I’ve always felt a strong dissatisfaction with Western philosophy. It seems to promise answers to life’s most important questions, but delivers little more than impenetrable prose. When I taught writing at Eastern Washington University, my office was next door to a philosophy professor’s. I wandered in sometimes to chat but was quickly repelled by his relentless illogic. I remember his insisting, week after week, that because human beings are the sole assigners of value, everything else in the world has value only if we decide it does. Each time, I fled the room in dismay.
Kathleen Dean Moore is that rarest of creatures, a grounded philosopher; a philosopher who makes sense; a philosopher who works with the material of real life. And she is a superb writer. In her most recent book, Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World (Lyons Press), she writes:
Last week a student who had studied metaphysics and epistemology and Soren Kierkegaard, the student who read Immanuel Kant and brought fresh fruit to class, killed herself with a single gunshot to the head, sitting at home, at the kitchen table. She left no note, no explanation, and no one can make any sense of it. Her professors lean heavily against the classroom walls and cannot speak. We realize too late that we never taught our students what ducks know without knowing, that “we must love life before loving its meaning,” as Dostoevski told us. We must love life, and some meaning may grow from that love. But “if love of life disappears, no meaning can console us.”
This is philosophy.
It’s hard to say how Moore has been able to chart the terrain of Western philosophy without losing her grounding in the real world. Perhaps it is the walks she took as a child with her father, a weekend park naturalist, along the Rocky River south of Cleveland, Ohio. The E. coli count in the water was terrifyingly high, so she wasn’t allowed to swim, but she waded in and walked upstream, looking for fossils and trying to catch minnows. In winter, when the water nearly froze, she kept to the banks. “I remember once jumping off a wall,” she says, “onto what I thought was a snow-covered pile of leaves, but it turned out to be a deep eddy with leaves floating on top. I can still see my father’s face as he inched down a log to where I was bobbing, up to my ears in ice water.”
It was this sort of immersion, she says – both literal and figurative – in the geography of her childhood that has allowed her, as an adult, to remain fully and consistently a part of the natural world. That’s not to say she never got lost or separated from the places that grounded her. But she always found her way back. She writes: “Philosophers fretted that the world would disappear if they turned their backs, but when I closed their finely argued books and switched off the light, it was their worries that disappeared, not the world.”
Moore’s first book, Pardons: Justice, Mercy, and the Public Interest (Oxford University Press), explores deeply and movingly the intertwined relationships among forgiveness, clemency, and personal and political power. In her second book, Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water (Harcourt Brace), she uses essays on different bodies of water to elegantly discuss notions of home, stillness, and movement. Her new book, Holdfast, is an examination of our connections to what we hold most dear: family, friends, memories, and the places we call home.
Moore is a professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, and her husband is a biology professor there. She and I talked on a warm May afternoon in the philosophy-department library, where we were occasionally interrupted by other philosophers coming in for coffee. The conversation flowed from philosophy to family to forgiveness to the destruction of the natural world.
Jensen: One of the issues you write about is the relationship between persons and places, the kind of link that novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner had in mind when he wrote, “Tell me where you’re from, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Moore: I believe that there is an essential, defining connection between identity and place. First, it’s literally true that people are made of places. Minerals from eroding mountains strengthen your bones and mine. Willamette River water rushes through my veins; Elk Creek water through yours. It’s the watery Oregon winter sun that transforms my fat into vitamins. We are calcified by gravity, wrinkled by wind, softened by shopping malls. Gradually, eventually, particle by particle, our bodies are constructed from places.
But there’s more to it than that. Not just our bodies, but our minds – our ideas, our emotions, our characters, our identities – are shaped, in part, by places. Alienation from the land is an alienation from the self, which causes sadness. And the opposite is true, too: there’s a goofy joy to finding ourselves in places that have meaning for us.
Jensen: How are our personal identities constructed from places?
Moore: Identity is what makes me who I am, as opposed to some other person. In the seventeenth century, English philosopher John Locke suggested a series of thought experiments that involved transplanting certain parts of the self, to find out what essentially defines us: Suppose that your next-door neighbor were in your body, and you were in hers. You suddenly had short blond hair, for example, and broad hips. Would you still be you? If so, then your body is not essential to your personal identity.
Now suppose that your characters were transposed. You took a lover and lied about it, or started going to church, neither of which is like you. Would you then be a different person? I don’t think so. You’d be the same person, acting in strange new ways.
But now suppose that your memories were transposed with your neighbor’s. You thought of your neighbor’s children as your own and remembered the day they were born and how that felt. They were asleep in maple beds that you remembered inheriting from your mother. At that point, I think, you would have become someone else.
So, to a certain extent, it’s your memories that make us who we are. For example, I am the person who remembers seeing a flock of white pelicans over Thompson Lake and the apple tree in the backyard of my house. And every time I notice something, every time something strikes me as important enough to store away in my memory, I add another piece to who I am. These memories and sense impressions of the landscape are the very substance of my self. In this way, I am – at the core of my being – made of the earth.
Jensen: So do we have a convincing argument here? People are made of memories. Memories are made of places. Therefore, people are made of places.
Moore: To be honest, it reminds me less of an argument than of a novel. The writer’s mission is to explore this convoluted terrain where memory and self and landscape come together like molten lava and make an unholy mess.
Jensen: You say that places reside in our memories, but can it also work the other way? Do memories reside in places?
Moore: Have you ever walked a trail you walked before, or returned to the front porch of the house where you grew up? Didn’t those places speak to you of times long past, summoning memories that you hadn’t thought of for years? “Here is where we stopped to check the map and realized we had missed the turn. You had on a knitted cap that was too small and pressed worry wrinkles into your forehead.” Or “Here is where we walked the night before you left for Chicago. The place makes me sad all over again.” Memories do live in places, and if you go there, you can find them. Sometimes, if your memory is as unreliable as mine, you can find them only if you go there.
Jensen: So our memories of the landscape are part of who we are. What difference does that make?
Moore: It follows that there are two urgent questions we had better be asking. Question one: If place is this important in the construction of our selves, then what becomes of us when we never stay long in one place? We all know people who have no place – homeless people, bewildered people.
Jensen: And question two?
Moore: If people are defined by their landscapes, then what happens to our selves – our integrity, our wholeness – when those landscapes are destroyed?
There’s a narrow strip of beach on the outer rim of the wilderness sand dunes in Oregon that is part of me and my family. The sound of the surf there reminds me of the winter when we caught crabs with our bare hands and discovered they were females and let them go. The smell of the air reminds me of my daughter sitting in the beach grass, leaning against her father’s back. When I go back to that beach, I remember this. I am this.
Now, what happens to those memories – to me – when that beach is clogged with bunker oil from the New Carissa? What happens to memories when the places where they put down roots are destroyed?
Environmental destruction is a kind of self-destruction. If we go around systematically destroying the places that hold meaning for us, that hold our memories, then we become fragmented and don’t have a sense of who we are.
Jensen: You describe walking in rivers as a child as part of a process of “immersion” in the natural world. What do you mean, exactly, by “immersion”?
Moore: It’s a way of approaching life that involves risk and trust. You can walk alongside the river of your life, living out your little separate timeline, or you can plunge right in, immerse yourself.
One of my colleagues says that, if there is eternal life, it isn’t found in the length of one’s life, but in its depth. That makes sense to me. I have no doubt that each life has a definite limit, an endpoint, but I don’t think there is any limit to the potential depth of each moment, and I try to live in a way that reaches into those depths. I want to live thickly, in layers of ideas and emotions and sensory experience. I recommend a way of life that is rich with noticing, caring, remembering, embracing, and rejoicing – in the smell of a child’s hair or the color of storm light.
That depth is lost to many of us because we don’t allow ourselves to experience some emotional bad weather, thinking we have to maintain a constant seventy-two degrees throughout the entire day. Or because we have jobs that require us to be precise, intellectual, climate-controlled souls who never look out the window. Or because we live so separated from nature. I, for instance, live in a house where hardwood floors, acoustical tile, eight feet of damp basement air, a layer of concrete, and a six-inch footing of gravel cut me off from the earth. If I dug beneath all that, I would find myself, literally, in an ancient riverbed of round boulders, and below that, among sea animals so old they’ve turned to stone, all floating on a lake of molten rock. We never stop to wonder about this astounding fact.
Jensen: Immersion doesn’t occur overnight. It takes a long time to get to know a place, and for it to get to know you.
Moore: That’s especially true given the separations that characterize our contemporary Western lives. We don’t lead lives of “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau claimed. We lead lives of relentless separation – comings and goings, airport embraces, loneliness, locked doors, notes left by the phone. And the deepest of all those divides is the one that separates us from the places we inhabit. Everywhere I go, I encounter people who have come from someplace else and left behind their knowledge of that land. Universities, which should study connections, specialize in distinctions instead. Biologists in their laboratories forget that they are natural philosophers. Philosophers themselves pluck ideas out of contexts, like worms out of holes, and hold them dangling and drying in the bright light. We lock ourselves in our houses and seal the windows and watch nature shows on tv. We don’t go out at night unless we have mace, or in the rain without a Gore-Tex jacket. No wonder we forget that we are part of the natural world, members of a natural community. If we are reminded at all, it’s only by a sense of dislocation and a sadness we can’t easily explain.
Jensen: How did we come to think of ourselves as separate from the natural world?
Moore: Where did it start? I don’t know, but Genesis is probably as good a place as any to begin looking. The story of creation itself is a tale of separation. At first, there is only the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters – I love that image – but then God separates the light from the darkness, the heavens from the waters, the seas from the dry land, and the day from the night. (Never mind such magical, in-between things as dusk and fog and marshland.) Then God creates humans in his own image and gives them dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and everything that creeps on the earth, producing another great separation – that of humans from the natural world. And everything nonhuman is reduced to nothing more than a means to human ends.
On the secular side, there’s French philosopher and mathematician Ren‚ Descartes. Imagine Descartes, born and raised in an age of faith, sitting in his dressing gown, determined to doubt everything that could be doubted. The only thing he cannot doubt is his own existence: “I think, therefore I am.” Notice that he said, “I think,” not “I feel,” or “I eat,” or “I love.” I like to speculate on how life would be different if Descartes had said, “I love, therefore I am” – humans as loving substance.
Jensen: But he didn’t.
Moore: No, but what Descartes did do is immense. Now we have humans as thinking substance: spirit, consciousness, thought. These things we know for sure. And then we have everything outside the mind: matter, plants, planets, animals, ancient forests. These we know only uncertainly.
At about the same time – the early 1600s – along came English philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon, who encouraged us to think of knowledge as a means to power. Not knowledge as a means to happiness or enlightenment or peace, as you have in other parts of the globe, but as a means to control the external world – a great Western celebration of the ability of the human mind.
Put these two together – Cartesian dualism and Baconian knowledge – and you get the Great Divide: On the one hand, you get the human mind set apart from, against, and in control of everything else. And on the other hand, you have objects understood solely in mechanistic terms, as means to a human ends, meaningful only insofar as humans give them meaning. All meaning is thus stripped from the physical world; the only meaning remaining in the universe is inside our minds. It’s no wonder we’re lonely.
Jensen: So what’s wrong with Western philosophy?
Moore: You have to be careful how you generalize about Western philosophy, because there are so many different branches of it, and what’s true of one branch might not be true of another.
That said, I think the problem is summed up by Socrates’ statement that philosophy seeks “the true nature of everything as a whole, never sinking to what lies close at hand.” A philosopher, Socrates said, may not even know “what his next-door neighbor is doing, hardly knows, indeed, whether the creature is a man at all; he spends all his pains on the question [of] what man is.”
The implication of his statement is that, if philosophy is concerned with big, abstract ideas, then it must be di-vorced from the details of our lives. I believe that is a huge mistake. If philosophy is about big ideas, then it must be about how we live our lives. If I find out what a human being is, to borrow Socrates’ example, then I will know what makes one human life worth living.
Jensen: So what needs to change in Western philosophy?
Moore: A great deal is already changing. Some professional philosophers are even hanging out shingles, helping people think their way through confused times in their lives. Environmental ethicists are starting to understand that they need to get neck-deep in the marshes.
But there’s a long way to go. Most philosophers work in isolation on little intellectual islands, and when people live in isolation for a few generations, they start to speciate, develop their own languages, and twitter in words that only they can understand.
