Editor’s note: The following is an edited transcript of a panel discussion that took place at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Conservation Symposium on September 16, 2019.
Matt Stansberry (MS): The basis of this panel was to bring together a transdisciplinary group. This audience is largely a gathering of biologists, policy folks, and people working in the field of conservation, and what I wanted to do with this panel was bring outside perspectives on the big challenges.
And I wanted to start by showing a photo of a couple trees from North Carolina where I live.
They are a red oak and red maple and they are merged together. Their entire existence—how they get nutrients, their growth—it’s all enmeshed. It is very hard to separate where one species starts, and one stops. The health of these two is entwined.
And these trees are a lot like the challenges we’re facing: biodiversity loss, climate change, and income inequality. All of these issues are entwined.
And my tendency, with that very American male-centric mindset, is that I want to try to fix these issues. But we need to consider that there are issues of the heart we need to address first. We may need to better understand our place in the world, to understand how we make meaning and find happiness, in order to get the perspective we need to address entangled, intractable problems.
So with that, I want to start by talking about an issue a lot of folks in this room struggle with: loss.
The Eremozoic Era was a term coined by biologist and author Edward O. Wilson, and the idea is that we’re entering an Age of Loneliness. We’re all dealing with a lot of loss, and I wanted to start with Trebbe, because her book really deals with the question of how to accept loss, to live in landscapes that are injured and no longer function the way they did before.
Trebbe Johnson (TJ): So this question about finding joy in the hard times, which is the subject of my book [Radical Joy in Hard Times], I think you have to start with acknowledging the hard times, acknowledging the sadness and sorrow of that. I’d like to tell a story about the necessity of keeping the balance of joy and sorrow in our consciousness. My organization, also called Radical Joy For Hard Times, did a program in the Gulf Coast a few weeks after the BP oil well was capped, after it had been spewing oil into the Gulf for several weeks.
The woman I worked with was from Baton Rouge, and we went down with some people and were creating a labyrinth in the sand on Grand Isle. It is a long skinny island with its broadside facing right into the Gulf, so all of the oil and dispersants were coming right into shore. And as we were building this labyrinth, we noticed a pod of dolphins leaping really close to the seawall. We were so excited and ran out there, just delighted. But then gradually the realization fell over us of just what these animals were facing. Every time they dived back down, they were diving into toxicity. They probably didn’t have long to live. So on one hand we had this delight in seeing these dolphins, but on the other hand this grief from what these animals are facing.
It became clear to me that in order to survive and actually find meaning in the world as it is right now, you don’t have to choose between joy and sorrow; they’re both always right there. You can feel them both, and at the same time.
It’s almost like having two feathers—one feather in each hand. One is joy and one is sorrow. And by opening up to one, we are more able to be open to the other. By opening up to the possibilities of both of them, we become more deeply grounded in meaning, and in the places where we live and that we love.
MS: Lisa, we’ve talked about how you’ve found insect species in places where they haven’t been before, locations where they should not have been, and how that demonstrates that mixture of joy and sorrow. Can you talk to us a bit about what you’ve observed in your studies?
Lisa Rainsong (LR): One of the things I’ve been studying is species moving north. I do have mixed feelings about that. I get excited when I find a species that has only been as far north as Tennessee and then I find it in Ohio. Or the insects whose songs I recognize from hearing them down in Dayton, but now they’re up in Cleveland. Part of me says, “Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here!” But part of me says, “Oh . . . why are you here?”
And when I give talks at programs and point out to people about range expansion, I always talk about the species moving north. “But you notice, I haven’t said anybody is moving south.” People laugh, and then they get it, I think.
I also think about the species for whom we are on the southern edge of their ranges. There will be a time I’m not going to hear them anymore, not because of my age, but because they are moving north out of here. I’m already paying attention to the species I’m finding less often here.
And that’s one example of the joy and excitement of finding someone new in the neighborhood, but then knowing that the reason it happened is that the climate is warming fast enough that I can see and hear this from one year to the next, tracking changes over time right here in Northeast Ohio.
MS: Gavin, your book [The Way of Coyote] is centered around the urban area of Chicago, and to me it doesn’t feel like a particularly wild landscape. But you find joy and connection there. Can you tell us what it’s like to find joy and connection in urban places?
Gavin Van Horn (GVH): I’m sure there are so many similarities between Cleveland and Chicago. As I drove here this morning, I was amazed at the tree canopy. And here at the Natural History museum, learning about local heroes who have been expanding parklands and studying wildlife and taking young people out—it’s really heartening to know that this is happening in cities across the United States and the world. It’s great to see that honored.
As far as Chicago goes, I do think of it as a wild place. When I first moved there, I didn’t necessarily expect that. I came with an open heart, not kicking and screaming necessarily, but wary.
I was hopeful, with Lake Michigan and the forest preserves, that there would be a way to get to know my non-human neighbors. Part of my orientation to living in the third largest city in the United States was learning who was here: peregrine falcons flying at over two hundred miles per hour to hit pigeons from skyscrapers in downtown Chicago, the coyotes on the golf courses, the opossums and skunks roaming the alleyways, the fish and the mink and the snapping turtles, the heron trifecta (black-crowned night heron, great blue heron, and green heron), the way that the rivers concentrate life in the same way your rivers here do.
So when I think about finding joy in the age of loneliness, it’s a question of belonging, feeling as though we do belong here. But that belonging is a collective one, within a multispecies community. At one point, in my mind, I considered cities and nature to be in duality with each other. But Chicago has shown me a landscape continuum. The wild and the urban are much more intertwined than most of us are brought up to believe.
As for me finding my joy, or other people finding their joy, I think that joy comes from a feeling of connection, that we belong, and that the city plays a huge role in that. The talk [preceding the current panel] that was given about nearby nature—our intimate spaces that are in close proximity—are so formative in how we think about the world and the story we carry around with us.
MS: Trebbe, in your book you talk about creating art and joy in damaged places. Can you talk about what that process is like and what we get out of that?
TJ: In the organization I’ve created, we really wanted to find out if there was a way for people to connect with the places they love that were damaged or under threat, in a way that’s particular to each culture and community. So we deliberately kept the suggestions very open. The suggestions are very simple.
The first step: go to a wounded place, alone or with friends. That’s important because just thinking about it from afar, maybe you think, “It’s too depressing. I don’t want to go there. I’ll fall into this pit of grief and I’ll never be able to get out.” But actually going there, you find the beauty. You see the place as it actually is, as it’s struggling to survive, to regrow—to cope. You see it for yourself and not as your imagination has portrayed it.
The middle step is to be there and just gaze. See what the place has to tell us, rather than going in wanting to judge. It’s often amazing what we discover.
And the last step is to make a gift for this place. So often we’re concentrated on what nature is giving to us, how we’re receiving nature. But nature has given so much to us. This is our opportunity to give back.
We recommend giving back in a very simple way—by making a gift of beauty for the place. You make it out of material that is found there. Sticks, stone, sand, or trash even that you take out at the end. The people make this gift together; it’s anonymous. It’s not final. You’re only the first artist. The wind, the rain, the waves, the animals will take it away. But there’s something very profound that happens when people make a gift for place out of the materials the place itself provides. It’s a way of affirming that everything that’s needed to make and recognize beauty is already there.
Just this process—of putting things together with other people and leaving it—is a way of saying to the place, “This is for you.” There’s an aspect of connecting. People leave feeling empowered in a way that they didn’t feel when they arrived in this place. They feel that there is something creative that they can do. They can do it at any place, at any time, no matter where they are. It’s a way of connecting back with a place that you formerly felt disconnected from.
It’s so magical. We see it over and over again. We have a day every year in June, the Global Earth Exchange, where people all over the world are invited to do this. We have a group of young people in Afghanistan who have a permaculture garden they work in. We have a group in Bali that goes to rice fields that have been damaged. We have people who go to Superfund sites and make art on the gates that prohibit people from entering. There is something profound about just recognizing that you can go to this place. The love that you feel for a place is reawakened in this process.
