I saw Disney’s new rendition of Beauty and the Beast the other day in a crowded theater with smelly seats. Despite the undesirable ambiance, I was enchanted. I laughed, I gasped, I cried. And for about a week now after seeing the moving, I have been pondering good and evil, trying to grapple with this dichotomy and its implications about who we are as humans. All the while I’ve been hoping that some revelation would also help me understand what irked me about a book talk I saw earlier this term by Benjamin Hale on his new book The Wild and the Wicked. I think I’m beginning to understand.
So first, let’s start with Disney…
Throughout most of the movie, I felt as though each main character had been created in order to fit into a polarized ideal of either virtuous or vengeful – altruistic, or a narcissist to the core. Belle, of course, is saintly. She is smart, fearless, and empathetic. She sees the beauty in a beast who does not see it in himself. Gaston – the broad-chested buffoon who makes the townswomen swoon – is the stereotypical brute and ultimately the embodiment of evil. Besides his boastfulness and penchant for drawing swords and firing his musket, Gaston also commits unforgiveable acts such as punching an old man (Belle’s father), tying him to a tree and leaving him for the wolves, and shooting the Beast multiple times in the back after the duel was supposed to be over. (What a jerk!)
So, Belle and Gaston are moral polar opposites, and the Beast is pretty awful too. In his earlier years (pre horns, claws, and lion/buffalo head), he threw extravagant parties for his own pleasure and arrogantly strutted about the dance floor, examining and judging the pretty women. When an old woman shows up at his door in the middle of one of these gaudy parties, asking for food and shelter, the prince turns her away. Unfortunately for him, she’s actually a witch, and she damns him to a life of self-loathing and pariah status until he can learn unconditional love. (Spoiler alert: he succeeds.)Yet I realized that the Beast is actually not evil. He’s also not as virtuous as Belle. In fact, he is probably the most morally realistic character in the movie precisely because he is flawed (as humans are flawed), and because he embodies the true complexities of humanity that are less easily grouped into Team Good and Team Evil.
What does this have to do with Ben Hale?
In a way, Ben Hale pushes against similar dichotomies of good and bad as they are applied to nature. He argues that humans should not have to love nature in order to respect and protect it. He also argues that it’s alright not to love nature – not only because not everyone enjoys camping and hiking, but also because, let’s face it, nature can be cruel… Right?
Well I’ve realized, as I pondered Beauty and the Beast, that it’s this last part of Hale’s argument that irks me. As humans, we have written a moral code for our species that helps us identify if an act is good or bad. As problematic as this dichotomy can be (evidence: the Beast is good and bad, so which one is he?!), it seems to be how we understand ourselves, and it’s the way we teach our children not to steal or punch or worse. But I am a firm believer that human-made moral constructs should remain within the realm by which they were constructed. In other words, “nature” never asked to be called good or wicked, so who are we to impose these human notions onto anything nonhuman?
Perhaps Hale would argue that, regardless of whether or not we should impose moral standards on nature, we do. His book is written for a broader audience than ethicists and philosophers, so in some ways I think he’s just trying to operate within the framework his readers will most likely understand. I’m all for making theories accessible to the general public, but I have to say that I’m still bothered by Hale’s argument. I can’t let it go.
So, here’s one last thought on what I think is bugging me so much about Hale’s talk…
He began the afternoon by showing a series of photos. At one point, he showed pictures that were supposed to illustrate the many “bad” things nature has done. As a group, we cringed at the sight of dead bodies washed up from Tsunamis, dead bodies washed up from Hurricane Katrina, and more dead bodies from other “natural disasters.” The understanding, as Hale showed these images, was that nature was sometimes cruel, and nature was sometimes wicked.
Yet, I think about Hurricane Katrina. I think about a paper I read recently in my EAH Perspectives class written by Ashley Dawson. One section in the paper is titled: “There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.” Dawson writes specifically about Hurricane Katrina, calling out then-President George W. Bush for referring to Katrina as an “act of God.” Here, Bush places the blame on fate. Hale, it seems, places the blame on Nature. Yet Dawson points out that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was in fact a human problem, with humans to blame.
New Orleans was not prepared for the storm and the flooding, because, as Dawson points out, “repeated calls to stem wetlands erosion and to fix the failing levee system that protects the city were met with blank indifference by a federal administration more interested in tax cuts for the wealthy and imperial escapades in Iraq than in the South’s sole blue state.” As a consequence, New Orleans flooded. Those who suffered the most, on the whole, were poor and Black. They lived in the cheapest, most flood-prone parts of the area, because systemic racism and oppression had made it so. (Read Dawson’s paper if you’re interested in learning more.)
