My work at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry lies along the philosophical intersections of nature, culture, science and ethics in the Adirondack Park, NY. I lead the Environmental Philosophy Program at ESF’s Newcomb Campus located on the 15,000-acre Huntington Wildlife Forest (HWF). Here I am responsible for the design and facilitation of rich conversations aimed at a variety of audiences, across disciplines. Initiatives in this program are intended to bridge humanities content with HWF-specific field knowledge and experience in order to understand the impacts of the relationship between scientific research and the regional land-use policy it advances.
The following is an edited and abridged transcript of a recent conversation I had with Emma Lucille Percy, Artist in Residence at the SUNY-ESF Newcomb Campus. Emma’s 12-week residency is generously sponsored in part by the Adirondack Park Institute and SUNY-ESF and is inspired by a college-wide commitment to strengthen the conversation between science and the arts and humanities.
There is still time to register for Emma’s final bookbinding workshop of the season at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb, NY. This all-levels workshop is free and open to the public. Call (518) 582-2000 or email [email protected] to register. To learn more about Emma’s work, click here. » Continue Reading.
Last month I considered how a condition of inter-subjectivity might be responsible for whether and how our surroundings influence who we are and what we create. Picking up where I left off, this morning I’m turning over the question of how the lived-world draw us forth and how it is drawn into our creative process. It seems to me that the world infuses us with its own being and we, who are being given the world, interpret and draw out its edge through our own lifework before we deliver it back into community as self-expression. A tripartite process of what is given, literally what is submitted, what is received in the exchange that is soon re-visioned, re-imagined and given backas an offering.
The Adirondack Almanack has recently been enlivened by a series substantive of conversations around land use in the Adirondacks. I invite anyone interested in continuing those conversations to participate in the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Interdisciplinary Scholarship in Land Use and Ethics 2ndAnnual Symposium May 17–19, 2013 at the Newcomb campus. On its best day, philosophy succeeds in sending “the conversation off in new directions.”
Over the past few months I’ve been considering what it means to be subjects in and subject to place. I’ve wondered if this condition of inter-subjectivity is responsible for whether and how our surroundings influence who we are and what we create.
On the one hand, influence is explicit when we make representative art as in landscape painting or poetry and prose whose subject is Emerson’s lake water whipped » Continue Reading.
My mind is full of questions and my heart follows, seeking in its own way. Fortunately, the consolation of philosophy lies in the convergence of heart and mind deep within this process of inquiry born of struggle. Coffee in hand to fortify me in the process and with a July mountain morning on the rise, my gaze wandered in the direction of a painting that my mother made many years ago.
Despite being obscured by the turned angle of his body and the quietly bent head, the subject of the painting would likely be known to anyone familiar enough to be in my home to see it. The figure’s posture gives him away, more than the distinctive curve of the Lake Colden helipad, more than the maps jutting out of a pack lying at his feet and more than the wooden axe handle gripped and made small in his hand. » Continue Reading.
I wouldn’t call myself a “morning person” but I do like the way the day has a kind of endless feel when I get up with the sun. This time of year the world around this little house is alive with the spring song of rushing brook water, birds, and that subtle sound of bloom rubbing against bloom that is quieted in winter. So, I follow my cat’s lead and stretch into the day in response to the sounds of the outside waking up. Click on NCPR, draw a dark roast, pour some granola, gather pen and paper, settle into a soft chair and begin.
It was on such a morning recently when a report came over NCPR that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had declared privacy was passé. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” » Continue Reading.
We understand who we are and we imagine who we want to become by telling stories through the interrelated mediums of art, prose, music and spirituality. The shapes that these narratives take are influenced by the places where they, and we, are rooted. Influence is a subtle and often implicit force. It is the stuff beyond mere representation, or the explicit reference to particular geographies (this mountain or that stream). Influence is ephemeral and as the poet Rilke wrote, it falls on me like moonlight on a window seat. » Continue Reading.
My friend and I walked down a trail at the end of the afternoon, mindful that this day soon would slip from the present into memory. We had spent the last several hours on the side of a hill looking more often out at the Adirondacks in the distance, than at the near landscape where we whiled away.
In retrospect this was fitting since most of our recollections, all of our shared stories at least, had settled years ago between the rise of those mountains and the fall of their valleys. And here we were, older and perhaps better though surely in other ways lesser, versions of ourselves. » Continue Reading.
What happens to philosophy when we liberate it from the Ivory Tower and from the confines of coursework, academic publications and specializations that can feel like falling head-long down the rabbit hole? What does a philosopher become when she isn’t simply a teacher of curriculum, evaluated and validated by measurable outcomes? What is to be done when the hand-wringing and concerned looks of parents and friends turn into real questions like how in the name of all the esoteric nonsense will the rent get paid? Or more to the point: what are you going to do with this training? Not to worry. When all else fails there’s always a coffee bar (been there). Or a low-level editorial job at a local newspaper (done that). And if the Gary Larson cartoon my mother sent to me years ago when I declared my intentions showing a “Philosophy and Bait Shop” is any indication, entrepreneurial opportunities abound. But all kidding aside, there is a reason that thousands (yes, thousands!) of us choose this route and my reasoning may be a little surprising: I am a philosopher because I want to be of service. The question of what becomes of philosophers and philosophy when we cut loose from careers that can be easily described and universally understood becomes yet more pronounced when we think about philosophy as a public profession. But there is rich precedence for this and I follow in the wake of great practitioners.
