Posted on

Book Review: Frog Pond Philosophy: Essays on the Relationship between Humans and Nature by Strachan Donnelley

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University

Strachan Donnelley founded the Center for Humans and Nature in 2003 after years of pondering the ethical responsibilities of humans within the natural environment. Early on in his life after receiving a doctorate in philosophy, he became a member of the Hastings Center, the think tank in New York that studies bioethics. He became its Director of Environmental Ethics, then its President, and finally the Director of the Humans and Nature Program. He began collecting many of his articles on the question of humans and nature in 2003 but died in 2008 before he was able to ready the book for publication, although he had written an introduction that is contained in this edition. Frog Pond Philosophy is edited by his daughter Ceara and Bruce Jennings, a long-time friend and the editor of Minding Nature, the Center’s journal. Each editor writes an afterword recalling Strachan Donnelley and discussing his life-long interest in the ethical responsibilities of humans in the natural world.

Donnelley gratefully acknowledges the fact of having been able to spend a lifetime concentrating on ethical matters related to the environment of which humans are a part and to which they have responsibilities. He was an heir to his family’s paper industry fortune. But he decided early on to use his financial independence to promote the ideas that helped shape his own thoughts and actions, ideas derived from Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Alfred North Whitehead, Aldo Leopold, Ernst Mayr, Hans Jonas, and Boris Pasternak. Pasternak, as Donnelley explains, represent the artists who are necessary, according to Whitehead, to complete philosophic thinking. Donnelley maintains that one cannot read Doctor Zhivago without understanding the philosophy behind it.

As this list of thinkers indicates, it isn’t just those who were philosophers that influenced Donnelley. Those like Leopold, with his definition of a land ethic, and Darwin with his scientific observation of species development, had firsthand experiences with nature that shaped their conclusions about the natural world. So, too, Donnelley’s narratives within Frog Pond Philosophy anchor his philosophical and ethical positions to a world that the reader untrained in philosophy can readily understand.

In the nineties, Donnelley met Father Francis Kline, the abbot of Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner, South Carolina. It was a fateful meeting. Father Kline had come to Donnelley’s office at the Hastings Center on the Hudson to talk with him about the work of the Humans and Nature program already going on in South Carolina, New York, and Chicago. Donnelley and Kline became close friends, even though Donnelley preferred philosophy and evolutionary thinking to religious belief—a view that Kline, who was not a dogmatic Catholic, understood. Soon thereafter, Donnelley, Kline, and other “stakeholders”—including fishermen, hunters, other recreationists, cultural historians, landowners, and businessmen—met at Mepkin Abbey to talk about a development being planned that could adversely affect the Santee-Cooper River natural areas of the South Carolina Lowlands, already suffering from ecospheric change and rising sea levels. The meeting helped coalesce Donnelley’s thinking about the Center for Humans and Nature by proving to him how the Center could contribute to discussions among disparate stakeholders by urging them to understand their human “moral and civic responsibilities to the future….”

Father Kline, a self-styled “marginalist” who “spoke truth to power,” died two years before Donnelley. Donnelley was invited to talk at Kline’s memorial service. The editors place Donnelley’s eulogy to Kline at the end of the collection, a fitting summary of Donnelley’s and Kline’s understanding of the importance of the natural world. Donnelley explained this to those at the memorial:

[Father Kline] did not argue for cultural and natural conservation in terms of economic expediency, for example, ecosystem services, or biological and ecosystemic necessity, as important as these might be. The conservation of nature    and human cultural communities are matters of ultimate concern both for    ourselves and to the natural communities and landscapes within which we live. These, at bottom, are matters of moral and spiritual responsibility and should be explicitly recognized as such. Thus Francis’s unflagging and passionate moral  concern for the future of the Lowcountry’s natural landscapes and ecosystems and many human cultural communities, both in their many-leveled, value-laden dimensions. Thus his concern for the past, present, and future of the Cooper River and Berkeley County. Thus his passionate intervention in the Bonneau Ferry saga. Francis forcibly threatened to bring the wrath of God down upon those complicit in it potential development.

