A Collision of Perspectives

I’ve mentioned in previous essays the idea that people are stuck in their own lives until something brings them out of it. Rachel Carson calls it “ignoring all else.” She says that humans tend to ignore everything in front of them until it’s an immediate concern. TC Boyle’s 1995 edition of the book the Tortilla Curtain shows an example of this when the book starts out with the main character, Delaney, hitting an unexpected Candido with his car. The best part of this book is how the story starts with such an exaggerated life changing event because, in reality, that’s when our own stories start – when we realize something life changing. We wouldn’t be telling it unless it made us change in some way or view something completely different. Delaney is a character stuck in his own world, when suddenly a new world collides with him.

I like this idea of collision. It brings with it the idea of snapping out of where you once were and being thrown into something new. That’s what we need as a society sometimes to understand that there are other perspectives in the world. It’s what we need to understand the beyond human world.

One way we see this in Tortilla Curtain is right after the collision. On page 11, Boyle mentions Delaney’s thoughts of guilt to anger. After seeing all the litter around, he says, “it was people like this Mexican or whatever he was who were responsible, thoughtless people, stupid people, people who wanted to turn the whole world into a garbage dump…” (Boyle 11). This quote shows Delaney’s perspective without any swaying or outside forces to affect him. He soon stops himself and realizes that something has just happened and this is not the time to be closed minded. He realizes that he shouldn’t judge. He doesn’t know this person at all. “Who knew who this man was or what he was doing? Just because he spoke Spanish didn’t make him a criminal. Maybe he was a picnicker, a bird-watcher, a fisherman,” (Boyle 11). This is the moment where Delaney takes himself out of his own thoughts and imagines someone else’s life. The word for this is “sonder.”

Originally from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, sonder is the realization that each random stranger you see is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Feeling sonder is more than empathy. It’s not just feeling what one person is feeling, instead, it’s what everyone else in the world is feeling, like empathy on a bigger scale. It’s magical – realizing that someone else exists.

Let’s think about that. Imagine that every person you’ve ever seen is living their own life. I know it’s hard to do, because we live in our own lives every day. And that makes sense, we’re the main characters in our life. We only see ourselves everyday. But think about the idea that everyone is living that same complex life. The person sitting next to you has struggled with something at one point in their life. In fact, they might have struggled with something that morning. Or maybe they’re having a great day. Everyone had some sort of a night – they either slept well, or stayed up worrying about something. Maybe they spent the night watching a movie or talking to a friend or doing their favorite hobby.  The person rushing by you on the crosswalk could be on their way to a life changing interview that you don’t even know about. They’re all the stars of their own movie. And they’ve only showed up in your life for a split second.

Now let’s extend that and think that every bird has its own life. It wakes up and has a mission to accomplish every day like we do. Maybe its mission is different, but it exists on this earth just like us. Every bee and every mosquito has its own life. Every fish and every plant. What you’re doing right now is realizing that every living being goes through struggles every day and deals with problems just like you do.  That feeling is sonder.

But what makes you feel this way? What would it take for us to feel sonder? Why do we feel sonder? And should we feel sonder? The biggest question, though, is does everyone feel sonder? If not, why do only certain people feel it? Can we feel it when we’re not feeling like outsiders? Or is it feeling sonder that causes us to feel distant? I don’t know all the answers, but I know that I’ve felt it, sitting in a car when other cars pass by. I’ve felt it in a bookstore when other people are looking for stories to read. I’ve felt it watching movies and watching the storylines of each character. It’s a strange feeling and it’s kind of saddening to realize other people are suffering too. Maybe we need to feel sonder for the world and not just the people. We feel sonder when we feel like an outsider. And it isn’t often that we have time in our busy lives to take a step back and feel that way. As Boyle says on page 32, Delaney has a certain schedule planned unless something interrupts his day. “Unless there was an accident on the freeway or a road crew out picking up or setting down their ubiquitous plastic cones, he would be back at home and sitting at his desk by nine,” (Boyle 32). Most of us live lives like this, where we don’t have time to stop for anything unless we’re forced to. That’s why having certain things come into our lives at inconvenient times are sometimes exactly what we need.

It takes something out of the ordinary colliding with our regular lives to change the way we look at things. Until then, we’re all stuck in our own lives because we don’t have time to think about anything else. Tortilla Curtain is a great example. Some people can get so stuck in their way, that it takes something big to snap them out of it and see that there are other people out there going through the same thing. Reading Tortilla Curtain is one way to snap us out of it.

We Are Wild

“The wild — the richness of plant and animal life on the globe including us, the rainstorms, windstorms, and calm spring mornings — is the real world, to which we belong.” – Gary Snyder

Usually when we think of the word “wild,” we think of a couple things. One way we use it is to explain something being crazy. We might say that party on Saturday night was wild. We might say a tornado that is wild both as a crazy occurrence and as something in nature. The full moon can be wild because it’s not manmade. A wolf in the bushes is wild. Sometimes, even hair refusing to be tamed could be  considered wild.

“Aqua” the dog whose eyes you can’t see

There are many definitions of what wild could be. But maybe it’s more than what we originally think. Gary Snyder takes a stab at it in the 1990 edition of his book The Practice of the Wild. Here, he defines wild as the “process and essence of nature,” (Snyder 5). Wild is nature. Think about when things get out of control. It’s because there is complete freedom. That complete freedom is nature without limits. That’s just one definition of wild, and I’ve experienced this type recently. This past Sunday, there was a huge storm where I live. It was windy beyond belief, with branches were flying through the air, and puddles flooding the ground. And I unfortunately walked through it. Probably not my smartest idea, but boy did it remind me of how wild nature can get. I was blown around as wind filled my lungs until I wasn’t able to breathe. The whooshing of every single leaf, branch, and tree was the scariest natural sound I have ever heard. It honestly felt like I could’ve died at any moment. If it wasn’t a branch knocking me off my feet, it would be the puddles pulling me in.