To blame fate or Nature is to remove responsibility from the abhorrent (evil?) collective and individual actions and inactions that led to so many deaths and displacements during and in the years following the storm.
Perhaps, then, evil and wickedness lurk amongst the seams of the complicated patchwork that is humanity. Perhaps good, too, is woven into our collective fabric. We are humans, so I suppose we can decide to use the terms “good,” “evil,” and “wicked” to describe ourselves. However, I would not extend those human moral constructs to nature, Nature, or “nature,”* and I suggest caution to those people who may feel inclined to do so.
*Along with my grappling with morality, I grapple too, more and more, with the concepts of “nature” and the “environment.” My inconsistency throughout this post in how I present the word “nature” is intentionally fluid to mimic the fluidity of a human-constructed concept.
I’ve been looking forward to this event all term. Finally, just like the sunshine, it arrived.
I woke up Friday morning bright and early to prepare my things for an overnight trip to the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. There was something unique about this trip, unlike most of my experiences in nature and research settings. It was a time to reflect on my experience in one of my many identities, being a Latina.
I arrived at Ana’s house at 9 am, and we were soon joined by several families who would also be coming along for our adventure in the forest. After a 45-minute choreography of rearranging our bags, coolers, and children, all the while gracefully dancing to the duet of Spanish and English, it was time to go.
We arrived at the forest close to noon and unpacked the cars into the cabin. You wouldn’t believe that we were only staying for one night by the number of things we managed to pack into the cars including, but not limited to, rain gear, food, and musical instruments. After sharing some laughs and sandwiches, it was time for the first activity of the afternoon: the story circle.
There is something about sitting in a circle that reminds me of the power of this sacred geometry. Many life lessons come to mind, including childhood memories of my favorite film, The Lion King. The circle of life, unity, the cycles that guide natural laws, all becomes clearer when we watch, listen, and participate. What a special moment for us all, students, professors, and professionals coming together to share what Latinx identity means to each of us. The circle began with Ruth and continued as we organically decided the order. Each person shared their experiences as Latinos. There were distinct differences and similarities within these short testimonies. Our prompt was as follows: What does it mean to be Latino? And what aspect of being Latino, your race, ethnicity, or nationality would you like to elaborate on? The responses were heartfelt and included diverse identifiers such as, passion, food, emotions, language, family, music, education, and being proud of our experiences and of those before us. Latino experiences with roots from Mexico, United States, Colombia, Ecuador, Cuba, and Chile were represented, and the stories shared were full of emotion, felt by both the speaker and listener. The conversation was extended to include the spouses of Latinos and discuss the experience raising a multicultural and bilingual family. The young children, all proud Latinas, were also included in the conversation.Their energy made us laugh and smile throughout this experience.
After our sincere conversation, there was some time to enjoy the beautiful weekend with which we had been blessed. Walking along Discovery Trail allowed us to reflect on our connection to nature. There is something about being in the presence of green giants that humbles the spirit. The group was amazed by the canopy structure and the strength of the river. After capturing a few beautiful nature photos, we began to discuss lessons that can be learned from nature.Winter, one of the most difficult times for all life, is the most important season for renewal. It is the time where the rivers cleanse and prepare for the spring. It also a time to condition and test the resilience of creatures, humans and others.Winter can be a time to test our persistence, molding us into all that we are.
Ivan reminded us that, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” As we headed back toward the cabin we reflected on our place in nature, the spiral of life and the universe, and about how we can start to bring other students with different experiences and backgrounds into the conversation.We crossed over a small stream, and our memories from this visit to the HJ Andrews trickled into the water, down to the river, flowing outward. It was a time for cleansing, but we knew our stories would be preserved from that moment in time and continue cycling.
The rest of the evening we gathered around a large table with bowls full hot sancocho Colombiano. As the food simmered we shared some time together with a music session and dance party. I appreciated that we weren’t expected to leave the creative aspects of ourselves out of the conversation, it was encouraged. Conducting ecological research is often associated with being the quiet observer, allowing the environment to reveal secrets through careful measurement. Our interaction with the forest was different, it was a time for the celebration of who we are, our experiences, and an opportunity to create a living memory with nature.