Strachan Donnelley, philosopher and founder of the Center for Humans and Nature

Such words describe the thoughts and actions of Donnelley as well. When in 2005 Kansas decided that evolution was no longer an appropriate subject to be taught in the public schools, Donnelley was outraged. He went to Kansas to see what he could do to return Darwin’s theories to the classroom. In January of 2007, the decision was reversed by the School Board.

For some, Donnelley’s life-time experiences of hunting and fly fishing might be difficult to reconcile with his ethical approach to the natural world. But he discusses them forthrightly. He describes a venture in duck hunting and devotes a number of pages to his pleasure in fishing for trout. But he knows the lesson Aldo Leopold learned by seeing the light in the dying eyes of the wolf, an experience that Leopold describes in A Sand Country Almanac in his chapter “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Donnelley understands Leopold’s longing for wildness. He writes, paraphrasing Leopold, “I am keenly interested in wildness, its complex reality, significance, and importance. Some people can live without wild things and some cannot. I cannot. Why? And why am I so captured and captivated by water wildness?” He tells the story of hooking into a trout that helped him learn the lessons of wildness in a chapter titled “Big Little Snake: Metaphor Mongers and Mountain Rainbows.” Donnelley says that he always remembers the fish he loses more than the ones he lands and often releases back into the water. One large rainbow in the Little Snake River broke his leader but gave him a cherished memory: “Big Little Snake [his name for the fish] got its freedom; I the natural encounter and enduring memory.”  Wildness helps explain Donnelley’s need to have real encounters in the natural world. Philosophy, he says, does not provide the final answers to what our moral obligations might be.

The arrangement of the essays allows the reader to become familiar with the more philosophical portion of the book in section “IV. Recovering a Philosophy of Nature,” which includes chapters on philosophic cosmology, Spinoza and Whitehead, neo-Darwinian cosmologies, life and ethics of responsibility, and the philosophy in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Readers have been prepared to delve into these more philosophic chapters by the experiential encounters that they have had with Donnelley’s explanations of his search for ethical responses to climate change, over population, genetic engineering, and other concerns that today are heavily debated. Philosophy, Donnelley tells us, does not provide definitive answers. It is, however, an essential part of the process of understanding our place in the natural world. In a chapter titled “What Cosmology Can Teach Us,” he explains:

But what are our ethical, earthly responsibilities, especially given that we are confined to paths of enlightened ignorance? That is, given that we in principle do not have, and cannot have, final and certain moral truths, dogmatically fixed moral stars to guide us? Does this situation resign us to moral nihilism or, at best, aimless moral relativism, an “I’m OK, you’re OK” syndrome?

No. Manifestly, this is not the inevitable outcome of the path of enlightened ignorance. Quite the opposite. By renouncing the quest for certainty and correlative dreams of perfection, we become, or ought to become, more wedded to the finite and vulnerable realized goodness of earthly life—all earthly life. Given what we can discern “through a glass darkly,” our moral responsibilities are systemic: to earthly processes, structures, and communities of life, as well as to life’s interconnected individuals. Moral responsibility is naturally ecosystemic as well as humanly communal and relational.

To Donnelley, a philosophical approach to nature is a starting point and a framework and must be considered if we are to fulfill our responsibilities to making the right choices for the future. After reading this book, it will be difficult for the reader to return to a Cartesian dualistic view of the world that sees mind as different from matter. It is more helpful, Donnelley says, to view the world as Spinoza did, as a monistic entity always developing.

While Donnelley would not want all of his conclusions to be taken as absolutes—after all, he points out that philosophy, like the natural world, evolves—the book is a valuable tool for those who would want to argue the importance of our understanding of our place and our obligations to build a future within a monistic natural world.

Frog Pond Philosophy: Essays on the Relationship between Humans and Nature

University Press of Kentucky

Read an excerpt from Frog Pond Philosophy in Minding Nature journal.

Posted on
Posted on

BirdNote: Chirp-sized bird stories from the popular radio show

Here in Ashland, Oregon, I listen to our local radio station KSKQ. And for the past several years I’ve enjoyed the weekly, two-minute BirdNote programs.