The aftermath of the storm. Photo Credit: Ariel Freedman

But that’s wild. Nature can be scary, but it can also be beautiful. Rainstorms make rainbows. Clouds make great pictures. Wolves are dangerous, but they’re also beautiful. The storm I walked through was terribly scary, but the next day, the sun came back out. Nature can be beautiful or scary. Either way, it’s wild. So if we keep that definition of wild, what does that make wilderness?

Usually I would think wilderness is just one place – the forest. I never thought of it moving or being any other place. It was “the wilderness.” But Gary Snyder defines wilderness as “the place where the wild potential is fully expressed,” (Snyder 12). Sounds pretty self explanatory right? Well you would think so, except this still leaves the door wide open for what wildness is. And where is wild fully expressed? Are our heads a wilderness when our hair is being wild? It could be. Wilderness is the place where wildness lives. So where does wildness live?

Often times I think of it as being in the forest. In reality, it’s everywhere, and we’re in it. Some examples of wilderness could be places in the distance, like say reservations and preservations, but what most people don’t realize is wilderness is also inside us. Our minds are a wilderness. Gary Snyder explains this. He says, “The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas,” (Snyder 17). Think about your mind. When you let your thoughts go free, that’s nature at it’s finest. Letting your thoughts and brain daydream is one of the most natural things, we just try to tame it in our civilized world. Who would have thought of wilderness being in your own body? I sure didn’t. But thoughts and emotions are both wild. We are nature. One of the biggest points Gary Snyder makes is that nature is closer than we imagine it being.  “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home,” (Snyder 7). Often times when I think of wilderness, I think of a place far away – a forest or a desert. I imagine it distant not only in place, but in time. I think of cavemen and wolves. But it turns out, nature and wilderness are right here. Not only is wilderness home to us, but we are home to it. Gary Snyder furthers this idea when he says:

Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet relaxing, staring, reflecting — all universal responses of this mammal body. -Snyder 17

This is a great quote because it brings up specific ways that our bodies are nature. I never think about how turning my head when someone shouts is a natural response, but it is. If our bodies are wild, where else do you see wilderness? And furthermore, where else do you see it contained? Our minds are only natural until we contain them and make them think what we want them to. Our emotions are wild until we tame them. But even if we do tame them, they’re still capable of doing whatever they feel like. Think about a jealous or angry heart. Try to control that, and you’re fighting nature. There’s nothing more clear than that.

So what do we do about it? Most people just think to preserve the “wilderness,” but it’s not something you can preserve. It’s something that just is. It’s a place that is home to nature. Wilderness is just one place that wildness exists. What we need to protect is the wildness, because the wildness is nature and nature is being destroyed. We’re trying to tame a wild heart, and those of us who have experienced that emotion can easily say that sometimes it’s out of our control. Trying to fight it will only make it worse. We have to protect the wildness that’s left and embrace it rather than try to keep it contained in a reservation. A wolf is wild, but we can’t just protect the forest. We have to protect the wolf. We have to protect the wild within ourselves,

We often think of wild as something outside of ourselves, but it’s more than that. There’s a wilderness inside us and we can feel it with our emotions. If there’s anything emotions can teach us, it’s not to mess with nature. Like Rachel Carson and Gary Snyder both say, we need to leave nature alone. If we fight it, nature fights back.

Monkey-Wrenching: Right or Wrong?

What do we do about the environmental crisis? Many people have tried to answer this through books, movies, and songs. Rachel Carson answered it in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, by saying we need to stop messing with nature and spread the word. Her claim is that if you fight nature, nature fights back, and will fight back so hard  you can’t win. Wendell Berry mentions his response in his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America. Berry explains the problems and poses possible to solutions to each one. He says that we are the problem and so is our culture. Gary Snyder brings attention to the environmental crisis through his poetry and poetic words. These are all positive ways of addressing the issue. But what if positivity doesn’t work? What does negativity do? What do we do?

Edward Abbey shows the negative side of fighting the environmental crisis in his 1975 book, the Monkey Wrench Gang. In the book, he jumps right into using violence as a solution. “Monkey wrenching” is the attack of machines and inanimate objects to prove a point, although the official Britannica definition is “nonviolent disobedience and sabotage carried out by environmental activists against those whom they perceive to be ecological exploiters.” But in  Edward Abbey’s book, we can clearly see that it’s violent. The first chapter is about people burning billboards. On page 9, Abbey describes the act. He says, “With a five-gallon can of gasoline he sloshed about the legs and support members of the selected target, then applied a match. Everyone should have a hobby,” (Abbey 9). The idea of burning something as a hobby sounds sociopathic and arsonistic.  In no way is that nonviolent. Edward Abbey brings about a provocative story and brings the idea in to mind that the environmental crisis can’t just be solved with kindness. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.

This is an interesting idea. It’s a group of people destroying someone else’s property and hard work. But the people who do these kinds of acts believe they’re doing it for the greater good – to save the planet. Maybe monkey-wrenching has another side to it that’s not just violence. Let’s try to understand monkey-wrenching before we completely shut down the idea. On page 229, Abbey discusses Hayduke’s thoughts about his purpose and monkey wrenching. He says, “Hayduke thought. Finally the idea arrived. He said, ‘My job is to save the [expletive] wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving. That’s simple, right?'” (Abbey 229). If Hayduke’s whole purpose is to save the wilderness, there must be more to understanding this violence.

Something I find interesting in this book is how important the environment is to the characters. At one point, they even make it sound like something inanimate is real:

 “He struggled for a while with the plug, finally broke it loose and let out the oil. The great machine began to bleed; its lifeblood drained out with pulsing throbs, onto the dust and sand. When it was all gone, he replaced the plug. Why? Force of habit — thought he was changing the oil in his jeep” – Abbey 92.

