The Work of a Writer in a World of Wounds

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Excerpts from the Edelman Lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon, March 10, 2009.

We all know that we will soon reach a tipping point, a point of sudden irreversible change. We know that great feedback mechanisms will magnify the effect of what we do. Nothing will be the same again. You’ve heard this. But I’m not talking about Global Climate Change. I’m talking about the Great Turning, the paradigm shift, the global movement that will free us from ways of thinking that separated us from the Earth, a great shift of consciousness toward a new sense of community and commonweal, toward the reinvention of a culture of place and civic responsibility.

You can smell the scorched brakes as we skid to a stop on this uber-western, uber-capitalist dead-end road. You can hear the tires squeal. You can hear the crunch of capitalism eating its own feet. Each cultural wrong-turn creates the conditions of its own correction. It has begun.

But I don’t want to get too carried away. That we live in a world of wounds cannot be denied. Just pick up the newspaper: Trees appear to be dying at twice the rate they used to.  In one of the first studies of this type ever done in temperate zones, this disturbing phenomenon was found to be occurring at every elevation, in trees of different sizes and species, with the Pacific Northwest the hardest hit of all areas studied.  Here a doubling of tree mortality has been occurring as fast as every seventeen years.  An increase in temperature in the American west has caused widespread hydrological changes — less precipitation falling as snow, declining snowpack water content, earlier spring snowmelt and runoff, and longer summer drought.

Roots are burning all over the land, real roots and metaphorical.  I was walking on the scorched hillsides of the B and B fire on Santiam Pass.  There, the fires burned so hot that flames burned down into the roots. When you walk across this ash-plain, you walk carefully so you don’t sink a leg up to the hip in the space where thick roots used to be.  Drought in the Alaskan black spruce muskeg is so severe that when a fire started, it spread for hundreds of miles through the peat, burning the roots of every tree. Without support, the trees fell, all of them, in the first wind.  Flooding is creating fleeing streams of climate refugees, the new rootless people. Roots are burning all over the land.

The “economic machine that has resulted in a destabilized climate raises the specter that we will make our home uninhabitable to humans,” and we will take much of the natural world with us. “This is a crime against the future,” David Orr writes, “a crime that has as yet no name.  No judge. No jury. Just an awful silence.”

What is the work of a writer in this world of wounds?

Robin Kimmerer, a botanist, essayist, member of the Potawatomi people, writes, “To know what are our responsibilities, we must ask, what are our gifts?” Birds, who have the gift of song, have the responsibility to greet the day. Salmon, who have thick red muscles, have the responsibility to feed the people.  What, then, of writers?

Our gift is the gift of imagination — this, at a time that calls for the greatest exercise of human imagination the world has ever seen.

We have come to the end of a great experiment testing the truth of an old story about the nature of the world. Here’s the theory: That humans are radically individual, that we most fully flourish as human beings apart from, and often in competition with, one another; that we are separate from and superior to the earth; that in fact the earth and all its beings were created for the sake of humans, and that they have no worth except as they are useful to human purposes; that humans alone possess spirit in a plainly material universe; that increasing knowledge will increase our power to control the world and turn it to our uses; and that we will find happiness in this, in the growth of our ability to satisfy our material needs.

That experiment is at an end. The results are in. They are definitive, they are disastrous. We cannot live within this imagined world without destroying it.

Now we have to imagine a new story. It has to somehow match the story that the ecologists are telling us, that the earth, and all its beings, create one beautiful, mysterious, interdependent, often symbiotic system; that damage to one part does damage to the whole. That the world itself is of infinite value, beyond its usefulness to us. That we are born with the capacity to love, and that we find our greatest flourishing in communities of caring.

We have to imagine how to live in this world. Then we have to imagine that life into existence in all its particulars.  Write the stories about how to live in a world of intricate, absolute interdependence — people and nature, past and future, near neighborhoods and mountain peaks. Write the stories of intimacy with the land, the ecology of love. That is the work of the moral imagination. That is the work of the writer in a wounded world.

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Every argument that has as its conclusion a statement about what we ought to do, will have two premises. First, it will have an empirical premise, a descriptive premise that comes from scientific or other observation.  It says, this is the way the world is. (For example, global climate change is real, it is dangerous, it is upon us.) Every argument about what we ought to do will begin with a statement of fact.  But you can’t get to a prescriptive conclusion – I ought to do this or that – without a second premise.

The second premise is normative. It is an affirmation of what is worthy and worth doing, of what is right in human actions. It says, this is good, this is sacred, this is what I believe in, this is what it means to be fully human. (Say, for example, this world is worth saving.)

From the descriptive premise and the normative premise, but from neither alone, a conclusion follows about what we ought to do.

The arts in general, and nature writers in particular, work in the world of the second premise. Literature is a record of a culture’s exploration of what is worthy, beloved, what is just and beautiful. Like geological layers, literature is the beautiful, puzzling, sometimes tortured, enduring, revealing record of the moral discourse of a culture. Here is where we sort out what it means to be compassionate, to act justly, to be fully human. Here, in the stories we choose to tell, is a culture’s struggle with the foundational questions: What is a human being? What is our relation to the rest of the natural world? How, then, shall we live?

* * *

Essayist Scott Russell Sanders said, “Do not ask what the work can do for you. Ask what you can do for the work such that it can do what the world needs.” Our tools in this work are our grief at what is already lost from this world, terror at will be be lost in the end, and our delight and joy and love for the world we have been given.

The times call for “applied reverence.” Reverence is not enough. Standing in witness to the beauty of the world, as it gets sucked down and bulldozed over and ground down and irradiated, poisoned, paved, is not enough. What if we really took seriously the idea that the world is sacred, really. Imagine that.  If the world is sacred, what the hell are we doing, standing around while it vanishes before our eyes? Look out the window. Where is the marshland? Where are the rafts of ducks?  Where is the window?

Action without reverence is dangerous.

But reverence without action is empty. Reverence without action is as hypocritical as the Sunday Christian. Reverence without action is the ‘woo’ that people despise in nature writing.

Reverence and action. “Your calling is the place where your deep gladness intersects with the world’s great hunger,” Frederick Buechnerwrote. At that point is our work, my friend told me, which is work of substance and joy and mad attentiveness, which is the real deal, which is finally why we are here.

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[Note: One formatting update made on May 28. -ed.]

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