People are desperate for the kind of insights philosophers can provide. When I speak to fisheries biologists, or wetland managers, or conservation groups, they are all looking for someone to articulate the worldviews and values that can help us make sound decisions. Scientists can tell us how to save wild salmon, for example, but it’s up to philosophers and others to tell us why we should. The values, the moral imperatives, the framing ideas – all these are missing from the public debate, in part because philosophers are too busy publishing arcane tracts that no one but a tenure committee will ever read.
Practical wisdom is the business of philosophers. Reasoned judgments are our stock in trade. Eight to five, we stand in front of students and talk about moral and spiritual values, about what is right and good and beautiful. If we can’t explain the worth of a salmon, who can?
Jensen: Why is it so hard for philosophers to write about real-life issues?
Moore: I think part of the problem has to do with striving for a specific kind of clarity and certainty. It took me probably twenty years to realize how steep a price philosophers have paid for this peculiar clarity. The first thing to go was the philosopher as a person. By writing always about ideas and never about themselves, philosophers became disembodied authorities with no past, no future, no reason for wondering, or even for living.
What happened then is that the range of possible subjects narrowed: the things one can write most clearly about are also the simplest, and nothing in real life is simple. So the philosophers I met in graduate school wrote about such pure, slick-surfaced ideas as truth and consistency, but not about home, not about landscape, not about parents, not about fish.
Jensen: I would like a philosophy that teaches me how to live: How can I be a better person? How can I live my life more fruitfully, more happily, more relationally?
Moore: These are traditionally the most significant philosophical questions, but they’ve been washed off the surface of philosophy by the twentieth century.
It’s a failure of courage, I think. Real-life issues are messy and ambiguous and contradictory and tough. But their complexity should be a reason to engage them, not a reason to turn away. The word clarity has two meanings: one ancient, the other modern. In Latin, clarus meant “clear sounding, ringing out,” so in the ancient world, clear came to mean “lustrous, splendid, radiant.” The moon has this kind of clarity when it’s full. But today that usage is obsolete. Now clear has a negatively phrased definition: “without the dimness or blurring that can obscure vision, without the confusion or doubt that can cloud thought.” For probably twenty years, I thought that this modern kind of clarity was all there was; that what I should be looking for as a philosopher was sharp-edged, single-bladed truth; that anything I couldn’t understand precisely wasn’t worth thinking about. Now I’m beginning to understand that the world is much more interesting than this.
Jensen: Your work now is about the natural world, but your first book was about pardon and forgiveness. Are these issues connected?
Moore: Deeply connected. For years, I have been trying to understand how we respond to wrongdoing. Some very powerful parts of us hold that evil should be met with evil. We think that if there is no counterforce to suppress the wrongdoing – no jail, no lethal injection – it will remain a force in the world. This belief is the wellspring of retributive justice.
But when someone does you wrong, another possible response is forgiveness. I think one of the greatest human capacities is the ability to forgive – not to forget, but to renounce resentment and begin the process of healing. It’s the only way to triumph over evil. After a war is over, for example, the healing process almost always begins with amnesties and pardons, the formal trappings of forgiveness. Right now, experiments in truth and reconciliation are going on all over the world, such as in South Africa, where those who admit their crimes under apartheid are allowed to go unpunished.
This relates to the natural world because, here in the United States, we are involved in a centuries-long war against the land. It has gone on long enough. I believe we need to begin our own process of truth and reconciliation, to release the healing power of the earth.
There are natural consequences to ecological warfare: devastating floods and hurricanes, increased cancer rates, crop failures. We might think of these disasters as a kind of cosmic justice – tit for tat, no mercy. But the earth is also capable of forgiveness, because it has the ability to heal itself. When the earth covers burned-over land, first with wildflowers, then alder thickets, then pine forests; when a marsh filters water; when plants create oxygen; when a river washes silt from the gravel beds where salmon spawn – these great natural cycles of renewal are a kind of forgiveness, again and again transforming death into life. They are a kind of grace.
Jensen: How do you define grace?
