The world according to an oak. (Photo credit: amada44)
Last entry on The Botany of Desire explored the social and natural histories of common everyday plants, revealing how they have shaped our values even as we altered them for our own purposes. It serves as a reminder that our connection with the non-human world is not a one-sided affair; it is instead more akin to a partnership. Ignorance of this fact is a chief cause of ecological degradation and existential distress. As we wall ourselves off from the rest of the living world, we become detached from the consequences of our actions have on the surrounding community.
To see the world from a non-human perspective helps us reconnect with the world: It can generate awareness and appreciation for other life. It can also cultivate empathy and facilitate big picture thinking. But we as humans are prisoners of our own bodies and experiences. Barring becoming accomplished nature-whisperers, communication and communion with other life forms is difficult, if not impossible. How then can we cross over to view the world from the other side?
One way is through stories, with the use of myth, lore, fiction. I particularly enjoy speculative fiction, which as a genre can stretch minds and tone imaginations. One bizarre and delightful tale titled Direction of the Road comes to mind; it is a short story recently republished in the two-volume collection titled The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin.
There’s an art to writing for kids. Good children’s books aren’t simply dumbed down stories, written with smaller words and fitted with happy sappy endings. In reality, kids are quite discerning: Their faculties haven’t yet been dulled by the insecurities and neuroses accumulated during the process of growing up. They like what they like and are completely honest about it. It’s true that they happily consume works filled with tired clichés and moralistic messages, but lacking cynicism and regard for convention, they generally emerge none the worse for wear.
The stories that stay with kids are ones that feel authentic and true, even if they can’t articulate why. These are stories that speak through the language of wonder, a native tongue we are all born knowing but can easily be forgotten through neglect and disuse.
I think The Curious Garden by Peter Brown is a great children’s book. Inspired by the revitalization of the Highline railway on the west side of Manhattan, Brown fuses charming visuals with a narrative that is full of discovery and hope. The messages found within its pages are subtle, always secondary to the atmosphere of playfulness and wonder. It is an excellent read for both kids and adults, and makes for an inspiring little Ekostory that speaks of the importance of play in forging a healthy relationship with the living world.
The comic book is not the first medium that comes to mind for conveying the ideas of Henry David Thoreau, but it’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised. I stumbled upon Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino at a small local bookstore several years ago and was immediately drawn to the thin tome. In this graphic novel, distilled passages are fused with a minimalistic art style to create a unique work that captures the essence of Thoreau’s physical and spiritual sojourn at Walden Pond.
It has since become one of my favourite interpretations of the famous transcendentalist’s work, serving as a handy and accessible resource for Thoreau’s exploration into nature, culture, and self.
I was introduced to Flight of the Hummingbird during the first residency of my Master’s program in Environmental Education and Communication. A parable inspired by the Quechan people of Ecuador, the thin tome serves as a powerful and moving call for environmental action. Illustrated with Michael Nicoll Yahngulanaas’ distinctive Haida manga artwork, Flight of the Hummingbird resonated with many of my fellow colleagues. By the end of the residency, our class had adopted the hummingbird as our unofficial mascot. The ideas found within Hummingbird have stayed with me ever since, continually shaping my thoughts on the nature and efficacy of environmental action.
The story begins with the Great Forest catching on fire, and the animals within it fleeing for their lives. All save one. Dukdukdiya, the tiny hummingbird, would not abandon the forest. She flies to the stream, picks up a single drop of water, and drops it on the raging fire. Again and again she continues her efforts against the inferno at great personal risk. The other animals watch on the outskirts, warning Dukdukdiya of the dangers; they lament that there is nothing they can do in such a situation. Dukdukdiya listens but continues her task. Finally, the bear, one of the biggest creatures in the forest, asks her what she hopes to accomplish. The story concludes with this final sentence:
Without stopping, Dukdukdiya looked down at all of the animals. She said, “I am doing what I can.”
I usually have to think to come up with catchy titles for my entries, but the work has been done for me this week. Love is the Plan the Plan is Death is a Nebula-winning short story written by James Tiptree Jr., a pseudonym of Alice Sheldon. A trailblazer in fusing “hard” science fiction which focused on science and technology with the sociological and psychological ideas of “soft” science fiction, Tiptree was also a master in exploring the vantage point of the other, the female, and the alien. I first came upon her work in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and was captivated by the mastery of her prose and the bleakness of her tales. Love is the Plan the Plan is Death is my favorite story out of that compilation.
Unlike the utopian future of the Star Trek universe, Tiptree’s science fiction stories tend to be dark and pessimistic, often exploring the inexorable force of biological determinism and the futility of existence as self-aware individuals. Her tales force me to wonder: Are we as human beings ultimately slaves to our biology? Despite our intelligence, are we doomed to behave like other creatures, to overwhelm the carrying capacity of our surroundings until we experience precipitous plunges in population as a species? Although Love features no human characters, it provides an opportunity to ruminate upon these very important questions through the perspective of Moggadeet, a terrifying yet lovable and sympathetic alien.
My first exposure to Gary Larson’s work came at the impressionable age of five; my uncle had left behind The Far Side Gallery at my grandmother’s place. Reading very little English at the time, I flipped through the collection of cartoons full of animals and people in strange situations and enjoyed them as silly drawings. As I came to understand the captions of those comics, I saw and appreciated Larson’s work in a new light.
In hindsight, the Far Side comics probably did a number on me growing up, shaping and twisting my sense of humour in all sorts of strange, quirky, and unhealthy ways. Two decades later, I continue to find Larson’s work hilarious and bizarre. Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered that he had published another book after his retirement from the comic business. I immediately ran out to the local library (an unabashed plug for this gem of a public resource) and checked out There’s a Hair in my Dirt! A Worm’s Story. Like in many of his Far Side comics, Larson’s passion for the natural world shines through within the pages of this twisted ecocentric version of a fairy tale.