“The humanities—including the study of languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics, and the arts—are disciplines of memory and imagination, telling us where we have been and helping us envision where we are going.”
(Report of the American Academy of Arts & Science’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences to the U. S. Congress in June 2013)
People often ask me what I do:
What are you studying?
Why are you studying it?
And, most frightful of all, the dreaded, how?
When they ask these questions, my heart starts to work a little harder, saline liquid beads on the surface of my skin. I feel an ominous Should hover overhead whispering to me that I should be able to answer these questions about what I feel so passionately with much more sophistication—without such somatic distress.
Over the past year or so I have encountered inquiries of this nature many times, and each time my answers become more nuanced, but also unfortunately sometimes more rehearsed, closed off even. To be fair, the answers aren’t easy ones. I’ve gotten my hands around the what and the why of my studies a little better over time.
What am I studying?
To expand, I might say I study the role of humans in those systems. I’m mostly looking at the science that humans do concerning the ocean, but there are many more players in that story than just humans.
Why do I study this?
I love the ocean.
Once again, to expand, I might say that environmental thinking and decision making is profoundly influenced by what goes on at the intersection of science and values. If I want to be a better steward of the ocean (and I do), I need to locate myself and my work somewhere at that intersection.
But what does the work look like? How do I study the sea I so deeply respect?
The answer is, like most things in this world, complex. And, as any quest one undertakes, it changes all the time and is in a constant state of flow and growth. As I move through graduate school in the Environmental Arts and Humanities program, I continue to learn, explore, and refine how I plan to do this work.
Firstly, I have discovered that (perhaps naively) I consider myself an interdisciplinarian. I find it difficult to choose one discipline to which I belong or one set of methods that I prefer to use. Although, I would say that I use techniques from several disciplines of the humanities in my research.
I also agree with Stanford’s description of humanities research:
“A hallmark of humanistic study is that research is approached differently than in the natural and social sciences,
where data and hard evidence are required to draw conclusions. Because the human experience cannot be adequately captured by facts and figures alone, humanities research employs methods that are historical, interpretive and analytical in nature.”
That being said, I am drawn to methods from the history and study of environmental science and technology and am learning how to apply historical (like working with primary sources) and analytical (like actor-network theory) methods to explore human-ocean interactions.
Secondly, because I am an artist and visual person, creative practice plays a crucial role in how I approach and synthesize my research. Incorporating photography, painting, and poetry have added depth to my understanding and exploration of human-ocean interactions in a beautiful, intellectual, and synergistic way. Practice-led research is still an emerging methodology and has been used and defined by many people in different ways. My use of practice-led research means that there are two outcomes to all my work: a creative piece and a written, scholarly piece. The production of these two deliverables seems to be the one defining factor that ties all versions of practice research together.
Smith and Dean’s book on practice-led research claims that “creative practice—the training and specialized knowledge that creative practitioners have and the processes they engage in when they are making art—can lead to specialized research insights.” I don’t know that I am using practice-led research in the exact way they define it, but because it is an emerging concept, I find that how I move forward, and how my creative work informs my research will be valuable to better understanding and legitimizing the incorporation of artistic practice into traditional academic research. In any case, I am still learning what creative practice-led research means to me and my other historical and analytical work. The creative pieces that are produced are valuable in and of themselves as part of my process, but they also serve as useful and communicative forms of putting the environmental science that is the subject of my study into context for broader audiences.
What am I studying in graduate school?
Why does it matter to me?
I think it is more important to know how it unfolds.
Even after telling you all this, I would be lying if I told you I have it fully mapped out. Perhaps that is the real reason I’m here at OSU—to figure it out. To question the human experience and the role it plays on this grand stage we call planet Earth. To learn how to engage with issues that demand attention and how we can do that using historical research, critical analysis, and creative practice in new ways.
Included work from the top:
“Coupled” Acrylic/Mixed Media from Pteropods Realized*
“Measuring the World” and “Measuring the World 2.0” Acrylic/Photography/Mixed Media**
Still Photo from R/V Atlantic Explorer as an Artist at Sea**
“Collection” Photo Collage from Pteropods Realized*
*Pteropods Realized is partially funded through NAKFI and in partnership with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science and University of South Florida
**R/V Atlantic Explorer work partially funded through NSF and the lab of Dr. Stephen Giovannoni with support from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science
Hearing the words “art” and “science” in the same sentence always gets me excited. But like many interdisciplinary people who question where their loyalties lie, I’m caught in between the realms of art and science. As a trained scientist who grew up with a side interest in the arts, I’ve always felt like I was the middle-person between the two fields and it is as if I feel that I have the duty to bring the two together. Though that ironically implies that I recognize the two to be separate when I want to be breaking the stigma that they are their own entities. Talk about a hypocritical identity crisis.
