The Shining, Reflective Shield: An Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore
By Miranda Perrone
I can pinpoint the moment Kathleen Dean Moore came into my life. I remember stumbling out of an auditorium, awed, hushed, and moved one clear night last spring. I’d just witnessed her spoken word/concert piano duet, “A Call to Life: Variations on a Theme of Extinction,” performed with Rachelle McCabe. I pedaled directly to the public library and begged my way in as the librarian tried to lock the doors. I just saw something amazing, I said. I need to read this author’s work. The librarian smiled and stepped aside.
I came home that night with two of Moore’s award-winning essay collections, Holdfast and Wild Comfort. Later I discovered I already had an overlooked, unread copy of Riverwalking on my bookshelf. I promptly cracked it open and found myself again carried away by Moore’s lyrical celebration of “the mysterious unfolding universe.” In each of these collections Moore writes of connecting with nature and of being alive on this planet with intoxicating and probing honesty. The grace of Moore’s attentiveness as a writer continually reminds: “the earth offers gift after gift.”
Moore is not only a gifted writer, she is a trained philosopher—she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado and has taught environmental ethics at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where she still lives. In 2016, with her latest nonfiction publication, Great Tide Rising: Finding Clarity and Moral Courage to Confront Climate Change, Moore showed herself a force to be reckoned with. She weaves together sharp-edged logic and deeply felt stories of the natural world to take on the most pressing questions of our time. The book describes a new paradigm for the climate change movement—to bring not only our entire focus, but also the entire range of tools couched in the human consciousness, to bear on this environmental emergency.
The heft of Moore’s work grows out of an uncompromising desire to be “fierce, as a mother is fierce, which is to say, loving.” I wanted to understand how her identities—writer, philosopher, explorer, mother, grandmother, climate activist—support and animate each other.
Miranda Perrone: When and how did you start writing?
Kathleen Dean Moore: I’d been writing professional philosophy papers all my adult life, but the essays came later. A friend came to my office when I was a newly tenured professor and asked, “What is your ideal alternative life? If you weren’t living this life, what would you be doing?” I said that I would be sitting in a cabin beside a pond, eating beans and writing about clouds. (Who doesn’t envy Thoreau?) My friend came back a week later and said, “I’ve been asking a lot of people the same question, and five of them had the same dream. Why don’t we form a writing group?” So we did, and it was through that writing group that I learned to write the essay. My first essay, “The Willamette River,” was published in North American Review. I was a goner. The essay was all I wanted to write—that exhilaration, to dive like an osprey from the world of experience into the world of meaning and soar back again into sunlight, carrying an idea.
Miranda Perrone: What were you first: a writer or a philosopher?
Kathleen Dean Moore: That’s hard to say. I confess that early on, poetry confounded me. It seemed to be a game of hide-and-seek. I would think a poem was about a barn (because it was about a barn) and learn that it was really about incest. Or I would cleverly decide a poem was about incest, when it was, embarrassingly, about a barn. That irritated me. If trouble is coming, tell me trouble is coming, and don’t bring on a thunderstorm and waste my time. I fled to philosophy, where the whole endeavor is to make things clear. I wanted that lucidity and shining sharp edge. I wanted those precisely honed questions. I wanted that lion-tamer’s courage to reduce the most confounding issues to quivering syllogisms.
What an idiot. The world is much more like a poem than a syllogism, although they both have their own truths. I know this now, and now, years later, I want to write with my mind and heart, holding contrary points of view in my left and right hands. Analysis and poetry, argument and intuition, refutation and compassion, description and grief, knowing and praying, H2O and evening fog—not in balance, but in unity. The catalytic fire. But I will tell you this: When someone asks, “How can you say so clearly what I think in only a confused and muddy way?”— that would be the philosopher who turns away, grinning.
Miranda Perrone: How does this play into activist literature?
Kathleen Dean Moore: There’s a big debate in philosophy about whether moral decisions come from the rational faculties—principles, premises, and conclusions—or from the moral emotions—love, guilt, fear, hope, grief. The dispute seems silly. They come from both. In Great Tide Rising, I tried so hard to make them dance together, the stories and the reflections. Of course, it was a nightmare for my proofreader, who always wanted to know where the story stopped, and the analysis began. We had to get pretty fancy with the asterisks. But the point is that I’m trying to bring the lyrical and the analytic voice together in every way I can. In the face of the global emergencies, the moral decisions we are forced to make will require all our thinking and feeling faculties.