We wrapped up the long day gathered around the campfire. We made smores and continued to sing into the night, our songs and carried by the green giants and the night breeze. We had our fair share of laughs, as the children shared their spooky/comical stories with us. Wise words that resonated with all of us came in the form of song by Facundo Cabral, Argentinian poet and composer- also recognized by UNESCO in 1996 as the Messenger of Peace and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, shared a moment with the group as we chorused to the following lyrics (rough English translation included):
No soy de aquí ni soy de allá
I am not from here nor from there
“No tengo edad, ni porvenir “
I have no age, nor future
“Y ser feliz es mi color de identidad”
And to be happy is my color of identity.
As I reflect on the discussion of identity in the forest, I realize it was really a discussion about humanity and our connection to the world around us. A time to honor the winter, and a time to celebrate the sunshine of spring.
Juntos began back in 2007 as an OSU Open Campus initiative to increase Latino representation in Higher Education.This program prepares students through a college readiness program that includes helping students navigate the steps toward entering and succeeding in college. Please visit the webpage to learn more and consider supporting if you feel inclined:
Photo credits to our wonderful film crew: Rick Henry and Drew Olson
Participants: Ana Gomez-Diazgranados, Paul Navarra, Ruth Jones, Brooke Penaluna, Ivan Arismendi, Megan Patton-Lopez, Daniel Fernando Lopez-Cevallos-Ana Lu Fonseca, Carlos Fajardo, Natalia Maria Fernandez, and four beautiful and entertaining little girls (Hazel, Amaia, Chloe, Eva Lu)
What is environmental art? Is it art that is connected to site or place? Does it come in a particular size, shape, or color? Medium? Craftsmanship? Is it a commentary on our relationship with the nonhuman world? Is it trying to say something about how we treat the Earth? Or each other? Does environmental art even need to reflect contemporary environmentalism? What does environmentalism even mean?
These questions are important, some unanswerable at this moment, but still worth grappling with if environmental art is to be part of the work changing the fate of our home and the people who live here.
Art assists us as a society to explore tough questions, the in-between spaces where philosophy and science fall short. Art allows us to learn, to facilitate learning, and to better understand the incomprehensibly complex issues facing us as humans who share a finite planet with one another. There is art that reflects not only environmental thinking but also engages a public to have an opinion about it. Art inspires wonder but also action.
Cannupa Hanska Luger, well known for the mirror shields he created, promoted, and delivered to the North Dakota Standing Rock Water Protectors, is just one of many artists tackling environmental and social justice issues. Luger said in a February 2017 presentation at OSU, referring to the terrible realities of the Dakota Access Pipeline, that “the injustice isn’t happening to them, it isn’t going on over there, it is happening right here.” It is happening right now. To us.
We are a collective of humans on Earth, and when one of our communities suffer, we all suffer. Our shared source of clean drinking water is being ravaged. The morals and ethics we so proudly tout as being uniquely human are being dismantled. Our constant need for more, for better, for comfort at the expense of others’ discomfort, and disregard for the limits of our natural resources, haunts our society as the monsters described in our bedtime fables.
“As living beings, we all have myths and tales that describe our lives being abused by monsters. These monsters are out of natural order and heroes rise from their torment to defeat them. Today, we are once again plagued by monsters. It is time to be the hero, each of us must be aware of what we can do in the place that we stand. So that a far future that remembers this era of monsters can sing the songs and dance the stories of our mystic ability to come together and become Monster Slayers.” – Cannupa Hanska
The monsters that exist today aren’t associated with Standing Rock, or the Missouri River alone. As Luger said, “the river I’m most worried about is the one that flows through us all.” It is a river haunted by innumerable monsters: gluttonous extraction, environmental degradation, social injustice, corrupt politics, and a culture of capitalism.
Fortunately the people of Earth are making art and experiencing it too—those who call themselves artists as well as those who don’t—from the fine artists of academia, to the part-time crafters at home. In far off natural spaces, and in late night sketchbook doodles, we are creating objects, words, ideas, and practices that help us face these demons of despair.
Together we question the monsters. Together we reveal the monsters. Together we fight the monsters. Together we win.
Artist and activist Cannupa Hanska Luger, a native of North Dakota who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation, gave a public talk titled “They Need Us More Than We Need Them” on February 16th, 2017 at OSU’s LaSells Stewart Center. “Luger creates socially conscious work interweaving his identity as an American Indian with global issues. Luger, who is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian and Norwegian descent, creates unique, ceramic-centric, multidisciplinary artwork that tells provocative stories of complex indigenous identities coming up against 21st century imperatives, including mediation and destruction. Luger’s studio is currently based in New Mexico.”
