Kathleen Dean Moore’s new book Earth’s Wild Music is a reflection on the planet and its dizzying rate of decline in the hands of negligent humans. A philosopher, nature writer and activist, Moore’s writing in her most recent collection hones in especially on the sounds of nature and what is unique that is on the verge of disappearing forever. In our conversation together, Kathleen talks more about what inspires and drives her, her friendship with fellow activist author Robin Kimmerer, nurturing the critical capacities of a new generation and her struggle to write about hope.
Why do you write?
For decades, I was a philosophy professor. I loved the ideas I studied – Truth, Justice, Beauty, Good – and the dazzle when they drifted down to ground. I thought I would do this the rest of my life. Then, at a climate conference in Aspen, I heard Yale Dean Gus Speth say this: “All we have to do, to leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren, is just keep doing what we are doing now.” I never recovered from that. A ruined world? No thrush-whistle, no salmon, no transparent streams? That’s when I knew my work had to change. I left the university, determined, for the sake of beloved children and grandchildren, to do my part to stop the wreck and plunder of the planet. But what would that be? My friend, Robin Kimmerer, told me what her elders told her: “If you want to know what your work is, ask, what are my gifts?” I’m a philosopher, for heaven’s sake. What do I know how to do? Well, I can think. I can write. I can love. So that is what I am doing.
How do you write?
Do you mean, like, with a pencil? Okay. Someplace outside – on a piney trail or the bow of a rowboat or any random place that smells of woodsmoke and water – the shape of an essay will come to me and I will write a couple of paragraphs in my head. Then I’ll write them down, sticking my hand into the ziplock bag that holds my journal, because rain is inevitably blowing in from the northwest. When I am back at my laptop, I go to work, writing and revising. My average number of revisions is 17.
But that’s not what you mean, is it? Okay. For Earth’s Wild Music, I wrote essays, from the French essayer, which means, to try. Unlike a journal article, which has a predetermined ending, an essay is full of risk and excitement, because who knows what it will reveal. An essay always starts with a story; essayists are assiduous, sometimes larcenous, collectors of stories. And then the search is on: What truth does that story tell? I believe that there is meaning in every moment, but you have to look for it. Sometimes I feel like a pig, digging after the slightest scent of truffles, or an osprey, diving after the shadow of a salmon. It isn’t easy, and sometimes you come up empty. But sometimes you are astonished by something you’ve never understood before. The adventure is in the trying.
You mention Robin Kimmerer who like yourself is also a writer with deep ecological concerns. In one section of her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she wrote: “To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing.” What would you say about philosophy in the same context? How does your background and love of philosophy inform your writing and your relationship to the world around you?
A philosophical education, in my experience, trains students to have the courage of their questions. So often, just as a discussion gets interesting, someone will say, “Well, that’s just a philosophical question,” which is another way to say, “Stop here.” But a philosopher is only getting started. So I would dance with my friend Robin Kimmerer, by saying, “To name and describe, you must first wonder, and philosophy polishes the gift of questioning.”
The exemplar here is Socrates, who pressed hard questions. Of course, that did not end well, as he was executed for the crime of “corrupting the youth” by teaching them to question established ideas and practices. Just so, the sacred work of philosophers is to ask the hard questions: What could possibly justify destroying a life-graced wetland? What is the link between racial injustice and environmental desecration? What is lost when a singing bird is driven to extinction? What are our obligations to future generations?
I love your description of finding meaning through the act of writing; of setting yourself to work and seeing what arises. How the word ‘essay’ literally stands for the effort of trying and some kind of leap of faith. What has most surprised you that has arisen in such a moment? Which themes or images or concerns came to the page that you did not at all anticipate?
Yes, an essay is a leap of faith. Or maybe a dive of faith. I think of an osprey, who soars over a lake, patiently, hungrily, intensely watching. At first, all he sees are surfaces –tule reeds in the marshland, sun on wind-riffles. But then something changes – the light shifts or the breeze lets up – and he catches a glimpse of a shadow under the surface. Then, he folds his wings, extends his talons, and dives. If he is blessed, he will struggle into the air with a fish in his talons, and what was murky and only dimly seen is clearly visible in the sun.
So many examples. I will map out only one such sequence of surprises, from the “Testimony of the Marsh” in Holdfast.
Watching the surfaces: We are in a canoe on a lake that is cacophonous with courting waterbirds. Catching a glimpse of a shadow beneath the surface: “Uproarious, raging life. What does it mean?”
The dive: “What is the meaning of life?”
The struggle to bring the idea to light: A student suicide, a Dostoyevsky quote, “We must love life before loving its meaning. If love of life disappears, no meaning can console us.”
The idea emerging from the shadows: “This is the testimony of the marsh: Life directs all its power to one end, and that is to continue to be. A marsh at nightfall is life loving itself . . .”
It seems especially important to teach young people the skill of philosophy, of questioning and especially of independent thinking, where confidence can be cultivated in one’s own thoughts and perspectives rather than always being in reference to someone else. How can we confront this issue in an environment so saturated with media and information designed to persuade?
You ask an important question, Vanessa, in relation to young people and all people. Not just the children, but mean uncles and preening Senators, gullible teenagers and privileged bird-watchers – everybody – should have an education in three kinds of thinking:
Critical thinking. The essential art of reaching reliable conclusions on the basis of evidence; the ability to defend yourself against flawed arguments or deceptive assumptions. This is the foundation of a rational life.