One such colleague is the 19th century philosopher William James who argued that the pragmatic (philosophical) method is a useful way to gain greater understanding about the world. For example, one perennial question that reaches into the culture of crime and punishment is whether we have free will or whether everything, and thus all of our behaviors, are predetermined. Another contemporary favorite played out in the vicious discourse between science and religion asks whether the world is material or spiritual? Philosophers in the pragmatic tradition continue to assert that we can use pragmatic principles to get a handle on what the practical consequences would be, if one or another of these claims about the world are true. But what comes after this “all the way down” thinking that we owe to James is where it gets interesting, and where the contribution of a public philosopher can be seen. Once we have traced the practical consequences of an idea and we have a working understanding of what those consequences mean for humanity, for environment etc. then philosophers are obligated to do something to advance whatever we resolve to be right or good! Only when we see the method through to its end, have we done justice to the term pragmatism that is from the Greek pragma meaning action, practice or practical.
This is on my mind because I’ve just returned from a conference dedicated to the work of American pragmatic philosophers. Here most of the attendees were “theoretically” committed to what could be called practical philosophy or philosophy that is focused on questions of agency and experience including what compels us to act in the face of injustice or conflict, what happens in that moment when we are not merely thinking but acting according to an ethical or moral code? Why do we sometimes fail to act and when we do (or don’t) what criteria can we measure our behavior by? As an applied and a public philosopher myself, I had high hopes for this crowd. From my work in the Adirondacks for the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry I take a mandate for action seriously. I’ve learned to appreciate the urgency of real situations that don’t present a clear path of right or wrong, of yes we should or no we’d better not. I understand that more often, like any complex set of realities, the way forward doesn’t resemble one well-marked trail and indeed the closer we look, the more possible directions are revealed.
If this kind of work is undertaken with and for the benefit of a range of communities, and if it is done in service to the public good, what does it look like for us in the Adirondacks and for me in particular? The answer is simple and I think, powerful. SUNY ESF owns more than 20,000 acres of land in the Adirondack Park, with an institutional mission to support research dedicated to advancing the scientific knowledge of Adirondack ecosystems. Through close collaborations with a variety of government and non-government agencies and organizations, ESF has had extraordinary success putting scientific data in the hands of policy makers. Policy makers have translated these findings into guidelines and strategies that continue to direct the future of the Park. With this kind of influence comes a three-fold responsibility: to ESF students dedicated to the pursuit of science, that they understand how their work will guide practical decisions on the landscape; to the Adirondack community who will be impacted by the policy implemented based on the findings generated through ESF; and to regional agencies and organizations, that they understand the ethical considerations involved in using this information to enact regulations that impact the complicated balance between culture and nature in the Park. SUNY ESF is on the leading edge linking good science with care for the communities that it impacts through a commitment to provide a representative entrusted with addressing the range of human impacts of this unusual partnership between scientific research and the policy that it advances.
During the conference I had a chance to talk about my work at ESF and the variety of publics that I interact with. In the process I realized that we at ESF, and in the Adirondacks more broadly, are doing what many in attendance and across the discipline are merely talking about doing. As the conference drew to a close, the Society’s President urged an audience of hundreds of academic philosophers to become involved in public discourse, to bring the philosophical method to bear on practical questions of ethics and moral right-doing, to reach out to communities in an effort to bring them into discussions and deliberations and to enrich the public space through competent and thoughtful facilitation of contentious issues. In effect, what William James said of Pragmatism can be said of the practice of philosophy, that it unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work.
Something has had men heading for the interior, long before Henry David Thoreau publicly declared “I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.” And as men of a certain tradition in 19th century America began to make their private pilgrimages public through written and artistic records, their excursions and revelations became canonized.
These meditations contributed to a change in national ideas about the value and fragility of nature and “man’s” place within it.
I understand the importance of reaching back into our histories to understand the cultural touchstones like these that have come to signify certain ideas and ideals, certain styles of thought and ideologies. After all, our histories are our foreground and they mark the path that we took to get here. Yet, from time to time in the midst of what can seem like a tireless reminiscence on the trope of the vigorous and steadfast wayfaring male archetype depicted through art and literature in the wilderness; I can hear a sucking sound like my boot makes when I’ve gone walking in mud season.
Since its creation, advocacy for and against conservation and preservation within the Park boundary has called on these and other similar images to underscore qualities like individuality, independence and virility in the midst of a seemingly untamed and unspoiled country. Guided by certain American philosophers and artists we enter into a stylized landscape, one that was politically manufactured through legislation and philosophically manufactured through the proliferation of 19th century ideals.
