— Jim Farrell
In Earth in Mind, David Orr writes, “I believe that most of us do what we do as environmentalists and profess what we do as professors because of an early, deep, and vivid resonance between the natural rules and ourselves” (45). I can see the logic behind this, and I’m sure it’s true much of the time. But, for whatever, reason, I don’t think it’s true for me. I think by Orr’s rubric, I am an unlikely environmentalist.
There are nature-lovers all over St. Olaf, people who ski and swim and post pictures on Facebook of their spring-break hikes along the Appalachian trail. I am not one of these. Sure, I grew up playing games outside like any kid, but not often beyond the network of neighborhood backyards. Trips out to a local wilderness walking trail along the river through the woods were by no means arduous, but they weren’t something I particularly looked forward to, especially if there were bugs. God, I hate bugs. I can appreciate them in an abstract all-life-is-beautiful-and-meaningful sort of way, but I really need a wall or four between me and them. I’m also a pretty big wimp when it comes to temperature. I hate being sweaty, and I hate being cold. Perhaps you can start to see just how out of tune with nature I am.
So why am I interested in environmental studies? It’s not something I had really thought about before. My gut instinct is to say that I’m interested in it because it’s something that someone has to take interest in. It’s a problem that needs solving, and not in a “oh, wouldn’t it be nice if we could save the whales?” sort of way. Global climate change and the host of other environmental issues facing the world are ones that need solving for the very survival of our race. But then why aren’t I taking courses in nuclear weaponry and diplomacy to try to avert a catastrophic nuclear Armageddon, or working my way up through the ranks of the military? Maybe it’s just because weather-wimps don’t do so well in the deserts of the Middle East, either, but I’ll try to probe for a deeper meaning than that.
I got to thinking about my other interests besides environmental studies, principally music, writing, and politics. Why am I interested in these topics? The reasons I came up with were very different than why I’m interested in the environment.
First, music. I got into music because I tagged along to my sister’s piano lessons when I was but a wee lad, and eventually my mother decided that as long as I was there, I should start taking lessons too. Now it’s fifteen-odd years later and I play eight instruments, sing in a choir and a folk duet, listen to music endlessly, and find some of my greatest joy in playing music with friends and some of my greatest release in writing songs. So while the choice to begin music might not have been mine in the beginning, over the thousands of hours I have spent with music, I have come to own it and love it. I can convey things with music I can’t in any other way, and have learned things from it that I would not have learned otherwise. Re-reading the paragraph above me, music seems like a very selfish interest for me. I certainly have hopes that by playing music and writing songs I might have some small influence on the world or other people, but that’s not why I do music. Music is for me.
It’s a little bit different with writing. Whereas I started listening to music after I started playing it, I started writing because I loved reading and wanted to create something like what I was reading. I’m still working on loving the process of writing, but I’m getting better, moving beyond the point of enjoying merely having written. So again, writing is something that I seem to do for personal enjoyment or fulfillment.
My love of politics probably started with my love for the television show The West Wing, which is to this day my favorite show of all time. It taught be about politics, ideologies, and about humanity as well. I liked the drama of elections and political in-fighting and started following political news for real-life excitement before I figured out that politics could be used as a tool to effect change I want to see in the world. So my interest in politics started out as something that interested me for its own sake, and has evolved to become something I study academically and want to use to make the world a better place. But politics, like music and writing, is something I would still do if I didn’t “have to.”
The environment doesn’t fit as easily into a timeline of my life as these last three. I can’t point to a formative experience or period of time when I woke up to environmental issues. I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth in high school chemistry, but while it made me think, I don’t remember a fundamental change, an “aha” moment. I think that if the environment was fine and unthreatened, I wouldn’t be nearly so interested in studying it. In this sense, it’s something I am doing because in some sense I *have* to be. That’s not to say I don’t love studying the environment and environmental issues, but I don’t think it’s as intrinsic a part of who I am as politics, music and writing.
The concept of the “real world” as opposed to the “fake” world of St. Olaf or another liberal arts college is one that resonated with me as we read about it in Jim’s article and discussed it in class. This pressure is something that I think a lot of college students feel, and in me it has at times manifested as guilt over what I’m doing with my life.
