For many years, our collective imagination has been starved, and we have only recently started to feel the hunger pangs. Amidst the explosion of art and writing that bursts forth from modern creatives, something is conspicuously missing.
Illustration by Camara Ward, a former Literary Illustrator Intern
As a society, we have largely thought about the land we live in and on as either a background or a resource; something to be appreciated for a moment or used, if it even crosses our mind. This isn’t a new tendency of course. For hundreds of years, colonization and manifest destiny have shaped western patterns of thought. Think of the US Bureau of Land Management or National Parks, for example. For all the various good they may do, they still distanced us from the animacy of the non-human and insisted that land is productive or beautiful or dangerous, but always it is for us.
Now, though, we are facing the consequences of this narrative. The stories we have consumed for generations, the Johnny Appleseeds, the Paul Bunions, the classic westerns have made it all too easy to exploit the land while remaining deaf to its warnings. But the land has stories of its own to tell.
It is time we listened a little more closely, tune back into the voices of our non-human neighbors and family. But how do we do that? As we have seen over and over, it’s hard to convince a people to unlearn the thoughts of generations.
I believe the place to start is with our stories. Stories are how we make sense of the world. They take the chaotic and overwhelming and make them into memories and lessons we act on. As Patricia Hempl put it, “What is remembered is what becomes reality.”
For hundreds of years, the stories we remember as a society (and of course “western society” is an enormous generalization) have been those of colonizing powers, like the bucolic ideal of Huckleberry Finn or the man vs nature conflict in Robinson Crusoe. Other, healthier, more nuanced stories exist, but have often been overlooked or suppressed. The first and easiest step we can take to combat the narrowness of the dominant stories is to seek out those others. Writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Amitav Ghosh, Linda Hogan, Arundhati Roy, NK Jemisin, and so many others both historic and modern have been pushing back against the idea that humanity is the center of everything (also known as anthropocentrism). Try reaching for one of these authors the next time you look for something to read.
As the above authors show, the saving grace for us and our stories is our capacity for imagination. In stories, we are not bound to the rules of what we have been told is possible. Stories are what we make them, and we change who and how we are based on those stories. So what happens if we all imagine a different, perhaps even better world?
I will freely admit that this is easy for me to say, and entirely another thing to make it a reality. The key, I think, is to start small. To borrow a term coined by the great Kenyan writer and activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, we have to first decolonize the mind.
Start by seeking out those buried stories. They can help you think beyond what we have been told is true, and to trouble the waters of our learned narratives. Then, if you can, bring some of those new ideas, those questioned premises, into your own life. Start small. Instead of just picking a flower for its beauty, think of what life is like for that flower. Think about the bird outside not just as a beautiful song, but as a small being of its own. As the environmentalist Aldo Leopold suggests in his Land Ethic, “enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; or collectively: the land.” It takes practice and time to change how we think, but it is possible. The more you work at it, the easier it gets.
Finally, when the narrative has been complicated and thoughts have been expanded, it is time to craft new stories of our own.
For storytellers, and we all are storytellers in a way, this re-acknowledgement of the land is both a boon and a weight. Our imagination is enriched beyond measure when we think outside of the confines of ourselves, but it also makes the dangers like global warming that we collectively face even more pressing. Reading stories and noticing trees may feel vanishingly insignificant when compared to the scale of the challenges we face as a planet. I know it often does for me. But we as a people and a species need to change how we see the world and our place in it before we can take more concrete actions.
So please, pick up a new book that challenges you. Read an article or poem that makes you think in a new way. Maybe take a moment to consider why you think the way you do. Whatever you do, though, I hope you will close your eyes and notice the earth underneath you. Then, go and tell someone about it. Not for you or for me, but for all of us.