“Energy moves in cycles, circles, spirals, vortexes, whirls, pulsations, waves, and rhythms—rarely if ever in simple straight lines.”  — Starhawk; American writer, activist, pagan, ecofeminist.

When the sun is finally out in Corvallis after a pitiless winter, sometimes you just have to ramble. That’s what I told myself when my alarm sounded at 7:45 AM on Saturday, April 29th. Maybe if you’re used to an 8-5 work schedule then that doesn’t sound too early, but for a grad student who is on her last legs by Friday of each week, a 7:45 AM wakeup call on a Saturday is a true commitment.

And I had committed. I was registered for the Spring Campus Ramble hosted by fellow EAH student Jill Sisson and her partner Cub Kahn, and I planned to show up. This was the 7th ramble for Jill and Cub, but it was my first.  The Ramble is a morning of walking to different locations on campus and observing our surroundings through writing, photography, or both. The rambles are conducted seasonally as a way to welcome the changes taking place in our valley. The theme for this ramble was “spiral,” though we were free to let our minds wander in and out of that lens.

We met our group at the Beanery at 9:00 and then headed out for our ramble. Our group was small, though we were told that it was a lovely size for a ramble. My companions for the morning were Dorothy, Kent, Jill, Cub, and Paul and Charlotte (my parents, visiting for the weekend).

I have to admit that I can be a little snobby when it comes to campus “tours.” This is my fifth year at OSU, and (in a past life, it seems) I was once a tour guide for new students and other campus visitors. I was expecting to look at campus through a new lens on the Ramble, but I didn’t think I’d also be rambling to spots where I had never been.

Right away, I realized I was wrong. Our first stop was outside the Hallie E. Ford Center, where a reflective metal sculpture stands, smoothly twisted. At each stop one of us took a piece of paper from Jill’s hand and read a spiral-related quote. At our first stop, my dad plucked from the mix and read:

“The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.” 
 — Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Russian-American novelist and entomologist.

Then we were set free to ramble around the spiral sculpture and linger in the vicinity of building, observing the many plants and human-made structures surrounding us. We could hear birds, and on a few occasions during our morning, flocks of geese flew overhead.

I prefer, usually, to sit on the ground. So I hunkered down on the cement in front of the playground, and I saw this:

And then I wrote this:

I’m following the sun spots (this time of year you have to), and I swear I can hear the birds better when I’m sitting in the sun. Tiny handprints are pressed into the cold morning cement next to the playground, just outside the gate. It’s as if five children practiced their handstands one day as they waited for a tall person with keys to unlock the gate.

This fence. It’s short, because I’m an adult, and it’s linked together in spirals that hint at what’s inside: a playground of twisted metal. That corkscrew thing that some playground designer made when the fire pole got boring. Curvy springs holding up a bouncy-disc-thing that doesn’t look very safe (but boy does it look fun!), and I picture the five handstand children, their palms gray and glistening with gritty cement, dancing about in circles around the playground the moment that gate swings open.

It’s funny how I’ve fixated on the ugly wire fence with the gate when all the while in my sunspot there were also two other fences: the rhododendrons and the roses. They run parallel to the ugly fence and form a much more convincing barrier. Rows of thorns and pink, soft flowers that only a monster would dare to trample.

And yet someone felt a wire fence was imperative, as if the roses and the rhodies could not be trusted. “We better build a fence,” someone must have said. “For good measure. To cover our bases. To keep the kids in. To keep the kids out.”

And now I will summarize the remainder of our ramble with a few photos…

The azaleas near the Women’s Building were putting on quite a show as we walked to our next stop. Photo by Lucia Hadella.
My dad had seen a baseball game at Goss Stadium the night before (Beavs won!), and he got a kick out of photographing images around the stadium. When a pitcher winds up and releases, is that a spiral? Photo by Paul Hadella.
Can you imagine carrying the weight of the moon on your shoulders? These statues stand in the green sapce near the INTO building on the south side of campus. Photo by Lucia Hadella.
Electric fungi in the INTO courtyard. Photo by Lucia Hadella.
Have you seen these peculiar figures in the Snell Hall courtyard?I hadn’t! Photo by Lucia Hadella.
This giant sequoia just keeps spiraling on and on. Photo by Lucia Hadella.
Although we left the Ramble a little early to head to the Saturday Market, my parents and I could not stop taking pictures of the beauty surrounding us, and we were seeing spirals for the rest of the day. Photo by Lucia Hadella.

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.

This post is a reflection on the book reading by local Corvallis writer and environmental activist Carla A. Wise. She read at Grass Roots Books & Music from her new book, Awake on Earth: Facing Climate Change with Sanity and Grace.

Carla A. Wise's book on display. Photo by Samm Newton
Carla A. Wise’s book on display. Photo by Samm Newton

It has taken me a little while to write about the reading on Monday evening (9/26), because Carla A. Wise gave me so much to contemplate. Even as she spoke to us at that small, friendly gathering amidst shelves and shelves of books, our nation’s two leading presidential candidates were debating on a fluorescent stage, watched by millions. As Wise introduced her first book, Awake on Earth: Facing Climate Change with Sanity and Grace, one of the presidential candidates on the national stage was proudly denying the existence of climate change.

The hour I spent in Grass Roots Books & Music was at times somber and at others hopeful. Compared to the audience watching the debate, our numbers were miniscule, yet we were focused on a single cause. Wise’s motives were altruistic, her fears supported by sound science and ecological facts. She wrote her book in order to lay out the realities of climate change, as well as to coax concerned citizens off the edge of environmental despair, and it turns out the latter cause is perhaps the most important in the movement toward addressing global crisis.

I say this because it’s time to give up on climate deniers. Let the delusional, the irresponsible, and the insane continue along in a state of blissful ignorance. We can do without them, and we must. As concerned citizens, it is time to turn our precious, limited mental energy primarily inward, giving concerned citizens the tools to make the changes they so desperately want to see in the world. Wise explained to us that studies indicate a successful movement really only requires active support from 5-10% of the population. That’s great news! That is what I want to be told by X,Y, and Z environmental organizations when I check my emails or scroll through my Facebook feed. I want to be told that I can help (and not just by giving money), and I want a list of actions I can take. Inform me on how to write to my senator. Tell me which products to try and boycott. Inform me about upcoming ballot measures that could make a difference on environmental issues. Connect me to local protests and other gatherings. I could go on and on.

I already know about melting glaciers, dying forests, and cracking deserts. I know about dead bees, extinct amphibians, and bleaching coral reefs. I’ve heard the projections about receding coastlines, heard tell of flooding oceanfront properties, and I am aware of monster hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires. What I really need right now is to know that somewhere, progress has been made. I need to hear the good news, even if it may pale in comparison to the challenges we face. Knowing the good news gives me hope, and that hope battles despair. It battles inaction.

Don’t get me wrong – we need the the bad news too. It’s the whole reason why I and so many other people feel compelled to act. My undergraduate education is in Natural Resources, and I will tell you, I learned some depressing stuff. What I do with that knowledge – run away in panic, or stand my ground and fight – is dependent on how the information was presented to me. Despite bouts of despair, I have decided to fight. As Wise recommended, I have made climate change my Number One Issue, and I am not alone. We may have been a humble gathering at Grass Roots on Monday night, but humble gatherings such as that are taking place around the globe, and they are gatherings of people who care deeply and are taking action in their own ways. That has to count for something.

Carla A. Wise signs her book. Photo by Samm Newton.
Carla A. Wise signing her book. Photo by Samm Newton.