It seems at times that going to college is just an exercise in putting off the inevitable joining of the real world. When I get out of here, I think, I’ll have to work. Then I think to myself, aren’t I working at St. Olaf? Isn’t being in college, writing papers and researching and reading copious amounts of dense text difficult? Who said it wasn’t? For me, it was a cantankerous old man on the other end of a phone bank. Please allow me a brief story to set the scene:
The summer after my freshman year at Olaf I was working on Matt Entenza’s Minnesota gubernatorial campaign, trying to live out my politicking fantasies as seen in The West Wing. I soon discovered, much to my chagrin, that being a campaign foot-soldier is much different from being in the inner circle of the candidate’s closest confidantes. Rather than sitting in on dramatic strategy meetings in smoke-filled rooms, I worked mostly from home calling people who weren’t especially pleased to be talking with me.
One summer day I called the number that appeared on my screen and a woman answered with a cheerful hello. I told her who I was and why I was calling, and her sunny disposition dissolved into a resentful “Oh. My husband deals with those things.” She put her husband on the phone and I dutifully repeated my spiel, but I could sense his simmering anger right off the bat. He questioned me about Entenza’s personal finances and how I could support a candidate with so much money. I responded that I didn’t think that was important, that I was supporting Entenza for his stance on the issues.
“Fine, tell me what his issues are,” the old man replied.
Good, I thought. This is getting back into my comfort zone. I talked about the candidate’s support for education reform and green energy. That’s as far as I got before the man stopped me.
“Do you know how much oil it takes to build a windmill?” he asked me.
I admitted that I didn’t, while glowering silently at how unfair the question was. Could I be expected to have such an array of facts at my disposal to bat away the qualms of every redneck climate-change skeptic who crossed my path? At this point it was clear that the man wasn’t going to vote for Entenza or any other Democrat, but I hadn’t developed (nor have I yet) the thick political skin to get into the much with the man, or even enough to hang up the phone on him.
“Does he drive a car?” the man asked about my candidate, implying that a man who drove could only be taken as hypocritical on environmental issues.
On the other end of the phone I was flushed and near tears. I replied, “Yes, he has places he needs to go.” (I’ve come up with about a billion better responses to the man’s question since then, one for every time I’ve played the call over in my head.)
“I have places I need to go,” the man said. The conversation continued in this vein for a while before the man asked, “so what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a student,” I said. I already felt guilty about it, knew exactly what the man was thinking. Oh, look, another stupid, idealistic college kid with no work experience working for a Democrat without understanding any of the issues. He doesn’t even know how much oil it takes to build a windmill!
“That’s what I thought,” the man said, the disdain dripping off every word. “Where do you go to school?”
I was half frightened that he was going to drive down and knock on my dorm room door to berate me more thoroughly in person, but I was more frightened of the present than of the future so I squeaked, “St. Olaf.”
“Hmph,” he said. “Well, why don’t you quit that school and get out in the real world and get a real job.”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, though it wasn’t long, because at this point I was full-out crying and trying to do my best to keep it out of my voice while tilting my head awkwardly so tears wouldn’t fall on the campaign’s loaned cell phone and frazzle its circuits. I think I said something like, “well sir, I can see I’m not going to change your mind, so let me just say good evening and I’ll be on my way.” I am quite the bloodthirsty liberal. Then I left the phone on my desk and went to lie down, deciding I wasn’t going to meet my phone-banking quota for the day. (I ended up not meeting very many of the daily quotas. Though this was among the worst of the calls, there were very few that were in any way pleasant. At least the experience taught me that I’m not cut out for the trenches of political warfare.)
After a few deep breaths and a few hours to think off the worst of the existential nausea, I got down to some real reflection. Did what the man said have any merit? Was I wasting my time in an ivory tower that in addition to not teaching me anything worthwhile was actively distancing and alienating me from the struggles of much of the rest of the world? I decided I was not wasting my time, though it’s a question I’m still grappling with and with which I expect this course will challenge me to engage even more.
I may have the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing provided for me at my parents’ expense, but just because the academic work I do is not the proximate cause of my continued sustenance and existence does not dispossess my work of value. Certainly there is an economic argument to be made for the value of scholarship, in that college graduates make a higher income on average than their counterparts with high-school educations.
But to make the economic argument is to admit the premise of the higher-education critics that there is no value in the pursuit of knowledge beyond its ability to contribute to economic success. What about education’s ability to teach me who I am, what I want to do with my life, and how I fit into a world that exists on a scope broader, deeper and grander than a mere economic one? What about the opportunity St. Olaf has given me to study things that interest me for no other reason than because of that interest? And what about the friends I’ve made at St. Olaf? Even if my St. Olaf degree turned out to be valueless and I ended up flipping burgers alongside high-school dropouts, I still wouldn’t consider my time spent at Olaf a waste, because the friends I have made would be worth every penny of the tuition money. And maybe I would have made friends out in the “real world” too, but I wouldn’t have encountered them in an environment like a college where socialization is as important as work and where, for the most part, we have a four-year reprieve from working our asses off in the name of meeting our wants and needs. In this less-pressured environment, friendships and relationships have space in which to plant deep roots and grow.