There are a couple things I notice here. One is that this quote personifies an inanimate object. This could’ve been done for a couple reasons. One is to describe the act in more detail and to actually exemplify the violence that was actually being done. Another possibility is it’s describing the pain that an object is feeling because most people don’t think it would feel pain. It feels like this quote was created out of spite. The way I see it, this quote is kind of saying “you’re going to damage our environment of living things that actually feel something? Well we’re going to do the same thing to your precious technology. How does it feel?” Technology is important to some people while the environment is important to others. So when one damages the environment, environmentalists fight back. Some of them fight back the technology to harm it in the same way people are harming the world. That’s monkey-wrenching. And while some people think it’s wrong, I think it’s actually a rather creative way of looking at things. Harm the world we live in? We’ll harm yours.

That’s not the only thing I notice from this quote. In the second part, he says, “Force of habit — thought he was changing the oil in his jeep.” So not only are these people harming objects to prove a point, but it also seems second nature for them to fix it afterwards. These people aren’t bad people, it’s just second nature to put things back to the way they were. And that’s what they’re doing in a sense with nature. But in a way, it sounds like living in our technological world is making us do things more automatically than we would in a world where we’d have to do things like hunt for ourselves. We move through the motions while changing our oil or filling a tank with gas. Some people think that we’ll become less capable in a world like that. On page 63 there’s a quote that says:

 “‘The wilderness once offered men a plausible way of life,’ the doctor said. ‘Now it functions as a psychiatric refuge. Soon there will be no wilderness…. Soon there will be no place to go. Then the madness becomes universal,” -Abbey 63.

This quote describes the way life was before nature was tamed. Doc is nostalgic for the way things were. It doesn’t sounds like he’s completely ill-hearted. In their eyes, technology has damaged our once pure world, and once it’s completely damaged, there will be nothing left of the world. Everyone will just go mad. Monkey-wrenchers are trying to prevent that. Then again, it does seem like they’re fighting madness with madness. And maybe they are. But everyone proves a point in their own way.

Rather than looking at “what” they’re doing, maybe we should look at the “why.” One of the biggest reasons is to save the environment because they know when humans fight the environment, the environment will fight back. “Doc hates ants,” Bonny explained. “And they hate him,” (Abbey 84). The same way that ants hate Doc, the environment will hate the rest of the humans if they keep destroying it. In their eyes, everything should be left alone. “Let every freeway be a free-for-all,” (Abbey 28). If we look at it this way we can start to understand why people destroy things to save the environment. If we’re asking them to see the world our way, maybe we should at least try to see it their way too.

Hope in Refuge

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words

And never stops – at all – (Emily Dickinson ).

Photo Credit: Vittorio Zamboni Unsplash

How do we cope with trauma? How do we find a feeling of safety in a time of darkness and isolation? Terry Tempest Williams attempts to answer these questions in her 1991 edition of the book Refuge. This book is written in memoir as a form of healing for the author. She mentions this in the prologue. “Perhaps, I am telling this story in an attempt to heal myself, to confront what I do not know, to create a path for myself… I have been in retreat. This story is my return,” (Williams 4).  In a way, this book is about healing, the way Terry Tempest Williams is saying. In other ways, the book is a memoir in response to loss, death, grief, and trauma. In a way, it helps us cope.

When a person is feeling trauma, to them the world is ending. There’s no light to the end of the tunnel. There’s no sun they can see. Everything is in a fog and feels unreal. So while everyone else is going about their normal lives, someone out there is suffering. Before the book starts, Terry Tempest Williams inserts the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. Here, she explains this disconnected feeling. “Tell em about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on,” (Mary Oliver). This afternoon I heard some disturbing news that someone near our campus committed suicide. For the rest of the day, I was in a funk that I couldn’t escape. I thought about life, death, and Refuge. Was there a place I could feel safe? Did I want to be around people, or did I just want to be alone? What could make me feel better? And no matter what I came up with, it didn’t help.

Photo Credit: Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

I say that I thought about this book, Refuge, because it’s true. This book made me think about trauma when I wasn’t feeling it, so when I was feeling it, the book felt that much more real. What’s special about Refuge is that it doesn’t just talk about trauma. It also talks about hope. Although it might be near impossible to be hopeful during times of darkness, Terry Tempest Williams had to have some piece of hope to make it through everything that she did. She even uses metaphors of hope throughout the entire book whether she meant to or not.

Emily Dickinson has a poem in which she claims, “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.” Terry Tempest Williams quotes it on page 90. I find it interesting that Dickinson compares hope to a bird, because hope does feel like an innocent bird that flutters its wings within you. The bird has hope that it can fly and that you can fly. Dickinson also mentions that hope “never stops – at all.” That’s such an inspiring line because even though some people try to abash the little bird, it never stops singing. It’s the piece within you that never gives up. I also notice that Terry Tempest Williams mentions birds in the title of every chapter. It’s almost as if the beginning of each chapter is giving the reader a sliver of hope, which is a powerful use of metaphor that extends further than just the reading. It’s engrained in the book itself.

Photo Credit: Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

There is one point that Terry Tempest Williams says, “We miss the eyes of birds, focusing only on feathers,” (Williams 95). I think this is important to look at because the idea of feathers is such a big metaphor. Feathers are light, and perhaps that’s why Emily Dickinson compares hope to feathers. It’s what makes you feel like you can fly. In another sense, feathers are happiness. It tickles us inside when they flutter. Once someone feels a sense of trauma, the fluttering goes away. The bird stops flying, but it does live there. So what does Terry Tempest Williams mean when she says that we focus only on the feathers?