Growing up, my mom, sister, and I moved around from apartment to apartment in the urban sprawl that I call home, Houston. We finally settled down in Alvin, Texas, just a half hour from the city, when we moved in with my great grandparents, one of whom was suffering from lung cancer and the other from Alzheimer’s disease. Our home sat on two acres, bordered on each side by a narrow country road, lush woods, a golf course, and a bayou. It was quite the adjustment for me to move from the bustling city, filled with people, covered in concrete, littered with strip malls, and towered by skyscrapers, to what seemed to be an endless expanse of natural wonders waiting to be discovered. I believe it was this abrupt change during my formative years—coupled with my mom’s insistence that we form our own belief system—that enabled me to consider myself a citizen of the Earth with a responsibility to care for all human and non-human life.
The belief system my mom followed was that of Unity, one originating in New Thought. Unity believes that God is the Spirit, which is everywhere, in all that exists. God is divine energy, forming all creation continually. Unity churches are non-denominational and accept all who wish to participate in prayer and meditation. Though we occasionally attended this church because it was the closest to mom’s beliefs, she actually formed her own belief system, rooted in some Unity principles and speckled with Buddhist and Hindu ideas. The only nearby Unity Church was in the city, so we attended even less when we moved away. Grounded in some of the thoughts my Mom held, I began developing my own beliefs while also exploring place: that of the Houston-Galveston Gulf Coast region, the coastal prairies, the post oak savannah, and the piney woods.
As I played in the edge habitats surrounding our home, I often contemplated the workings of modern society. I was enthralled by the outdoors, being among different plants and animals, feeling the warm sun on my face, digging in the dirt, and helping my Dad grow vegetables in our garden. Equipped with my own imagination and free time, I embraced my internal thought while observing natural relationships abundant in the areas around our abode. This coupling of inquiry and environment led to the formation of nascent bioregionalism ideas, specifically concerning the divisions between nature and culture as emphasized in Rediscovering Turtle Island by Gary Snyder1. I always returned to the same overarching question: Why did humans create their lives in such a way that deliberately separates us from nature, of which we belong? Why do we construct spaces separate from nature like office buildings, lavish homes, grocery stores, gyms, and more? Why do we insist upon exploiting nature and suffocating it in man-made materials, of items that are perverse reformulations of nature? Why do we kill non-human (and human) life to fulfill our greedy ends? Why do we fill our homes and businesses with so much useless stuff2 that requires precious resources?
Though these questions were not as well developed as they are now, they demonstrate some of the ideas that I grappled with while lying in the wet turf grass of my backyard, seeking solitude in the woods, and looking for artifacts on the banks of the Mustang Bayou. I especially was fascinated by the ways indigenous people had lived. Their lives seemed so simple, true, and connected to the land. I dreamed of a day when humans could live simply and honor the earth again. I now recognize that many scholars would criticize that romantic notion: the idea of the noble savage. Who was I but a curious girl seeking understanding about my place in the world and how I would like to live? Then, I began forming personal philosophies about spirituality and God. I didn’t consider myself a Christian nor part of any other organized religion. What I did believe was that all life is connected by some energy, that there is a piece of something in all of us: plants, humans, and animals. Some would call that energy God, but all I could bring myself to believe was that some spiritual connection existed between all living organisms. Now as an adult, I rarely contemplate the metaphysical, but that idea of spiritual connection has formed into something greater for me—a notion that guides how I live as a citizen of the Earth. Perhaps what I saw during my childhood, playing near the water and in the woods or growing food in our yard, was a thriving ecosystem—with me as a character wholly integrated in it.