Miranda Perrone: How has your relationship to or engagement with the natural world changed over the course of your writing career?
Kathleen Dean Moore: My first essay collections Riverwalking,Holdfast, and The Pine Island Paradox celebrated the wet, wild world. But as the years went on, the places I had celebrated began to disappear or degrade, frog marsh and meadow buried under asphalt in a Kmart parking lot, stinking of tar. The plants and animals began to disappear, too. The silences were sorrowful, but the numbers were catastrophic. Since 1970, 40 percent of everything that has the breath of life has been erased from the face of the Earth, four out of every ten beings. Thirty-nine percent of terrestrial wildlife—gone. Seventy-six percent of freshwater wildlife—gone. What had begun as ecstatic celebration became a frantic defense. This is a terrifying transmogrification for a writer, from celebrant to mourner to protector. These are different kinds of writing, each with steep challenges. How can you write, crying? How can you think, with anger choking you? How can you gain entrance into readers’ hearts, when you’re knocking on the door with awful news?
Miranda Perrone: Great Tide Rising is a deeply moving investigation of the realities of climate change, both scientifically and emotionally. You say that you wrote the book as the culmination of at least a decade of experiences engaging with environmental ethics and climate change (also documented in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, which you co-edited with Michael P. Nelson). What were your goals for the book?
Kathleen Dean Moore: You’ll laugh at me, but I actually have a mission statement for my writing life. My son suggested I write it, when it seemed that I was going in a thousand directions, which in fact I was. Here it is: For the sake of the beautiful, innocent children of all species, I stand against the corporate plunder of the planet. Grandiose, I know. Embarrassing. But that’s what I tried to do with Great Tide Rising—to present the crisis in such a way that people feel lifted and empowered by it, inspired to imagine a better way to live on the planet. I really believe that even as sea levels rise, another great tide is beginning to rise (I’m quoting the book cover, forgive me)—“a tide of outrage against the pillage of the planet, a tide of commitment to justice and human rights, and a swelling affirmation of moral responsibility to the future and to Earth’s fullness of life.” That’s the case I wanted to make.
Miranda Perrone: In Great Tide Rising you also write, “In the other months, I’m in the thick of things, speaking with community activists, interviewers, university workshops, radio shows, students, and symposia of all sorts about the moral urgency of the environmental emergencies.” Have you noticed any trajectory to this work? Does it leave you feeling hopeful, despairing, inspired, empty?
Kathleen Dean Moore: There has been a definite trajectory. At the beginning, I was trying hard to convince people that climate change was a moral problem, that we had moral obligations to protect the future. I think people basically now believe that is the case. Then the question people wanted me to address was, What should I do? Not Should I respond? but How should I respond? Now I think people basically know the work they are called to do, and the new big question is, Against the power of the fossil fuel industry and the dissolution of democracy, isthere any hope that what I do will make any difference?
Miranda Perrone: Is there any such hope? Has the trajectory changed since the 2016 election?
Kathleen Dean Moore: The morning after Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords, this old climate warrior climbed out of bed feeling better about the chances of the sizzling, souring world than I had for months. Not just feeling better, feeling positively energized. The worst climate policy news had broken, and suddenly the sense of possibility and power was overwhelming.
Why? The 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide had the answer: Barn’s burnt down—now I can see the moon.
For years, everything about U.S. climate-change policy had been hidden and confused, just a mush. Oil companies painting themselves green. Deniers pretending they believed that hoax shit. Government agencies doing stuff, but not really, not soon enough. Dark money hiding in every knothole. Environmental organizations dancing around the C-word, leaving activists in inarticulate misery. Politicians lying, “jury’s still out,” and running for the door. Who could push against that murky pall? Frustrating as hell. And maybe we thought someone would do it for us in the end.
That’s over. We now know what we are up against.
In the absence of a meaningful federal government response, major U.S. actors in the struggle against climate change will have to be the long-standing civic and moral institutions—states, cities, businesses, universities, churches, and community organizations. The anti-slavery campaigns, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, so many more, have been led from the conscience of the streets—people walking from a church, holding hands and singing—not from sudden moral awakening in the federal government. Signs are that this now is how it shall be.
Miranda Perrone: What do you say to climate deniers?