Perhaps she means that in times of trauma, we only focus on trying to be happy, but not what’s actually staring us right in the eye. Earlier in the same paragraph, she mentions the beauty in the eyes of each bird. This metaphor says we as humans try so hard to be happy, when all we need to do is accept the beauty what’s there. Terry Tempest Williams mentions on page 53 that, “Dying doesn’t cause suffering. Resistance to dying does,” (Williams 53). In other words, resistance is what hurts you, acceptance is what gives you peace. When you try to focus on the feathers that you want, you don’t notice the eye in front of you. If hope is the feathers, the eye is reality. It’s hard to see reality when you’re living in the fog of trauma.

Photo Credit: Andrea Reiman Unsplash

How do we cope with trauma? How do we find refuge? Terry Tempest Williams gives us the answer in a couple different ways. One thing she says is that we find refuge within. On page 267, she mentions, “Refuge is not a place outside myself,” (Williams 267). We find refuge in solitude and isolation, when we begin to listen to ourselves. That’s when we feel safe in ourselves. I also make that connection to Emily Dickinson’s idea of hope. Hope lives inside us and never stops at all. Our birds are our refuge, what makes us feel safe. It’s the light inside us that sings a song. It’s the feathers that flutter in our souls. Maybe that’s why birds mean so much to Terry Tempest Williams – because they remind her of that hope that finds refuge and a home within us.

Refuge is an important book because it takes us out of our own worlds and reminds us that other people are going through trauma in different ways. It helps us understand ways of coping with our trauma and why some ways don’t work. At the same time, it reminds us to stay hopeful because hope is a bird that lives within us. It lives in our soul. The next time you’re going through something traumatic, try reading Refuge. I can’t promise it will heal you, but it will open your eyes to different ways people attempt to heal, and maybe give you a little bit of hope that will one day lead you to acceptance.

Rain Into A Lake: Identity and Character

Photo Credit: Inge Maria (Unsplash)

 “I was traveling toward myself like rain falling into a lake, going home to a place I’d lived, still inside my mother, returning to people I’d never met,” (Hogan 26).

The epigraph above is a quote that stood out to me from Linda Hogan’s 1995 edition of Solar Storms. I’ve never read someone describe an emotion with a scene from nature in the way that Linda Hogan did. Hogan uses the idea of identity to relate back to our environment by describing the feeling of returning home to rain falling into a lake. This is a metaphor that just clicked for me. It’s the feeling of one piece of water falling into a bigger pool of water. It’s not from the same place, but it’s made of the same materials. It’s the same as getting out of a pool and then going back in. Stepping out of a pool can make you cold and uncomfortable, but once you get back in it feels like that’s where you should be. Imagining being a drop of rain completely connected and I could easily understand what Hogan meant instantly from these words. Not only did this quote stand out to me because of the metaphorical language, but also because of the meaning.

This is one of the first times Angel explains feelings of her identity, specifically compared to the rest of her family. If we take this same example and think about ourselves and our relation to the world, it makes us ask the questions “who am I?” and “what am I a part of?” We could even ask “how do I affect the world around me?” If we all think of ourselves as raindrops, this is a wonderful metaphor that Linda Hogan to get us thinking about our place in the world around us. Just like Angel, we can look inwards on ourselves to reflect on who we are, what our morals are, and how we affect our world.

Angel had multiple realizations throughout this book. One realization was how she was  mirror and her life was in parts. Then she looked further to realize the land was broken too. She says, “I thought about how things on the island were all in parts like my mirror. Even the land there was broken,” (Hogan 86). This is an important moment because she takes her view out of herself and brings it outward to the land. Not only is she looking inward at herself as a raindrop, but now she’s looking at the world as a broken mirror where the land was broken too.

On page 85, Angel has a moment where she brings awareness to another self – an empathy. For the first time, she’s able to see past herself both metaphorically and physically.  She explains how she learned to fish, saying, “I began to see inside water, until one day my vision shifted and I could even see the fish on the bottom, as if I was a heron, standing in the shallows with a sharp, hungry eye,” (Hogan 85). This is an incredible moment. If we could all stop looking at our reflections in the water and start looking into the water, we could imagine lives outside of ourselves. We could look deeper, just as Angel did, to be able to feel for another living being and bring an awareness to another being other than ourselves.

Wendell Berry brings up the point that humans are incapable of thinking about a world beyond themselves. On page 22 of his 1977 book The Unsettling of America, he states, “Creation, the world, and all its creatures together, is never a consideration because it is never thought of ;  our culture now simply lacks the means for thinking of it.” For more of my thoughts about this idea, refer to my other blog post A Crisis of Choice. Berry says we are incapable of thinking and implies that our culture cannot empathize. Linda Hogan does a great job of proving Berry’s point wrong. Angel was at first unable to see past her own reflection and her own self, but in time, she was able to see through it into the water. She then was able to understand that there was another life in that water. We can too. Solar Storms was written about identity to remind us that we all have an identity, and if we don’t like that identity, we can change it.

Angel describes her change in character on page 94 of Solar Storms:

 It was this same desire in me, this same longing for creation, and Bush’s spare words were creation itself. I had been empty space, and now I was finding a language, a story, to shape myself by. I had been alone and now there were others… I was partaking of sacred meal and being put back together, (Hogan 94).

Here, Angel realizes a change in her identity. She used to be the lonely one, but now she sees that she doesn’t have to be. Her identity used to be a broken mirror, but now she’s being put back together. We, too, may be broken mirrors. Or maybe we are just stuck looking at our reflections. But we don’t have to stay that way.

Berry says that the environmental crisis is a crisis of character – that there’s nothing we can do to change it. Wendell Berry is wrong. We can have an awakening at any moment like Angel did. Angel may be a fictional character, but even reading about Angel helps us think about ourselves. Linda Hogan uses descriptive language and nature that makes us think about who we are as people. If we’re raindrops, where do we fall? What is within us? Novels like Linda Hogan’s allow us to follow the story of one person who found her identity, in hopes of one day finding ours.