In a world hinging on human action (and inaction), how can we begin to live as a members of a biotic community rather than members of a completely socially constructed, superficial existence? Depending on your traditions, ethnicity, upbringing, and place, your culture may likely be one of obsolescence—guided by the ever-pressing desire to amass fortunes that enable us to purchase the newest, material items, which we are artfully convinced of needing. In the United States especially, our culture reinforces the idea that humans are thriving when they make and spend money, and we are called to contribute to our society primarily by being consumers. Take food for instance: we fill our kitchens with gadget upon gadget to make cooking a little easier. Then we purchase pre-made mixes and processed food made in factories. Rather than empowering us to learn to grow our own food, to have connections with farmers, to care for our soil, we have stores that take the hard work out of it for us and that sell several different types of any one product. For those “enlightened” consumers, we spend substantially more for organic meat and produce because we believe that we are choosing the morally right action. In reality, many of those buying USDA organic still don’t have a relationship or connection with the farmer, the animal, or plant, nor do they understand what that organic label really signifies.3 We are empowered as consumers to be loyal to a brand, to a company with the number one priority of generating profit, not creating an ethical, sustainable or healthy product or restoring our relationship with the Earth. What information do we verify before making what we convince ourselves are ethical purchasing decisions? Most consumers don’t know how many years animals live before slaughter, how many gallons of water, acres of land, and pounds of feed were needed to produce that organic ham they use for dinner. We are still going to a store and purchasing meat that may have traveled several hundred to several thousand miles away. We aren’t respecting the animal nor understanding what it takes to raise them for consumption. We don’t know how many acres of habitat were destroyed to build the farm. What about that pineapple we bought to serve with the ham? Do we know how many “defect” pineapples were thrown out before the perfect pineapple that meets unnecessary aesthetic standards was selected for shipment?4
Since all life depends on nourishment and all cultures are deeply rooted in food, reminding humans that food is of the earth, not of the store, or the factory, or the industrial farm, may be one of the most direct ways to reclaim nature in culture. Considering principles of bioregionalism, we can start by understanding where the food that we currently eat originates and investigate its entire supply chain. We can continue reigniting this human-nature relationship via food by knowing which policies encourage wastefulness and pollution, by acknowledging how ecosystems may be affected by our consumption, by simplifying what we eat to locally grown, in-season staples, by reducing our consumption of animal products, and by growing our own food based on our local soil and climate.
When I read about the Lakota,5 I was reminded of the spiritual questions that I grappled with playing in the woods of Southeast Texas. Their worldview offers an example of how nature is culture, exemplifying that not only should humans be a part of nature, but we are nature. They see humans as those who exist within the natural world, as members of an earthly family consisting of children who represent all life on earth, who were given life by mother earth and father sky and who embody one Great Spirit. Again using the example of food, you see that what they eat and how they obtain their food comes not only from a place of necessity, but also a place of mutual dependency and sacrifice. The Lakota did not have a moral dilemma when they used plants and animals, their very kin, if their use was rooted in good will and necessity rather than wastefulness or plenty.
I am not calling for modern societies to completely abandon their ways of living and return to hunter-gather societies nor am I asking people to have a panentheistic understanding of the spiritual, like the Lakota or my childhood self. However, what we can learn from the Lakota—and other indigenous cultures—is how to live in place, how to prioritize healthy ecosystems over greed, and how to make ecological identity a prominent piece of our personal and collective identity.6 The Lakota, along with many others, continue to exemplify these ideals today just outside of the Standing Rock reservation where they are protecting the Missouri River—on which much life, including non-human, depends—from a proposed oil pipeline.7 The Army Corps of Engineers recently sent a notice calling for the water protectors to leave the corps-operated land where they have been engaged in direct action and have sacred burial sites.8 In response to this letter, tribal and youth representatives held a press conference.9 Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network of Turtle Island had this to say, “This is the land where our ancestors dreamed of our existence, of our songs and of our future lives, and in defense of those dreams, in defense of our ancestors, we stand strong to protect the sacredness of mother earth, we stand strong to protect our rights as indigenous peoples, we stand strong to defend our territorial treaty rights. This movement that you see before us is not a movement of hate, but a movement of our undying love of the land and the people, and the water.”
We are part of the biotic community, whether we like to admit it or not; however, we currently live as if we can control the biotic community—that it is at our disposal to use however we like, without any repercussive consideration to individual biota, to ecosystems as a whole, or to humanity’s own livelihood. We must decide if we are going to be respectful and productive members of that community or continue to be destructive and authoritarian. In order to live as members of the biotic community, we must eradicate the artificial and physical divisions created between nature and culture. We must understand that truly thriving ecosystems, with humans as members not rulers, will result in healthy, sustained prosperity for all life on Earth. We must replace the desire for stuff with the desire to use only what we truly need and do so in the least destructive way possible.
– Sarah Kelly
Context for subject matter: This paper was finalized on Dec. 1, 2016 for an assignment in Worldviews and Environmental Values taught by Tony Vogt. The following prompt was given: Consider what it might mean to learn to live in place, or become at home on the earth, or become citizens of a biotic community. How do these phrases, in the context of the course readings, call into question (if they do for you) the larger social arrangements of which you are a part — your workplace, household, community, campus, region, or your part of the planet? And in terms of the worldviews and values that accompany and often provide legitimization for these social arrangements, what (if anything) would have to change?
References and Further Reading
Snyder, Gary. The Rediscovery of Turtle Island. The Great New Wilderness Debate.