MS: One of the things you said last night when we were preparing our panel, which I thought was really good, was that this is not a replacement for activism or policy, but there is always room for this healing.
I want now to jump to a different topic. I am lucky enough to spend time in the woods meditating, thinking, and interacting with the more-than-human world. And I can say without a doubt, these beings have changed my life, my behaviors, my morality. It makes me a better person to think with the more-than-human, to work with them. They inform a lot of the decisions in my life. And I am curious to hear from the panel, what are you getting out of your interactions with the more-than-human, and how does it inform the decisions you make?
GVH: The thing that jumps to mind immediately is the cultivation of attention. At some point, I realized, in more than a theoretical way, this is a conversation. Whether I was walking through the city, kayaking on the Chicago River, or roaming in some other way, that this was not a monologue.
Trebbe alluded to this, in offering a gift, and not just taking. There’s a reciprocity. So when we’re interacting with other species, think of it as a multipart conversation, one way of listening.
A metaphor that occurred to me is thinking of our bodies as an instrument. We’re exquisitely designed to receive through all our senses—not just seeing, but hearing, taste, touch, everything. We consider everything occurring in nature as outside of ourselves. But an activity like birdsong is actually occurring deeply within us as well. It’s being translated through our eardrum, and electromagnetic signals in our brains. We are permeable. Our skin is not the end of us. It’s really a kind of beginning. It’s the medium through which we receive what the world is offering.
Take that thought with you next time you walk in the woods. You are an instrument. Maybe we can think of ourselves as a drumhead. Maybe you are an oboe or tuba. You are not just coming to the world unilaterally from your perspective. It’s playing you.
LR: I teach ear training at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and when I also teach ear training in my naturalist programs about birds, amphibians, or singing insects, I find it is a very different way into people’s awareness.
This is not the first entry point people expect. People are very visually oriented. But when they hear something, it can jolt their understanding. Then people can realize, it’s not just about identifying the song of a short-winged meadow katydid. It causes them to ask, “Why are they there and what are they doing?”
Have you seen how beautiful they are? Isn’t it amazing to walk outside at night and not see anybody, but you can hear this concert all around you? That impacts people a lot. It gives me an entrance to say, isn’t this a wonderful concert? This continues as long as we don’t poison the musicians or bulldoze their concert halls.
For me personally, it resonates so deeply. I’m a musician; it’s the core of who I am. But there is a lot I can communicate to other people through listening. It opens a new sensory pathway because people are often so visual, they haven’t noticed as much about what they hear.
One of the things I do with people who have difficulty hearing, I give them my headphones and microphone and have them just listen. I will have them move the microphone up and down and hear that there is a concert at every level, from the tops of the trees to the ground. In spring, I ask them to listen to the different sounds a red-winged blackbird makes and then watch and see what that indicates. What are they doing? Why did the song sparrow change his song to a different one? Did you hear that cardinal change to match another cardinal? All of this input opens up worlds for people.
MS: Trebbe, to that question of listening to the more-than-human—in your book you brought a group of people to a recent clear-cut. There was a lot of trepidation about this place being oppressive, but you found a way to notice life in this damaged place. Can you tell us a bit about that story?
TJ: When I was first exploring the idea of going to wounded places and discovering what we could find and give there, I took a small group of people to a clear-cut forest on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. We camped in an old-growth forest, ancient trees eight hundred to nine hundred years old, but all around were acres of gray hillsides from the devastation. We would go out in the morning our separate ways, into the clear-cut, and then come back in the evening to make dinner together and share our stories.
And I loved what Gavin said about how we are permeable. Over the week, this clear-cut forest got into our skin and our ears and eyes and hearts in a huge way.
There was one woman who came back to camp one evening and said, “Is it inappropriate for me to see beauty in this? These wildflowers, these birds singing?” She started making altars on the tree stumps that represented different phases of her life where she felt hurt. Making beauty on these stumps was a way to mutually heal the forest and herself.
