categories: Cocktail Hour
Okay, so when we last spoke to each other I had posted a piece about the nature writer Derrick Jensen, adapted from my book, My Green Manifesto, which just came out. (I wasn’t crass enough to link to the book the first time and to try to get you to buy it, but apparently I’ve become bolder in the course of a week.) Soon after the post was posted, our world crashed here at Bill and Dave’s. I didn’t manage to save a copy of the post but I’ll try and re-create it here:
(You might want to listen to the Standell’s “Dirty Water” while reading.)
A few years ago I was on a nature writing panel with a writer named Derrick Jensen. A couple of weeks before the panel I sent out a friendly e-mail to the other panelists, suggesting we bounce some ideas off each other. Here is the gist of the e-mail I got in response from him:
“You ask me what I think about so-called nature writing? I think the same about it that I think about any beautiful writing. There is no time for it. There is time for only one thing: saving the earth. The world is being slaughtered and we need to stop it. At this point writing is beside the point: the only–and I mean only–thing that matters is to stop this culture from killing the planet. The reason I feel comfortable saying that it’s the only end that matters is that without a landbase you don’t have anything. Everything–including beautiful writing–emerges from and is secondary to the land.”
The other writers and I felt a little cowed by the note, embarrassed that we had been up to then corresponding about such minor concerns as semicolons, tree frogs, and imagery. We worried that we were poseurs next to Derrick, that we should immediately do something, maybe burn our bras or draft cards. I read his e-mail to a friend, a writer who is much more careful about keeping his politics out of his essays than I am. He told me a story about a Marxist poet who accosted Robert Frost and said: “No poetry is worth its name unless it moves people to action.” Frost replied: “I agree. The question is, how soon?” (It is worth noting that this writer, while not overtly political in his work, has, in his spare time, saved more of Cape Cod’s landbase than anyone I knew.)
I admired Jensens’ passion, and realized that, face-to-face, we might have more in common than not. The sheer earnestness of environmentalism can make me uneasy, but force me to choose between a tad too much earnestness and melting ice caps and I’ll take earnestness every time. Still, something about his tone unsettled me.
While I was writing my new book I became preoccupied with environmental psychology, and some of the pressing questions for me were: What allows a person to go beyond paying lip service to nature and to actually live with it in this modern, muddled world? How can we fall in love with something so limited and wounded? And how can we go from loving to fighting? Finally, we must consider what role, if any, that hope plays in these questions.
Jensen’s most well-known essay, “Beyond Hope,” argues for a politics of hopelessness. I couldn’t disagree more. Without hope and the energy it provides we curl into the mental equivalent of the fetal position, hiding from the world. “Without hope there is no endeavor,” wrote Samuel Johnson. He was not talking about the Disney variant of hope, but the real animal. It’s the light that filters down into our dark brains, sparking our neurons. The brightening after darkness, which energizes like the quickening of the world after winter. A thawing and movement into activity, an activity that then gains momentum. This is hope as a physical thing: The hope that spring inspires, after the long winter.
It is just this sort of hope– hope spiced, of course, with a dash or two of vitriol–that energized me as I wrote my book, a book, I realized only gradually, that was aimed at younger readers who were going about the business of deciding what they might want to do with their lives. My agenda was simple: To describe the ways that my own life, and the lives of some people I admire, are connected to the natural world, and the benefits that come from that connection, benefits that are not always obvious. To provide a way for those of us who would blanch at calling ourselves environmentalists to begin to at least think of ourselves as fighters, in the way that citizens suddenly think of themselves as soldiers during times of war. Finally, by both argument and example, to provide a new language for those of us who care about nature.
For me the embodiment of this sort of fighter was Dan Driscoll, a Massachusetts Eco Planner who has spent the last twenty years fighting to clean up the Charles, adding greenways and native plantings and overall re-greening a place that was so famously dirty that it was the subject of the Standell’s song, “Dirty Water.” Dan serves as a fine counterpoint to the gloom and doom school of eco thought in his heartiness, passion for the local, and sense of humor.
“We nature lovers are hypocrites, of course,” he said to me when we canoed the length of the river together. “We are all hypocrites. None of us are consistent. The problem is that we let that fact stop us. We worry that if we fight for nature, people will say, ‘But you drive a car,’ or, ‘You fly a lot,’ or, ‘You’re a consumer, too.’ And that stops us in our tracks. It’s almost as if admitting that we are hypocrites lets people off the hook.”
I pulled my paddle out of the water to listen.
“What we need are more hypocrites,” he said. “We need hypocrites who aren’t afraid of admitting it but will still fight for the environment. We don’t need some sort of pure movement run by pure people. We need hypocrites!”
I thought of Edward Abbey fighting for the West while throwing empty beer cans out the window of his truck. I thought of my own environmental Achilles heel, a dainty preference for hot baths over showers–not nearly as cool as Abbey’s boozing, but possibly as wasteful. And then I thought of everyone I knew and knew of and couldn’t come up with anyone who had an entirely clean eco-slate. Which seemed to mean that, logically, Dan was right: if only non-hypocrites are going to fight for the environment then it will be an army of none.
It occurs to me now that, in its frankness and open humor, Dan’s attitude could do the environmental movement a world of good. We need to start again, I’m convinced, and we might do that by admitting that we are limited, human animals, not idealistic, über creatures. And we need hope, too, not fanciful hope but the energetic, tough-minded sort.
Adapted from My Green Manifesto