Q: As a person who studied English and then transitioned to science, you felt you had a lot of catching up to do in terms of learning the methods and putting together the curriculum. While the transition is evident both metaphorically and literally in “Foredune, in “Otter Dance,” you write about the struggle of this transition a bit more: “And this is how it all started [referring to getting students and their belongings on to the boat to begin your field experience in Isle Royale National Park]. Not really, or course. I had just spent nine months developing curriculum, reading environmental philosophy and human dimensions and experiential, place-based, and environmental eduction articles, willing myself to become a faster thinker, smarter reader, better faker so my facade as a writer posing as a philosopher in a natural resources department wouldn’t creak so loudly whatever I explained what I was doing there.” Describe your emotional experience during this transition. Also, if you were a writer posing as an environmental philosopher, what kind of writer did you see yourself as in this situation? Did your students ever call you out? If given the choice, would you choose to make this transition again?
A: I would definitely make this transition again! I have crafted my path by following my curiosity, intuition, and heart, so while I have made clear choices, I was being led as much as I was leading. And it has been challenging, but challenge is good and important when we’re doing the work we care about. I was a fiction writer throughout graduate school, and as I transitioned to more science writing and research, I have found my calling to nonfiction become much stronger. I had written a good deal of nonfiction during my MFA, but it wasn’t my primary discipline. I have no interest in writing fiction anymore. I find the power of nonfiction—both as research writing and as literary essay and memoir—to be a more powerful venue for the work I want to do. It also feels more natural for me, an easier fit for my voice. The emotional process of wearing masks as I transitioned to my current work was fairly dizzy and isolating. I felt I was always working on the fringe, had a hard time describing my process and relating to my colleagues, and I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, which makes it hard to trust the work. This was all fine. It was a good opportunity to be intentional about my choices and seek some clarity in my research. But this was right around when I found my yoga practice, which helped me still the busy-ness in my head, which was in turn disallowing me from living in my body or in the present moment. Yoga helped me find some peace in body and mind, develop community, gain clear intention, and cultivate balance, both on one leg and in my life in general. It still does.
Q: At the end of “Otter Dance,” you call yourself a writer, a teacher, an ethicist, and a storyteller. Do you see yourself as a kind of “foredune” in that you are a “blend of forces”? Can you discuss how these forces are still at work in the evolution of who you are?
A: I like it, me as a metaphor for my work and presence in academia. In some ways, sure. I am always shifting and following the wind, or learning to surrender to the forces of nature (and career) with a modicum of grace. These pieces are exactly who I am in my research life, though yoga teaches me to give up the identities and just do the work, so that I do not become overly attached to being anything specific other than just me. The rest of it is just what I do. But I am a qualitative social scientist who asks questions about values and relationships regarding the natural world, and I study how we learn about and form connections to the natural world, often with students, sometimes with informal learners. Qualitative social science is the work of discovering themes and metaphors within narrative—often interviews or written work from participants—so the articles I write often read like stories. As well, like in Otter Dance, I aim to connect my process with the research I am doing, so that I am a part of the work, which becomes researched memoir-based nonfiction.
Q: Would it be fair to say we all live in a permanent transitional state? Why? Also, could you discuss how these ideas—transitions and foredunes—might speak to your yogic philosophy?
A: Ah, wise. Are you a yogi, fine question asker? Permanent transitional state seems like an oxymoron, but perpetual, yes. All things are moving all the time, they teach us in yoga. We are breath and water and energy shared through our inhales and exhales, all living beings, transitioning in each moment. The only true constant is the Self, the purusha or seeker, which is very different than the self we present to the world, which is often a bodily shape tied to identities, perceptions, expectations, disappointments, and attachments. What a great opportunity, then, to transition toward our best selves! To make choices to be who we want to be, rather than who we think we are. The physical practice of yoga is a wonderful tool for shattering our notion of stagnant identity. Over and over I say: I can’t do that. I’m not a person who does things like that. I’m heavy, I have short arms, I am full of fear, I’m not flexible. And then, with time and patience, all of a sudden I am, and it’s like: Wait! I’m not who I thought I was! Because I allowed transition. Which is hard. It takes trust and commitment and a willingness to feel fear, and to not know, over and over. I like to think of the Self as the voice we hear that knows without knowing, or sees without seeing. It is that deepest nugget of ourselves that we have to train ourselves to trust and listen to, that exists deep down as the Self that entered the world before we layered all our shit on it. The goal of yoga is to quiet the mind enough to re-connect with this self. And when we say Namaste in yoga, we are saying: the light and love in me honors the light and love in you, and when you are in that place in yourself, and I am in that place in myself, we are the same. The Self knows that we are all the same, same breath, same energy, all pieces of a greater whole, all shifting and changing in every moment.