Kathleen Dean Moore: Not much, really. When I started climate work, deniers were only 9 percent of the population, about as many people as believed that Elvis was still alive. Now the number is closer to 14 percent, with 34 percent saying it’s happening as a natural variation. So now I invite climate deniers to lunch and just listen, trying to get this. There is much to be learned from, say, Uncle George—primarily that climate denial isn’t about climate. I’d say it’s half about ideological loyalty and half about inattention, a kind of stubborn, invincible ignorance—abetted by lies and misinformation from fossil fuel billionaires. I don’t know much about it, so I’m not convinced of it.
Far more interesting are those who do accept the reality of climate change—now about 70 percent of the population. I believe that mobilizing those who already care is the real work. Inspiring them to a new level of action is the challenge.
Miranda Perrone: Does your work include direct action, or acts of civil disobedience? You’ve interviewed a number of people who have engaged in these acts.
Kathleen Dean Moore: Drawing on her Potawatami heritage, Robin Wall Kimmerer wisely said, if you want to know what is your work, ask, what are my gifts? Courage to risk sitting for years in a constricted space is not one of my strengths, alas. But especially in the face of vicious prosecution of protest, I think we should all support the courageous people on the radical fringes of climate action, asking where our skills make us most useful. This is broadly true. Whenever I consider taking on a project, I ask myself: 1) Is this something that only I can do? 2) Is this the most important thing I can think of to do right now? and 3) Is the project based in joy and love?
Miranda Perrone: You write in “And Why You Must” in Great Tide Rising that all climate activists must “remember why you try so hard to protect this beloved world, and why you must.” How do you fulfill your own edict?
Kathleen Dean Moore: I believe that people, myself included, work so hard to protect the world because they love it. And what does that love mean? “To love—a child, a meadow, a frog pond—is to affirm the absolute worth of what you love and to pledge your life to its thriving, to protect it fiercely and faithfully, for all time.” It follows that an activist can strengthen her motivation by immersing herself in that love.
So go outside, everybody. Shut the door behind you. I don’t know what you’ll find. Maybe rain has fallen all evening, and the moon, when it emerges between the clouds, glows on a flooded street. Maybe starlings roost in a row on the rim of the supermarket, their wet backs blinking red and yellow as neon lights flash behind them. Whatever you find, let the reliable sights reassure you. Let the smells return memories of other streets and times. Walk and walk until your heart is full. Then you will remember why you try so hard to protect this beloved world, and why you must.
Miranda Perrone: It’s obvious from Great Tide Rising as well as stories you share in other works that you’re part of a tight knit and very loving family. How has this influenced your work?
Kathleen Dean Moore: It means everything to me. In Great Tide Rising, I tell a story about walking in the intertidal with my small grandson, who notices that the starfish are falling apart. “He’s sick,” the child says. “He needs a mom.” He doesn’t know that the dying is due to a disease connected to ocean warming and acidification. But he understands the moral catastrophe. To see the world through a child’s full eyes, to be raw the way a child is raw?—it doesn’t leave you much room for indifference. It doesn’t leave any room for feeble excuses.
A statement of scientific consensus led by Stanford scientists has badly shaken me: “Unless all nations take immediate action, by the time today’s children are middle-aged, the life support systems of the Earth will be irretrievably damaged.” So, I’m holding the hand of a small child in a yellow raincoat and orange bib overalls. His little boots are full of water. His hair is damp and smells of salt. And I am staring at my boots and thinking what it could possibly mean to this child, to live on a planet whose life-supporting systems have frayed and fallen apart.
Miranda Perrone: Does being a formally trained philosopher play a role in your climate activism?
Kathleen Dean Moore: Oh gosh, do you really want to go there? Okay, so here’s the deal. Any argument that reaches a conclusion about what we ought to do has to have two premises. The first is an empirical description/prediction, often based on science: Unless civilizations change course, climate change will destroy the life-supporting systems of the world. Scientists have done a heroic job of establishing this premise. But it’s not enough. We might have thought it was, believing that if people only knew! If they only knew, they would act. But knowledge is only half enough. The second premise is a moral affirmation of what is just, good, worthy of us—or not: The Earth and its lives are of overriding value. We must not wreck the life-supporting systems of the planet. Now we have what we need to reach the conclusion: We must change course.
My climate activism is in the realm of the second premise, trying to establish in every way I know how that climate change is unjust, a violation of human rights, a sacrilege, and a betrayal of the children. Among other things. And that the crisis offers a chance to reinvent ourselves and our culture in ways that fulfill our potential as human creatures on a life-graced planet.