The Consequence of Distance

What is wilderness? What’s happening to wilderness? What’s the difference and why does it matter? Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder, and Wendell Berry are three people who all directly or indirectly answer these questions in their writing. Before we can say how the three define “Wilderness,” we first need to know the difference between wilderness and wild. Wild is the natural state of things, while wilderness is where wild lives. Wilderness is a place. Wildness is a state of being. The one thing each of these authors has in common, is they all agree that we’ve been keeping wilderness at a distance, and that’s never a good idea when trying to save the planet.

In the Transformation section of Plain Talk, Gary Snyder defines wildness. Remember that wildness is the state of being. He says. “Wildness is the state of complete awareness. That’s why we need it,” (Snyder 99). By “complete awareness” Snyder means anything that’s around us. If a wolf is wild, it notices all the predators or prey around it. In our sense, we need to be aware of the nature around us. When we live in civilization with technology all around us, we lose awareness of nature. We can see this with people on their phones ignoring other people. If we can’t see other people, how can we see the world around us?

Wendell Berry agrees with Snyder. Berry explains how even simple technology like railroads and highways make us forget our origins. Instead of defining wildness, he defines the place – wilderness. He says:

Because of railroads and improved highways, the wilderness was no longer an arduous passage for the traveler, but something to be looked at as grand or beautiful from the high vantages of the roadside. . . and because we no longer traveled in the wilderness as a matter of course, we forgot that wilderness still circumscribed civilization. – Berry 100

Berry says that since we no longer use nature to get where we need to go, we forget that it’s there. One of Berry’s biggest points is that wilderness is at a distance now more than ever. On page 100, Berry explains how we forget “the civilized and domestic” depend upon wilderness. Without our natural basis, there’s no way we could have any roads at all. Berry then gives his definition of wilderness. “Wilderness – that is, upon natural forces within the climate and within the soil that have never in any meaningful sense been controlled or conquered,” (Berry 100). It’s interesting that Berry mentions “any meaningful sense,” because this conversation grows into what Rachel Carson says about nature. Rachel Carson takes on Berry’s “any meaningful sense” in her argument when she says:

Who has decided – who has the right to decide – for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraded by the curving wing of a bird in flight.    -Carson 127.

Here, Carson questions who has given us the right to decide that the ideal world has no bugs – that we could extinguish a whole species of bugs because we don’t like them. The problem here is that we’re keeping other life forms at a distance. The result is that we forget they’re parts of our world too and humans are controlling wilderness without “meaningful sense.”

Berry further analyzes that some people think that controlling nature is meaningful. He explains the idea of a nurturer versus an exploiter. Exploiters are thinking of the most effective way to get things done, while nurturers try to savor it. An exploiter would be a businessman who doesn’t have time to worry about how much paper he’s using or how much smoke is coming out of his factory. But, Gary Snyder brings up the point that, “You cannot communicate the forces of nature in the laboratory,” (Snyder 107). Snyder understands that wilderness is important, and it can’t be recreated. We’ve seen what happens in Jurassic Park when we try to mess with nature. It fights back. That’s exactly what Rachel Carson says in her chapter Nature Fights Back.  She says, “The truth, seldom mentioned but there for anyone to see, is that nature is not so easily molded and that the insects are finding ways to circumvent our chemical attacks on them,” (Carson 245). Carson explains that nature finds ways around our tactics, and they begin to adapt around it. She further says that, ‘The control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance,”(Carson 297). Trying to control nature will only backfire. We always want to control the wilderness. But why?

Snyder explains that humans fear the wild inside us. He compares the wild to a coyote, to which he says, “And the Coyote singing/is shut away/for they fear/the call/of the wild,” (Snyder 22). He phrases it as a coyote’s beautiful howl being shut away because people fear its wild. Snyder therefore says we fear the wild inside of us. Perhaps it’s because we don’t know how to tame it, or because we’re afraid of what it can do. Or maybe we’re afraid to know who we really are because that could mean waking up in the Matrix. Through all this confusion, Gary Snyder poses a simple solution. He says, “This is fear of one’s own deepest natural inner-self wilderness areas, and the answer is, relax. Relax around bugs, snakes, and your own hairy dreams” (Snyder 96). Relax around nature, relax yourself. Nature isn’t bad. What are we afraid of?

Carson’s solution is to let nature be on its own. She says to let nature do it. “The really effective control of insects is that applied by nature, not by man,” (Carson 247). Nature was here first, we should let it be. Berry agrees, saying “the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope,” (Berry 14). Berry says that our only legitimate hope is to cherish what remains of the wild and to remain direct with it because that’s the only way we’ll remember it’s there. He says:

The catch is that we cannot live in machines. We can only live in the world, in life. To live, our contact with the sources of life must remain direct: we must eat, drink, breathe, move, mate, etc. When we let machines . . . we inevitably damage the world ; we diminish life. -Berry 92

This is exactly what Gary Snyder said about not being able to understand the forces of nature in a factory. Berry says we need to be closer to nature and actually live in it to remember our wilderness. He explains on page 100, “with the rise of industry, we began to romanticize the wilderness – which is to say we began to institutionalize it within the concept of the ‘scenic'” (Berry 100). We can’t see the world as scenic. As Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, and Gary Snyder all agree, wilderness is within is and it is us. We can’t keep it at a distance. It’s where we come from, and if we don’t cherish it, we won’t have a home, we’ll have a factory. If we keep fighting our natural selves, the wild will fight back until everything is destroyed. One thing has proven true, and that is that wilderness always wins.

A Crisis of Complexity

In Wendell Berry’s book the Unsettling of America, Berry claims, “The good of the whole of Creation, the world and all its creatures together, is never a consideration because it is never thought of; our culture now simply lacks the means for thinking of it,” (Berry 22). He says that humans have lost sight of the world in front of them – that people can’t physically think about a world beyond themselves because they lack the materials. Although he might not have meant it this way, Berry  implies that we don’t have the capacity to think. Even though we are reading his book to educate ourselves, he’s basically insulting his readers by saying we don’t have the capability to think beyond ourselves.