Moore: The concept of grace has deep roots in Christian traditions: We are all sinners, the story goes, and God has the right to punish us for our iniquity. But God also has the power to forgive, to say, “You have wronged me, but I choose not to inflict on you the full consequences of your wrongdoing.” This is the gift of grace. This is the possibility of redemption.
Jensen: How does this relate to the landscape?
Moore: The breaching of hydroelectric dams, for example, offers the chance for grace and the possibility of redemption. I want to be there when the sluice gates are opened and the Columbia River rises, fed by the reservoir behind the John Day Dam. True, in so many places, we have done irreparable, unforgivable harm. Extinct species will not be born again. And when corporations cut an ancient forest and poison the bulldozed ground, we will not see that forest again for fourteen generations. But a river can heal itself, and so has the power, essentially, to forgive. I can imagine people gathering at the edge of a river as the water flows out of the reservoir and the riverbed reemerges, water streaming off the shoulders of rocks, a flowing river reborn.
Jensen: Still, the possibility of truth and reconciliation seems dim until the war against the landscape is over.
Moore: And it’s not, of course. Peacemaking is slow, hard work. But I think I’ve seen the beginnings of the process of reconciliation. Environmentalists are still struggling to stop the ongoing atrocities and to preserve the last scraps of unspoiled land, but the rehabilitation and restoration work has already begun – healing landscapes that have been damaged or destroyed, pulling back the bulldozers, tearing out barbed-wire fences, opening sluice gates, releasing young condors into the wild, planting trees. We are actively trying to undo the damage we have done and make the landscape whole again.
Jensen: But what about the “truth” in “truth and reconciliation”? Aren’t we still telling each other lies about our relationship to the land?
Moore: Yes. All the efforts at restoration and healing will be piecemeal and, I think, ultimately futile if we can’t bring ourselves to do the true peace work: the truth-telling. As long as the lies continue, nothing can be resolved.
Jensen: What are some of the lies we keep telling each other, and ourselves?
Moore: That human beings are separate from – and superior to – the rest of natural creation. That the earth and all its creatures were created solely to serve human ends. That an act is right simply if it creates the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. That a corporation’s highest responsibility is to its stockholders. That we can have it all, endlessly mining the land and the sea, and never pay a price. That technology will provide a way to solve every problem, even those it has created. That a pine plantation is the same thing as a forest. That you can poison a river without poisoning your children. And then there’s the biggest and most dangerous lie of all: that the earth is infinitely resilient.
Jensen: Why is that idea so dangerous?
Moore: Because it keeps us from seeing that we are doing damage now – to the atmosphere, to the seas, to the climate – that may be beyond the earth’s power to heal. When the earth is whole, it is resilient. But when it is damaged too severely, its power to heal itself seeps away. If we continue to turn against the land, pour chemical fertilizers onto worn-out fields, sanitize wastewater with poisons, dam rivers, burn oil, and bear more children, then there may be no chance of healing. A weakened world cannot forgive us.
There’s an oil-company ad showing an image of the earth from space with the caption “Mother Earth is a tough old gal.”
Jensen: The implication being that the earth is invulnerable.
Moore: Exactly, and that’s a dangerous implication.
Jensen: Actually, I have some trouble with the linking of truth-telling and reconciliation. I see the importance of telling these stories and getting the truth out there, but simply acknowledging the horrors that you have perpetrated doesn’t make them ok. “I spilled a million gallons of oil in a fjord and poisoned everything.” Or, to return to the example of South Africa, “I tortured dozens of people and threw them from airplanes.” Are the victims of such horrors supposed to let go of their desire for justice? There’s something missing for me.
Moore: Truth doesn’t undo the evil that’s been done. Truth doesn’t make everything ok. But neither does retributive justice. And in the long run, truth makes it possible to go on – to move beyond pain and hatred and evil and begin the process of healing.
Jensen: But who can tell the truth in this society? How can it be heard above the thirty-second spots, the oil-company ads?
Moore: I can address only one small piece of what will have to be a culturewide effort. Many of these lies come directly from my field, Western philosophy. We philosophers have a moral responsibility to hold these lies up to public scrutiny, examine the harm they have caused, and take away their power to cover up – or define away – crimes against the earth. And then we must tell the truth: “Human beings are part of the web of life, not separate and superior.” “The natural world has value in and of itself, apart from its value to us; it is an end, not a means.” “Greed is not a moral justification.” Once we tell these truths, the reconciliation and forgiveness can begin.