At the end of October, I was in Florence, Oregon for a very graduate-student-like event; a conference. State of the Coast is an annual conference held at coastal Oregon locations and discusses topics pertaining to the coast. From fisheries to technology, there is a topic for most everyone to attend. There’s also student posters and artwork to browse among as they decorate the Florence Events Center. I get excited to attend because not only do I prepare to network with people with similar passions as mine, but I also get to see what my friends are actually doing for their research despite sharing an office with them for a year (“Oh so that’s what you’re doing? No way!”). Lately, there has been an integration of art with the scientific feel of the gathering. This where said identity crisis comes in.
Last year I presented a poster as a M.S. candidate in the Marine Resource Management graduate program at the Salishan Lodge in Gleneden Beach. Since my transfer this past summer to be a M.A. candidate in the Environmental Arts and Humanities graduate program (yup, a whole 180 degree flip; learning lots but it’s pretty great), I was able to showcase a piece of mine that I completed as a part of a summer course I took. It felt a bit odd to be on the “other” side of things- going from a science field into a humanities field and showing my art in a place where I’ve shown my science, but it was neat to still be a part of an event that is blending the borders between art and science together which is essentially what I want to do for my graduate topic and hopefully career.
So where do I fit in? I sometimes feel the strain of being the middle-person trying to bridge two fields that have been separated over time. It’s already been a struggle to identify as an artist; am I a scientific artist or an artistic scientist? I settled with the latter because if you think about them as much as I do, there is the slightest difference. But then again, is there? I’ve been grappling with this internal conflict and I’m coming to terms that I belong right where I am; in a wondrous pandemonium of two fields that are fueled by creativity and curiosity. Between two realms that are remarkably resilient and formed by infinite imagination. In a place where I now have twice the amount of support, ideas, and friends.
“Every environmental disaster is also a social disaster, every civil emergency is rooted in the ongoing social emergency that we are experiencing in this country.”
– Alene Goldbarg, USDAC Chief Policy Wonk
My training as an artist was primarily focused on creating cultural artifacts and then finding an audience to share them with. As I’ve expanded my creative practice, I’ve come to question the value of art that is centered solely around the individual creating the work, rather than taking into account the needs of the community that it is intended to serve. But it can be very challenging to conjure a bridge between self-expression and ethical social engagement out of thin air.
Recently I rewatched Art Became the Oxygen: Citizen Artist Salon, a webinar from The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. (The USDAC is “a people-powered department—a grassroots action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging,” and not affiliated with the United States government.) One truly moving moment from the salon was Arlene Goldbard’s statement that protest isn’t separate from beauty and meaning—that artistic expression can provide the means to call out what isn’t working, and imagine what might be possible instead.
A direct line between creative practice and climate change was drawn by Rachel Falcone, who had been covering the housing crisis in Brooklyn and ended up using her background in oral history to document the stories of the people affected by Hurricane Sandy. After the storm had passed, she went to a community hub in Red Hook where people were getting food and charging their devices. As community members shared the imagery on their phones and talked about the emotional and psychological impact of witnessing the devastation, she realized that the story of Sandy was far too large for her to sit for hours with every person to document their oral history of the event. Instead, she had the inspiration to set up Sandy Storyline, which invited anyone impacted by the storm to share their stories via text or voicemail, and, a few weeks later, through a website. The living archive is now at www.sandystoryline.com, and features writings, recording, and photographs that people have shared over the years.
Another strategy for addressing environmental destruction was shared by Amber Hanson, a South Dakota-based artist and filmmaker. She had been invited as an assistant muralist to make a community-based mural in Joplin, Missouri, with lead artist David Loewenstein and fellow assistant muralist and filmmaker Nicholas Ward. One week before their project was due to begin, an EF5 tornado destroyed a third of the city. They weren’t sure if it would be possible to move ahead with their plans, so they made a site visit to check in with the community and design team, who expressed the feeling that “now more than ever we would like this project to continue.” Ultimately the project offered people who had experienced the tornado the opportunity to come together and share their stories while imagining ways to rebuild Joplin, a process captured by Hanson and Ward in the documentary “Called to Walls.” As proof that beauty can come from chaos, the local design team that helped to create the mural later formed a collective to create public art throughout the city of Joplin.