Q: Before we discuss environmental ethics and education, community, and conscious growth in detail, would you mind discussing the genre of “Environmental Writing”? How might it be different from “Nature Writing” or “Science Writing”? How do you see your own work—like “Otter Dance: An Autoethnography”— fitting in this genre?
A: Well, this is somewhat contested terrain, and somewhat played out terrain. Some people have a big issue being classified as nature writers, simply because the tradition reflects what they consider to be a staid or overly romantic focus. But I don’t have a problem with it. In fact, I guess I self-identify as all three of these. Environmental writing is, in my mind, the biggest of these categories, because it includes science writing, nature writing, narrative, poetry, journalism, blogging, etc. Some science writing is environmental, some is not. I think there is good work to do in the rejuvenation of nature writing into a more critical and science-based domain—I greatly admire Annie Dillard for having a voice unlike other ‘nature writers’ of her time or now—and I look forward to participating in this work. Maybe that future is a more clear bridging of all three genres. I am also a social scientist, work regularly with ecologists, and do what I do on behalf of our relationships with the natural world. So I’m not sure where my work falls. I was worried about placing Otter Dance because I’m not sure what it is, and I wasn’t sure anyone would get it. But it was the most fun writing I’ve done in years and felt the most like me on the page, so I believed in it more than other stuff I’ve written and I figured someone would listen. Turns out it got accepted nearly right away and with hardly any revisions, so it was a pleasant surprise to be reminded that identity boxes don’t always matter if you speak and write your truth with confidence. It’s hard to always be that authentic, but it’s a good goal.
Q: Community is a major tenet of your overall philosophy of environmental education. If it is fair to say that the study of ecology is similar to the study of community—because both are concerned with how living beings fit into their environment and open dialogue “about the giving and taking and sharing and using and growing relationships that define all beings”—then is it possible to not be in a community? If so, can a person have a connection with nature without a community? If a person does not like nature or cannot connect with it (or the community), what do we do?
A: We participate in all kinds of communities, and yes, it is possible not to be in community, even while participating with communities. I see community as an intentional choice, a willingness to make compromises for the good of the whole while acting with integrity and in line with one’s own values. We can interact with, around, in the same place as, beside others—human or nonhuman—without making this commitment, which I see as an ethical commitment (in line with Darwin’s and Leopold’s ideas about the
biological root of ethics). Ecology is at heart a study of community, as the word’s lineage suggests, but as the field has developed it has moved away from its natural history roots—where I think the emphasis on community, relationships, and empathy between the human/viewer and nonhuman subject lies—and moved more toward reductionist biophysical science. This make sense. I’m not criticizing it. But the emphasis is not on human relationships with the natural world; rather on relationships within the natural world, often at a micro scale, though not always by any means. This approach also important, but it doesn’t have much to do with our connection to the natural world until we add a discussion of values, i.e. why are things like biodiversity, wilderness, humane animal treatment good? That said, we are all in relationship with the natural world. When we are not intentional about what this relationship looks like or why it might be appropriate, we often act in ways contradictory to our values or ways that are detrimental both to human and nonhuman communities. The last question is a good question. It’s a longer answer than I can give here (though you can see my recent paper in Dialectical Anthropology for a bit of insight), but I think if given the opportunity to care about elements of the natural world, people will. But it takes concrete experience and an education that allows one to empathize with nonhuman nature in ways that matter for his/her own life.
Q: Similarly, you discuss how authors like Thoreau and David James Duncan write from the perch of privilege, but learn from and are inspired by Kathleen Dean Moore’s Pine Island Paradox, which embodies everything you like about the craft of writing but goes even further in that Moore “argued for a particular relationship with the natural world, a way we ought to live in order to honor our obligations to people, places, beings, and systems.” But how does Moore—or better yet your ideas about community and connecting to nature—come down from the perch of privilege? I mean, not to cast stones, but we (80 students of English 115) were all pretty jealous of the adventures you and your students went on? How can other schools adopt similar programs? And what about people living in an urban setting?—can they still experience the thrill of “nature”?
