When ENN's Publisher, Jerry Kay, suggested that I write "Notes" as a column on the common ground between environmentalism and culture, I took the challenge without a second thought.
When ENN's Publisher, Jerry Kay, suggested that I write "Notes" as a column on the common ground between environmentalism and culture, I took the challenge without a second thought. Yes! What a terrific idea. What an interesting place to look for a convergence. I tested the waters in December with my first pieces, and suddenly found myself stumped by a question: Where is the convergence, really? Or, to make my philosophy professors at Northeastern happy by getting a bit more rigorous: Is the convergence even there? For a few days, I felt that, like the hero of an old Russian song, I was "chasing after the fog," far from having an inspired vision of the subject.
Questions, questions, questions. How much does environmental awareness factor into what happens today in the arts? Is the interaction of these fields confined to the eco-art movement and similar factions, while leaving the rest of the creative community far from the ecological interest? Can grains of environmental awareness be found in the segments of the cultural scene that are not officially activist or environmentalist, but nevertheless have a dynamic, interesting, and important contribution to a sustainable, harmonious, and progressive mode of life?
As usual, before consulting Google I turned to my own study-room for clues. The stacks of New Yorker and Utne magazines: the former a gift subscription, and the latter a subscription I bought for myself. The room is littered with books from seemingly different fields of interest that I find complimentary nevertheless. Literature and poetry (James Merrill's "Black Swan" echoes in memory), nature books and gardening guides for the Russian climate that I've kept with me wherever I've moved, science and mathematics books (nothing makes one marvel at the natural world like Gleick's Chaos), and so on, and so forth. How would I go about teasing what is "culture" apart from the surrounding subject matter?
It used to be a common opinion that culture and the arts separate humans from the animal world. In the industrial West, the pursuit of culture's refinements was the privilege of the economic elites, and a way to forget the physical discomforts of the rough environment. Some people had to mine the coal; others had the good fortune of enjoying the warmth while listening to opera.
This gap has been closing steadily, but the closure is still often strained. What seems to matter is that art, books, music, dance (and science), if they are of good grade, increase -- directly or indirectly -- our awareness of the world, and cause us to live mindfully. When we encounter beauty, when we delight in it, the world is transformed. It becomes fresh, new, close, and leaves no room for indifference. Beauty inspires love. Art makes us care.
In the midst of this soul-searching, I received an e-mail from Dr. Sahotra Sarkar of the University of Texas in Austin, with a link to "Sarkar Lab WebLog" that contained some stimulating feedback to an early "Notes" column. While Dr. Sarkar takes issue with some of the book selections I suggested before the holidays, the entry offers an insightful comment on Hamsun's writing, mentioned by a reader in the subsequent column. "Hamsun wrote about the relationship of humans to the land, but the relationship is one of stable continuous presence, not of an interloper in the wilderness. Hamsun does not fall for the wilderness myth that has been the bane of Northern environmental writing."
Refreshingly, the journal also states: "Scientific writing, at least popular scientific writing, does qualify as literature." A thousand times, Yes!
And so, let's fasten our seatbelts. Everywhere, there are clues to inspired, engaged, green living. Not all the clues are explicitly green. But an omnivorously curious environmentalist will always find food for the spirit.
All my best,