Hanson and Ward also traveled to Standing Rock to deliver supplies and document the events taking place. The filmmaker’s goal was to counteract the representation in the media of dangerous protesters throwing pipe bombs, and to focus their lens on how art and culture were being integrated into the camp and movement through dance, painted signs, and moments strategically designed to be captured and shared with the rest of the world. Their trip resulted in a short documentary featuring a Dene graphic designer and movement artist who creates artwork intended to catalyze movements. They also met Desiree Kane, a Miwok artist, journalist, and producer, who was the main media coordinator at the camp. She has written several articles about her time there, one of which is featured in the USDAC’s “Art Became the Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide.”
The last speaker was Mike O’Bryan, Program Manager in Youth Arts Education at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Central Philadelphia, who spoke about values-driven leadership, trauma theory, and building on cultural strengths and assets. One of the final points he made is that the dominant culture does not always know how to value the diverse cultural wealth that ethnic communities bring to the table, including linguistic capital (the intellectual and social skills attained through communication in more than one language or style), navigational capital (the skill of maneuvering through social spaces and places that have not traditionally been created with people of color in mind), and resistant capital (the knowledge and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality). These are all forms of expertise that will be crucial in transforming the power structures of our world. If we want to halt ecological devastation and create a more equitable society for all, we are going to need to learn to value the contributions of everyone engaged in the struggle.
In the following discussion, all of the presenters and commenters agreed that this is long-term, ongoing work. It’s not helpful to drop in, do just enough to make yourself feel important, and then abandon a community that believed you were making an investment. The good news is that there are people who are already forging this path, who have not only developed best practices around artistic response to social crisis and environmental emergencies, but have actually created a toolkit to help the rest of us get started (Art Became the Oxygen, an Artistic Response Guide). I would encourage anyone who is interested in this work to read the guide and watch the recording of the Salon. It has inspired me to keep moving towards a more constructive and contributive model of creative engagement, and I hope it will impact others in the same way.
There is only one night a year where plant breeders and chefs manage to pull themselves away from their work, put down their hoes and knives, and come together to share in the literal fruits of their labor, some of the most unknown and unique foods grown in the Pacific Northwest. This is the night where the flavors of tomorrow are decided. This magical night is the Culinary Breeding Network’s Annual Variety Showcase, and the fourth annual meeting was held this year on October 2nd.
I have attended all but the first variety showcase hosted by CBN, and I hope to never miss one ever again. I’ve been working for Gathering Together Farm for the past six years, but before that I had never even set foot on a farm, having grown up in an apartment in a Portland suburb. Before I found farming, I was a very academic person and pretty much only acquired knowledge through academic avenues. Now that I have spent significant amounts of time both in highly academic settings and farming seasons, I know that I want to do work that embraces both, as the two very different knowledge-building styles used by these different disciplines help to bring the bigger picture into focus.
This is what is so valuable about multiple perspectives. Not only would diverse work like that make me feel fulfilled as an individual, but I also believe that interdisciplinary approaches are necessary if we are to tackle the larger problems facing the world today. That is why I am going for a Masters of Arts in the Environmental Arts and Humanities while continuing to work at a farm and maintain a farm of my own. I cannot even properly ponder the solutions to the problems of the world until I understand its innerworkings from a variety of perspectives. Diversity of thought is just as important as having biodiversity in our food system This is a concept that I think the Culinary Breeding Network is very successfully incorporating into the seed to table movement. The goal is not just to think bigger; it is to think bigger and smaller all at the same time, to maintain in one’s awareness the micro and macro factors that must be taken into consideration simultaneously.
There were four of us representing Gathering Together Farm at the showcase this year. We kicked out all our last-minute farm tasks, brushed the dirt off our clothes, and hit the highway. Though we started our morning out in the fields harvesting vegetables, we soon found ourselves riding an elevator up to the sixth floor in The Nines in downtown Portland. After name tags were pinned on, coats were hung, and goodie bags complete with heirloom seeds were dispersed, we were finally free to wind our way toward the source of an amazing mixture of aromas filling the floor.
Turning around the final corner of the hallway we were somewhat suddenly hit with the roar of over five hundred chefs and farmers talking over good food and drink. The banquet room was lined wall to wall with tables, and a central stage had more tables encompassing it as well. Behind each table stood a plant breeder and a chef and the occasional helper or two, and through their combined efforts each partnership displayed an either completely new or nearly forgotten food experience for people to try. With about thirty different showcase tables in total, the room was full of new flavors to be experienced, and even fuller with the couple hundred fellow food-lovers eating, laughing, and taking advantage of complementary wine. After all, these are all people who work sixteen-hour days. Farmers just work the morning shift and chefs work nights.