If my relationships with people are a truer barometer of my fulfillment as a person than my economic success, as I believe they are, then my time at St. Olaf has not been a waste. I don’t mean to argue that friends are the only worthwhile thing I have gained at Olaf – or else why not just plop everyone in an eternal playpen? – but I do argue that it is important. I value knowledge and the ability to deepen my understanding of the world and myself through study, and countless other aspects of this four-year chunk of life spent at St. Olaf. Those, however, are topics for future journals.
“And the rain fell on houses, and on the late swaying trees - it fell its fiercest on the skulls of the willingly deceived.”
- Laura Marling, “Flicker and Fail”
I want to change the world. Or, perhaps more accurately, I want the world to be changed. Whether or not I’m the one to do it doesn’t matter that much to me. But someone has to do it, so I’m going to give it a shot. Up until now, Draining Fiction From My Blood has been a blog about my music, and a little bit about creative writing here and there. From now on, I’m going to include my thoughts on politics and the environment, the two topics I am studying at school. So this blog will be about my relationship with and thoughts concerning music, writing, politics and the environment, and my search for a coherence of these four pillars that hold up a great portion of my life.
I thought about changing the title of the blog to reflect the new direction, but then I thought about it and I think the current title works. I originally chose Draining Fiction From My Blood, a lyric from “We are the Same” by Samantha Crain to reflect the creative process. It meant to me that I was taking out the stories from inside of me and putting them onto the blank white page in front of me, in the form of short stories, novels and songs. But the phrase has meaning for politics and the environment, as well. So much of the world is deluded and misguided on these two issues, willfully or not, that for anything meaningful to be accomplished in either arena we need to drain our blood of the fictions that obscure meaningful progress towards solutions. I don’t claim to know fact from fiction in every case, but I do know that too many versions of the truth exist for us to reconcile peacefully. So in this blog, I will try to drain the fictions from my blood as well, maybe, as a few from yours. Maybe then we can come together as one and save the world. I don’t think I can do it on my own.
“When the yelling does subside, I’ll come running to your side… and we, we are the same.”
- Samantha Crain, “We Are the Same”
This change is in part prompted by a class I am currently taking called Campus Ecology. The course is making me think a lot about what I believe about life, the world, and my place in it. I’ll periodically post things that interest me in the class and journals I am writing for it.
We are reading an excellent book for class called Earth in Mind, by David Orr, that I would highly recommend. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve read in college so far - I’ll share a few lines from it that have gotten me thinking.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
- Actually a quote from A. Leopold of A Sand County Almanac fame
This quote pretty accurately how it feels to be an environmental studies major - like shit. You know the world is sliding down to hell all around you and you feel like there’s no one you can talk to about it who will understand.
“No concerns about the world getting warmer - people thought they were just being rewarded for treating others as they’d like to be treated, for obeying stop signs and curing diseases, for mailing letters with the address of the sender - now we can swim any day in November.”
- The Postal Service, “Sleeping In”
As my lyrical quotes have hopefully showed you, music has something to say about the environment. I think that the world can be changed not only by politics, but by music and storytelling. Look at Dylan’s protest songs - look at the Beatles. Look at the fear books can instill in the hearts of wrongdoers, so much so that they burn them in huge piles I’m not saying that I’m going to go out and write songs about saving the planet, but I think music has power; I’m not saying I’ll write a political treatise on how to tackle the intractable issue of the environment, but I think telling stories can change lives. Then again, I’m not saying I won’t do those things. We’ll see what happens when I let my blood out on the page, what shapes the fictions will form.
“The planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind.”
- David Orr, Earth in Mind
This is my goal. I want to add stories to the stack, pages to the book, music to the air. I’ll leave you with the piece of music I quoted at the top of the post, Laura Marling’s Flicker and Fail, currently my most-played song in iTunes. It’s simply beautiful, and Laura definitely has something to say, if you care to listen:
“And the rain fell on the towers and on the late swaying trees, and it hammered and it raged on us unwillingly. The believers were forewarned, and they ran in to the storm and watched the Earth’s light flicker and fail”
- Laura Marling, “Flicker and Fail”