Miranda Perrone: So your focus on philosophy is very applied.
Kathleen Dean Moore: Yes. An armchair philosopher sliding down the slanted deck of a sinking ship, smoking his pipe, is a terrible thing to behold. A whole department full of them is appalling.
When an emergency calls all-hands-on-deck, all hands have to respond, using whatever skills they have to save the ship. Under the old laws of the sea, failure to respond would be a flogging offense, or worse. But the failure to respond is a moral transgression as well—in two ways. First, the crew members who do not respond become free riders, taking unearned advantage of the actions of those who do answer the call. But worse, those who don’t respond say, by their lassitude, that they don’t believe the crisis is real and immediate. If their inaction persuades too many others, who will right the ship?
Miranda Perrone: How do you see your roles as activist and writer—working together or against each other? Is it possible to be both an activist and a creator?
Kathleen Dean Moore: Oh absolutely. Creative writing is a powerful tool for change. Do you remember Medusa, the monstrous woman in Greek mythology? Medusa was a Gorgon, with such a terrifying face that no mortal could gaze upon it without dying—the reptilian face, the poisonous hair dripping snakes. A person who looked straight at her would turn to stone.
And isn’t this the danger, that when people look straight into the face of the desperate truths of our time, they are turned to stone? Their hearts are hardened. They are unable to act. Joyless, inhumane, immobilized, they freeze into business-as-usual, as if they had no choice.
Enter the hero Perseus, who carried (along with his winged shoes and his magic scythe), a shining, reflective shield. When he held the shield up and caught Medusa’s horrific image, here was the lethal truth of her—transformed, but not transformed. Revealed, but not represented. Revealed. Revealed! And Perseus, seeing her in an entirely new way, faced her reflection boldly, and cut off her head.
What is this reflective shield that can show us the danger without turning us to stone? What can replace paralyzing fear with a new vision of what is beautiful and possible? What can break the bonds of lies and denial? The answer, of course, is art, this magic reflective shield. Like Perseus, the work of art today is to take the hideous faces of these global crises and transform them so that people can bear to look and respond. Creative artists in literature, murals, music, everything, should be thrilled by the opportunities to transform what turns us to stone into something that empowers us to act.
Miranda Perrone: Great Tide Rising and “A Call to Life” in particular made me think of a favorite line. It’s one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s: “We have art in order not to die of the truth.”
Kathleen Dean Moore: Yes, I think he nailed it.
Miranda Perrone: Terry Tempest Williams has written that the time for lyrical prose is past, and you write in Great Tide Rising about different categories of writing that are morally justifiable in the context of our state of emergency, including for example the indictment. Could you speak to this?
Kathleen Dean Moore: I would say that lyrical writing is no longer enough. The global emergencies call all hands on deck—all kinds of writers with all kinds of skills, writing in all kinds of genres, including those we haven’t quite invented yet. That especially includes what I am starting to call the “lyric polemic”—beautiful, emotional prose that changes minds and hearts, prose that approaches music in its power, using many of the same techniques.
In an ISLE call to writers joined by Scott Slovic, I called on writers to set aside their ordinary work and step up to do the work of the moment, which is to stop the reckless and profligate fossil fuel economy that is causing climate chaos. I suggested forms of writing ranging from the drum-head pamphlet to the apologia, and including the witness, encouraging writers to go to the places of suffering and violation and write those stories.
I believe that we’ve long passed the time when writers can fiddle around, writing conventional stuff just to earn tenure, or just to get a book published, or to make sure everybody knows the story of their divorce. I don’t think the world has time for writing-for-writing’s-sake anymore. Please don’t take offense. I’m thinking of what Annie Dillard said: “Write as if you were dying. . . . Or write as if your reader were dying. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” So, what would you write for a dying planet?
Miranda Perrone: Your co-creation and performance of “A Call to Life: Variations on a Theme of Extinction” is a form of activism. Can you share your thoughts about this piece, perhaps both its creation and your hopes for it?
Kathleen Dean Moore: Yes. I was speaking about global extinction to a rowdy auditorium at Oregon State, trying not to cry: “Unless we restrain ourselves, I will die in a world that is half as abundantly beautiful as the one I was born into. My grandchildren will tear out half the pages in their field guides. They won’t need them anymore.” As I left the auditorium, my friend, a concert pianist, stopped me in the aisle. “When you talked about extinction, I heard Rachmaninoff,” she said. That was the beginning of a collaboration that created “A Call to Life: Variations on a Theme of Extinction,” a 60-minute music/spoken-word concert that weaves my words into Rachelle McCabe’s brilliant performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli.”