So I was excited to find that there is now a BirdNote book. What the book lacks in audio, it makes up for in very high print production values; it is beautifully designed, with full-color illustrations and a handy bookmark tassel.

This will make an excellent gift for the would-be birder in your family. And even veteran birders will enjoy it. While I’d like to think I’ve learned a fair amount about birds over the years spent gazing upwards, I still learned plenty, such as:

  • The Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker rely heavily on ants that bore through the trees. A Norther Flicker was known to consume 5,000 ants in one sitting (or perching).
  • The Green Heron may use a “bait” of twigs, feathers or insects to attract fish within reach of their bills.
  • A barn swallow eats up to 850 insects a day — making this a wonderful bird to have around not just a barn, but any yard.
  • There is a crow roost in Illinois that is home to 100,000 crows. I would love to hear that.
  • The cardinal (who I sorely miss out here in the Oregon) was named after the red hats and robes of the Roman cardinals.
  • And speaking of red, cars this color are most often targeted by birds doing their business, according to a study. Green cars are least likely to be targeted.
  • And the much-maligned starling gets some deserved love. I find their symphony of sounds to be truly remarkable. And I was not alone; turns out Mozart had a pet starling that he wrote a poem about after it passed on.

My only complaint is that it would have been nice to see longer, more informative notes. A number of notes come in at just a few paragraphs.

Also, while some chapters do explain why certain species are threatened, such as the California Condor, I would have liked to see more of this, such as regarding the many species of albatross now under threat.

Quibbles aside, I recommend this book to anyone who loves birds (or anyone you think should love birds).

PS: All BirdNotes can be listened to online here

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show

Publisher: Sasquatch Books

Posted on
Posted on

Book Review: Back from the Brink by Nancy F. Castaldo

Back from the Brink, by Nancy F. Castaldo, is a collection of stories for older kids (10 – 12 years old) about animals that have come very close to extinction.  Due to efforts from conservation researchers and passionate individuals who want to see these species survive, their populations have increased again.  I recommend this book for students who are interested in conservation and learning about how researchers help save species that are on the verge of extinction.  It would make an excellent addition to a school library.

The book starts with an introduction to the legislation that helps protect species, including the Endangered Species Act.  It is then divided into chapters that cover seven different species that have faced extinction: whooping cranes, wolves, bald eagles, Galapagos tortoises, California condors, American alligators, and American bison. The chapters discuss causes of population decline from issues such as hunting, poisoning, habitat loss, and competition from invasive species.  Castaldo follows that with information on how the populations were turned around and brought back from the brink through hard work by passionate individuals. The book ends with child-appropriate ideas to help save species.

The beginning and ending of each chapter is written in first person, recounting Castaldo’s visit to see the species of focus and where they live now.  The use of first person was an interesting choice. I think it will help students get the feel for actually being there and seeing these species.

The book is also filled with a lot of wonderful pictures of the animals.  Images that help support the information discussed in the text are also included, such as what a hacking tower looks like, which is used to fledge bald eagles, and what crane puppets look like, which are used to prevent chicks from imprinting on humans.

The book has a lot of detail, so it is long, as would be expected for older kids.  I do not recommend it for bedtime reading. The longest chapter is 30 pages. It is ideal for independent reading, reading for research projects, and for stretches of time when you can sit down for a while to read a chapter with your child.  I read this book with my daughter during the time between her brother’s bedtime and when she goes to bed about an hour later, reading just one chapter each night. It led to some great discussions about conservation. One night after we finished the chapter on whooping cranes I told her I was excited because the chapter the next night was going to be on wolves.  She was not happy. She told me she did not like wolves, but couldn’t elaborate on why. I pulled out my phone and showed her the video by Sustainable Human about how wolf reintroduction has had a wonderful impact on the environment in Yellowstone National Park.  She seemed more interested after watching it. When we went to read that chapter the following night she was excited and really engaged in the story of the wolves and the pictures in the chapter. I was glad to see her more interested in wolves and why it is important to save them.