Jensen: Can you give an example of a lie that covers up or defines away crimes against the earth?
Moore: There are so many. We can start with utilitarian theories, which claim that an act is right if it results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In that respect, our obligation regarding the land is to use it in a way that maximizes human benefit. This philosophy has led us to do terrible things for the sake of the “greater good.”
Jensen: For example?
Moore: The dams on the Columbia River were celebrated for all the good they did for the local populations – they created jobs, irrigated orchards, and generated cheap electricity, “turning our darkness to dawn,” in the words of Woody Guthrie. But the dams’ builders also dynamited Celilo Falls, where native people had gathered for centuries to fish and pray, and buried the rubble and the prayers beneath the waters of the reservoir. Sometimes, in maximizing the benefits in one place, you create a greater harm somewhere else. Doing good here at a cost of greater harm there is a net loss. We must remember to count all the costs. While it might sometimes seem that small acts of cruelty or destruction are justified because they create a greater good, we need to be aware of the hidden systematic costs.
In the case of the Columbia River dams, no one measured the costs of the dislocation and destruction of native cultures, or the damage to the salmon runs, or the slow poisoning of the river. There is no place on the balance sheet to record the brutalization of the human spirit, the hidden costs of cruelty and raised voices, the damage to the integrity of a people who willfully destroy something beautiful.
Jensen: So does your objection to “enlightened self-interest” come down to “Don’t be dumb about it. Look ahead and count all the costs”?
Moore: No, what further makes me uneasy about decisions that measure the worth of rivers against the needs of human beings is that they are based on an arrogant and dubious idea: that human beings are the center of the universe. We imagine that rivers were made especially for us, the way ticks might think that hikers are their special gifts from God. With such an outlook, the temptation is to design arrogant policies and projects and end up doing to rivers what ticks do to us – except that ticks at least have the courtesy to drop off when their stomachs are full.
Jensen: Why is it so hard for us to see what we’re doing? The evidence is all around us.
Moore: Though we feel the damage, we rarely stop long enough to notice it consciously. I was recently invited to a hydrology class, where students were studying the health of rivers. I was to give the one obligatory lecture on ethics. (A colleague of mine calls this “drive-by ethics.”) I asked the students to tell me the names of their home rivers. I wanted them to say the words, to hear the sounds. Down one row and up the next of the big lecture hall, the students said the names of the rivers: Grande Ronde. Umatilla. Klickitat. Malheur. Nestucca. And suddenly it was as if a cloud had passed over the sun. The students looked startled. The litany of names had become a funeral drumroll for what had been lost: the cultures, the free-flowing rivers, the clear water, the salmon. The students listened like children at the feet of a uniformed veteran who stands by the war memorial, running his finger over the engraved words and reading the names aloud: The Snake, dammed and dammed again. The Willamette, dammed and poisoned. The Klamath, dammed. The Santiam, clear-cut. The Umpqua, dammed. The Tahkenitch, dammed. The Siletz, clear-cut. The Columbia, dammed, poisoned, dammed again, and poisoned again, until every otter in the lower river – every one – has skin tumors, and any radiologist can tell if you grew up along the river by the radioisotopes present in your bones. The students loved these broken rivers, and sometimes love is deeper when it’s mixed with grief.
Jensen: In your new book, Holdfast, you describe being in a marsh at sunset, a week after the suicide of a student. The marsh is a riot of bird- and frog-song, and you reflect on the meaning of all this raucous life, the purpose of a marsh:
What is it all for, this magnifying-glass-in-the-sun focus on being, this marshland, this wetness, this stewpot, this great splashing and thrusting, this determination among the willows, the flare-up, the colors, the plumage, the effort, the noise, the complexity that leaves no note?
Nothing, I think, except to continue.
This is the testimony of the marsh: life directs all its power to one end, and that is to continue to be. A marsh at nightfall is life loving itself. Nothing more. But nothing less, either, and we should not be fooled into thinking this is a small thing.
What does the marsh tell you about our obligations to the land?