One of the other guys who had come to this event was in the midst of having a lot of trouble with his wife. He was sitting in the clear-cut one day, got bored, and wanted to leave. And then he heard a voice in his head that said, “Sit a stump.” Sit a stump! He thought, “I’m supposed to stay and hear what I have to hear, see what I have to see.” And through that, he realized he had a habit at home, whenever his wife would bring something up that he didn’t like, he would want to leave. He needed to sit patiently with her like he was sitting with that stump.
For me, I went to the same spot every day and sat on this enormous tree. I could lie down almost entirely flat on this stump. One day I saw a mother bear and her two little cubs dancing along the debris of the clear-cut. There were birds. There were insects making a home in the hole in the trunk. And at the same time, there was this landscape of devastation, loss, and sorrow. And the awareness of how much we use paper. Paper towels we throw away. And there was distraction—things I have to remember to do when I get home, someone I have to call, someone I’m having a problem with that we need to fix.
I was experiencing this huge mix of delight, grief, the trivial, and boredom. And it was truly profound to spend a whole week there. And we did a ceremony together right before we left. We stood there looking over these vast acres of clear-cut, and all just said, “We are in love with this place. It got into us.”
MS: I really like one of the things you say in the book, that the past and the present of a place are co-existent. They’re still there, like an injured or disabled friend.
I want to jump to the topic of empathy. Last night, we said “Healing community and ecology at the same time is hard. Healing just one is impossible.”
So on this image, “Healing Ecology and Community,” you see my friend David’s viewpoint of what the Mentor Marsh birdwalk is like. You see maybe $50,000 worth of cameras there? The Patagonia hats and vests. And you contrast that wealth against the economy of Ottawa and Lucas County, Ohio. And for a lot of conservation areas, the people who live and work in those places aren’t the same people wearing $400 raincoats.
Mark Schlack is a science fiction writer who was supposed to attend our panel but fell ill. He writes about how catastrophic climate change essentially craters our society. And the only way out of this spiraling disaster is radical empathy, to be able to take in the viewpoints of others, to communicate with people not like ourselves.
In conservation biology, we have specific goals and policies we want to see enacted. But we need to look at healing the community as part of the mandate to achieve this.
Take a semi-fictional composite character from my area in North Carolina as an example. Somebody’s grandfather is yelling xenophobic chants at a Trump rally. Maybe he lives downstream from a Duke Energy coal ash pit and industrial hog farms on the Coastal Plain. He’s seen three five-hundred-year floods in five years. He’s hurting, too. He may not agree with me on a single policy point, but we have to communicate. How do we engage and have the conversation with the community? Where do we start?
TJ: The way I always begin the conversation with people who are curious about what I do and what I write about is to say, “Can you think of a place in your life that you really loved, maybe when you were a kid, and something happened to destroy it? How did that make you feel?” Typically, there’s an answer right away—there was an old neighborhood or a wetland that was turned into a golf course. That starts the conversation.
People will say: There was a place that I loved, and something happened to it, and I felt really sad about that and just never knew what to do about it. And what I’m trying to do with my work is to say, there is something we can do. It’s accessible, handy, and small, and it doesn’t cost anything. You don’t have to call people at dinner and ask them for money. It’s just something you can carry in your pocket. It begins with the question, Was there someplace in your life that you loved and that you lost?
GVH: I think if we’re to have any hope of working with people who disagree with us or have different viewpoints, we need to work in the commons—common interests, common ground. Find a project that is already meaningful to both of you. That opens up communications about things like childhood or parenting. It brings you together, rather than keeping you at a distance and coming up with a quip or a takedown, like the things we can say anonymously online. Getting into the physical space with another person, that’s a hopeful area.
An example from my book that intersects with this. Aldo Leopold told us to think like a mountain. Lisa Hish was about thinking like a bee. She looked at the corners of her neighborhood and saw neglected pavement, scrubby non-native species at four-way intersections. And because she and her partner had become amateur apiarists with beehives in their backyards, they were starting to think of their neighborhood as habitat.
As other neighbors got interested in what they were doing, they thought, How can we take these spaces and transform them? Three or four families would adopt a street corner, and there were very few rules, except to plant native plants. People decorated it, creating art. Some people built bird boxes or bat boxes. They built a linear corridor through the neighborhood that they call a pollinator pathway, and it’s transformed a lot of people’s view about life in the neighborhood, and what’s possible in those smaller spaces.