Overall, I thought this was a great book to help students understand how species conservation has worked for these species, and the hard work involved in conserving a species.  Hearing these stories may help budding conservationists envision a future where they could do the same.

Posted on
Posted on

Book Review: I am Jane Goodall by Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written a child-friendly account of Dr. Jane Goodall as she grew up and began her research on chimpanzees in I am Jane Goodall.  I recommend this book for budding environmentalists.  It shows kids the importance of caring for the Earth and the need to work with others to advance conservation efforts.  It also demonstrates that passions can turn into careers. If you have a young environmentalist in your home this could be a good addition to their library.

The book starts with Jane’s first birthday, then gives a humorous glimpse of trouble she got into as a child due to her curiosity and passion for nature.  All kids experience this type of youthful naivete as they explore their world that would cause parents to want to pull their hair out, like Jane providing worms a cozy home on her bed.

As Jane grows up, the importance of hard work to achieve a goal is demonstrated.  She surmounted obstacles to get to Africa. She overcame discrimination as a woman in a male-dominated field.  Then, finally, with a lot of patience she was able to get close to chimpanzees in the wild. She was able to observe them for extended periods of time noticing their individual behaviors, and the similarities to human behavior.   

My kids, ages four and six, were not initially interested in the book.  As I began reading they were quickly drawn into the life of Jane Goodall as a child, from her attachment to her stuffed chimpanzee toy Jubilee, to the games she played, her innocent mischievousness, and her excitement for animals and reading.  These are common elements in their daily lives. By the end of the book my kids were glad we read it. We had a passionate discussion about threatened animals and what they could do to help.

I found the book entertaining and inspiring.  It is intriguing to hear how prominent figures in conservation discovered their field.  It is also useful to see an example of how they overcame obstacles that people in conservation still face today – lack of money, controversy about the way to do research, etc.

The illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulous are cute.  They have a comic feel with text bubbles depicting what Jane would have said in different situations.  Jane is depicted as a short girl throughout the book that does not appear to age though, which led to questions from my daughter about why she wasn’t getting older as she started doing research on chimpanzees.  

The book ends with pictures of Jane through the years, and a timeline of major events in her life.  She continues to be an inspiration to care for the Earth through her work at the Jane Goodall Institute.  The book mentions her Roots & Shoots program as well, which connects kids around the world and engages them in projects to help save the Earth, animals, and people in need.  It is a good reminder of all the ways we can help, and can be a discussion stimulus to encourage kids to relate their own actions to conservation efforts.

This book is from a series of books Meltzer and Eliopoulous are creating for Scholastic called Ordinary People Change the World.  If you enjoy this one, check out some of the other ones in the series too.

Posted on
Posted on

Book Review: Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, co-edited by Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby

Reviewed by Lucia Hadella in partnership with Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project and Environmental Arts and Humanities program.

How does one go about telling the story of hydraulic fracturing in the United States in a way that illuminates its repercussions for humans and nonhumans? Through poetry? A short story? An essay? Does one travel to a town where fracking is prevalent and talk with its residents, see the operations, walk across the scarred ground? Editors Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby made the decision, when putting together Fracture, to include all of these approaches in an effort to capture the qualms and indignations surrounding fracking.

The story of fracking is globally relevant, contributing to the larger saga of climate change and energy production, but it is also local, personal, and intimate. In her poem “Small Buried Things,” poet and singer-songwriter Debra Marquart writes to fracking states, such as North Dakota, with a warning and a plea. Highlighting the sacrifice of life-sustaining water and air for the quick returns from fossil fuel development, she writes, “more oil than we have water to extract / more oil than we have atmosphere to burn.” Addressing her home state, she urges, “north dakota   dear sleeping beauty   please, wake up / they have opened you up and said, come in   take everything.”