Moore: A marsh has instrumental value, there’s no denying: marshes nurture the life that nurtures us, body and soul. But a marsh has intrinsic value, too. Even if there were no humans in the universe, it would be better for the marsh to exist than not. It has value in and of itself, apart from its usefulness to us.
Jensen: Then what is the basis of our obligation to rivers and marshes, if not maximizing their usefulness?
Moore: The philosopher Nel Noddings points out that obligations grow out of relationships. And she’s right. We know what it means to care about others, and we value that capacity in ourselves. Just as we are connected to our families and care about them, we are also connected to the land, both emotionally and biologically. This, then, is the starting premise: We are all members of a natural community of interdependent parts, including rivers and wrens and children and stones. The relationships among these parts define us, sustain us, create us, fill us with joy. And when we find ourselves alone and apart, our unhappiness becomes a longing close to grief.
If this is so, then to lead a moral life we have to acknowledge the depth and complexity of our ties to our natural communities – our own experience of caring for those communities, and the value we place on caring. And we must commit ourselves to acts that grow out of love. Aldo Leopold said, “Sing our love for the land and our obligation to it.” It’s amazing how quickly obligation follows on the heels of love.
What is called for are not just acts of enlightened self-interest, but acts that grow from our connections and acknowledge the worth of the land we care for so deeply. The right act isn’t the one that makes us happiest as individuals. The right act is the one that strengthens and reknits the web of relationships, and so tends, as Leopold said, “to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty” of the community.
Figuring out what’s right in any given instance isn’t easy. You have to learn about your natural communities – how things fit together, what makes communities flourish, what weakens their bonds. You have to study what one might call “the ecology of love.”
Jensen: What is the relationship between love and the natural world?
Moore: I’m always surprised when a nature writer describes going off alone to commune with nature. That way of relating to nature is all about isolation, and I don’t have much patience with it. To me, that’s not what being in nature is about at all.
In my life, the natural world has always been a way of connecting with people – my children, my husband, my friends. The richness of my experience in the natural world translates immediately into richer relationships with people.
I think one of the most romantic and loving things you can say to another person is “Look.” There is a kind of love in which two people look at each other, but I don’t think it’s as interesting as the love between two people standing side by side and looking at something else that moves them both.
Let’s think about this in terms of what we were saying about memory and identity: If we are our memories, then to the extent that two people share memories, they become one person. The whole notion of the joining of souls that’s supposed to happen in marriage may come down to those times when we say, “Look,” to our partner, so the two of us can capture a memory to hold in common.
A few years ago, my husband and I went out howling for wolves with a dozen strangers. It was a clear, cold night. Our guide told us that, to imitate the sound of a wolf pack in full chorus, we had to strive for discordance: all of us howling at different pitches, switching keys randomly. We always started out that way, but by the time each group howl drew to an end, we found we had harmonized into a deep, rich minor chord, like something from Bach. In a clearing surrounded by pines whose silhouettes resembled wolves sitting on their haunches, we heard the wolves answer our chorus – a full-pack howl coming from behind the wolf-trees. I have never loved my husband more deeply than I did at that moment. I even loved all those strangers, though I didn’t know a thing about them.
Natural beauty can be the ground for human connection. The richer your experience of the natural world, the richer your experience of the people around you. When we alienate ourselves from the natural world, we alienate ourselves from fundamental parts of our being and impoverish our relationships with other people, too.
Jensen: Your book Holdfast is about connection.
Moore: A holdfast is the structure at the root end of a bull kelp that holds it to the ocean floor, even against the force of the tides. It’s like a fist of knobby fingers that stick to the rocks with a glue the plant makes from sunshine and salt water.
I’m fascinated by holdfasts, both for what they are and for their power as metaphor. What are our human holdfasts? As we are pulled back and forth by our chaotic lives, how will we cling to what we value most, to what sustains us? As our children leave home and our parents pass away, what structures of connection will hold us together? How will we find an attachment to the natural world that makes us feel complete and fully alive?
Biologists don’t entirely understand how a holdfast works. Philosophers haven’t even begun to try.
Originally published in the March 2001 issue of The SunFiled in Interviews by Derrick Jensen