Tag Archives: Emmanuel Levinas

Hope is the Way of the World

‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’. I had thought it was another great Shakespeare quote, but it turns out to come from Alexander Pope. I have experienced this, almost everyone has. Often there seems to be no particular reason for it. Nor is there any privileged species. Unexpectedly, pervasively, hope bubbles up all over the place. Hope is life’s desire for more life. It is the loom on which fabric of life is woven.

baby birds

Hope is connected to the fact that the arrow of time only moves in one direction, at least for us. This may not be the case for certain sub-atomic entities (if that’s the right word), but for all of us macro-creatures, time is a one-way process. No one knows what the future holds, exactly. Everyone has to act on their best judgement. We humans have ethics and principles to guide us, and we can make thoughtful projections, but there’s always uncertainty. Such is life – risky. Every new life is an embodiment of hope.

I was twice drawn to think about hope recently. In both cases the context was extinction. First came the report that the Federal Government has placed forty-nine more species on the threatened species list. Included in this reassessment is the up-grading of a number of species to ‘critically endangered’. The primary cause of all this peril is land clearing. As is well known, land clearing has been part of Australian settler culture right from the beginning. For some people, clearing has become densely entangled with their sense of personal freedom to the point where it seems that the greater good has no claim upon them. The ‘right’ to eradicate biotic communities is spurious of course; there is no such inalienable right. Indeed, there are many excellent reasons why flourishing ecosystems should not be transformed into narcissistic mirrors of human supremacy.

Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)
Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)

The larger issue is that the language of individual rights provides a mask for industrial plunder. And in a powerful twist of narcissistic thinking, industries like forestry and coal represent themselves as if the greater good has no claim on them because they already encompass it.

Just at the moment  the case of the swift parrot looms large. Habitat for this critically endangered bird has been and continues to be under threat from clearing on the mainland and from forestry in critical breeding areas in Tasmania. These parrots nest in tree hollows, and it takes a hundred years at the least for deep hollows to form. The recovery plan for this marvellous bird does not actually specify the extent to which its habitat must be protected.

Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)
Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)

This is just one example among very many, and it shows a wilful, heart-breaking, infuriating lack of action by government. A recent report co-authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia found that ‘successive governments have avoided their responsibility to protect threatened species habitat and have instead entrenched the process of extinction.

The authors make the important point that while governments are shirking their responsibilities, the situation by no means impossible. Actually, ‘… extinction is far from inevitable for the vast majority of threatened species in Australia. Extinction is the result of the decisions made by successive governments to ignore their own scientific advisers, and to neglect their obligation under our environmental laws to protect the ongoing evolution of life on the Australian continent.’

Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)
Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)

It is tempting to launch into a rave about the pathetic state of politics in most of the world today, but I think we all know this. Frustration is widespread, and its causes are well understood. The current state of political inaction induces a sense of hopelessness in the face of both the terrible injustices inflicted in social and ecological spheres and the politicians’ refusal to fulfil the democratic contract.

Let’s go back to swift parrots (Lathamus discolor). Parrots are an ancient family. They originated in here in Australia. Tim Low invites us to think of Cretaceous forests with ‘birds flitting past dinosaurs to lap at scarlet and orange sprays’ of flowers. Swift parrots are ‘rich patch nomads’; they roam widely in search of sugar ‘hot spots’, and they are great pollinators. They live mutualistically with the ‘bird-adapted’ trees of Australia which they pollinate. They are intelligent creatures with extensive repertoires of communication and play; for millennia they were the most intelligent species on Earth. In case you were wondering, birds experience pain and misery.

The long history of parrots and trees in Australia is not just a matter of chance. Parrots nurture and teach their young. Their continuity is an intergenerational achievement. Thom van Dooren writes: ‘Approached with attentiveness to evolutionary history and a focus on the complex and difficult emergence of each new generation, it is clear that this thing we call a “species” is an incredible achievement.’ He is inviting us to recognise and appreciate ‘the immensity of … intergenerational work: the skill, commitment, cooperation, and hard work, alongside serendipity,’ that go into the succession of generations.

Thinking up-close with swift parrots, and trees, and indeed with many living creatures, calls us to remember that every loss of a new generation, every future that is extinguished, is an act of brutality that destroys hope. Not mine, or yours, necessarily, but the hopes of others.

Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)
Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)

This brings me to my second stimulus in thinking about hope. Last week I was asked to participate in a forum in New York on the question of ‘Hope in a Time of Extinction’. I decided not to Skype in; I am definitely not at my best at two in the morning. Instead, I wrote a short piece to share with the group. With a few amendments, here is my offering:

~~~

I couldn’t have it imagined it – couldn’t have imagined when I was a child that there would come a day when I would think and write about extinction because I was living in a time when much of what I loved in the world was being trashed. We live with the unimaginable, and for writers there are many pitfalls. Some people have from time to time dealt with trying to write about the unimaginable by stretching language to try to force it beyond itself. Often the result is fairly incomprehensible. In our time we need a wide net of fully comprehensible words, but then we hit temptations in the form of trying to make big issues smaller. I am thinking, for example, of the temptation to make it easy (how to save the planet in ten easy steps); to naturalise issues (there have been other extinctions, nature survives); to count and quibble (we have lots of DNA kept safe for the future); to produce justifications (there are cures for cancer out there that we haven’t discovered yet); to engage in triage (we can’t save everything, bad luck for the ones that aren’t cute); the list goes on.

Worst of all, though, is the temptation to give up and say nothing. When I think of silence I think (inevitably) of Emmanuel Levinas and his great words about how we are called into ethics by others. He said: ‘the face is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. … [T]he face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus the face says to me: “you shall not kill”’.

These words strike right to the heart of hope and love in this time of extinction.  The call ’do not abandon’ is precisely where we are today in relation to all the species at the edge of the abyss. And Levinas adds the terrible reminder that to abandon others is as if to become an accomplice in death.

Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)

We are asked to consider the possibility that a great deal of death is going to happen without our being able to do enough. And probably all that we do can never be enough within the parameters of this massive deathscape. And still we are called. This ethical call is in the present, and it is not necessarily about changing the future. ’Do not abandon’: do not kill the hope in the eyes of those who suffer and those who are dying, and those who are at the edge.

To such encounters we humans bring a hope that is refined by focussing on the present. I learned a lot about this kind of intersubjective, ethical practice in the research I have been carrying out with wildlife volunteers. Consider the people who work with critically endangered monk seals in Hawai’i.  Most of them were deeply dedicated; they loved the work they did, loved the monk seals they protected, and loved the beaches where their lives and monk seals’ lives intersected. They were well aware that monk seals are the most critically endangered marine mammal and that the prognosis for survival is not good.

Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach
Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach

And yet for the most part they refused to explain their commitment in terms of probabilities. They did not do calculations; there was no cost-benefit analysis; there was no pivot by which species survival became the measure of the meaningfulness of action today. In fact, they rarely talked about the future. No, they were out there every day patrolling the beaches and, as necessary, protecting monk seals because they understood how risky life has become for them, and they would not stand by and do nothing.

This is not a warm or cozy image of hope; I am drawn to the indomitable strength of it. I admired the volunteers for their refusal to treat monk seals as if they were objects of management. Or as if they were in any way pathetic. In my words (not theirs), they refused to abandon monk seals as subjects in their own right by objectifying or babying them. Most of all, the volunteers showed a way into multispecies hope.

Humans set aside their own hopes, and worked to honour the hopefulness of others.

One final thing: along with hope, perhaps it is good in this time of extinction to think of something along the lines of moral support. It will almost certainly be the case that much of what we do as activists will not succeed in turning around the extinction cascades now in process. Too much has happened, and the human situation is not good either. The greedy, powerful, destructive, devourers of Earth are very much on the rampage.

Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua'i
Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua’i

Moral support: perhaps this is what hope is when it is shared in multispecies contexts. It supports the very possibility of hopefulness. And hope is here, all around us. Creatures want to live. The Earth itself wants life, wants diversity, wants synergies, symbioses, mutualisms, energy flows. It is all risky. Hope is the way of Earth.

Every moment in which we refuse to abandon others, and refuse to bow down to power, and refuse to speak the language of cost-benefit in the context of mass-death, every such moment is an alignment with the force and power of Earth’s desire for diversity, its hopefulness. We are not alone.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

 

Resources:

I drew on research in the U.S. because I was addressing an audience in New York. Similar things could be said about volunteers here in Australia, and I will soon be taking up analysis of some of their excellent work.

The report discussed in this essay is: ‘Recovery Planning: Restoring Life to our threatened species’, Authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia (read here). Information on the government’s recent listing of endangered species comes from The Guardian (read here).

The quotes and other information from Tim Low are taken from his excellent book Where Song Began. Quotes from my friend and colleague Thom van Dooren come from Flight Ways, a wonderful recent book on extinctions and ethics. To learn more about Thom’s fascinating work, visit his website.

Land clearing comes up regularly in these essays, see for example ‘So Many Faces’.

The Levinas quote is from the book Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard Cohen.

Thanks to the Left Forum for inviting me to participate on the subject of Hope in a Time of Extinction.

For Val, With Love

I wanted to do a bit of sorry business to commemorate the day. Val Plumwood died on February 29, 2008, and although we only get to mark the anniversary every four years, she is certainly not forgotten. The impact of her feminist, ecological philosophy continues to grow, year in, year out.

Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato
Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato

In Aboriginal English, sorry business refers to the social process of grieving. It includes not only the actual funeral, but also the on-going work of remembrance and of cleansing and renewal. The term sorry business can also be used in re-establishing peace after violence, and can thus refer to rituals of remorse and restoration.* As a writer, I often turn to the written word to express my feelings, and this year I revisited Val’s essay ‘Journey to the Heart of Stone’. The essay is pro-stone, so to speak, and rests on the point that stones and other ‘inorganic’ matter have not been well-served in western dualistic culture. In her words: ‘The culture that refuses honour to stones refuses honour also to the great earth forces that have shaped and placed them. The eviction of spirit and honour from stones and from the earth is one of the greatest crimes of modernity.’

Toward the end of her life Val was increasingly interested in forms of writing that would help readers think beyond and outside the ‘sado-dispassionate rationality of scientific reductionism’. Her question as a writer was: ‘How can we re-present experience in ways that honour the agency and creativity of the more-than-human world?’ Her stone essay offered two fascinating stories of her relationships with stones.

Val's home at Plumwood Mt.
Val’s home at Plumwood Mt.

The first story tells of how she got to know stones in the course of building her home with foundstones. As she walked the country around the mountain looking for stones, she also contemplated another dualism: between respect and use. The logic of this hyperseparation is that things which are used (by humans) are positioned as mere matter or, in the case of stones ‘dead matter’, and thus are placed outside the realm of respect. Val learned both to respect and to use the stones. She writes: ‘The foundstone worker must be sensitive both to the individuality of stones, in shape, for example, and to their membership of a kind, to differences in parent material indicating strength and malleability.’

Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis
Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis

In the second story Val writes about bushwalking in the ‘stone country’ of North Australia. She had great respect for Aboriginal culture and country, and while she detested appropriation, she was keen to move her thought closer to Indigenous ways. Through her own philosophical lens and lived experience, she was seeking a practice that would free us western folk ‘to re-write the earth as sacred, earth exploration as pilgrimage, earth knowledge as revelation.’

The ’stone country’ story woke up vivid memories for me. My most profound engagements with stone have taken place during decades of living with and learning from Aboriginal people. In the course of travelling in country, and in the course of working on land claims and documenting sacred sites for registration, I have witnessed the respect with which Aboriginal people engage with country and with sacred sites. I have been privileged to visit many sites, many stones.

Jasper Gorge
Jasper Gorge

Sacred sites are non-ordinary places, and most are places where the evidence of creation endures. I’ll share a brief example from one of my most beloved places. In Jasper Gorge (NT) the brilliant sandstone cliffs were formed by the Dreaming (creation ancestor) Black-headed Python as she came travelling through the country. The shape of the gorge is identical to the tracks snakes leave in the ground, but of course much larger. Throughout the gorge there are individual stones that show evidence of her actions. A split stone, for example, was formed when she cut it with her string belt.

Split rock in Jasper Gorge
Split rock in Jasper Gorge

Here and at many other sacred sites throughout Australia stone does what it is so well known for – it endures. In a world where living beings have short life-spans, coming into life and leaving again like ripples on water, stone holds the stories and the evidence from generation to generation. My Aboriginal teachers were very explicit about this. Someday we’ll be dead and gone, they’d say, but look! That stone [or that hill, or that cliff face] will still be there. People said that Dreamings came out of the ground, and that the Law is in the ground. Creation’s bedrock stands as foundational and enduring testimony.

Cliff face, Jasper Gorge
Cliff face, Jasper Gorge

The most iconic stone in Australia is, of course, Uluru. Formerly it was known as Ayer’s Rock and now is known colloquially as simply ‘the rock’. It is near the centre of Australia in the midst of arid, red-soil country with dusky green and yellow spinifex. Uluru’s dignity and presence, the profound wonder of its size, and the striking country that surrounds it, combine with the fact that it is a major sacred site. The legal status of the rock is testimony to an era in which Aboriginal people’s aspirations for self-determination were taken seriously. It was claimed under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976; Uluru and surrounding area was returned to Aboriginal Traditional Owners, Anangu people. They agreed to lease the area back to the government as a National Park, and to retain joint management of the Park. This happened in 1985, and the area now also has World Heritage listing.

Uluru, melalouise (CC)
Uluru, melalouise (CC)

Uluru is awesome in every way.

People come from all over the world to visit. Uluru inspires reverence, and while reverence is experienced in much the same way by all humans, it can be acted upon in different ways. Anangu have asked people not to climb the rock. They regard the practice as disrespectful and irreverent, as well as dangerous. And yet, many visitors actually want to express their reverence through climbing. There has been no resolution to these conflicting views about climbing, but Anangu people have invited visitors to walk around Uluru rather than climb.

Walking trail, Dot W (CC)
Walking trail, Dot W (CC)

Many visitors souvenir a small piece of the great rock. No one knows how many pieces of rock and baggies of soil are taken away each year; people don’t announce that they are doing this. It is illegal, and large fines apply. But it is known that this happens, because every year stones and soil are returned. Often the person includes a letter expressing their regret at having taken a piece of the rock. Some people state that they had bad luck after having taken a piece, but many others simply say they felt sorry about what they had done and wanted to return the piece of rock.

The returned fragments are called ‘sorry rocks’. The term is a local invention. Sorry rocks arrive from all over the world. And then there are the offerings. No one knows how many pieces of crystal or other offerings are buried around Uluru. Whether people take fragments of the rock away or bring offerings to the rock, they radically testify to the power and presence of the great rock, and undermine the idea that this stone is ‘dead matter’.

A French visitor took away two stones. They returned 220 grams of material, along with a letter addressed to the rock itself:

“I wanted to take away some of your magic with me for the rest of my travels, for the rest of my life even. I realise it was wrong to do so, therefore I am sending both pieces back to you. Forgive me for being foolish and thank you for letting me spend time with you and absorb your beauty.”

The term sorry rock taps into remorse and a desire to put things right. Sadly, sorry rocks can’t be returned to their precise place of origin. No one knows exactly where they should go, and in fact some of the material people return hadn’t come from Uluru in the first place, according to geological analysis. Anangu people don’t want unsourced fragments dumped at the rock, and there may be quarantine considerations, so sorry rocks are used in road building. They end up as rubble. It seems that aabout 350 parcels are returned each year, an unknown fraction of the amount that is taken away. The largest stone to be returned was 32 kilos (70 pounds). But numbers are not really the story.

Uluru, sue10749 (CC)
Uluru, sue10749 (CC)

The gleaming presence of Uluru draws visitors to itself and sends them away feeling profoundly moved. You don’t have to be Aboriginal to know that here you are at a source, a foundation. Uluru, and all such sacred sites, are bedrock from a western philosophical perspective as well as from Indigenous perspectives. I am drawing on recent work with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and his insight that ethics is at the foundation of everything. When people are moved by the presence of the rock, they are summoned into relationship and thus into the realm of ethics. Creation – the coming forth – is already an ethical call. It is a summons to consciously recognise the power of creation, and it offers no justification. There is nothing subtending it,  as Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower write: ‘Nothing is beneath – not objects, Gods, force fields, or language – not knowers, actors, beliefs, or doctrines.’ One cannot go deeper than this.

People come face-to-face with Uluru, and something happens. Here one is acted upon. The face of the stone summons  people, and they are  touched. How beautiful it is to sit quietly at the base of the rock; to know that here is the deep of the deep, the foundation of the foundation. From creation until now and for generations to come, here is life’s meaning, its power and beauty.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

*In Australian national life, the ‘Apology’ for the suffering of the stolen generations has merged Indigenous uses of the term ‘sorry’ with public issues of apology for past wrongs. Feeling sorrow and saying sorry seem to have been conflated, and I agree with the view that the practice of saying sorry is not large or generous enough to re-establish peace.

Resources:

To gain a better understanding of Val’s work, a good source is Eye of the Crocodile, a collection of her essays that was assembled and edited after her death by Lorraine Shannon. It is available online (read here) and includes an introductory essay telling more about Val’s life and thought. Her heart of stone essay is published in 2007 in the book Culture, Creativity and Environment, edited by Fiona Becket and Terry Gilford.

A recent book of short essays, also available online, owes a lot to Val’s philosophical work (read here).

Two essays of mine give in-depth accounts of Jasper Gorge and of the interplay between the ephemeral and the enduring (read here and here).

To hear one of the Anangu Elders tell some of the Dreaming story for Uluru, watch here. A ‘fact sheet’ about ‘sorry rocks’ is available online (read here).

My words about creation and ethics are inspired by Jim Hatley’s work, for example , his essay ‘The Original Goodness of Creation: Monotheism in Another’s Voice’, published in 2012 in the book Facing Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley & Christian Diehm. The quote from Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower comes from their essay ‘Witness to the Face of a River: Thinking with Levinas and Thoreau’, published in the same book.

Val’s analysis of the respect-use dualism is discussed in recent comments by Russell Edwards and Jim Hatley, and will be the subject of a future essay.

Russell Edwards’ comment (below) contains a link to a remembrance article that Jackie French wrote in which she describes Val’s house building skills (read here).