I first learned about fracking during my senior year of high school, and I can still remember those infographics depicting the cracks that spread through the shale layer, sometimes more than a mile below the Earth’s surface, branching like a system of roots where trees will never reach. I remember the video of a woman in Pennsylvania turning the knob to her kitchen sink, lighting a match, and flinching as the water ignited with a flash. She talked about methane levels, about getting dizzy in the shower, about the money the gas companies gave her to lease her land for drilling. As an Oregonian who had not witnessed fracking firsthand, my schooling on the subject was important but incomplete.

Indeed, one can only learn so much about fracking by watching videos and studying diagrams. A collection like Fracture helps to humanize the on-site damage done by fracking and offer a more complete look at the political and economic forces at play. In order to gain insight for his Fracture contribution “The Occupation,” writer and professor Paul Bogard traveled to southeastern Ohio to better understand how communities there are affected by natural gas extraction. “What I saw in Ohio,” he writes, “is a land under occupation.” Between the “ubiquitous tankers labeled ‘brine’” and the “constant industrial noise, like a factory’s churn and whine,” Bogard quickly determines that the real-life fracking scene is far different from that described by the oil company Halliburton.

Fracking wastewater pond, courtesy of the Filmmaker Fund

On their website Halliburton depicts fracking operations as quick, quiet, and safe. Advertising to communities made vulnerable by poverty and limited access to education, the company downplays the environmental disruption and chemical contamination while emphasizing opportunities for job growth and “easy money.” Bogard learns from his hosts, Appalachia locals, that the oil and gas companies first try to coax landowners into signing leases, and then they revert to divisive tactics if that doesn’t work, “turning neighbor against neighbor.”

Like so many other contributors, Bogard’s narrative style entices Fracture readers, and I found myself roped in by the human intrigue of his journalistic approach—and then I remembered that these disturbing stories are real. The threatening industry representatives, the landowners who are duped and coerced, and the ground that “has the look of a recent battle, torn up and scraped bare, all yet to heal” comprise the reality right now in many towns across the nation. It seems appropriate that some authors in Fracture chose fiction as their avenue for exploring a practice whose implications for the future are both significant and unknown. The subject is heavy, and it tugs at the imagination, demanding an explanation and a way to look forward for what actions must be taken.

This heaviness is the reason why Fracture, which reads smoothly from page-to-page, author-to-author, and genre-to-genre, is also demanding. It requires from its readers a degree of empathy and self-reflection, all the while provoking frustration with a larger system that allows and perpetuates suffering at the hands of power. In her essay “The View from 31,000 Feet: A Philosopher Looks at Fracking,” nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore stares down at an eastern Utah landscape speckled with fracking wells. From her seat in the airplane she wonders, “By what right do humans take what they want from the land—not just what they need, but whatever they want—with no regard for the living, animate community that already exists in that place?”

Indeed, some Fracture contributors, such as Moore, take their discussions beyond fracking, seeing the practice as one component of a broader system of resource exploitation in the name of growth, convenience, and progress. In his essay “Insanity,” activist and philosopher Derrick Jensen examines fracking as one part of a dominant culture obsessed with growth at any cost. He reminds readers that “[f]racking is not one lone mistake. It’s not one lone act of greed. It’s part of a larger pattern. It’s one symptom of the disease—the insanity—that is this culture.” He urges readers to fight fracking with this larger picture in mind and to understand that what is needed in taking action against fracking is a systemic shift and not one that views the extractive practice in isolation.

And indeed, Fracture is a call to action. In fact, it comes complete with several guides on how to take charge against fracking. In “A Feminist’s Guide to Fighting Pipelines,” activist-publisher Ahna Kruzic and sociologist Angie Carter share sage advice on getting started, building community, moving forward, caring for oneself, and adhering to radical imagination. I will leave you with their words as a gesture of resistance: “Trust that through the undoing, the dismantling, the collapse, we will learn to remake and will remember to question, to honor, to debate and disagree and come together again.”

Lucia Hadella grew up in Talent, Oregon. She received her B.S. in Natural Resources from Oregon State University, where she is currently earning an M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities.

Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America

Ice Cube Press

Read and share your own thoughts on the Center for Humans and Nature’s Questions for a Resilient Future Series: Does fracking violate human rights?

Posted on