By: Richard Telford
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
Atticus Finch to his son, Jem, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960
Few literary models of courage are more affecting than Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s protagonist attorney tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman, in segregated Maycomb, Alabama in 1934. Atticus knows, of course, that he has lost the case before it has begun, but on principle, and to instill a sense of fairness and justice in his own children, he accepts the case. On its face, he loses the case, but there are small signs, hopeful signs, that he has effected the beginnings of profound change. That change will be long in coming, but it must, Atticus knows, begin somewhere.
The racial divisions of segregated America in 1934 offer an apt point of comparison for the current polarization of views on the present environmental crisis. It goes far beyond the acceptance or non-acceptance of climate change. It is evident in the burgeoning floor plans of American houses, in the disposable mantra of American consumerism, in the power of large corporations to purchase governmental influence through highly paid lobbyists, in the invocation of terms like “tree hugger” and “liberal” as pejoratives, in the widespread ignorance of or indifference to the crisis’s scope, and in the accelerated and catastrophic loss of biodiversity worldwide that has led Richard Leakey, Richard Lewin, Niles Eldredge, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others to argue that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetrating the sixth extinction.
Just today, in our local paper, a letter writer declared climate change a “political hoax,” admonishing a previous week’s writer who thought otherwise, “Take your head out of the plastic bag it must be in and start breathing…it will do your brain cells a world of good.” Such ignorance wears me down, but I think too on the fact that in 2014 Tom Robinson’s case would result in acquittal, if it even went to trial, and I am reminded of the human capacity to change for the better, often in spite of ourselves. Like Atticus Finch, I take courage from the belief that such change is not completely out of reach.
In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes how the advent of the 1936 Spanish Civil War gave to his writing and to his life a purpose that had been previously absent. He writes, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.” It likewise seems nonsense to me that any serious writer of prose in 2014 can ignore the profound and irreversible changes we are imposing on the world’s natural systems; nor can we ignore our growing emotional and intellectual disconnection from those systems.
Just as the direction of Orwell’s writing changed irrevocably in 1936, I find myself unable, these days, to disconnect my writing from the ecological crisis that surrounds me. How aptly that crisis is reflected in the materialism and waste of our age, in the largely vacuous social media blitz in which we envelop and lose ourselves. Whereas Orwell wrote in the face of Franco and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini, potential destroyers of all previously known social, political, and moral order, we find ourselves writing in the face of ourselves, a global citizenry that, often without malice or even awareness, directly threatens the Earth’s natural order as it has previously existed for millennia. We must inevitably write against an enemy who is, in fact, ourselves.
For Christmas in 1975, when I was six years old, my father gave me a copy of Jo Polseno’s 1973 book Secrets of Redding Glen: The Natural History of a Wooded Valley, which, though a children’s book, is extraordinarily rich with insight. On the flyleaf my father wrote a short inscription: “A guide for our naturalist.” Polseno’s story of “a glen where the wild geese fly and the salamanders live” fired my curiosity. His rich prose and Audubon-styled paintings placed me as an observer at the center of a complex, beautiful landscape; it was a role I innately understood, as is evident in the inscription my father wrote. As Rachel Carson famously noted, how easily a sense of wonder takes hold of the child’s mind, and how easily we willingly forego it in adulthood. At the age of forty-two, when I contemplated a return to graduate school to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies, I once again thumbed through Polseno’s book, both for its substance that had moved me so much as a child, and for the inscription in it that expressed such foresight.
In “Why I Write,” George Orwell articulates four “great motives” for writing prose: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Esthetic impulse, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose. Despite his own profound sense of political purpose in writing, Orwell cautions the reader not to incorrectly conclude that his “motives in writing were wholly public-spirited.” All writers, he notes, are vain; however, when the writer “struggles to efface one’s personality” from the work, he argues, writing of real value can emerge. It is this kind of writing to which I aspire. As Orwell did in 1946, I offer my own four motives for writing:
1) Of necessity: I am unable to stand by and watch the systematic, unchecked loss of the world’s biodiversity. Though at times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the effort required to help arrest the trajectory of the sixth extinction, I cannot give up hope. This is as much a selfish attitude as it is an altruistic one, as I do not care to live in a world resigned to its own doom.
2) For aesthetic reward: The act of writing allows me a heightened, sharper view of the world. It forces more intense observation, a slowing down of time that otherwise rushes past. Writing strains me to find and fashion language that may, if I am persistent, capture at least an iota of the natural beauty that surrounds me. Even if I cannot capture it for others, I can see it myself. Here again is the duality of motive so central to Orwell’s argument.
3) For posterity: I am convinced that only through the collective small acts of a caring minority can we arrest the present environmental crisis. Meaningful writing is persuasive, and it is needed to convince at least a portion of the unknowing or indifferent citizenry that anthropogenic climate change is no hoax. Such writing, at its best, can awaken or reawaken curiosity, can provoke empathy, and can inspire advocacy for the natural world.
4) For my children: Gazing at a group of turkey vultures circling in dihedral flight, or a magnificent specimen poplar, or a dew-soaked orb-weaver web stretched between saplings and lit by early morning light, I cannot help but want for my children to be able to see these things too, both with me in the present and long after I have returned to the earth. Here, I suppose, my motives are once again dual in nature, selfish in that they are framed around my determination to give to my children a biodiverse and sustainable world, and unselfish in that I would wish these things for all children, and for all people generally.
Alan Paton, in his deeply moving 1948 novel of South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country, argues that moral conviction is the only foundation upon which we can build a purposeful life and meaningfully address the world’s most grave crises, of which our present environmental crisis is a stark example. At one point, Paton writes in the voice of Arthur Jarvis, a young, white South African man who cannot morally accept the segregationist polices that would officially become Apartheid shortly after Paton published his novel. Paton writes, “I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only what is right. I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.” The belief that the preservation of biodiversity must trump our individual wants is just such a star, and I anchor myself to the conviction that writing with purpose is one way in which that star can be followed.
Naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, in the final pages of his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year—the last book he would publish in his lifetime—wondered “if the time will ever come when such a book as this will seem like a letter from another world.” At present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that we are hurtling toward just such a time, but we can mitigate that feeling through deliberate, collective action, through the written word and otherwise. Such action may not be expedient, but it is right. In an age of such ecological uncertainty, what other compass can we follow?