Receiving New Stories from Two Nature Priestesses

This week I want to share—and interweave—a few different experiences with you.

First, I’ve been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in preparation of our first Gaian Book Discussion next week (9/1). The edition I have has an introduction by Al Gore. In it, he discusses the aggressive smear campaign organized by the chemical industry even before Carson’s book came out. From just the excerpt that appeared in The New Yorker, representatives knew the dangers Silent Spring held in revealing the truth of the deadly nature of their industry. As Gore describes, the industry called her hysterical, questioned her credibility as a scientist, and even tried to brand her a “priestess of nature.” Funny that Gore put that last—like it was a bad thing! I recognize that like “pinko” and “hippie” (and in earlier times “witch”) certain words dredge up Americans’ worst fears, but in the context I’m reading this, I did find that amusing (to me that’s an honorific)! Indeed, it is Carson’s and other scientists’ insights into the deep interconnections between humans, other species, and the whole of the Earth that sowed the seeds of the Gaian Way.

It’s as clear as day that these are our close cousins, even without knowing that 99 percent of our genes are the same!

Then on Friday, during a long car ride, I listened to Krista Tippett’s recent On Being episode with Jane Goodall. Goodall, too, made insights in the 1970s that we take for granted now but went against understandings of the academy at the time. She discovered and defended that humans are not the only tool-making species. That chimpanzees are deeply intelligent, use tools, and communicate, like us, mostly with grunts and gestures. (Humans just also have words that we use in addition but we grunt, scowl, and smile a lot to get our intentions across.) In other words, as Goodall noted, we’re not different “in kind” just “in degree.” Yes, we have language and tool-making but lots of other species do to some degree as well. Our hubris, our exceptionalism is misplaced and, as she quickly discovered in her career, incredibly destructive—both to other species and ourselves—thus shifting her work away from research to conservation.

Both Carson’s and Goodall’s work made clear that we are not unique, and that we are not separate from Gaia. In the 1960s and 1970s that was revolutionary. But this discovery—that we are part of Gaia and utterly dependent on Gaia for our ability to survive and thrive—is now a well-understood and scientifically uncontroversial statement (and is the very foundation of Gaianism).

Follow one thread and it connects to the entire Earth

As we discussed in Wednesday’s Gaian Conversation, we are connected to Gaia and the great expanse of life. Many of us take our meaning from that—from the connections they experience observing animals or identifying trees or paying attention to the cycles of nature. But we, as language-bounded humans, also shape our understandings of meaning through the stories we tell. And stories are often limited, and linear. And some of those stories even paint us in opposition to other types of people or creation itself. So it is important which stories we choose to shape our lives. Those that tell us life is beautiful and worth devoting ourselves to saving lead us to a very different way of living than those stories that tell us we deserve to live richly and to take as much as we can.

As Gore noted in his introduction, the prevailing story at the time of Carson was that “man…was properly the center and the master of all things, and that scientific history was primarily the story of his dominion—ultimately, it was hoped, to a nearly absolute state” (xvi). Carson was so strongly opposed because she dared to argue “that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature”  (Robert White-Stevens, a biochemist and industry spokesman, as quoted by Gore, xvii). Sadly, that “man” can effectively control nature is still our dominant story—even if it is proven wrong day after day, with every story of flooding, hurricanes, droughts, locust swarms, pandemics, and wildfires that news outlets report. But the true dominant story, whether we choose to listen or not, is now one of Gaia self-correcting after one out-of-control species tried to force Her to follow his whims.

It is our job, as environmentalists, as Gaians, to tell new stories, stories that get to the heart of the relationship between us and Gaia—that remind us that we are one with Gaia and utterly dependent on Gaia for our survival.

And to tell them well. During that same car ride, I listened to another NPR podcast, Short Wave, about the power of good storytelling in communicating science. The lesson: storytelling, unlike scientific facts, holds attention and has more impact in changing behavior.

We are exposed to stories every day. Some positive, some not. Some well-told, others not. It is through the weaving of many stories—tying threads of many lives and forms of life into a complex fabric—that provides us with a deeper, more robust meaning of our own lives; connections to other lives (human and non-human); and connection with the whole: Gaia. It is up to us to co-create that tapestry both for ourselves and for those who listen to our stories—a tapestry that makes it clear we’re part of Gaia and not experiencing this reality alone. It’s not us against the world. We are the world. And the world is us. Only through repeated tellings of that story will we truly grasp that. And live accordingly.

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Thanks to those that participated in last week’s Gaian Conversation for their insights and inspiration—including the tapestry metaphor—for this week’s reflection.

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