Those kinds of common projects open people up rather than closing them down.
LR: I agree with everything they said. The only thing I’d add is not connected to what they said but connected to the words [“healing,” “ecology,” and “community”]. Something that really struck me is that ten years ago when we were first having programs about the climate crisis and the extinction crisis, I was just so internally devastated. I was really struggling with my response. What do I even do? I feel so alone with these feelings because nobody seems like they’re ready to talk about it.
We are having this conversation now. And I look at the words “healing” and “community,” and I think we are a healing community for each other. We’re sharing our experiences, feelings, our perceptions, our fears, how we find joy. That is really powerful, and essential, for all of us and our own health.
MS: One thread through what Trebbe, Gavin, Lisa, and I all do is to create art, and it’s in co-creation with the natural world. And I’d like to hear what each of you think about how we perform co-creation, and how does that kind of art function in the universe? What’s its purpose?
TJ: I feel like I would call it making a creative gift, rather than creating art. Because art might be scary to people who do not think of themselves as artists.
As we become more challenged on this planet, we recognize the kinds of things we will be facing. Communities are going to be damaged. There will be fewer species of all different kinds. Wildernesses will disappear. So we need to understand not just how to deal with this existence, but how do we find meaning and joy within it? I believe that making a creative gift connects us with these places. Remembering what we love about them. Finding beauty in them right now. Finding kinship and collaboration with our neighbors who care about this place, whether they agree with us politically or not. Coming together and being outside of ourselves, making a gift for the place we love, and acknowledging that a place has given us a lot, and that this is a way of giving back.
That is a way to bring people together, reconnecting with the land, finding empowerment and creativity and joy in oneself and in the landscape. It accomplishes a whole lot of things in a simple way.
GVH: I love the way Trebbe emphasizes gift-giving, and how it completes the loop we live in within the natural world. A lot of us grow up thinking that humans are inherently degrading of our environment, and that all we do is take. There’s a real beauty in making that perceptual shift where we’re offering back. Maybe it’s not enough. Maybe it’s never enough. But there’s something in the act that transforms us.
I think a lot of you are probably actively involved in ecological restoration. It’s an act that’s ongoing, it’s never quite complete. And yet, there’s an offering going on there. You’re becoming part of the cycle when you’re gathering seed or burning a prairie. You’re integrating your own life in a kind of gift-giving act.
Also, there’s something about art that bypasses our analytical minds. It goes right around and hits us here [in the chest], without our logic being able to stumble over itself.
There’s a piece of art on the 606 Trail in Chicago. The trail is two miles of abandoned elevated train line that runs above the city streets and was transformed for cycling and walking. There are art installations along the trail, and currently there is an art installation that features one hundred eyes of birds. It’s a sculpture of realistic eyes of threatened species. It’s an example of how art, even if you don’t know the exact intention, can speak to you about the subjectivity of the natural world. It’s making a demand that you be in relationship. The human imagination, and art as an expression of that, is one of our greatest assets.
LR: The mic comes back to the composer who doesn’t always follow the rules. I was thinking about what you were saying about the restoration work. I think that’s creating art. You people [the conference attendees] notice what’s going on with the parks, the places being seeded with native plants and how gorgeous they are. You notice how all of this rain, the new meadows and prairies, how beautiful it sounds. We should consider the people doing habitat creation as artists. They’re creating concert halls. People creating little oases for life on their own properties. I think that’s also art.
MS: I really like what you’ve all said, especially the idea that we humans, as part of nature, need to realize our relationship isn’t loss only. Our role isn’t to take only. It’s also to give.
Mark, our missing panelist, writes in a post-climate crisis fiction genre. And when you look at that genre, you see almost a longing for that collapse to save us, to force us to change direction. But in Mark’s book, and what you hear today from our panel, is that we need to make a choice about what we do want. The collapse won’t save us.
Let’s turn the questioning over to the group. What would you ask each other?
