlikely to change many minds immediately, he hopes to “plant seeds” so they’ll consider other points of view, he said.
He’s been working to create a database of communities they’ll encounter and plan events. Some will be “solidarity events” so people at home can participate, he said.
Some supporters who can’t walk are helping financially, Spring said.
Spring and the walk received some formal backing several months ago through a $1,000 grant from the Pollination Project, a nonprofit offering support to those trying to make a difference in their communities.
Spring said her biggest concern is that the group will seem preachy to people they meet. But she’s excited to get started nonetheless.
“This is a bigger thing than I’ve ever done,” she said. “I need to be up for it.”