A: Yes! All schools should allow these trips. But they will not. You’re right. I was lucky to get to teach the wilderness course because it made the school no money. So I developed on-campus field trip based courses about wilderness ethics, food ethics, human/nature relationships that tried to do something similar, and that was also effective (both for getting folks who can’t afford the time or expense of going to the woods, and for folks who ‘don’t like nature’ but take the course as a requirement), even if differently so. There are lots of people doing similar stuff across the country. The point about KD Moore vs. the masculinist nature writers is that she lives in town and does great activist work with students and in her own life to make the world a better, more livable place, in ways that help people connect with the nature all around them and each other, wherever they are. It is true, we live in a beautiful place where there are lots of places to play outdoors, and most people here like that kind of thing. But urban environmental and sustainability learning is a growing discipline and happening everywhere. Some of the folks I respect most are doing this work in NYC. And the idea is that running away to complain about how bad humans/ society are and how good pristine nature is does two things: 1) sets up a problematic dualism between humans and nature in which one is good and one is bad, such that every time humans enter nature they dirty it up or ruin it, which is counterproductive to the kind of relationships I think are important and necessary for living well, and 2) doesn’t do the necessary work of making the places we live better. It also discounts the connected and fluid nature of here/there, as if the remote areas deserve one kind of treatment and everywhere else is already ruined so earns something else. This doesn’t work to heal the world and it disempowers people from participating in meaningful ways.
Q: Perhaps this is a good time to ask you about bachelors:) In “Foredune,” you seem a bit annoyed by the bachelor party going on not too far from your camp, which is a different kind of “wilderness” than you’re used to—that is to say, the transition zone on Lake Michigan is not Alaska. However, you appreciate this wilderness—G.I. Joe’s floating in the water and all—and explain how wilderness is not a place but a “feeling.” Can you go into a bit more depth on what “wilderness” is and how it is different than “nature”? Also, what about the bachelor party? Does their close vicinity make them a part of your community? Does the definition of community overlap with that of “culture” in this instance? The party was in the wilderness, but was it one with it? How do we prevent ourselves from seeing the bachelors— or similar communities—“other”?
A: The bachelors were in our presence but not in our community. Community requires shared goals and process, commitment, productive dialogue and/or substantial interaction. They were in the background. And not a bad group of guys. Just not participating with the natural world in any way that I had come to expect of wilderness users. They were disruptive, but having fun, which is all good and acceptable in that setting of a group campsite. For them, the nature there was background to their intentions, rather than a part of their experience. Wilderness is a whole bunch of things (see my advisor’s books: The Great New Wilderness Debate and the Wilderness Debate Rages On), but by definition it is landscape managed in a particular way (1964 Wilderness Act) that allows some kinds of human presence and disallows others, in effect sanctioning pristine landscapes without mechanized human interference because the government deemed it valuable and worthy. This is very cool! Policy that actually values the natural world and demands the public treat it with respect. But it is also limited, especially in light of the contemporary understanding that no place is ‘untrammeled’ by human presence, and thus it hampers managers from intervening in landscapes that might need conservation attention. That’s part of the debate. But wilderness is also something that lives in our imaginations, either based on cultural references or personal experiences. It is a cultural norm. It is both wild and managed, beautiful and problematic (see William Cronon’s “Getting Back to the Wrong Wilderness”). Nature, on the other hand, is nearly impossible to define clearly. It is everything, and thus in many ways it can lack any specificity (hence my effort to say ‘the natural world’ or nonhuman nature when I can). Wilderness is nature, and so is (wo)man, and, some argue, everything (wo)man creates. Nature is only sometimes wilderness. Of course, we often know what people mean when they say nature, but it’s hard to speak with any clarity when we use that word.
Q: What is the ideal relationship for a human to have with nature? You have given a couple examples of how to encourage your students to turn theory into practice—by “blending the forces” of eduction and ethics to fostered a sense of gratitude, empathy, and humanity—but what happens next? Are these core values enough to cause real change and have a significant impact on our environment? You explain that recycling, eating less meat, and voting for green politicians is not enough, but is it enough if coupled with the “conscious growth” your students learned? What should/can we do to further our obligation to take care of nature?
A: Love each other. Develop strong communities. Make wise decisions. Be thoughtful, and curious, and engaged. Act with empathy. That’s all we can individually be responsible for, being the best, wisest, most thoughtful and compassionate individuals we can be. Then we get to work together to do the rest. The actions I talk about, they’re great, usually. But it’s too easy to say: Look, I recycled. I did my part. That’s not good enough, first of all, and right action isn’t always so clear. There’s an example in a major urban center where the recycling operation was exposing human workers to dead animals, body parts, dirty needles, chemicals, etc. In this case, it is probably more ethical not to recycle there and instead to throw one’s garbage in the ground. But when we educate students to think that some actions are innately good and some are bad, we don’t teach people to develop the skills or compassion to make wise decisions in context when multiple values compete or demand prioritization.