It took us hours to walk the perimeter of that room. There was not a dish that went uneaten nor a question that went unasked. To be able to taste something completely new to you and then to be able to ask the chef and plant breeder responsible for that flavor experience any questions you want—that’s the dream. And I don’t mean to mention this just because it’s always nice to have a good time; what I’d like to emphasize is the fact that this process of variety tasting and selection is not some difficult process that would be too much work than it’d be worth to incorporate more heavily into the food system at large. It’s incredibly enjoyable to do work like this, so much so that it doesn’t feel very honest to even call it work. Here’s a photo of me “working.”
I happened to find one photo on CBN’s website of Kyler and I at the 2017 Variety Showcase. We’re standing in the background behind the celery poster. Kyler and I both work for Gathering Together Farm in the office and in the field. To the left behind the potatoes poster is Alex Stone, a plant breeder from OSU who works with GTF doing trials, primarily on winter squash. We were tasting puree of different squash and rating them on various traits such as sugar content and flavor. Though I chose to include this photo primarily because it’s the only one that I am in, it brings up another great point regarding the Culinary Breeding Network. These informative posters are just some of the literature that was at this event, all prepared in an effort to create better communication between plant breeders, chefs, and eaters. Historically farmers have not always known the best ways to communicate their product to the changing public, and the public has simultaneously become more and more removed from farming, but CBN bridges the communication gap creating a much more inclusive audience. And that’s really the goal, to reach more people. Because everyone at the Variety Trial already knows how important the work being done is. It is what all of them will do with that work to share with the those who do not yet know about these concepts, that is what it’s all about. And the Culinary Breeding Network does a great job of this. For example, they created the following graphic to represent the many interdisciplinary aspects of their work.
Despite my extreme passion for vegetables and good food in general, I think that I am primarily impressed with the Culinary Breeding Network as it does such a beautiful job of taking so many social issues into account while working on a single project, as seen in the graphic above. The food revolution that is so prevalent in the Pacific Northwest has lots of false prophets who claim to be “the answer” to “the problem.” But the truth of the matter is that organic is not enough; buying local is not enough. The food system is so vastly complicated that there is simply no way that a singular narrative could solve its problems. You must incorporate a seemingly infinite number of considerations into whatever work you do if you want to be truly successful in achieving your goals. CBN’s primary goals are represented as the outermost layer of the onion, as described in their mission statement (1):
“The Culinary Breeding Network consists of plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, chefs, produce buyers and others in the food community engaged in developing and identifying varieties and traits of culinary excellence for vegetables and grains. Its mission is to break down the wall between breeders and eaters to improve agricultural and culinary quality in vegetables and grains.”
As you peel the layers off the onion, what was once on the surface—issues regarding heirloom preservation, flavor, and organic breeding—can now be seen through the broader lens of environmental health and farmworker rights. Expose another layer, and these issues can be seen through an even broader narrative regarding biodiversity, open source genetics, and the spirituality of food. Expose even more layers, and suddenly you’re seeing all of these problems in terms of nutrition, breeding methodology, culture, resilience, and social justice. And ultimately, it all comes down to the climate chaos which is already pressing today’s farmers and today’s crop varieties to be more resilient and adaptable than ever.
The only problem is that the majority of the crop varieties that the world depends on have specifically been bred to be less resilient and less adaptable throughout the past century as plant breeders have switched their focus onto traits that society considers more important now—uniformity, visual aesthetic, and the ability to be grown in a monoculture. And that’s not really the only problem, because this small selection of genetically weak varieties that our entire society depends on, that little thing, it is now controlled by a very few profit-based chemical corporations leftover from the last world war. This is a completely new reality for humanity, as not too long ago it used to be the case that there was an enormous selection of genetically strong varieties in society, there was nearly an equal number of farmers controlling those varieties, and those farmers were maintaining their breeding lines by breeding for adaptability, resilience, and flavor.
Throughout history, whenever we see a set-up like this we should feel worried. Putting all your eggs into one basket is never a smart move. There is safety in diversity. Remember the Irish Potato Famine? Why would anyone ever set up a food system where an entire civilization could be so horrendously affected by the failure of a single crop in a single season? In the Andes where potatoes originated this never happened because there were so many different types of potatoes. It wasn’t a big deal when one variety got hit one year. But colonizing powers didn’t understand that. They just extracted the biggest potato they could find and took it home for themselves.
But I digress. What I really found myself thinking about the weeks after this event was less of a what and more of a who—Lane Selman. Lane is the mother of the Culinary Breeding Network. Starting out as an Organic Farming Researcher at OSU, Lane also “acts as Oregon research project coordinator for the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), a project funded by the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI)” (2). Lane is the middle-man between dozens of chefs, plant breeders, and farmers, connecting a plethora of perspectives on the current state of the food system. She is doing great work for the world by marrying the disciplines of farming and academia. Since this is precisely what I am interested in doing in my time here at OSU and potentially beyond, I ended up thinking a lot about Lane’s work with the Culinary Breeding Network. Standing there that night listening to her and all of the other wonderful plant breeders speak their cause so that it could be heard, I cannot deny a new little voice in the back of my mind that said, “I could do that.”
