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Maynard Biodiversity Talks: Nanri Tenney

Updated: Feb 25

Biodiversity is an important measure of the health of our wildlife. The greater the variety of plants and animals, the healthier and more resilient the environment—and the better able it is to adjust to a changing climate.


So how do citizens of Maynard think about biodiversity, and what steps are they taking to foster it? What do people value about the wildlife in the gardens, woods, wetlands, and meadows in town? How and why do they cultivate biodiversity in their gardens? How do they protect and enhance biodiversity in the landscape? This blog attempts to answer these questions through conversation with a range of individuals with diverse viewpoints and approaches. We will look at efforts both small and large, from the cultivation of a single Bee Balm plant in a pot to town-wide initiatives.


First, a bit about me. I am interested in the biodiversity in my garden, and my efforts have been rewarded with a steadily increasing range of insects, plants, and amphibians. But I am neither an expert gardener nor a botanist, so I am curious to learn from others. I bring my interest, my questions, and a desire to understand how people think and respond to a changing world.



Nanri Tenney
Nanri Tenney

Art & Environmentalism

Nanri Tenney, a resident of Maynard for the last 17 years and member of Green Maynard, uses her art to promote biodiversity and social justice in Maynard and surrounding areas. The following account of her work is taken from spoken and written interviews with Nanri. 


Nanri’s life has been rich with creativity, social activism, and travel. Her great uncle Lucien Bleyfus achieved fame in the 1930s as a post-impressionist painter. Nanri says he would go out into the countryside at 5 a.m. to paint. He is still celebrated for his paintings of the French landscape. Nanri grew up with these beautiful landscape oil paintings hanging in her home in New Canaan, Connecticut.


Painting of houses on a mountain by Lucien Bleyfus
Painting by Lucien Bleyfus

After surviving heavy fighting in occupied France in World War II, Nanri’s father, Jean George Bleyfus Tenney, joined the United Nations shortly after its formation. Representatives from the U.S. and other allied countries wrote the UN Charter at the birth of this organization in 1945, establishing a new peace organization to replace the defunct League of Nations. Its aim was to banish war forever and help member countries to live in peace, respect human rights, and improve living conditions all over the world. 


Nanri described how her father’s UN missions influenced her as a child:


“In 1959, we lived in Morocco. I was eight, and I was acutely aware of my father’s work. I knew he was doing something important. I learned he was going into the countryside to talk to sheiks in charge of their villages about aqueducts. He was talking to them about improving their lives.

 

When I was older, I understood that the progressive and idealistic UN was providing technical assistance and community development to remote villages. Then we moved to Haiti, where my father served as the head of the UN mission and the administrator. The dull erosion of earth in Haiti, the environmental destruction, and the poverty impacted me even as a child. So, at the dinner table these were the topics of conversation, and I was aware and proud of the fact that we were helping that situation. I was beginning to understand the value of these progressive and socially responsible projects as I heard my father’s stories at the dinner table. By that time in the 1950s, the UN and its staff were already providing technical assistance and community development to remote villages in Morocco and across the globe. 

 

I grew up with the UN symbol all over the house, on every piece of stationery. In it there are laurel branches cradling the seven continents of our globe, lying within the color blue of the sky around us. The color blue is very dear to me.” 


It was here, living abroad, that Nanri understood the idea that environmental concerns and social justice were interlinked. Nanri spent her childhood immersed in the complexities of overseas development as her family moved from one culture to another—Morocco, Haiti, Kenya, Uganda, Paris, and Trinidad and Tobago. The inspiration to do something was natural for her.


By 1971, Nanri was married, and her former husband’s work with UNESCO had brought them to live in Trinidad. Nanri describes a profound and formative experience on the beach in Trinidad, which inspired in her a deep concern for the environment:


“Our neighbors belonged to a nature group. One night they said, ‘Come along, there is a turtle laying eggs on Mariquibo Beach.’ We arrived on the beach in the tropical darkness with nature sounds all around us. We were careful not to use flashlights and sat silently a few feet back so as not to disturb her. She was 3.5 feet tall and 6 feet long, a primordial mother giving life, oblivious to us, utterly focused. She sighed as the eggs poured out of her. It was as if she was the enormous mother of all species doing her work for the earth. I felt very close to her. It was a strong and empowering experience for me. This moment and my love for nature has stayed with me ever since.” 


Black and white silk screened turtle
Silk-screen turtle by Nanri Tenney

Nanri read extensively about Indigenous cultures and resonated with the Hopi, who understand their role as caretakers of the sacred land that they inherited from their ancestors. Nanri told me about the Hopi.


“To be Hopi is to strive towards a state of reverence for all things. They are the first people of North America, and still dwell on a high mesa, Oraibi, in Arizona. They refer to us as invaders of their lands and call us ‘Little Brother’ who are unaware that we are destroying nature’s patterns and rhythms in all layers of life. They have been watching us since 1700 and ask, ‘What is going on Little Brother?’ In the book of the Hopi is a drawing of a bison, which illustrates their belief that we are now on the last leg of human existence on this earth as we know it. Finding out about the Hopi was the first time I comprehended human-caused destruction of nature.”  


Nanri practices Tibetan Buddhism and the teachings of Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh. These spiritual practices have been an abiding source of solace and inspiration to Nanri for decades. 


