Because the material demanded it—isn’t this what writers usually say? Except in my case it was because the stand-alone memoir was going nowhere. The agents I sent it to all said the same thing: “I like it, but …” Then they couldn’t tell me what else was needed. So I hired an editor, sent her my chapters, and chewed my nails until we got on the phone. And the first words out of her mouth were, “The most interesting part of this book hasn’t been written yet.” Not what I wanted to hear when I was almost done with a full draft!
What was the “most interesting part” she was looking for?
It turned out to be connecting the dots between my personal experience and the larger culture. Some synthesizing of all those years I spent in grad school studying history and religion and anthropology.
How did you start writing these new sections?
I just dived in. Started writing what came to mind. The real creative writing in this book, to me, is found in those more reflective sections because once I leaped away from the memoir, no longer tethered to describing my life, I had to listen for what wanted to be written next. I spent a number of years listening and writing, listening and writing. The trick, in terms of art, was to weave together personal and social in a way that was always engaging. In every sentence I was thinking about the reader’s experience.
Speaking of experience, you claim to have a few experiences that people might find, um, extraordinary.
You mean woo-woo?
Your word, not mine! You say it’s possible to communicate with other species—animals, even trees. Most people would say this can take place only in the imagination. Why do you think you’re not just making this up in your own head?
I’m so glad someone finally asked me this! One theme of the book is that nature is far more creative and intelligent than Western culture has given it credit for. I mean individual creatures as well as the Earth-ecosystem as a whole. Traditional societies tend to recognize the land as alive and aware, yet in Western culture, at least since the scientific revolution, we’ve settled for a much more limited—and depressing—view, that the Earth is a machine that can be managed by human beings, and everyone else except us is there to be manipulated. Ever since Descartes—and until recently—we’ve believed that we’re the only ones with mind or intelligence. That’s a pretty arrogant view, and the price of that arrogance is steep. We pay the price in isolation—believing things take place in our own individual minds instead of on the stage we share with all other creatures. Traditional indigenous societies tend to choose a different view—that mind, or intelligence, is shared throughout the world. That trees, animals, rocks, or the land itself may be able to communicate. I tend to vote with indigenous societies on this one. My experience tells me their view is closer to how things are.
But doesn’t this violate what we know about nature through science?
No, not necessarily—at least, not the science that pays close attention to experience. We tend to forget, though, that a lot of science starts with beliefs. It was especially true at the beginning of modern science, during the scientific revolution.
Beliefs went into the making of modern science?
Oh, yes. Take that belief of Descartes’s that only humans have mind or soul, and everyone else is as unconscious as a machine. Descartes practiced vivisection—cutting open an animal while alive—because he thought an animal was only a mechanism that could not feel pain, and the screams he heard while he was slicing were nothing more than the screechings of a machine. But where did he get this idea? Not from the scientific method. He brought his mechanistic assumptions into the laboratory and proceeded from there. In other words, he started with a belief. In fact, he had to turn off a whole lot of testable experience—like his sense of hearing or his sight of an animal writhing or his natural feeling of empathy—to cut up a live animal. Being attached to beliefs can cause people to violate a lot of what they know from their senses. And beliefs can and do reside in science as well as religion.
Does this mean you don’t see any conflict between science and religion?
I didn’t quite say that. I only want to call attention to a few powerful religious ideas that became part and parcel of science. Like the idea of original sin, which says that people have an inborn tendency to be bad. It was dogma for a thousand years in Europe, all through the Middle Ages, and so it was the natural starting place for all of our modern philosophy too. Hobbes’s famous line, that the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” is just a secular wording of what the Catholic Church had been teaching for a millennium—that nature is imperfect and that human beings are at heart selfish and greedy and they need an authority over them to force them to be good. This idea passed into economic theory and also eventually fed into Darwin’s belief that competition is the main driver in evolution. Now what happens when people are continually told they are selfish and greedy? And when the rules of society or business, such as the laws that govern corporations, assume that people are selfish and greedy? Well, people—and corporations—will act selfish and greedy! It’s only natural.