There is certainly much to be learned from Lane and the many other interdisciplinary crusaders of our times. But for now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite flavors from the showcase. There were many intricately prepared and arranged dishes at the showcase, bright with a myriad colors, textures, and shapes, all of which blew my mind. But this particular dish was just a raw, tiny, pale yellow cherry tomato called Champagne Bubbles. Not thinking much of it I quickly popped one into my mouth and began devouring. But the instant I bit into it I experienced such a unique flavor that I stopped chewing for a moment, closed my eyes, and tried to figure out what it was. And then it hit me! This little tomato tasted like a cooked savory tomato chutney. What!? That little tomato impressed me more than any of the beautifully crafted, delicious dishes that were made that night. Perhaps simply because it was so tiny with such powerful flavor. But perhaps because within it was enough diversity to be an unknown flavor extravaganza all of its own with no assistance necessary.
On November 16, 2017, coincidently the same day as the largest Keystone oil spill to date in South Dakota, I attended the Water is Life: Youth Against Fracking Gas Export in Portland, OR. This event focused on the potentially damaging implications of the LNG pipeline from the perspective of youths from the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa tribes. These ambitious kids where making their way from Northern California, through Oregon to Washington, making stops the entire way to share their thought-provoking perspectives.
Just to offer a little background: The LNG Pipeline or Jordan Cove Fracked Gas Pipeline Proposal is a Pacific Connector pipeline that’s projected to transport 1.2 Billion cubic feet of fracked gas per year. The LNG Pipeline would stretch across public and private lands from Canada to Coos Bay. The following are a few of the most significant risks and impacts:
The LNG Pipeline would violate land owner’s rights: If land owner’s do not accept a small one-time payment for land use the government will grant The power company eminent domain
Threat to traditions and tribal territories: The pipeline poses a significant threat to resources such as fish, water, and cultural resources as well as territories and burial grounds.
present a serious safety risk: LNG facilities and natural gas pipelines are highly explosive, and the Jordan Cove terminal would be built in a region susceptible to earth quacks and tsunamis.
The evening began with a prayer and song sung by one of the tribe members. The women explained that song was her sister’s. It was a song about coming of age. She went on to explain that in their culture when girls reach a certain age they are taught they have a purpose and how to be a contributing member of their community. I realized, I was never taught I had a purpose and when introductions began I realized the significance of that lesson. Most of the speakers were female tribe members and in high school. One young girl explained that after she began to see the environmental changes in her community she became an activist…in 8th grade. These poignant young women (and one charismatic young man), were doing the work of adults, and more than likely working harder for a cause in their community than most adults ever will.
Each speaker gave their testimonial. Each one stood alone on a stage in front of roughly 200+ people, holding a microphone and bravely stumbling over the words of the speeches they prepared. Their courage and dedication offered up a kind of hope that’s hard to find. I was so proud of each one of those young women (and one young man) that I did not know. Their messages were direct, engaging, and they all really drove home the message of how the pipeline will specifically impact their community and culture and how we can drive change in our communities.
This term, I was a teaching assistant for Parks and Protected Areas, a junior-level course focusing on the history, policy, and management of international areas protected for conservation, preservation, and resource extraction goals. The students learned about the philosophies that inspire different types of protection. I taught alongside Ashley D’Antonio, an assistant professor in Forest Ecosystems & Society, who studies recreation ecology. Her goal, and mine, was simple: challenge the students’ assumptions about parks and protected areas.
Throughout my first year in graduate school, it seemed that all the literature I read identified the same underlying cause of our environmental duress: the nature/culture dualism. The idea—grounded in thousands of years of western philosophy—that we humans are separate from nature. Some take it a step further, not only are we separate from nature, but above it, affording humans justification to exploit and utilize what we deem necessity.
American politicians and bureaucrats, through misinterpreted treaty agreements, quite literally separated humans from nature in order to “protect these places” and paradoxically encouraged humans to visit these places. According to western philosophy and fortress conservation, humans can visit nature, participate in recreation and tourism activities, and research ecological processes, but they can’t live with the land, move with the seasons, nor take only what is needed for survival. Living with the land, rather than controlling it, is in direct conflict with the human/nature dualism that grounds western thought. Mind you, not all humans were encouraged to visit; these places were meant to be enjoyed by a particular class and race who needed to escape from their taxing lives in the city.