Q: On a related note: you have such an amazing and positive outlook, but do you ever get super frustrated and overwhelmed with hopelessness for our environment? I mean, we’re fucked, right? Species going extinct daily. A recent study speculates all salt-water fish will be extinct by 2048. The temperatures are rising, as is our ocean. Brazil and other South American countries are chopping down the rain forest. And much of the public—and many of our elected politicians— don’t believe humans are the leading force in climate change and other environmental disasters. How do you stay positive, and what do you say to climate-change deniers?
A: Yes. It sucks. Fuck the climate deniers. Both of them that get quoted over and over because journalists think they need to present two sides, when really there is one side and a couple assholes. But that aside.
Sure, I get frustrated and sad and overwhelmed. And then I go to my yoga mat and remember all the good that is in the world too, the extreme beauty I have witnessed, the love of good people, the strength of wise communities coming together to do good work. I try to build community with these people, to situate myself so that I get to know them, work with them, learn from them and share ideas with them, so that together we can do even better work. I try to live a balanced life, because work, no matter how awesome and interesting and important it is, is just work. I try to get out into the field, where I am fed and expanded by wind and water and mountains and big ass trees, and to travel when I can, where I see all kinds of things that blow my mind, everyday amazing things in the way people are living their lives, caring for each other, getting by, building something from nothing. It is humbling and inspiring. And here’s the thing. There are two main approaches to ethics. One, which we often see in politics and environmental dialogue, is consequentialist ethics. This believes instead that an act is good if the consequences create more joy, contentment, benefit than existed before. There’s a lot of pressure for one’s actions to change the world in this system, and I find it disempowering. It’s a cost/benefit approach to ethics, and since we can’t always know the consequences of our actions, especially the small actions that will compound to create big environmental and social change, this might not be the best approach to our current problems. The change we need to see in the world will take all of us, and it will take time, patience, humility, and compassion. There’s no time for those things in a cost/benefit approach to ethics and daily action. And none of us will do good work if we are constantly disempowered, overwhelmed, or paralyzed by sadness. Another approach, which is where my work lies, is virtue ethics and care ethics. The idea with these is that good people make good decisions, and that loving relationships are more effective than hierarchical relationships. So I believe that we are acting morally if we focus on building loving, caring relationships, nurturing those relationships, and developing ourselves, every day, to be our best selves. This takes the weight of the world off our individual shoulders. It’s not my job alone to save the world. It’s my job to be my best self and do the best I can with given information in any given moment. The focus is on intentions and motivation, rather than consequences. Of course, the long-term expectation is that good intentions manifested in action over time will result in good consequences. But it is a different path to that end.
Q: On a lighter note—and perhaps a note that inspires you to persevere in the face of calamity—is the otters’ dance. You write the otters “braided and wrestled and slipped on and over each other in a playful, goofy dance” and witnessing this “felt like a gift.” You mention gift-giving throughout your essay: minidewak, or “giveaway,” is a gift the receiver must respect and care for; the blue marble is a gift exchanged to remind their holders about what they care about—“to live like it matters”; the various trinkets and crafts your students give to one another to show their gratitude. In all of these examples, there is a moral or ethic involved. In that sense, the otter dance as gift is a way to explain that we need to care for the otters—care for the world. Can you just discuss this a bit further—connect a few more dots for us? (Or, to use Annie Dillard’s metaphor, would you draw us a few more arrows so we can find a couple more pennies?) Are our interpretations accurate? Was the otter like Dillard’s tree with the lights? Her weasel? What song does the otter dance to? What human dance would you say the otter dance was comparable to? How does this dance speak to or inform your yoga practice and your ideas about “taking time to sit with it” and being?
A: Wow. I have no idea! In my imagination, otters don’t dance to human songs. That’s the beauty of observing animals in their habitat, doing their thing, and getting to appreciate them for being themselves, beings worthy of care and existence in and of themselves, without doing anything for me or being anything like me necessarily. Often we anthropomorphize nonhuman nature so that we can get people to care about it, but how cool would it be if we can appreciate it for being similar in some small ways, but also so different in ways I might not ever understand except to sit on the bank and say Wow, nature is so beautiful and exquisite and I am so lucky to be here, and part of it, and sharing oxygen with those creatures. And yes, it felt like a gift from the island to me, though this is me projecting what I needed and wanted from the island, because the island in no way is required to care for me in such a direct way. I guess the point is that gifts, moments of wow and gratitude, are all around us if we take the moment to be still enough, open enough, to allow them. We just need to choose to see. KD Moore talks a lot about this dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane (T, remember me reading to you from this book at the bar on UI campus??) in Pine Island Paradox. The difference between these concepts is only the value we choose to grant them. If we choose to see the mundane as sacred, then it is. It is a way to live our lives with gratitude, humility, curiosity. This is hard. Life is busy and boring and cluttered. But my yoga practice is an opportunity to remember this, and to work with my own negative chatter about myself, the world, my limited abilities, any number of things, and try to wipe clear the foggy mirror and see more cleanly the beauty that lies right in front of me. My practice helps me still to be open to these gifts, and also to trust my own and contribute them in ways that have meaning and purpose.
