Searching for Moral Imagination
I spent part of Earth Day last Friday at a lecture given by Terry Tempest Williams. She was not a natural speaker and began by saying that she was nervous. At first, I felt a little impatient, trying to understand her flow and taking notes of various names she mentioned. She continued to speak haltingly, but something else happened. I was moved by her sincerity and her passion for our wild spaces.
I’ve always been environmentally aware, doing the simple things like not treating our yard with chemicals, growing produce organically, recycling. We gave up two cars and now drive a hybrid. We inconsistently try to be better humans. Her lecture really shook me up, though. What we miss in all this picayune environmentalism, is the bigger picture. We are distracted by the minutiae when all around us, companies (complicit with our consumerism and population growth) are polluting the air and water and destroying the land, acre by acre.
Ms. Williams talked about fueling moral imagination. I’ve been thinking about those words over the last few days. I’ve always believed in human ingenuity, growing up in a time of vaccines, exploding technology and a media that churns out daily new stories about this invention or that. It seems like we could really solve some of these problems.
Being change, rather than just wanting it, is overwhelming these days. I am not a mover and shaker. I am an unpublished writer, having crept my way from poverty into the middle class. The sense of not belonging, of always waiting for the other shoe to drop, has me holding my breath constantly. The problem with holding one’s breath, biding one’s time, expecting the worst, while hoping for the best, is that it becomes about place holding, feeling victory in the status quo.
With news of the world and politics always at boiling temperature these days, one feels lucky just to have a job and health insurance and to not fall into a random sinkhole while walking down the street. You feel lucky if you get through the day not getting shot or being diagnosed with a fatal disease. Holding your breath and sighing as you sink into bed at night.
What I heard when Terry Tempest Williams spoke, was this: I am afraid, but there are bigger things than fear.
Some people seem like seers. They take the long view early on in their lives and they stick to the path. I have never found that path. I am a product of unrealized opportunities and ideas. I am a product of the information age – never sure that I have enough information to make informed commitments to causes. We watch heroes fall and causes become corrupt with self-importance. What is there to believe in, that won’t be wrong tomorrow?
Whenever I go through checkout lines, I like to think about aliens perusing our magazines. Maybe they have. Maybe it was this that keeps them hidden. We are apparently a species intent on making money, high fat foods and having indiscriminate sex, but only for the six-packed and large-breasted among us. Our royalty is comprised of pimply 17-year-olds who sing falsetto and Amazon women with eyelashes which weigh slightly less than their entire body.
Yes, I’m the old broad out on her front lawn shaking her fist at popular culture and the dearth of ethics it espouses. We are saturated with inanities and Tweets and consumerism. I’m not immune, nor an innocent in all this. I am a privileged bystander, able to stand a little apart. Enough distance to mock and criticize and get up on my soapbox and my high horse, but close enough to enjoy the spectacle.
Ms. Williams did not entertain me with polished words and slick salesmanship. She cut through it all and gouged into my self-satisfaction. I lack courage of conviction and moral imagination and the right to feel smug about anything at all. I’ve felt the weight of that this week – the sense that my life is so small and that I’ve wasted much of it just trying to stay afloat.
Perhaps there’s a certain recklessness of youth that comes around again in middle age. A second chance to be passionate and outspoken. An opportunity to decide what matters to you and pursue it with abandon. Like novels, our lives have emerging themes – the things that we think are important, show up again and again.
She spoke of her friend and fellow conservationist, Doug Peacock. When the battle was being lost to have the wolverine listed as endangered by the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, he said “You lose nothing by loving”. To me, this is such a simple, but profound statement. You lose nothing by loving.
I think about the shadow of perfectionism that follows me. I tend to embark on sure things. As a writer, this has been crippling. As a human, this has stunted my full potential. Any human who is successful, truly realized, is someone who has failed repeatedly. They believe that they have nothing to lose in loving, whether it be the land or animals or their art or other humans.
There should be a happy ending here, like I’ve decided to abandon my suburban life to live in the wilderness or camp on the steps of Congress; that I’ve somehow realized what it is that calls to me. Instead, I sit here uneasily, feeling a subtle shift in my perspective that will either help me find what fuels me, what fuels my imagination or it will leave me in the desolate land between watching and acting.
Environmental and Conservation Writing:
- The Open Space of Democracy by Terry Tempest Williams
- The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
- The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell
- Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
- Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
- The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich
- Wilderness Essays by John Muir
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
At the end of her lecture, Ms. Williams stood stock still at the podium while Max Richter’s re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played over the speakers. If you’re a Vivaldi purist, this might not be your cup of tea, but I enjoyed it: