You know you are dreaming, but this place still feels important somehow. You move up the step. Sunlight streams through the black wire canopy that arcs overhead, the rays reflecting wildly off the orange pillars that hold the structure together. You move closer to one of the pillars and recognize that it is made out of medication bottles, like the ones that litter your bathroom from a year of taking antidepressants. The black wire spiraling around this pillar has split its plastic casing. It’s useless at this point, nothing more than trash. Or is it? You trace your eyes back up along the wires. They form a protective structure, an alcove sheltered from the loud and noisy world. At the very center of the canopy, there hangs a paper cut-out heart. It twists peacefully, reminding you almost of a baby mobile over a crib. Underneath that, you notice a small, white circle. You lean over to see inside the shallow lip.
A baby spider plant rests inside.
There’s something important there, but you’re not quite sure what it is. As you turn to leave, you notice that there are words scrawled over and over across the black cardboard floor. “I will still hope.”
Dramatic vision aside, I don’t think of myself as a particularly talented artist. I love symbolism and unexpected materials, but I usually keep my creations to myself for fear that they are an imperfect telling of the truth I am trying to share. But if I have learned anything from this year, it is that fear is not reason enough to avoid action. From Grave to Cradle is my attempt to create a physical form of this vision to share with all of you.
The name, which plays on the expression “from cradle to grave,” is created from what is more or less trash. The top of an old shoebox, medication bottles, and broken laptop chargers become a “nursery” for propagating baby plants. This is a story of rebirth.
It is a story of protection, too. The structure surrounds the baby plant, as if blocking it from harm. The materials themselves are things that have been protective for me, as someone who has experienced mental health struggles. The medication bottles are, as mentioned, from my antidepressants, and the laptop chargers represent connection—the times people have stayed up late texting me and making sure I am okay. These materials are reminders of community and care. And, of course, there is the written message: “I will still hope.”
This vision is not anything new. It has been told many times before. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer relates the story of the three sisters:
Together their stems inscribe what looks to me like a blueprint for the world, a map of balance and harmony. The corn stands eight feet tall . . . the bean twines around the corn stalk, weaving itself between the leaves of corn, never interfering with their work. . . . Spread around the feet of corn and beans is a carpet of big broad squash leaves . . . the organic symmetry of forms belong together; the placement of every leaf, the harmony of shapes speak their message. Respect one another, support one another, bring your gift to the world and receive the gifts of others, and there will be enough for all.
Learning from the three sisters, I see that the story I am trying to share is also about reciprocity. The medication bottles stack on top of one another like corn stalks, while the wires run over them like the vines of beans, and the cardboard spreads at their feet like the young squash. It is only with the three of them that the structure stands.
Rebirth, protection, reciprocity. These three ideas are reminders that we can still build from where we are today. We have not lost our chance to forge a healthy relationship with our land—yet. Humanist environmental ethics reminds us to have hope in our fight against climate change and to uphold its vision of a more equitable world for all.
What is humanist environmentalism? William Cronon lays out the major principles in his “Summary of Ten Theses Toward a Humanist Environmentalism.” One of the more important points is Thesis 8, which says that “betting on apocalypse is [a] high-stakes gamble . . . an awful lot of nature and an awful lot of people are going to die before environmental disaster solves our problems.” In other words, it is unacceptable to just let the climate crisis run its course. Thesis 9 lays out the values in the spirit of which environmentalism must act. These include social justice, community, love, beauty, and joy. Environmentalism, therefore, cannot only be about nature, but also must be about us humans in our relationships with one another and the natural world.
This sounds simple in Cronon’s words, but, so far, humans have not proved that we are up for the challenge. In “Obligations to Future Generations,” author Martin Golding recognizes that part of the challenge we face in motivating people to act is that we, alive today, cannot expect to receive benefits from our taking responsibility. Today, as we sit at the edge of the climate crisis, acting and taking responsibility is more obviously urgent in our daily lives than in Golding’s time. But there are still efforts we must make that we will not directly benefit from, which may be difficult and require us to give things up. This means that there has to be something that motivates us beyond our own immediate situation. We have to act from a labor of love.
But how do we do that? In the face of inequity, violence, and apathy, how do we keep hope that “love” will be enough? Rebecca Solnit, writing for The Guardian, says: “It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.”
I, too, find hope in our “specific possibilities.” I see hope in the water protectors that stopped the Dakota Access Pipeline, in the increase of mutual aid during the coronavirus crisis, and in the uprisings against police brutality. We will continue rising up. We will provide one another with community care. With love and reciprocity, we will protect our planet and rebuild our broken systems. In our actions, we seed our hope for a better world.