Q: At the end of your essay, you write, “I am a storyteller and this is my gift.” What is the best way a reader should accept this gift? Also, if you were to choose a talisman, with the similar idea as the blue marble, to represent the work you care about, what would it be?
A: Shit you guys. These are all really good questions. Thanks so much for your attention to my work and thoughtful engagement with all these ideas. Every question I’m blown away. You should all get As.
In terms of accepting the gift, well, that’s the receiver’s choice, I guess. It’s out of my hands at that point. To give a give and expect a response is not to really give a gift, because you’re probably doing it for you, to feel good about giving or to look for reciprocation or to get some kind of acknowledgement. Ideally we should give, trust, and detach from the results. So if you, the reader, like it, if you connect with something, think about something, get curious, feel, seek, wander, dig in, that’s awesome. If you don’t, that’s cool. Thanks for checking it out.
In terms of a talisman, even though they’re a little played out because of the movie Amelie, I really dig tiny things, and I really dig gnomes. So a tiny, pocket-sized gnome? Well, that would be amazing. To remind the holder to love forests, to look closely, seek wisdom, be kind to small things, walk softly, imagine big, dream in color, and to giggle.
Q: You mention some of the storytellers who influenced and inspired you with their gifts. We have read much of Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk—is there a specific essay from that collection that inspired you most? Also, rumor has it that you studied the works of Annie Dillard alongside those Italo Calvino, who is vastly different than Dillard. Do you still think about Calvino? Do you see him creep into your current work?
A: Best semester of diligent reading, writing, and intelligent, thoughtful dialogue of my life. Nothing better than smart words, T-train, and Mary Blew. Loved every minute of it. I do still think about Calvino, and while my writing is a different beast compared to Calvino’s stark style, I am drawn as a reader to writers who use more experimental methods, stark imagery (be still my heart, Joan Didion), urban landscapes, lonely lost postmodern relationships and miscommunications. He probably doesn’t show up directly in my work, but all of my ideas and associations are rooted in the wide reading I have done and continue to do whenever I can, so surely he’s in there somewhere. Annie Dillard, on the other hand, I return to her every year. My greatest solace when life goes awry is to read Annie Dillard aloud in the hot tub into the night sky. Try it. It works. Especially Holy the Firm. Teaching a Stone to Talk is hands down one of my favorite books ever, and the essays I teach and return to most are Living Like Weasels, Lenses, and Total Eclipse. Total Eclipse is one of the smartest, most surprising, most ambitious and haunting essays I know and it is one of my favorite pieces of all time. I never get sick of it and I see new things every time I read it or teach it. And the part about learning to wake up is a mantra for me in my daily life. Sometimes all you need to quiet the mind is a fried egg. True story.
Q: If your essays were a type of fabric (cotton, silk, wool, etc.) what type (and color) would they be and why?
A: Strange question. But I like it. Stretchy flowy jersey. It’s comfy. You want to wear it, sleep in it, dance in it, but it’s also just a bit sophisticated enough wear out on the town with the right shoes. And if you dance too hard it just might fly off, so there’s something vaguely uncomfortable or dangerous about it, but just around the edges. Probably deep red. Root chakra. Home base, safe and fiery and grounded in truth. Not Foredune though. That’s more lightweight. That’s a eucalyptus green zip up fleece with a hood.
Q: You mention eating “cheesy meals” while in the field. What kind of cheese and what were the meals?
A: Mmmm. Any kind of cheese you have left in your backpack. Best meal ever is fried pasta, but only on a NOLS (the outdoor school I used to work for, the National Outdoor Leadership School) frypan, that would let the cheese stick into a crust you could scrape off with the spatula so the pan would be clean and the fried pasta would have chewy pieces in it. Cooked in butter, lots of spices, with whatever veg you have, if any, and a dash of soy and a heady shake of brewer’s yeast.
Thanks you guys. Super sweet and fun! I appreciate your energy and work. Good luck on finals! Kick ass.