GVH: One of the things that really resonated for me when I read Trebbe’s book was the idea of waste as an orphan, and I wanted to see if she would say a little more about that.
TJ: I started on this journey of rethinking wounded places in 1987 when I did a video interview with an Oneida Indian man named David Powless. He had received a National Science Foundation grant to recycle steel waste. He described going up to this huge pile of steel waste at the Kaiser Steel plant in California and climbing up to the top and in his eagerness and ego, he said, “I’m going to conquer you.” And then he got back down to this car with his samples of this ore and realized that this is not the way he as a native person was raised in a traditional home to think about nature of any kind. He said he realized that the waste was not an enemy to be conquered, but an orphan that had been separated from the circle of life, and he said, “My job is to bring it back to the circle of life.”
I was so touched, it started me off on this search that is Radical Joy for Hard Times. I dedicated my book to David, and he’s excited that his work has branched off in all these directions. I’m still so moved that we can look at all these places that are beyond saving, ugly, broken, or toxic, and say that this is an orphan from the circle of life. What can I do to bring it back into the circle of life? Maybe that’s scientific, maybe it’s legislative, maybe it’s educational, maybe it’s artistic. All of those things are vital.
Maybe it’s just bowing and saying, I’m sorry these things have happened to you.
MS: Let’s take a question from the crowd:
Attendee: Hearing an in-depth conversation around healing in the environment really spoke to me. My heart is pounding. I’m feeling all of these different emotions.
Growing up in inner-city Cleveland, being in foster care, and going through abuse when I was younger, nature was my healer. It started out as therapy and then education. Thinking about nature as a giver, and then giving back to it; and also learning from nature and then wanting to teach it. Nature has reconnected me back to human beings, and understanding, empathy, and patience.
Can you speak to how anything like that has happened, or transformed your experiences?
GVH: You already expressed this so beautifully. I can think of a thousand examples where nature has had that same healing function for me. And I’m so glad the idea of healing is being highlighted, not just physiologically or psychologically, but socially as well.
Nature is what we come out of; it is what we are always immersed in. When we see brokenness in the world, and the expression of that through violent action, I think a lot of it can be traced back to a primal woundedness, a feeling of separation from the land.
Speaking personally, I’ve gotten to know my non-human neighbors as important participants in the place where I live, and it’s served to cultivate the kind of empathy we’re talking about that makes me see how I can live in such a way that the whole community of life is in my thoughts.
LR: Thank you for all of that. I’m going to be more personal than I typically would because of your courage. The way that I grew up, it was not good. However, what got me through sometimes was, when it was still dark in the early morning, the robins would sing. The song of that robin was such a consolation to me. Robins perceive light before we humans can; that’s why they sing before dawn. And there were times those robins got me through, because they said dawn was coming.
Later in my life, dealing with the repercussions of all of that, I remember a very specific time when I thought, I can’t even go to work, I can’t leave the house. What got me through? House finches. Just a couple of house finches sitting and chattering outside my window. They just brought me right into the present in a way that nothing else perhaps could. Maybe they were the perfect bird for that.
I think there is a lot of healing power in all of nature, whether it’s visual or what we hear. Sometimes the auditory can be a powerful healer. I work in a completely different field than natural history. All of the stuff we’re talking about, it belongs to all of us. It’s not just something for biologists, which is something many people think.
TJ: I, too, was a kid who found refuge in nature in a very dysfunctional household. What I found with this idea of making beauty in wounded places is that facing the sorrow and making beauty together is very healing.
On one of our Global Earth Exchange days, I got together with a bunch of people in my community in northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s a very rural, conservative, and poor area. We did a Global Earth Exchange on the Susquehanna River, which a few years ago was named the Number 1 Most Endangered River in the country because of natural gas fracking. People who have very different political ideas, of all different ages, all came together that day at the river. We talked about how much we love the Susquehanna River. We built a wreath of flowers for the river and placed it in the water. People come together in a way when they love a place. It’s something deeper.
The last words of my book are “the ground beneath our hearts.” There is something that is beneath human difference, when we put our feet on the Earth where we love, and say, “This is mine and I love it and believe in it.”