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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.

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Our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe

We are thrilled to announce that our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe.

Jonathan’s most recent book is the New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins, an extraordinary journey underwater that reveals the vast capabilities of fishes. He is also the author of the books The Exultant Ark, Second Nature, Pleasurable Kingdom, and The Use of Animals in Higher Education.

Jonathan has three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) from the University of Tennessee, and has published more than 50 scientific papers on animal behavior and animal protection. Formerly department chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society University and senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Jonathan is currently Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. Learn more at jonathan-balcombe.com.

This year marks our fourth annual Siskiyou Prize, and we are delighted to be offering a $1,000 prize and a four-week writing residency thanks to the generosity of our amazing prize partner PLAYA. All manuscripts submitted for the prize will be considered for publication by Ashland Creek Press.

Please visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details about the prize — submissions open September 1, 2017. We look forward to reading your work!

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Announcing the winner & finalists of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize!

We are delighted to announce the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature: Katy Yocom, for her novel THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR.

Judge JoeAnn Hart writes, “THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR begins with a focused lens on the endangered Bengal tiger then expands its reach with every page to reveal the interconnectedness of the natural world and fragility of all life. Weaving together the worn threads of ecological balance, this ambitious and moving novel addresses scarcity, climate change, family dynamics, cultural conflict, human accountability, women’s economic autonomy, and most of all, love, in all its wondrous forms. This is a story not just about saving the tigers, but ourselves.”

Katy Yocom was born and raised in Atchison, Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she has lived ever since. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon.com, The Louisville Review, decomP magazinE, StyleSubstanceSoul, and Louisville Magazine, among other publications.

In conducting research for her novel, THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, she traveled to India, funded by a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She has also been awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council and has served as writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Crosshatch Hill House, and Hopscotch House. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poetry has been translated into Bulgarian. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.

She lives with her husband in Louisville, Kentucky, where she helps direct Spalding’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Learn more about Katy on her website and via Facebook.

As the Siskiyou Prize winner, Katy will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA and a $1,000 cash prize.

It was a very competitive contest this year, and we would also like to congratulate the finalists and semifinalists:

FINALISTS

Small Small Redemption: Essays by Sangamithra Iyer

The Heart of the Sound: A memoir by Marybeth Holleman (published by Bison Books)

Song of the Ghost Dog: A YA novel by Sharon Piuser

SEMIFINALISTS

Karstland: A novel by Caroline Manring

Rumors of Wolves: A novel by C.K. Adams

The Harp-Maker of Exmoor: A novel by Hazel Prior

Thanks to everyone who submitted and to everyone who writes with the goal of making this world a better place. And please stay tuned for announcements for the next Siskiyou Prize!

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Book Review: Stories from the Leopold Shack by Estella Leopold

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

In Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited, Estella Leopold takes her readers on an intimate journey into that now-fabled place to which her father introduced the world in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949). The site in central Wisconsin close to Baraboo that Aldo and now his daughter Estella have chronicled is where Aldo, his wife Estella Bergere, and their five children spent their summers. They lived in a once-abandoned farm shack, where they worked together to restore the land upon which it sat—land they found to be despoiled by decades of agricultural malpractice. The site remains today a monument to what was Aldo Leopold’s idea of ecological restoration, and it is living testimony to what Leopold’s formulation of the “Land Ethic” can bring about.

In her “Acknowledgments” Estella explains that the book began as a project in reminiscing. To occupy herself during long flights to Wisconsin from the West Coast where she lived and taught, Estella began to record stories she remembered from her childhood summers at the Shack. Of the Leopold’s five children, she was the youngest. And by the time her father was completing and revising A Sand County Almanac in the 1940s, her older siblings were in college. She often spent her adolescent summers at the Shack as the only companion of her parents.

Following the first chapter introducing the reconstruction of the Shack, Estella writes four chapters of stories taking place in the seasons of the year, following the general direction of her father’s book. These chapters offer memories of her time as a young girl when Estella came to know the treasures the land had to offer to her and her family. Like her father, she is a close observer of the minute. Here is an account of an early summer morning:

The family ritual started with Dad getting up very quietly, sometimes as early as 4:00 a.m., or even 3:00 a.m. when he was checking on bird songs and light. Dad would build a fire in the yard fireplace and make coffee out there, listening to the early birds with his light meter. He was measuring how much light there was as each species began to sing in the morning chorus….