Although offensive, Berry seems to have a point. I would argue that, while Berry says our environmental crisis being a crisis of character, it’s actually not a matter of being able to think about these problems, but instead, whether we choose  to think about them or not. It’s a crisis of choice. Then again, making a choice can be a matter of character. My argument is that it’s not our fault that we’ve become the characters we have. It’s our environment and outside forces that taught us to be that way. It’s more than just a crisis of character or choice, it’s more complex than that.

I personally think that we are capable of thinking beyond ourselves. When I was younger, a movie came out called the Day After Tomorrow. It was about the end of the world – floods, freezing cold, storms – that were all caused by the pollution of human beings. It was about nature fighting back. I was probably around 8 or 9 years old when I saw that movie, and yet I felt like my world was ending too. Movies have a way of making you feel and understand things that you have never experienced.

Humans have the capacity to think beyond ourselves.  It’s what separates us from the more wild animals of the world. We even have a word for it – empathy. Not everyone has empathy, and in that sense, Berry is correct in saying our problems are a crisis of character. But since most people aren’t murderers, criminals, or psychopaths, we can say that the average human can think beyond themselves. The problem here, is why we don’t act upon our empathy when it comes to the environment. Berry answers this on page 30, when he says:

Only if we know how the land was can we tell how it is. Records, figures, statistics will not suffice; to know, in the true sense is to see. We must see the difference — in rates of erosion, for instance, or in soil structure or fertility — in order to keep it indispensable. – Berry 30

Some people say it’s our fault, but I don’t think it is. The problem isn’t us, it’s that our culture is changing with new generations. It’s not our fault that we haven’t lived 100 years and can’t see all the changes that have happened on our lands. It’s not our fault that stories can’t make us picture what we haven’t seen. And through all that, if we see a store in our neighborhood shut down, we can definitely feel that. It’s not that we’re incapable, it’s that we don’t have a reason to care unless it’s something close to us. David Budbill of Wolcott, Vermont brings up the idea of a “terrarium view” of nature. He describes it as, “Terrarium View of the World: nature always at a distance, under a glass” (Berry 28). It makes sense to call it a terrarium. We do think of nature as scenery or a place to escape for vacation a lot of times. Not usually do we think of nature as a part of us. But does that make us incapable of thinking about the world?

Berry brings up the argument that there are two kinds of people – nurturers and exploiters. He says:

The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health – his land’s health, his own his family’s, his community’s his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (Berry p. 7 and 8)

Knowing that there are two different mindsets out there opens up a whole new point. We need to be able to understand each other’s viewpoints before any change can be made. But if we keep blaming each other for who they are, we’ll never get anywhere. Berry claims that these are the two kinds of people, but doesn’t mention the in between. Some exploiters could hope to be efficient, but still recycle. Some nurturers are still efficient. People’s characters aren’t just black or white. We’re complex. And the environmental crisis can’t just be blamed on a certain type of people because that’s how we label them. We can’t just label everyone’s characters, because it’s not just a character of black or white – it’s complex.

Wendell Berry also inserts a quote at the beginning of chapter seven. It says, “But just stop for a minute and think about what it means to live in a land where 95 percent for the people can be freed from the drudgery of preparing their own food,” (Berry 96). It sounds as if Berry is trying to use this quote to say that it’s a bad thing to not prepare our own food. He says it as if it’s engrained in our character to not want to prepare it. In reality, we don’t really have a choice. Unless we grew up on a farm or work at a butchery, we don’t really have the choice to prepare our own food. We have more options now, so we don’t have to see the violence that goes into making it. In the same way, it’s not because our character tells us not to prepare food, it’s because we make the choice not to. We know there is animal cruelty out there, but a lot of us ignore it because we choose to, not because we’re incapable of it. Some people ignore that knowledge because they would rather not know – because we have the power to know. Especially in this day and age, we have the power to know. So maybe it is a crisis of character, but I don’t think we’re incapable of anything, especially thinking. Even if we are incapable of it, it’s not our fault, it’s just how we were raised. And we shouldn’t be blamed for that.

The Coyote Within

I would like to say
Coyote is forever
Inside you.
But it’s not true. – Snyder 23

In Gary Snyder’s book, Turtle Island, Snyder uses the coyote as a metaphor for the wild within us. We were all born natural and started in a natural world, but as we get older, technology and pollution become more prominent. Nature becomes easier to ignore. Coyotes are beautiful things, and so are we, but we push away any natural beauty we have left. Snyder shows us this with his examples of our relation to the earth and reasonings of why we should reconnect with it. He says that our morals and insides – our coyotes – are calling out for a better world. We know that something is wrong, yet we do nothing about it.

In his poem, the Call of the Wild, Gary Snyder claims a coyote is no longer inside us. This reminds me of a Cherokee story I once heard about two wolves living within us. They’re both fighting each other. One is angry, evil, greedy, and resentful. The other is peaceful, loving, joyous, and hopeful. When asked which wolf wins the fight, the Cherokee grandfather answers simply, “the one you feed.”

A wolf may differ from a  coyote, but the meaning still stands – there is a wild being within us, and it’s up to us to keep it alive. As humans, we tend to forget that we are also animals, but Gary Snyder reminds us of our relationship with nature in his poetry book, Turtle Island.

One of the methods he uses to do this is using descriptive language of animals to remind us of the impacts we have on animals. In the Call of the Wild, he uses terms like “blinding sparrows,” “breaking ear-drums of owls,” “splintering trunks of cherries” and “twining and looping deer intestines in the shaken, dusty, rocks” to show us pictures that we don’t usually see (Snyder 22). When we think of war bombs, we usually think about humans getting hurt, but it’s important to remember that plants and animals are being harmed too. Snyder’s graphic language paints a violent picture in our heads on purpose, because that’s the reality. Furthermore, Snyder uses vicious words like “blinding,” “breaking,” and “splintering” because they have a strong effect that takes each verb to the extreme. In this case, extreme is actual reality.

