Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
A Call to Action
by Alison Hawthorne Deming, Richard Nelson and Scott Russell Sanders
Introduction by the Orion editors:
Those of us dedicated to achieving the goals of this magazine have long believed that understanding the natural world, and the moral principles needed to guide our relationship with it, will come only with real wisdom--not just facts and information, but the exploration of the meaning of life itself. With each issue, we try to present those voices, creative ideas, and insights that enable us to gain that wisdom and empower us to live in a manner appropriate for the human species and our place on earth.
This spiritual impulse may be the most Orion perspective, but focusing only on ideals without taking the next step into practical action is an evasion of responsibility--especially at a time when the failure of so many institutions and elected officials has made it clear that individuals and smaller communities must be a crucial force in bringing about real healing. Therefore, when our friends Alison Deming, Richard Nelson, and Scott Russell Sanders approached us with this "call to action," addressed to our readership, we were enthusiastic to take up their offer.
Their hope is that this community--of readers, writers, activists, and artists who care deeply about nature--will find a viable and greater means of influencing the way our world is shaped. As they suggest, we might begin with the creation of an Ecological Bill of Rights and Responsibilities meant to inspire the courage to create a new vision, and to guide the actions that will most likely bring about needed change. We urge you respond to their plea by sending us your suggestions. We at The Orion Society will do our best to facilitate the national response they call for: one that speaks on behalf of the earth, and demands that decisions be guided by greater wisdom.
Dear Orion Readers,
Recently, the three of us were slopping our way through the rain in a forest near Sitka, Alaska, talking about the fate of the earth, sharing our grief and dismay. We are friends drawn together by a shared passion for wildness and words. For thirty or forty years, we have been learning all we can about nature, through science and literature, through the stories of indigenous peoples and our own explorations; and for the past twenty years we have been writing books to say what we've discovered and why it matters. Our work as writers, we have come to realize, is not enough to protect the things we love.
Now more than ever before, in our home places and on our travels, we see threats and devastation: clearcuts, erosion, poisoned water and air, endangered species and habitats, damaged communities, urban sprawl, blighted lives. And yet it seems to us that in the United States the public discussion of how we inhabit the earth has been taken over lately by the voices of money and self-interest. Every form of environmental protection is under assault. Instead of considering how to heal these wounds, the politicians, pundits, and industry moguls who are talking the loudest these days talk mostly about property rights, economic growth, and the right of individuals and corporations to pursue profit without restraint.
What can any of us do, we wondered, to raise a contrary voice, to speak in public arenas on behalf of the land and other creatures and future generations? Though we have no ready answer, we decided to share our call for action with the readers of Orion, in hopes that some of you will suggest how, together, we might give more political force to our concern for the earth.
This is not a minority view. Polls show that most Americans strongly favor protecting the environment, and that most of us are willing to pay for such protection. We are economic creatures; but we are not solely economic creatures. A good deal of what we do, and the best of what we do, is motivated by love, knowledge, and reason. Millions of people now understand that the earth is our only source of life, and that we have practical as well as moral obligations to care for the land.: A Poem Sequence concerns to respond with suggestions for action. It occurs to us, for example, that we might draw up an Ecological Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and that Aldo Leopold's summary of the land ethic might well serve as a first principle: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." As we imagine it, such a Bill would articulate a moral and spiritual covenant between human beings and the rest of nature. It would speak about the place of human beings and the rest of nature. It would speak about the place of human beings within the web of life, as one species alongside millions of others. It would explain why humans should care about other creatures, why those living today should care about future generations, by tracing the sense of obligation back to a feeling of gratitude for the order and bounty of Creation. It would offer ethical as well as ecological guidance for buying and building, farming and fishing and forestry, for all our uses of the land, for the shaping of our communities and the conduct of our lives.
Over the years, a number of worthy organizations have drawn up manifestos on behalf of the earth. Why compose another one? We believe that Orion, and that the community of people associated with the magazine, combine in a unique way the perspectives not only of science and economics, but also of literature and art, photography and philosophy, ethics and religion; and we believe that the gathered wisdom of the readers and writers and artists who are drawn to Orion could produce a manifesto that is equally distinctive and forceful. Words on a page do not accomplish anything by themselves; but words taken to heart, words carried in mind, may lead to action.
Some elected officials, indeed some of our friends, tell us they are contending with so many social problems that they cannot spare time or energy to worry about the land. But the division between a concern for nature and a concern for people is a false one. No person can be safe and sane and whole apart from a healthy community, and no community can flourish apart from a healthy place, and no place can thrive apart from the vigor and abundance of the earth.
Given a choice, we three would far rather mosey through the rainy forest and listen to ravens than pursue politics. But those of us privileged enough to think and read and write about the natural world, those of us nourished by the places we inhabit and inspired by the places we visit, must speak in defense of what we love. If enough of us raise our voices in enough places--legislatures, parliaments, city councils, land use and zonings hearings, environmental commissions, op-ed columns, churches and synagogues and mosques, libraries, markets, street corners, yards, boardrooms and bedrooms--we will begin to shift the political debate from exploitation to stewardship, from excess to restraint, from economics to ethics. We will help to build a society worthy of this continent, and we will increase the chances of passing on to our children an undiminished world.
The three of us sense that there is a grand awakening underway, and we believe that Orion, more than any other magazine, is recording and fostering that shift in consciousness. Throughout the world, thoughtful people are reimagining what it means to be human, what it means to lead a good life, and what it means to be a creature in this vast and dazzling Creation. Those of us who share the ideals embraced by Orion must find more effective means of influencing government and industry and individuals. We must work to transform the terms of public discussion about our way of life, about our home places, about the fate of the earth, and about our membership in the great living community that contains us all.
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Alison Hawthorne Deming is the author of The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence, Science and Other Poems, Temporary Homelands: Essays on Nature, Spirit and Place, and is the editor of Poetry of the American West. She is director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
Richard Nelson grew up in Wisconsin and learned about the natural world while living with Inpiaq Eskimos, Gwich'in Indians, and Koyukon Indians in northern Alaska. He is the author of The Island Within and Make Prayers to the Raven. His newest book, Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America (Alfred A. Knopf), explores the complex relationships between people and deer.
Scott Russell Sanders was awarded a 1995 Lannan Literary Award for his work in nonfiction. His most recent book, Writing from the Center, won the 1996 Great Lakes Book Award. He is Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University. His new book, Hunting for Hope, will be published by Beacon Press this fall.
If you'd like to order these (and other) books, please visit The Orion Society Bookstore.
This letter was originally published in the Autumn 1995 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at email@example.com.