So you don’t think it’s natural to be competitive?
Oh, yes, but it’s also natural to be cooperative and generous. Unfortunately, the sciences until very recently ignored the cooperative half—because, I would argue, of the fifteen-hundred-year influence of a religious idea.
So you’re critical of science. Are you critical of religion too?
I would say respectfully critical of both science and religion. I notice that many branches of Christianity, for instance, are not paying a lot of attention to the environmental crisis, which is the biggest mess we’re facing now.
Why do you think that is?
Because a long time ago, Christianity got separated from nature.
During the scientific revolution?
Long before that, actually. It started back in the Roman Empire. Religions of the empire were more about escaping the Earth than loving it. Given the Roman attitudes toward nature, it made sense. Romans were all about dominating the natural world. The best nature, to them, was stomped-down, used-up nature—nature remade to serve human needs.
Yes, it does. Where do you think we got so many of our ideas? Those kinds of attitudes didn’t really help people love the Earth. Neither did the drastic economic inequality at the time. In the decades leading up to the fall of Rome, something like 5 percent of people owned 80 percent of the land and made all political decisions. Does that sound familiar too? So most people’s lives were very, very hard. They wanted to escape from this evil world, and they looked to religion to help them. And it worked. The traditional Roman religion taught that people who lived virtuous lives would find a better world in the heavens after they died. Other groups taught people to use meditation and chanting to ascend to the heavens. Leaving the Earth was very popular at the time.
I always thought religion and nature got separated during the scientific revolution. After all, science was all about throwing out old superstition, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “superstition” was code word for “popery.” The new scientists were terribly bothered by old, Catholic ways of thinking because so many of them were Protestants first and scientists second. All those old medieval ideas about the Earth as a living organism? Popish superstition. So they kicked Earth out of religion for good. They did their best to stamp out all remnants of Earth reverence. From now on, religion would teach about things in the heavens, and science would teach about things on Earth. Neat separation.
That’s an appropriate separation, isn’t it? When it comes to nature, doesn’t the last word belong to science?
Yes, in this sense: that what we know about nature always has to be tested in experience, never just taken on faith or hearsay. But, as we’ve seen, some untested beliefs went into modern science at the start—and modern economics too. The sciences are now changing, thank goodness—cultivating awareness of biotic communities and all the various kinds of communication taking place among creatures we used to regard as nonsentient. I mean, almost every week some new study comes out about how plants see with their tissues or communicate through their hormones or how a bee brain the size of a grass seed calculates travel routes better than a computer. Appreciation for the complexity and innovativeness of other creatures is growing fast in the sciences. But economics will be the last to change, and that’s too bad because our economic rules are the basis for all the destruction we are now doing to the Earth. We need a new economics based in a different model—not the model of Earth as machine but the more scientifically defensible model of Earth as a biosphere, a community. A biosphere has limits. A biosphere is a community based on give-and-take. We’ve done a lot of taking from the Earth because we thought it was a machine. We need to rewrite economics to base it on the model of a community.
In closing, I have to ask about Sapphire, your dog with one blue eye and one brown eye. You talk a lot about her in the book. Would she think you portray her fairly?
I think she would say she’s not given NEARLY enough credit. Like I was a very challenging student, and she did her best.
Priscilla Stuckey is a writer, scholar, editor, and Earth-advocate with a passion for reconnecting people with nature. Since 2005 she has taught humanities in the graduate programs of Prescott College (AZ). When she lived in Oakland (CA), a creek that ran through her property inspired the start of the Butters Canyon Conservancy, a neighborhood-based land trust for which she served as founder and first president. She is now active in the local and international movement to extend legal rights to nature. Since 2007 she has lived in Boulder and enjoys
gardening with watershed-specific native plants. Her brand-new book, Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature, explores
the rift between man and nature in a way that challenges Western preconceptions about our relationship with the natural world. Her website is thislivelyearth.com.