Empathetic thinking. The art of putting yourself in another’s place, seeing the world through their eyes, and asking what you would believe and do in their situation; the art of asking questions about why they believe what they do and make the decisions they do. This is the foundation of justice and compassion.
Hypothetical thinking, the “if, then” art. The ability to entertain an idea; the ability to consider that things might be different from the way they are now; the art of following a chain of possibilities beyond those immediately apparent. This is the foundation of imagination.
I don’t know how we will achieve this kind of mental and moral acuity, until we find a way to understand attention not as a commodity, but a gift. Sorry.
Your beautiful testimony of the marsh: “Life directs all its power to one end, and that is to continue to be.” And yet, parts of human culture are tightly bent towards destruction, of their environment and of themselves. It seems to me that a revolution in consciousness, in the wellbeing and health of humans is key to healing our relationship with our environment too. I find it hard to see how one can come about without the other. How do you see that relationship?
I would probably put it this way: As we realize what makes us healthy, we have reason to improve our relation with the environment, and as we improve our relation with the environment, we come to understand what makes us healthy.
This relation creates the opportunity for “multi-solving,” solving several problems with the same imaginative and innovative practice. The possibility to multi-solve seems to me to be one of the real rays of hope in our global predicament. Examples: New agricultural practices that improve the health of the soil and the nutritional value of the food. New forest reserves and urban gardens that shelter the biodiversity of the planet and bring people out for exercise and fresh air. Restoration of rivers that create marshland habitat and purify drinking water. Increasing demand for healthy protein that reduces the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide load.
The opposite, multi-harming, creating multiple violations with the same act, is equally common and unforgiveable. Even as we multi-solve, our work is to end the continuing government tolerance (or encouragement) of multi-harming, the marker of environmental injustice. Examples: Industrial and agricultural practices that poison the land (or air, or water) with terrible and disproportionate health consequences for the poor and people of color. Extractive industries (pipelines, clearcuts) that violate the lands of Native people and destroy healthy sustainable lifeways. Coal-burning powerplants that cause climate chaos that burns forests and destroys coral reefs, violating also human rights and driving people from their homes.
In the chapter, Living Like Birds from Earth’s Wild Music, you describe people finding solace in nature during the pandemic, and express a hope that the current squeeze put on humanity might yield more positive results in the long run. What are your own personal pandemic resolutions, and lessons you have learned during this period?
As a person who loves the wild, reeling Earth, I have learned what it must feel like to be a blue jay, afraid of human contact – darting out to find food and flying back into dark places, hiding their babies, singing from hidden shelters, storing up supplies for the long winter. I have a new-found empathy for wild creatures.
I also have a new-found empathy for suckers, because I have learned what it feels like to be a dupe. Never again, after this pandemic, will I allow myself to be convinced that rapid cultural change is impossible. Oh, I have been played, as most of us have, by fossil fuel and agricultural giants growing fat on business-as-usual, convincing us that the rapid social changes and investments required to defeat climate change are impossible. We all know better now.
The pandemic shows us that when all the people of the world are threatened, individuals and societies can change fundamentally to protect the common good. Almost overnight, people changed how they work, how they educate children, how they eat, how they communicate – and found that some of the changes were improvements. They dramatically reduced their consumption of fossil fuels by staying home. The air cleared. Governments invested huge sums in new technologies. And they are investing trillions more to transform a damaged economy and create jobs destroyed by the pandemic. We may hope to see steps to address the deep racial injustices that the pandemic revealed. These are exactly the steps the world needs to take to combat climate change.
Human societies marshalled the will and means to combat an epidemic that killed 2.8 million people so far. This is a dramatic demonstration that, contrary to the lies we have been fed, we can marshall the will and means to combat a far greater threat that is already killing thousands of people through extreme weather, malnutrition and starvation, spreading diseases, and deadly heat.
What’s the most difficult thing to write about?
I struggle to write about hope, even though it’s the only thing people want me to write about these days. If you write with too much hope, you start to sound dishonest or uninformed or just plain out-to-lunch. If you write with too little hope, you start to sound depressing and maybe selfish, looking for any excuse to stop trying.
So for the longest time, when I wrote about hope, I abdicated a writer’s responsibility by simply quoting other people. Rebecca Solnit: “Hope isn’t like a lottery ticket that you sit on the couch and clutch, feeling lucky. Hope is like one of those red axes that you pull out of its glass case, to break down doors in an emergency.” Suzanne Moser: “Hope is when you reach deep down inside yourself to find the courage and the strength to keep going in hard times.” Joanna Macy: Active hope is a decision to find the strength (or, if it is hard to find, to build up the muscles) to be an active participant in the work of creating a just and thriving future. Gradually, I came to believe that hope is not an emotion, not exactly an act, but rather a way of life. A hopeful life declares independence from the tyranny of “outcomes.” A person living a hopeful life does what she believes is right and good, not in expectation of some reward or success, but because it is right and good. She acts lovingly toward the Earth because she loves it. She lives simply because she doesn’t believe in taking more than her fair share. She defends the world because she believes it is worthy. So while hope is radically disconnected from the expectation of good results, it is closely connected to courage and moral resolution and – I am convinced – joy.