However, the native peoples who lived in these majestic landscapes—now considered America’s crown jewels—knew that the land could belong to no person. How can the youngest siblings in creation, humans, claim land that belongs to all relations—all spirits, flora, fauna, rocks, and streams? The tribes of Turtle Island saw themselves, and continue to see themselves, as part of the interconnected web of nature and spirit, wholly integrated into the entire network of the physical and spiritual world. An ecocentric belief system and intergenerational traditional ecological knowledge guided the actions of tribes, like the Lakota and Kootenai.
While pursuing a degree in Environmental Arts & Humanities, I have analyzed the oppressive, degrading histories and philosophies of my ancestors. I pursued this degree to challenge the status quo and assist in the transition to a life-sustaining society.
Some of the parks and protected areas students are pursuing traditional forestry degrees, others are interested in intersecting socio-ecological systems, but all were shocked and appalled by the exclusionary practices embedded in the founding of so-called protected areas. In their final papers, the students expressed concern not only for degraded terrestrial and marine environments but also for conservation refugees who are continually excluded from lands that they help conserve and protect.
In this time of political polarization, we face mounting uncertainty concerning human and Earth rights. What keeps the fight alive in me is the outrage and passion I see in younger generations, of which I am part. How would our world change if we all humbly challenged our beliefs of right/wrong, good/bad and acted as students learning to seek justice and equity for all life on our magnificent planet?
Robert Michael Pyle is a consummate scientist, writer, and storyteller. Even sitting for two hours in a well lit public library in the afternoon felt more like listening to ghost stories around a campfire in the woods (replete with discomfort at the length). But Bob wasn’t here to tell tall tales and convince us of the existence of Bigfoot with the revision and reprint his book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. He was here to challenge all those notions of what we think is true and how to keep our real imaginations active. To stare at the Dark Divide, as he tells it, between how we can find evidence and not know what that means and how to keep our minds open from the darkness of narratives made too certain. He says, a rational person would keep the mind open, and we so seldom do, mistaking the narrative of that rationality for reality.
The difference between looking into Bigfoot and not looking for Bigfoot is important.
The Dark Divide does a lot of work though. It is Bob’s name for the place most saturated with Sasquatch lore and an inaccessible, mostly ‘wilderness’ land. It characterizes a region, part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and other nearby reserves with a long and troubled Federal protection history. So named from John Dark, a prospector first to the area and handing out racist names for many spots. It was dark too from lack of roads, even logging ones trying to access its old growth. It is the break between the Cispus and Lewis River drainages, surrounded by mountains named by the residing tribes, most notably the Klickitat and Yakama: Tahoma (Rainier), Pahto (Adams), Wyeast (Hood), and Loo Wit (St. Helens). Those tribes often recognized the big hairy ones as part of the local fauna, hidden peoples in the mountains.
It is here that Bob’s investigations of Bigfoot are focused. Whether named as Bigfoot or Sasquatch, or from some of the pacific northwest tribal traditions as Windigo, Witiko, Stoneclad, WoodMan, Natiinaq, Neginla-eh, or from Asia as Yeti, Almasty, Yeh Ren, Chuchunaa, or in Europe as Grendel, or Hollywood as King Kong—the tradition has an extensive history worldwide. What is it about these stories we must continue to tell? What about our relationship with wilderness and nature, our distant hominid brethren, or our ethics of land and societal management that these stories evoke? These are covered better by him in the book, still quite lengthy.
Keep in mind, I’m a chemist and science-minded person by training. I think a healthy amount of real skepticism is important (not that so-called ’climate change skepticism’ that gets passed off as real skepticism): analyzing evidence and data, examining our rhetorics, money trails, and the stories behind what we think we know. To that end, I had already dismissed much of what the conspiracy community had to say about Bigfoot. Bob is similarly wary of the ‘gold fever’ existent in many of these true believers and conferences. I can love the stories for their own merit, but never actually believed that Bigfoot could exist.
Two hours in a room with Robert Michael Pyle can open your mind.
Bob wasn’t there to convince anyone, let alone himself, of the true existence of Bigfoot either. But the evidence: the footprints and castings, the contestable Gimlin video and his advocacy, knotted twigs, and true experiences of wails in the night, serve as present enough evidence that we should at least allow our preconceptions about Bigfoot to question our actual references and narratives. The evidence is astounding, and yet.