Another way Snyder reminds us of our relationship with nature is by giving actual examples of what we’re doing and how that impacts the world around us. At the end of Turtle Island, he mentions, “We are fouling our air and water, and living in noise and filth that no ‘animal’ would tolerate, while advertising and politicians try and tell us we’ve never had it so good” (Snyder 94). The way he say this is very creative. We are all naturally animals, and yet we’re destroying our home. Animals wouldn’t want to live in this filth, so why do we?

Part of the reason could be because media is telling us it’s okay. Other people are telling us it’s okay. In Call of the Wild, Snyder explains how people were selling their good trees just because someone told them to. He says, “And they sold their virgin cedar trees/the tallest trees in miles/To a logger/Who told them/’Trees are full of bugs'” (Snyder 22). What Snyder is saying here is that people are gullible and they believe what people will tell them about the environment. As of right now, people are saying that there’s nothing wrong with the environment and that it’s not a big deal. Snyder is saying that actually it is a big deal, but we’ve all been brainwashed to think it isn’t. Towards the end of the book, he mentions his thoughts on our minds as humans and how it’s so hard to be aware of our natural world because we think we own it.

Our own heads: It is hard to even begin to gauge how much a complication of possessions, the notions of ‘my and mine,’ stand between us and a true, clear, liberated way of seeing the world. To live lightly on the earth, to be aware and alive, to be free of egotism, to be in contact with plants and animals, starts with simple concrete acts. – Snyder 99

Snyder says we need to live on this world lightly because it’s not ours to destroy. We don’t own everything. At this point, it’s us against the earth. Furthermore he explains the consequences if we do keep heading in the direction we are, explaining it as a war against Earth. Snyder says, “A war against earth/When it’s done there’ll be/no place/A Coyote could hide” (Snyder 23). In other words, Snyder could be saying that our world is destroying our natural world to a point where coyotes are no longer safe. If they were safe, they wouldn’t have to hide. There’s a theme with the coyote in this poem because coyotes are important animals to many native people. It’s sad to think that there could one day be a world where coyotes need to hide and are unable to.

It’s especially sad because Snyder makes the point that we are coyotes too. Coyotes are wild, they’re inside us, and we’re wild too.  He describes how beautiful the sound of the coyote is when it’s howling at the beginning of the poem. This later transfers into how sad it will be that kids won’t hear those sounds one day. Then it talks about how the entire world would be destroyed and the coyotes wouldn’t have a home. That transitions into the idea of a coyote being within us and that we don’t care. The story of the coyote’s decline reminds us of what our actions are doing to the coyotes.

Snyder is calling us out. He’s reminding us that we are nature by comparing us to this beautiful animal and saying that we are it. In By Frazier Creek Falls, he even states, “We are it/it sings through us-” (Snyder 41). We are nature, we are wild, and we should be doing something to protect our planet. Even more, he mentions how it “sings” through us. The coyote in us is howling for us to save the world, but we just ignore it.

And the Coyote singing
is shut away
for they fear
the call
of the wild. -Snyder 22

To Ignore All Else

Why do we ignore what’s right in front of us? Why do we let things get so bad that we have to worry about it before we decide to make a change? And why is change so hard? This is something many of us struggle with although we probably wouldn’t want to admit it. I’m definitely no exception.

When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. In case you’ve never been diabetic, this means I have to check my blood sugar every time I eat and take an injection after every meal or snack. I’ve  been diabetic for a while now so I can very much say that diabetes is inconvenient at times. Taking care of it can be more of a hassle than anything, and every three months I have a checkup with my doctor just for her to say, “you should be checking your blood sugar more” or “you need to take more insulin,” “this is slowly destroying your body.” But every time, it goes in one ear and out the other.

Author and environmental enthusiast, Rachel Carson, examines this same problem when it comes to the environment. In her book, Silent Spring, she says:

We are accustomed to look for the gross and immediate effect and to ignore all else. Unless this appears promptly and in such obvious form that it cannot be ignored, we deny the existence of hazard – Carson 190

Carson might not be talking about diabetes, but she what she is doing is taking my personal experience with diabetes, and applying it to how everyone is ignoring the environmental issues. We know something is slowly harming our environment, but we just ignore it. Diabetes has always been one of my last priorities, but I’ve always known it should be first. Drastic diabetic complications could lead to amputation or coma. Of course, I know the facts, but sometimes I just can’t bring myself to do anything about it. Rachel Carson’s quote makes me think about the drastic complications that could be happening, not just to me, but to the environment around all of us if we keep ignoring it like I ignore my health. And furthermore, why do we continue to ignore such big problems that are literally life or death?

What Carson is saying is that we naturally look for immediate affects, and I completely agree. If it’s not a bloody nose, a leg cramp, or a bad tummy ache, we choose to ignore it, even if it’s slowly harming us. I do that with my blood sugar. I can immediately tell when my blood sugar is low, but it’s harder when it’s high. So if I can’t feel it, I leave it, and let it slowly affect me. Another way to put it is, if it’s not physically in front of me, it’s not there.

Of course, Carson isn’t talking about diabetes when she mentions this. In fact, she’s talking about the growing use of chemicals in the world and how it’s affecting our entire ecosystem. Plants, animals, and people are all being poisoned by pesticides and weed killers, but it’s happening so slowly, we don’t really care. In Silent Spring, chapter 13, Carson explains the metaphor of a narrow window. She quotes biologist, George Wald’s description:

A very narrow window though which at a distance one can see only a crack of light. As one comes closer the view grows wider and wider, until finally through this same narrow window one is looking at the universe.  – Carson p. 199

Carson goes on to elaborate on Wald’s point by saying that the only way for people to really understand what’s happening to their bodies from all these chemicals is to take a look even closer at a molecular level. She continues the chapter explaining the affects of chemicals on ATP and how it affects different beings. For example, mosquitos exposed to DDT for generations have been affected by becoming part male and part female.

