Culturework is excited to announce the theme of our upcoming summer issue: NATURE: with us, against us, within us. We welcome your creations that explore experiences of nature, positive or negative, human nature, and how we fit into the community of species sharing our planet. As always, we are accepting all mediums fit to online content: images, essays, poetry, music, etc.
Send your work to Culturework by July 20 at Submissions.firstname.lastname@example.org
“Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer,
Dear readers and collaborators,
As we begin to explore this theme, allow me to share a story with you. When I was a young person my parents bought a house in the suburbs that jutted up against a small forest. Many anthropologists agree that the cultures who lived in and with the forests of what we now call North America modified their environment to an astonishing degree, nurturing the species that sustained them and cleansing the land with controlled burning so that it was cleared of brush and easy to travel through. But this forest was a colonized forest, so for the most part it was impenetrably overgrown with brambles. Still, no amount of thorny brush could have dissuaded my young self from exploring that place, and I passed many afternoons tracing its narrow deer paths and muddy creek beds.
Around the age of 12 I developed an interest in snails, and eagerly converted a half dozen or so washed-out salsa jars into a collection of snail habitats full of moss and sticks, where my small hostages survived remarkably well on a diet of dead leaves and fruit juice. To populate my snail collection I spent hours wandering around in the forest turning over rocks and decaying logs. If I was lucky I would eventually find a snail underneath, tensed up in its delicate shell like a little gem.
One such afternoon, I turned over a log to discover a massive hornet, loudly buzzing with rage at having been disturbed. What I remember most about the hornet, besides its intimidating size, was a deep, primal fear that made my familiar surroundings feel suddenly alien. Weeks passed before I was ready to venture out there again. When I finally made another attempt, I adopted a new strategy of flipping over the rock as fast as I could while simultaneously jumping away to a safe distance. I continued to find snails this way, and also a few more hornets.
As human beings living on a vast and unpredictable planet, I think we’ve always responded to wildness with that same heady concoction of wonder, curiosity, fear, and disgust I felt out there in the forest. Trying to discern boundaries between ourselves and all that which is beyond our control is something that every human culture has wrestled with. Earth can be a brutal place. There are elements of the natural world that feel distinctly foreign: not only hornets under logs, but diseases that invade our bodies, and disasters that destroy us and our creations without warning.
The fact of our self-awareness presents us with a choice: will we regard our planet and the other species living on it as neighbors, or as adversaries? The way a culture answers this is so fundamental that you could probably make the argument that it’s THE question, if there ever was one. One answer leads us down a linear path, the other in a self-sustaining circle. Follow the thread far enough and on the other end you might find everything your culture believes about safety, risk, freedom, and the relationship between the collective and the individual.
The people who originally lived in that forest of my childhood answered that question very differently than those who live there now. In that suburban environment, there are clear boundaries between what we considered nature and what we considered everything else. This is where white culture endows its prized creation to the chosen few: possibly the safest, most physically comfortable environment that human beings have ever lived in. It’s a reassuringly compartmentalized world where you can get all of your needs met without ever breaking a sweat or smelling an undesirable odor. Living in this sterile bubble, where you’re about as far from the food chain as you can get, the natural world feels like a choice you can opt in or out of.
Yet, though there is an undeniable allure to this illusion of control, ultimately, you can’t make nature into a pet. Eventually all of us, even those who inhabit the safest, most meticulously groomed environments will encounter the truth at some point or another that we’re still animals ourselves, and we exist only at the mercy of our physical bodies’ hard and fast limitations.
Beyond recognizing our own fallibility, we can also find a certain exaltation in our place within a much larger tapestry. We carry in our cells the stories of so many generations before us. Generations that include people who never experienced the luxurious curse of this modern way of living, but also fish generations and reptile generations and unicellular generations whose innumerable small lives made our lives possible.
This complexity is what we’re trying to honor when we say with us, against us, within us. In some ways, describing our vision of this issue using the word “nature” feels like trying to carve a line through water. It’s one of those words that simultaneously means a lot and not very much. Maybe there’s an element of hubris in slapping one word onto almost everything else that exists: every other species, the land and sea, and our planet’s physical processes. At the very least, it seems to gesture towards a dichotomy that’s ultimately not very helpful.
Still, whatever you make of the word, there has never been a time in our species’ history when it was more important to be thinking about everything that is outside us. Our planet is confronting us with the reality that everything we’ve created to keep ourselves safe and separated comes at an invisible, odorless price. Even our bodies transform the air we breathe into the very same poison that threatens to destroy our only home. There is a diabolical poetry at work here.
For so long the question my ancestors have asked themselves has been something along the lines of: how can we make ourselves safer, cleaner, less vulnerable? There hasn’t been attention paid to the question of how much safety we actually deserve. When it comes to this immense problem, neither the blame nor the consequences are evenly distributed. As the people of the suburbs learn or refuse to learn the true price of their illusion of safety, everyone else suffers the repercussions year in and year out. How much are we willing to sacrifice? How wonderful that we have so many medicines that heal us and protect us, and inventions that make life more beautiful and more comfortable. How unbearable that our oceans are filled with syringes, toothbrushes, Barbie dolls, and empty bottles. It is slowly becoming clear that if humanity treats the Earth as an adversary, it will in time return the favor.
Personally, I believe that it is still possible for humanity as a whole to return to that original big question and choose to answer it differently. As I write this to you I am nearly finished reading Braiding Sweetgrass, an exquisite collection of essays by the Potawatomi botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is also quoted above. I hear her voice in my ear often lately, especially when I begin feel paralyzed by the claustrophobia of being entrapped in these systems that destroy our home and pit us against ourselves. One of the many lessons I’ve learned from her work is that we who come from industrialized contexts must remember there is no innovation required to begin this project–it begins with listening and honoring those cultures whose relationship with the natural world has always been built on gratitude and reciprocity.
As I look forward to our upcoming summer issue, I’m excited to hear what you have to say. Send us art that explores some of these ideas, or better yet, something that points us in an entirely new direction. What does it mean to be wild? Or to be domesticated? What were we like when we were still part of the food chain? How can humanity exist more carefully, more honorably on this planet? We want to hear about your experiences interacting with other species, exploring wild places, or about your insights on the nature of humans, Earth’s deadliest and most creative residents.
Rebecca Bacon Ehlers
Founder & Editor, Culturework