We still don’t have a Yeti in the room, and so the evidence speaks just enough to show a tiny gap, perhaps convincing few, but enough to keep our minds open so other voices get heard, and questions still flowing. Knowledge and belief exist as a tree, different branching perspectives and modes of existence: science, traditional, intuitive, narratives, and others still. All are there to serve the development of how to know the darkness. And, as Bob says, “Perfectly good myth should not be dismissed.”
I still don’t ‘believe’ in Bigfoot, but I’ve become sufficiently, welcomingly agnostic towards Bigfoot and to the heritage of other’s beliefs and the possibility of making kin with those unknown, dark places. I think we need more cozy uncertainty than the absolutist affirmation or denial of all sorts of notions if we hope to move forward as a collective people, challenging what we think we know about people and how this world works, and what lives in the Dark Divide.
We still don’t know things about our world, and that’s a good thing.
Schonberg is a musician, natural historian, scientist, and creator, and in the face of that ominous silence, she’s made it her life work to document and amplify the sounds of ecosystems in order to protect them. This mission has taken her around the world, recording the sounds of endangered bees in Hawaii and, most recently, ants in the Amazon.
She uses her music to magnify the voices of the silenced chorus. Sometimes she packages the undoctored sounds of the ants. Other times, she mixes them into new rhythms. And sometimes, she plays right along with them, drumming a beat to the choir – an interspecies symphony.
It’s called the biophony – the soundscape of ecosystems that Schonberg is tapping into. I imagine that humanity was once included in that biophony. But at some point, we got too loud, and we began creating sounds that didn’t quite fit in.
Enter, the anthropophony – the soundscape of humanity. In many places, the anthropophony has overlaid the biophony to the extent that we can no longer hear the little critters. Without their sounds and voices, we forget that they have something to say, a contribution to make, and we’re then excused to act poorly toward them.
Striving to break open this silence, Schonberg listens to the ants.
It’s eavesdropping really because, she found, the ants are really talking to one another. Acoustic communication, she calls it. In the past, it was thought that ants only communicate through vibrations, but, thanks to the work of people like Schonberg, we are learning more and more about how these insects relate with one another.
Schonberg’s presentation made me realize the many layers that exist in communication. Spurred by her inquiry into the natural world, I have begun to wonder: how do we communicate up here in the anthropophony? Well, there’s a lot of noise, a lot of images, and a lot of language. With my bachelor’s in English, I have spent years obsessing over the nature of language. In it’s average service to us, language is largely symbolic mixed with a little bit of noise, and thus, though we usually fail to realize, it is limited in its ability to paint a full picture of reality and our environment.
When we texture language with acoustics (not thoughtless noise) and rhythm – elements universally translatable to all dialects and, perhaps, as Schonberg is proving, even all species – we get poetry. We get music. Perhaps the more we can texture our language, the richer our communication will be. The more we’ll be able to appreciate the value of the ants.
We need people like Schonberg. People paying attention. People humbling humanity’s hubris with reminders of all the voices that are out there. People not afraid to tease our perceived boundaries of communication. Reminding us that the world of the human is not a rendering of the Big Picture but a faction of it.
I will graduate this June, and then I will move somewhere else. While I don’t yet know where that “somewhere else” will be, I do know I will not want or need to bring most of what I own along with me. “Need” has taken on a new meaning to me recently, as recent events have given me a glimpse into a future for this world that is far from stable.
Generations before mine were raised to see their lives as stories of steady progress and growth. You go to school, you get a nice job, you fall in love and marry. You work your way up in your careerby being hardworking and loyal, and you steadily gain capital. You have children. You buy your first new car, you buy a house, you buy yourself more stability through flood insurance and fire insurance and health insurance and car insurance for events you suspect will never happen. You save money for a vacation here and there, you put your kids through college so they can follow in your footsteps, and then you retire. Well done.
I suppose there were times in my life when I ascribed to this life story. I suppose in some ways, by being a graduate student at age 24, about to leave academia and venture off into The Real World, I still am. Yet questions have arisen during my time on Earth that challenge this common understanding of the Plot Line for Life. I am a member of a capitalistic society that is running out of fuel. I am a citizen of a country that removed itself from the Paris Climate Agreement, whose president is actively working to undermine environmental protection agencies, research, and regulations, and who seems all too happy to provoke a similarly unstable authoritarian who is making threats of nuclear war. I am a citizen of a world that is in the midst of the largest extinction event in geologic history, and I am a member of a species that is at the root of thatextinction.
For me, “Anthropocene” and “apocalypse” have become virtually synonymous. I swipe through my phone and pause to watch a video of southern California going up in flames. I watch as hundreds of cars wind down a highway in a scene that seems so familiar, but I can’t place it. So I stop, think, and oh, right – this is the image of Hell that is branded into our brains from a young age, seemingly whether we grew up religious or not. This is the climax of the movie when theworld goes up in flames.