One of the reasons Silent Spring is so impactful is because Carson goes deeper into the issue than most other authors. She mentions how chemicals affect the human body and explains the process of DDT going through the ecosystems. In addition, she breaks down the science of how these chemicals are created so it makes more sense to the general public for example, Chapter 3, “Elixirs of Death.” Bringing all of this into an understandable viewpoint brings us closer to the problem, thus opening the window that was once so narrow.

Knowing these risks, some people still don’t react, and Rachel Carson brings up a good point about why some people are still ignoring these factors. At the bottom of page 31, she explains Malathion, which is like DDT used by gardeners. She says, “It is considered the least toxic of this group of chemicals and many people assume they may use it freely and without fear of harm. Commercial advertising encourages this comfortable attitude,” (Carson 31). So not only are people ignoring big factors, but advertisements are downplaying the affects that chemicals can have.

Unlike the back of a cigarette box, Rachel Carson explains the worst case scenarios that have really happened in great detail. If sprayed on the ground, air, or water, DDT can go into the soil where the worms are affected. Then animals that eat the worms are affected, like birds. Turkeys are eaten by humans or other animals and it goes into their systems. Not only does she explain the worst case scenarios within the human body, but she also starts off the book with an image of a worst case scenario about an imaginary place that used to be so beautiful:

Then a strange blight crept over the sea and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.                                                                                                                               -Carson p. 2

Carson says this place she describes doesn’t exist, but it actually sounds like the direction our world is going in if people continue to ignore these issues; the same way my body could go downhill if I ignore my diabetes. It’s difficult to see something that’s not in front of us, and it’s not natural either. But reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson seems like a good place to start.

Fountains of Life

Scottish environmental philosopher and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, was a strong believer in keeping our earth preserved. To him, resources were finite, and we had to make the best of it. Something Muir once said stuck with me. He said, “The mountain peaks and forest reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life,” (Guha  53). Muir is saying that instead of looking at just our basic needs, we need to look at the other sources of life like dirt, bugs, animals. Because, they too, are sources in the fountain of life. But what does he mean by a fountain of life?

First, we need to look at the bigger picture. What is the fountain providing for? Some would say a fountain of life provides solely for humans. But female environmental writer, Rachel Carson, says, “All forms of life are more alike than different,” which prompts us to wonder what other forms of life are out there and how we are similar. How can a human be the same as a bug? She further explains how humans are “not in control of nature but simply one of its parts: the survival of one part depended upon the health of all,” (Carson xvi). She explains how, not only are all living beings important, but the survival of one depends on the others. This idea connects to that of John Muir again, when he says, “The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest trans microscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge” (Guha 52). Muir explains the importance of every living being, just as Rachel Carson explains how all living beings depend on one another and are all connected and similar. Carson also explains these connections when she explains the process of DDT passing through the ecosystems.

For example, fields of alfalfa are dusted with DDT; meal is later prepared from the alfalfa and fed to hens; the hens lay eggs which contain DDT. Or the hay, containing residues of 7 to 8 parts per million, may be be fed to cows. The DDT will turn up in the milk in the amount of about 3 parts per million, but in butter made from this milk the concentration may run to 65 parts per million. -Carson p. 22

From this, we can see how chemicals are passed through the environment into animals and back through all over again. So as Rachel Carson said, all living beings depend on the health of one another. If one is ill, the whole ecosystem becomes ill as well. We see how fast germs pass through kindergarten classrooms, imagine that happening with the food you eat and the animals that create that food. Imagine that happening with health, and our “fountain of life.” One source of life and health reaches out to all.

“All” probably includes the insects, animals, plants, and people, but how do we all share this one source of life? This, “fountain”? As time goes on humans continue to use much more than they really need – taking away the homes of certain bugs and animals, or even their lives. If we’re “all” in this together, why are humans taking so much? It seems as though humans feel they’re more important than other members of the environment.

And we kind of are, aren’t we?

After all, we’ve heard about which animals are smartest – dolphins, apes, pigs – but nothing compares to our human brains. We have opposable thumbs, can make rational decisions, and can communicate in verbal languages. Humans are biologically on top, right? After all, we’re at the top of the food chain, we have the weapons and skill to take out any other animal in the world. Plus we can eat them if we want! Those lions don’t stand a chance!

But let’s think about that.

Without all those other animals in the food chain, could we really survive? Aren’t we all part of one web living together on this one earth? John Muir addresses this by saying, “Why should one man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation?”(Guha 52). We’re all a great creation, so why does one of us have to be better than the other? We all have to work together to live on this beautiful world. 

And it really is a beautiful world, although we forget that sometimes. John Muir mentions the importance of nature, saying “wildness is a necessity,” in addition to explaining that “over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home” (Guha 53). Muir explains how children need to experience nature and how important it is to be in a natural environment occasionally. By looking at the world for a natural perspective, we begin to see the trees differently, the grass differently, and trash looks out of place. Muir explains the importance of visiting nature. Aldo Leopold explains how you should do more than visit, but nature should be an every day occurrence. I’ll end on a quote from Guha about the beliefs of Leopold, because if we’re all aware of the environment, we can all preserve that “fountain of life.” Here’s Leopold’s thoughts:

Ethically he hoped that an attitude of care and wonder towards nature would not be expressed only on occasional excursions into the wild, but come to be part of the fabric of our daily lives, so that on weekdays, as much as on weekends, we would come to tread gently on this earth – Guha p. 58