As the Sun warmed the air, he went on his morning walk with Gus [his dog]. When the sun came up, Mother would rise, and then us children. It was always so pleasant to step out barefoot onto the dewy grass and walk to the Parthenon [privy], studying the pretty birdsfoot violets (Viola pedata) blooming along the path. In Dad’s prairie garden in front of the Shack, we would check out the gorgeous spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), which could always count on producing one new fresh blue flower with three petals and a yellow center every single morning all summer.

In the final chapters, Estella recounts humorous and always respectful stories of her mother’s achievements in archery and bow hunting. She then moves on to stories that reflect the influence her childhood memories had upon her throughout her life, including learning the early restoration efforts on the land around the Shack, as well as learning the ongoing progress of restoration from the time of Estella’s father’s death to the present, largely carried on by the Leopold Foundation.

Aldo Leopold with family at the Shack. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

“The Shack Idea,” her concluding chapter, describes how Estella’s siblings and she continued to imprint her father’s legacy afar by settling into and protecting threatened places by constructing “shacks” of their own that anchored their intentions for restoration and sense of place. The five siblings established their own shacks in the midst of natural surroundings in California, Wyoming, Wisconsin (an “eco-friendly house” built by Nina—Estella’s older sister—and Charlie Bradley near the Leopold Shack in Wisconsin), Costa Rica, and, Estella’s own in Colorado. Each shack became a statement by the Leopold’s grown children that the land and the wildlife which inhabited it could thrive in concert with human presence. Estella writes this of her own adult experience:

The enrichment of the land community constituted what I call the “greening of Shack West” in Colorado: it was an area that under my protection was now freed of the terrible strychnine poison pellets that had wiped out the original coyotes, and doubtless many birds. My land was now free of grazing cows (except temporarily when the fence broke). I have been happy to know from the occasional tracks and exciting personal encounters that my land also includes a family of black bears and a family of mountain lions.

Estella Leopold’s reminiscences offer engaging and informative stories, intended primarily for the generations to come who tend to be raised in a culture that sees wilderness or despoiled landscapes as places to be circumvented. In a culture that is fearful of the outdoors and its nonhuman inhabitants, from insects to wolves to bears, this book shows why it is necessary to encounter and to preserve our natural surroundings by learning what it is to be part and parcel of these spaces and how much we depend upon them for our own existence. Parents should read this book for the lessons in living with the natural world and with one another that it provides. The Leopold children, when grown, followed these lessons they learned at the Leopold Shack. Three, including Estella, a paleobotanist, became members of the National Academy of Sciences. All have devoted their lives to investigating how much we and the environment depend upon one another for our existence. Estella Leopold’s book is an important introduction to how to achieve a complete life for generations to follow.

Aldo Leopold at the Shack. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives

Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited

Oxford University Press

Read an interview with Estella Leopold in the Center for Humans and Nature’s September 2016 issue of Minding Nature.

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Calls for submissions

There are two new calls for submissions to announce for eco-minded writers.

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First, Flyway Journal seeks submissions for its Notes from the Field nonfiction contest, which celebrates writing about vivid experience, whether abroad, at home, in your line of work, or in any other unexpected environment.

Flyway‘s guidelines: Submit one (1) work of creative nonfiction, previously unpublished, five thousand words maximum. Your cover letter should contain your name and contact information; your name should NOT appear anywhere else on the submission. Winning and runner-up selections will be announced late December and will be published in Flyway thereafter. Visit the Flyway submissions page for more details and to submit.

And Eco-Chick (a website site covering green fashion and beauty for women since 2005) has announced its first annual writing contest, Women in the Water. Writers are invited to submit a work of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry related to the theme of women and the water.

Eco-Chick’s guidelines state, “Writers can interpret our theme in any way they choose, as long as their piece has something to do with women and water. Though our contest is focused on women, we encourage anyone to submit no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum. Your submission should have an element related to women, such as a female character or a theme related to women’s issues.” Visit the website for more information and to submit.

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Thanks for supporting organizations and publications that aim to enlighten readers and protect the planet and its creatures!

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