I don’t have a job lined up for the future or plans for kids and a house, but I plan to gather together the essentials for a bug-out bag this winter, so that I am ready to leave my home at a moment’s notice and never return. I plan to coordinate a way of communicating to and meeting up with my loved ones if an earthquake strikes, or a fire erupts, or a flood engulfs the Willamette Valley. And then, I plan to learn how to grow my own food, filter my water, and start a fire without a match. I plan to learn what I can eat in a forest without getting sick, and I plan to become more familiar with my local resources, in case our globalized systems collapse, and my world suddenly shrinks to a few hundred miles or less.
Do you think I’m crazy? Look at this world. Listen to the President of the United States. Look at the devastation from Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Harvey, the 210,000 gallons of oil that just spilled out of a pipeline in South Dakota, and tell me that the world isn’t crazy.
But this is the part of my post where I am supposed to offer a ray of hope, so I’m going to try. Have you heard of the Degrowth Movement? At the beginning of this term, Dr. Barbara Muraca gave a talk at the OSU Center for Humanities in which she presented some of the work she has been doing that looks into this movement. I have to be honest with you – I am still wrapping my head around Degrowth and what it means to undergo “downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet,” as it is described on an online forum for the movement. I am still imagining the implications, based on current power structures, for people of color and other underprivileged communities to transform toward “a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions.”
Yet, I am excited to see transformative movements gaining traction and earning respect in a university setting, and I plan to keep stoking my glimmers of optimism about the future of this planet by reading and learning about resilience thinking. I plan to keep surrounding myself with strong, passionate people who are ready to approach the future with creativity and wit, and I want to wiggle into that perfect niche where I am both useful and happy.
In the meantime, (and in the spirit of Degrowth), I need to get rid of a few things. Can you help? I have a pile of clothes I don’t wear, boxes of half-broken gadgets, and too many shoes. When I graduate and move out, do you want all my furniture? Do you want my old textbooks? Do you want my phone? Do you want to relieve me of this reflex to consume products I don’t need and resources I shouldn’t use? Do you want to help me start a garden? Do you want to teach me how to sew? I’m trying. I’m learning. And this is my plan for the Anthropocene.
Since I have moved across the country and spent a few months in my new home, I have been pondering what it means to be part of a community. Is it being in a group of people who simply happen live in the same place or can it be so much more? I don’t consider where I live at the moment to be my only community, as I consider myself to be part of many. I surrounded myself with part of my new local clique when I went to the Whiteside Theater last month. The people who gathered at this event were those who value the strength of words, nature, and culture. They helped in giving back by donating the money they didn’t need. Through the power of story, I was able to discover that where I am right now is where I’m supposed to be.
The Magic Barrel: A Reading to Fight Hunger, sponsored by OSU’s Center for the Humanities, was a night which tugged at my heartstrings and provoked much thought. The premise of the evening was to have various authors read excerpts of their works to bring a focus back to community and engagement. Through “the Power of Story,” the hope of the hosts was to raise money and awareness for Linn Benton Food Share.
The MC of the night, Karelia Stetz-Waters, captured the crowd gathered under the Whiteside Theatre’s Roof with her open personality and wit.
A Night of Readings
The first reader, Clem Starck, gave an emotional, thoughtful, and true to life reading of his poems which contained humor as well as wisdom.
Another author, David Turkel, presented to the audience a quite unique piece: a one-woman show, monologue-driven rendition of Agamemnon set in West Virginia, originally produced for a French audience by a British theater company. What started off as a humoroussetting, with the accent and all, the writer delivered an emotion-packed monologue of the one-woman show with the feel of the original Greek tragedy. A difficult feat marvelously pulled off.
Poet Bonnie Arning read poems from her newly released work Escape Velocity. The pieces she read were powerful and true, mainly explorations of her own experiences.
John Daniel, an author who awoke the Oregonian in me when he said, “rain wakes the land/rain is home,” is also an Oregonian wannabe, yet he described the landscape like a true native.
The showstopper of the evening, Kathleen Dean Moore, local celebrity, was an absolute delight to see on stage. If you already knew Kathleen Dean Moore as a writer, you need to experience
her as a performer. Kathy read from her work Piano Tide as Audrey Perkins sang and hummed next to her. I discovered that the best way to read a work by Moore is to heave her read to you with the accompaniment of Audrey’s clear voice. If you can’t have the real thing, at least read her works with her voice running through your head, it is not the same experience, but it’s close enough.
By the end of the evening, over $9,000 were raised which equates to over 64,000 meals for the food share to donate.