To Re-imagine the Place of Humans in the Natural World
By Kathleen Dean Moore
I used to wonder if people who lived through times of dramatic cultural change could feel it coming. In golden dusk, could the woman leaning on her hoe feel the Dark Ages descend like fog on the fens? Looking up from the blue sea, did the shark fisherman who first saw the white sails of a Spanish caravel sense that nothing would be the same again? And what of the Age of Enlightenment?—did people feel it in the air, like the excitement of children, the new faith in rationality, purpose, and human goodness?
Almost certainly not, I had decided. Change happens slowly, I had thought, and it surrounds us and carries us, so we don’t notice the motion any more than we sense the turning of the Earth. But recently, I have had second thoughts, because I believe I can feel the Earth shifting under my feet. Or maybe it’s a rising wave I sense—the anticipatory slowing as the water lifts, the deafening noise from the frayed and scattering forward edge, the sudden speed and the uneasy certainty that things fall away, always, and that we are tumbling toward the end of something and the beginning of something undetermined.
One of the things coming to a calamitous end is an ethos, a worldview, a way of understanding the relation of humans to all of life. For centuries, the Western world has tested the ideas that humans are apart from and superior to the entirely material natural world; that our powerful ways of knowing will allow us to understand and thus to control nature, turning its powers to our purposes; that human beings are essentially individual, achieving their highest potential in competition against one another and in battle against the natural world; that nothing has value in itself, but that all value derives from its usefulness to human ends.
That experiment has come to an end. The results are in. The results are incontrovertible. This worldview cannot be true if it allows us to think of ourselves as smart and good, even as we destroy what is beautiful and life-giving in our lives, destroy the necessary conditions for thriving and despoil our children’s chances.
So that’s that. What worldview are we going to try next? How will we answer the fundamental questions of the human condition: What is the world? What is a human being? What is the place of humans in the natural world? How, then, shall we live? And where will the answers come from? Wherever they come from, they had better come fast, and they better be good.
A couple things are clear. The answers aren’t going to come from a single way of thinking or from minds isolated from the terrain. The times call for all the abilities we have been given, in all the contexts we know: the abilities to observe purposefully, to experiment, and to analyze. But also the abilities to feel and to understand the feelings of others, the abilities to wonder, to love, to question, to celebrate, to honor, to give thanks, to grieve, to regret—especially to regret—and to imagine a different future. So the times call for an alliance (not a truce between warring parties, but a dynamic, mutually respectful conversation) among science, philosophy, the arts, and one more we tend to forget—the natural world itself.
These alliances are forming all over the land. One such place is the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word at Oregon State University. Our mission is to “bring together the wisdom of the environmental sciences, the clarity of philosophy, and the emotive power of the written word to re-imagine the place of humans in the natural world.” So we gather people from many different points of view, all with bright, open, and inquiring minds, put them in a landscape of compelling beauty or power, and ask them hard questions. A glimpse:
Here, on the cinder-strewn shoulder of Mount St. Helens, two dozen ecologists, poets, ethicists, geologists, and a songwriter have pitched their tents. Behind them, the caldera steams and rumbles under crumbling rock. In front of them, a vast field of purple lupine and red Indian paintbrush carpets a black and blasted forest. Thirty years after the eruption, what do we know about power that we didn’t know before? About the healing effects of time? What is the relation between the ecologist’s “landscape disturbance events” and the poet’s “catastrophe?” What do we make of unspoken grief? What are the sources of spiritual and ecological renewal, and are they one thing, or two?
Here, on a mossy log spotlighted by sun streaming through ancient cedars and Douglas-firs, a theologian and a geologist discuss the nature of unfolding time. How long a view, how long a time horizon, is required to understand the ecology of a forest or the meaning of human life in the unfolding creation?
Here, restoration ecologists, poets, medical practitioners, and essayists sit on huge, head-high stumps in a clear-cut forest already growing back to alders. Their work is to examine the consequences of the old metaphors that describe restoration—metaphors of the medical arts (healing), fabric arts (patchwork), criminal justice (mitigation)—and to invent something new, something that guides wiser restoration practices in a disrupted climate. What is health in humans and in forests, and are they one thing, or two?
Here, at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascades, a gathering called “Dragonfly Eyes” brings together twenty people, each with a distinct way to project the imagination into the future—an architect, a sculptor, a poet, a mapmaker, a philosopher, a historian, a high school teacher. How might we map alternative futures in such a way that we include physical, ecological, cultural, and spiritual features of the landscape? How can we, in other words, achieve the vision of a dragonfly’s eye, which can see the land through many, many different facets and integrate that vision with an acuity that allows a dragonfly to catch mosquitoes on the wing, and might offer the hope that humans, carefully envisioning the future, might aim toward the most life- and values-enhancing vision?
The Spring Creek Project, in close collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, has developed a number of models for this intensely and joyously interdisciplinary work: writer-in-residency and scholar-in-residency programs in Long-term Ecological Research sites and in association with other gatherings of scientists, field courses, invited field symposia, collaborative residencies for people in different fields, and guided public conversations and town-hall meetings. We invite everyone to visit our website for information and participation.
We have found that in all these conversations, the most important contributions come from the land itself. The heart-breaking beauty of the natural world tells us why we must find ways to go forward that do not destroy, but rather enhance, what is life-giving and resilient in the land. And close and respectful attention to the natural world may be telling us how.
In the cacophony of the natural world, in the crash of wave on rock, in all the noise of modernity, the Earth’s ecological systems themselves may be sending the signal we should attend to most carefully. Here are new or ancient examples of how communities can live together, finding in the thriving of individuals, the thriving of the whole. The ecology of the lupine meadows and deep moss forest may show the way toward the new worldview, telling us that we are all members of a community of interdependent parts, that the well-being of the whole depends on the well-being of the parts, that there is value in the meadows and forests that goes far beyond their value to human aims. As climate disruption and other environmental degradations put terrible strain on the physical and cultural systems of the world, especially tearing at traditional worldviews, we will begin a new experiment, testing what we must believe about ourselves and the world, in order to live gratefully and respectfully on the land for a very long time.