This “Music and Climate Action” project, as we have come to call it, has answered some questions for me: What can be done when words are not enough? What do we do when the stories we tell are too dark to take in? The work itself astonishes us every time we perform it, the way the synergy of the music and the spoken words create an emotional response in the audience. As a writer, you don’t often know the effect of your work, but when you’re right there performing, you can see what you’ve done.
Miranda Perrone: What is the single most effective thing you would tell someone hoping to address climate change to do?
Kathleen Dena Moore: People ask what can one person do? My answer is always: stop being one person. Join up with other people, brainstorm together—what are our skillsets, what are our challenges? Climate change can be such a lonely sorrow. No one talks about it and you think no one is worried about it, but when you find your group, you’re really empowered. We can’t allow ourselves to fall for the solace of recycling or any other form of the fiction that we can save the world by consuming more conscientiously—the LED, the Prius, the organic beef. We cannot. This is going to have to be systematic change and that takes community organizing and public action.
Miranda Perrone: Though you write passionately about being outside in more wild environments, you live in the city of Corvallis, Oregon. How does this play out for you?
Kathleen Dean Moore: That’s a tension of my life, where am I going to live? In fact I’ve written that essay, modeled after Thoreau’s Where I Lived and What I Lived For. My husband and I decided to raise our children in a little house next to the Oregon State campus, and we decided we would tear out our lawns and plant a native forest. So I live in a tight little neighborhood, in a young forest that’s 50 by 100 feet. I love being near the university, with its brilliant denizens. But I have a writing studio in the country, the Watershed, built by my daughter, architect Erin Moore. I asked her to build a small structure that would embody Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, and that’s what she did. Then in the summers we’re up in wilderness Alaska—we have a little cabin on an island in Southeast. I like the balance.
Miranda Perrone: Let’s talk a little bit about your recent and future work. What was it like to work on your first novel, Piano Tide, excerpted recently in Terrain.org?
Kathleen Dean Moore: All the time I was doing this writing and talking about stopping planetary pillage and plunder, I had this nagging question: Really? You can talk about it, Kathy, but can you really imagine a single act of resistance and transformation? What does it feel like? How does it unfold? What relationships does it create, and destroy? Who are these people? Are they superheroes? Surely they are women. What doubts do they have? What sacrifices do they make? I knew I was going to have to write a novel.
So I started writing. I set the action near my Alaskan cabin. First I wrote the epilogue, when Nora pours kerosene on her piano and burns it on the beach. What does that look like and what does that smell like and what music does a burning piano play and what happens when the tide comes in? I’ve never had so much fun in my writing life, imagining into existence these people and events. I loved my characters. They made me laugh. Their lives were full of bears and tides and really bad beer—everybody (good guys and bad guys) just trying to do what’s right, putting on their Carhartts in the morning and going out and making mistakes.
I knew I had my characters right when I started to be afraid for them. I really cared if they lived or died. They kept me awake at night, like an anxious parent, imagining the worst. Then I would get up in the morning and leap about, trying to save, and maybe redeem, their hapless lives.
Miranda Perrone: What projects are on your horizon?
Kathleen Dean Moore: I’m helping to host a hearing of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, an international human rights tribunal established by Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. The Tribunal has investigated human rights abuses in Chernobyl, Bhopal, Vietnam, etc. In this case, they will call witnesses to investigate the human rights impacts of fracking. The trial is May 14-18, in a combination of virtual and on-the-ground events. It will be streamed online so that anyone can tune in. It provides a hearing—literally that—for people who will tell stories of their encounters with fracking. The judges will subsequently issue an advisory opinion that can become part of arguments in federal or state courts. I will be writing about the hearing and crafting excerpts from the testimony into the libretto for a song cycle.
At the same time, I’m writing a new book of essays. About wild songs, this time—the voices of frogs and birds, barnacles. Whales. I want to write from the heart about what is at stake.
Miranda Perrone: Would you like to have the last word?
Kathleen Dean Moore: No, I’d like to give that to Mary Oliver: “The world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’”
Miranda Perrone is a writer, philosopher, map-maker, and outdoor educator working on her environmental science and policy master’s degree in Flagstaff, Arizona. As a Wyss Scholar, she focuses on applying these diverse skills to conservation in the American West.