I am the clear-eyed woman the greying-haired woman the sun-loving woman dreaming dreams that delight dreams that dismay dreams that point the way
— From “I am” by Susan Lee Campbell Solar
Austinite Susan Lee Solar was the only candidate in the 1998 governor’s race who did jail time. The lifelong activist was arrested for protesting the state’s plan to dump nuclear waste in West Texas, a project that her opponent, George W. Bush, had endorsed for years. While she spent a weekend locked up in Del Valle, the governor fulminated five miles away in his mansion—the defend-the-earth activism Susan served time for had backed him into a corner. The environmental coalition Susan helped organize had kept the pressure up: protesting, litigating, lobbying, organizing—even running for his own office. Doing jail time was just another way of speaking truth to power. Together, Susan and her fellow organizers made the state’s decision to build the dump in Sierra Blanca hotter than the radioactive garbage the owners of the Maine Yankee power plant had planned to bury there. On election day, Susan and her running mate, Alfredo Reza, got only 600 write-in votes. But they had already won: The governor?s officials had caved in and killed the dump the month before.
At 10:10 a.m. on Wednesday, February 13, Susan Lee Solar died after a sudden and brief illness. That evening a small group of friends gathered at the entrance of Barton Springs pool in Austin, in mourning and celebration of Susan’s life. Environmental activists, poets, writers, filmmakers, lawyers, even one legislator who carried the nuclear dump fight to the floor of the House, shared stories, considered what they had learned from this remarkable woman, and even talked about a monument. “She always wanted to build a tower on the land she owns on the Pedernales River,” longtime friend Tony Switzer said. “Maybe we should try to build a tower out there.” Maybe we should. But standing before a crowd of ten to explain her campaign for governor; standing in the city hall chamber in Austin protesting the South Texas nuclear plant; standing in a Capitol committee hearing room and confronting the nuclear waste lobby; standing outside the gates of Huntsville’s Death Row for an interview with one of the subjects of her unpublished book; standing by her van as it blocked the gate to the nuclear weapons research facility at Los Alamos; or standing in solidarity with the larger movement represented by this small circle of friends gathered at Barton Springs; this physically slight woman was her own tower.
If no new monument is ever built, a lasting monument already exists. Look for it next time you drive to El Paso. It’s the thousands of acres of ocotillo, agave, candelilla, greasewood, and basketgrass lying undisturbed on the south side of I-10, just as you approach the tiny town of Sierra Blanca. The small piece of the Chihuahuan Desert that once was to be a nuclear waste dump.
Louis Dubose is the former editor of The Texas Observer.
Who wants to stand on the edge and call out the way? Who has the energy for it? Susan Lee did, not once or twice, but relentlessly for decades. She did it because she was an artist and a human being of intense integrity. She did it because she could. She was a leader of leaders because she saw quickly through what we take for granted and because she could imagine alternatives. She believed in us.
Was she right? Can we open our hearts, souls, and intellects to the profound cry of an ailing planet? Can we organize in time to save the radiant water that bubbles out of the Edwards Aquifer? Can we stop this mad careen to war after war after war that masquerades in obscene disguises, which she unmasked with art and humor as she danced to a different kind of song—a song of life? Laughter and celebration were always close to her activism. Susan Lee was fun. She was inventive. The public address system at her memorial was powered by volunteers from the crowd pedaling a bicycle that generated power for the microphone. Sort of. (Fortunately, we had a back-up system, too.)
But her alternatives were better. There was hope in them. Susan Lee’s activism wasn?t an idea, a theory. She didn’t give a flip about being politically correct. She protected the earth because she loved it. She was a bodyguard for Jennifer Harbury when she confronted the Guatemalan government that killed her husband, because she was horrified by the death squads. There wasn’t much about splitting atoms that was okay for Susan. She considered it a poor idea to blast apart the fabric of reality; a worse idea to dump the poison it generates back onto a living planet. Why not use the sun, the wind?
She knew who she was, and why her activism was essential. She didn?t appreciate being marginalized because she was a woman, an artist. She didn’t like it when people called her “crazy.” She wasn’t. She was wise. She was brilliant. She was a loving parent, friend, mentor, and opponent. She called our ex-governor “Governor Death,” in honor of his stellar record as executioner, but she wouldn’t have harmed him—or anyone. She gave every ounce of her energy—which was considerable—to social and environmental justice. She did it from the time she could think. She did it because she loved her children, all children, everywhere, and because she loved the earth.
Susan Bright is a poet, publisher, and activist living in Austin.