Wherever she lives, Nanri uses her Rhode Island School of Design art training to complement her activism. She promoted food co-ops in San Francisco, sustainable farming in Vermont, and designed logos for many local organizations, including Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Cambridge Aero Instruments, Hutchins Farm, and Peace Day celebrations in Concord. She curated the painting exhibit at Open Table 2017 in Maynard. 



“Going back now to 1999, for many years I was involved with a very successful immigration organization, the Tibetan Resettlement Project. My partner at that time was Edward Bednar, who founded this organization together with many others. These 1,000 Tibetans had managed to escape the Chinese invasion under Mao Tse Tung’s regime at risk to their lives. The invasion is wiping out their culture, their livelihoods, and often their lives. This pattern is similar to what we did to the Native Americans. Through this organization, we successfully worked with 25 cluster sites, which were supporting the resettlement of these Tibetans in the U.S. I was immersed in this project as secretary of the Boston Center, as host to a Tibetan woman, and in running a gallery in Maynard, Atelier Diese, in aid of the Tibetan Resettlement project.” 


Nanri with the Dali Lama
Nanri with the Dali Lama

When she moved to Concord in 1978, Nanri first learned that she could take a stand for what she believed in through protecting an environmentally sensitive wetland area from building development. 


Over the next few years, Nanri was active in The Arts & Environment movement in Concord (also known as Musketaquid). This organization, which is part of the Emerson Umbrella, has become a voice in the community for spirit and nature, in the same vein as its 19th-century predecessors, the Transcendentalists—a movement started in Concord by, among others, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lidian Emerson. Allied to the Unitarian movement and forerunners of the conservation movement, this group formed in the 1880s, expressed a devotion to nature, and challenged conventional thinking. The Emerson Umbrella seeks to follow in this tradition by championing nature and individual expression. 


Nanri told me about her work as an early supporter of Musketaquid:


“Musketaquid is the Algonquin name for Concord; it means, ‘the place where water flows through the grasses.’ The name was intended to honor the wisdom of Concord’s first people. We were making a statement about nature and linked it with the Native Americans by calling it Musketaquid. This was the beginning of the Emerson Umbrella Arts Center.


The Arts & Environment Group raises awareness about environmental issues and the need to protect our wildlife heritage locally. The main event was a parade on the theme of arts and environment with giant papier mâché puppets. The lead puppet was Otter, who slinked down the street held up with tall poles. Many school kids created animal costumes and masks and impersonated the animals as they marched. It was a teaching tool about caring and conserving the earth. 

 

I was honored to be asked by Ellie Bemis, the founder of the Umbrella, to create the Mother Earth puppet for the parade. The first year Mother Earth was only a head, then each year she grew in size and beauty. Eventually she had a crown, arms, and a long gown. Every year I would change her costume. It was a lot of work, yet loads of fun to create her and a privilege to make Mother Earth into an impactful puppet. As the years went on, Mother Earth became heavier to hold up. Soon two friends, Walter Ness and Barbara Brandt, from Somerville, volunteered to carry her with me.



 

Bruce Davidson, another Maynard resident well known for his beautiful wildlife watercolors, was also connected to the Emerson Umbrella. Together, we brought a satellite Earth Day event from the Umbrella to Maynard, guided by Nancy Lippy, Musketaquid’s program manager. 


At the Earth Day celebrations in Maynard before COVID, we worked with Maynard High School’s Eco Committee. There were booths, speeches, a small parade with drummers, a flute player, and an art exhibition. The keynote speaker was from the SunRise Movement, which is a national climate youth organization that promotes the Green New Deal and speaks out about the global consequences of climate change. In Maynard, children made the Earth Floats of natural materials and floated them down the Assabet River. It was exceptionally moving to see the children’s earnestness and care for the earth as their prayers for the planet were launched in their tiny boats down the river.

 

At one of our Maynard Earth Days, I read to a small gathering the Native American prophesy of Hope, known as “The Condor”—representing the heart from the Southern Hemisphere and the Eagle from the Northern Hemisphere. When these two birds fly together, the world will heal in peace and harmony.”

 

I asked Nanri how art was important to her in her activism. She said:

“Art helps us in our activism. It helps us with the desperation of it all. Art can be a salvation or a salve for the times. And action also helps. If you feel desperate, action helps, and art helps in a different way.

 

Thoughts of the environment and creativity in nature are always with me, the latest being the little drawing I did below. Nature is often the theme in my work.” 


Seed pods drawing

I first met Nanri in 2014 and began to attend meditation circles, which she co-hosted at her studio in Maynard. I found the integration of art, meditation, and yoga at these meetings quietly healing. I also enjoyed Nanri’s seasonal yoga teaching at the far end of Walden Pond. In this interview, I have tried to convey how, throughout her life, Nanri has woven together four elements most dear to her: spirituality, nature, social activism, and art. 


Nanri at Walden Pond
Nanri at Walden Pond

For me, one of the highlights of talking with Nanri is listening to her understanding of Indigenous cultures around the world—cultures who hold as self-evident that we are interrelated and mutually dependent with nature. She describes Indigenous cultures who assume a reciprocal relationship with the fauna and flora around them. They know that by caring for the plants and animals, these species will care for us in return. Thinking in this way nurtures a view of stewardship of the natural world, which is both a mission for its own sake and for ours.


A different awareness of time is integral to Indigenous philosophy. Stewardship entails an eye for learning from our ancestors and also care for the seven generations that come after us, who will be impacted by how well we care for this piece of land. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the future of life on earth as we know it depends on our ability to protect and care for the wildlife around us.  


Further Learning

 

 

 

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