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Soft Eyes 


Let's say you're an event planner for an environmental organization. A big meeting has been scheduled, and the question is location. Where to hold it? How about Vermont?

This is a scenario that must play out in boardrooms across the country, because if I've driven one professional tree hugger, I've driven a thousand. These environmental types just love to gather in Vermont. We are, after all, the Green Mountain state.

Sitting next to me, fresh from a Middlebury conference sponsored by the Nature Conservancy, was Doris Huang. She was short - tiny, really - with wispy, shoulder-length hair and oversized round glasses. It sounds terrible to say, but she reminded me of the cute, pugnacious chicken hawk of Looney Tunes fame - the pint-sized would-be hunter who is schooled by the droll and cynical Foghorn Leghorn. I spent half my childhood glued to the television set, consumed by Looney Tunes cartoons. So, to this day, people I encounter often bring to mind one of those vivid animated characters.

What I really liked about Doris was her intensity, which was evident in the mere 20 minutes we'd been chatting. For this woman, life was not a dress rehearsal; it was the real thing. I'm drawn to pretty, petite, passionate women. I even married one.

"So, what exactly is your job in the Nature Conservancy?" I asked as we sped north on Route 7, bumping over the train tracks at New Haven Junction. I should have slowed down, but I never do.

"I'm based in Hong Kong, representing the organization to all of China. Since 1997, of course, Hong Kong is again officially part of China."

"Is that where you grew up?"

"It is. I'm a true Hong Kong girl. My family has lived there since the Communist Revolution."

"Have you been in environmental work all your adult life?"

"No. Until a few years ago, I was a dealer in contemporary Chinese art."

"Wow, I've never really thought about modern Chinese painting. I suppose artistic expression has been severely restricted under communist rule."

"Yes, that is the case, but you know the artistic spirit." Doris paused for a chuckle. "There is always a way to weave political content into a work of art. You just have to view the painting with soft eyes to see it."

We cruised for a while in comfortable silence. In Ferrisburgh, the Dakin Farm Store had a giant, inflatable maple-syrup bottle sitting on the front lawn just outside its little demo sugarhouse. Maple syrup redeems the mud season, I thought, grinning.

I restarted the conversation. "Do Chinese folks actually give money to a charity like yours?"

"That's a big issue for us in the Hong Kong office," she replied. "Philanthropy is a different animal in China. Chinese people are generous, but giving traditionally takes place on a village level. It's not that NGOs are unheard of, but they are not very active. The government tends to discourage, let's say, any competing centers of influence and power. Things are changing, though - slowly but steadily."

Before Shelburne Museum, I took a right to avoid Shelburne Road traffic. The truth is, since the completion of the road expansion project, major back-ups are largely a thing of the past. Still, it's more scenic, if not faster, to approach the airport via the back roads.

"Hey, I didn't ask you," I said, "but why the switch from art to a career in environmentalism?"

"That's an easy question," Doris replied with a soft laugh. "I did it for my spirit. This work - helping to preserve the natural environment for future generations - it expresses my character in a way that the art business never could. I'm a happier person now."

Doris' candor was refreshing. Inspiring, too. It seems to me that more and more people are taking up the philosopher Joseph Campbell's much-quoted exhortation to "follow your bliss." That has to be a positive development, not only on a personal level but for the planet: The individual expression of the soul and the collective movement for global healing go hand in glove.

As we approached the airport, the nosy cabdriver had one final question. "Doris, if you don't mind my asking, what did your parents think about your dramatic career change?"

"My parents," Doris responded, pausing again with that wonderful laugh, "they already thought I was completely weird to go into the art world. Even before then, really. I'm just not your typical Chinese girl. So when I quit that to join the Nature Conservancy, their attitude was just, 'Well, that's our Doris.' They're still waiting for their first grandchild, and I just refuse to get with that program."

If I had a moment to spend with this mother and father, I fantasized, I would encourage them to drop their expectations and experience the actual woman standing before their eyes: a world citizen of the first order. Their Doris, they would see, is a jewel of a daughter.

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About The Author

Jernigan Pontiac

Jernigan Pontiac

Jernigan Pontiac was a Burlington cab driver whose biweekly "Hackie" column appeared in Seven Days 2000-20. He has published two book-length collections, Hackie: Cab Driving and Life, and Hackie 2: Perfect Autumn.


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