When popular literature and art combine to illuminate different parts of the same story, the impact often resonates outside the original medium of paint or narrative and into the larger cultural landscape. In the case of 19th century landscape art and literature, the story that fine art and prose conspire to tell transcends the cultural period and becomes part of one collective identity. Artists and writers who have become signs themselves of this aesthetic, and of a singular set of values, labored under a shared vision of wild America. These artists and scholars illustrated an ideal landscape beyond increasingly industrialized cities, and the legacy of this movement is largely responsible for our 21st century conception of the natural ideal.
Yet, this ideal only represents those who are drawn into its frame. But ours are stories (plural) and histories (as in many) so what would it take to shift the emphasis from one tone of voice to another? When old signifiers dominate a changed contemporary scene, we risk losing our way by walking backwards into the present.
It’s funny the questions people ask me these days. Earlier this week some colleagues were talking about whether or not to restore a dilapidated lean-to that sits on private land somewhat accessible from a new recreation corridor. The issue was debated around whether the lean-to would become an “attractive nuisance” encouraging travelers to camp at the site. If so, perhaps it should be left to go back to nature, as it were. As the conversation wore on someone turned to me and asked “why do people travel distances and sometimes even risk trespassing on private property just to stay in a lean-to, when they could simply camp elsewhere?” I understand in years past the Department of Environmental Conservation organized lean-tos in clusters at backcountry campsites. This would have encouraged a sense of community, society and for the faint of heart: safety in numbers. Lean-tos are also often situated at strategic locations to encourage camping in a certain spot. I’m told that many experienced campers find lean-tos cold and buggy compared to the warmth and shelter of a tent. While other backcountry wayfarers may be traveling without a tent, in which case a lean-to is essential in certain conditions.
This begins to address the practical reasons ‘why’ in response to the initial question. However if you know me, you know that I am not the intuitive choice to answer questions about backcountry preferences. And so my response to a question concerning the appeal of a lean-to comes from culture and from story. The Adirondack region, particularly its “wilderness” areas are as rhetorical as they are physical. Their geography is narrative and their landscapes follow a mythological contour. This is what is meant when poets talk of “entering” the world. They’re talking about going in, in philosophical sense.
When we enter a physical landscape this way, we cross over into one or another meandering corner of its identity. I was reminded of this when Steve Signell joined the Almanack team to write about mapping. In his first post he mentions an early description of the region as “parts but little known” with “drowned lands” that are “impassable & uninhabited.” As a romantic I am hopelessly drawn to these tentative descriptions more so than the main content of his fine essay, of databases and downloadable files. I believe that while modern maps tell us how to get to a place and how to navigate around once we’re there, it is through the lore of the landscape that we enter that world and that we follow a path through its terrain of cultural descriptions.
I think travelers in every season continue to seek out lean-tos for more than a dry floor and a partial roof. That names and dates will forever be carved into the rounded walls as a declaration, as evidence, that the ribbon of time opened up and someone slipped in to hear Emerson’s wood-god murmer through the leaves.
Photo: A lean-to near the summit of Mount Marcy (above and beyond in photo) in 1973 (EPA Photo by Anne LaBastille).
A few years ago I noticed a small sign taped to a cash register in a local store. It read “no checks from strangers.” Well, I reasoned, this is a quirky establishment so I smiled and went on my way. Sometime later I was talking with someone who asked me where I was from. I answered and she raised her chin, looked down and replied, “Oh, you’re an outsider.”
I live on a road that is closed this time of year but this morning the automated gate stood open in protest to the cold. Despite the impossible-to-miss “Road Closed” sign, a vehicle drove slowly through. When I stepped out to tell him that the road was closed, he assured me that he was a “native” just out for a drive. Strangers, outsiders, natives – have I stumbled into a National Geographic special about an exotic colonized land? I’ve noticed that in conversation here in the Adirondacks it is advantageous if you can slip in your provenance,because like any commodity, identity is valued according to lineage, history and ownership. But when does a stranger or an outsider become a local, and where is the line between local and native? And what, in the name of homogenization, is the difference!
Are people subject to the same hierarchy of belonging when it comes to Adirondack identity that we argue over with respect to the plant and animal community? Are we one step away from setting up an invasive species task force to weed-out the outsiders before they take over the landscape?
In an interesting reversal, being “local” has a cache in certain situations but when it comes to weighing in on management and planning decisions “local” can be a liability. To that point, a recent conversation among colleagues (some of whom have lived here for 30 years) focused on how to encourage “locals” to participate in discussions about the future of the Park. The question was asked, “Who among us is actually from here?” As I watched the unanimous shaking of heads I tried to ask why it should matter, but I wasn’t nimble enough to work it in before the conversation got away from me. The reason for my inquiry was simple: I don’t actually think that the question that was asked, was the question that was meant.
After all, if you’ve lived and worked and belonged to a place for 20-30 years could it possibly matter that you were born in Jamaica, Queens? I submit that the intended question was too impolite and indelicate to ask. The honest question among this group of educated professionals was “Who among us is socially and economically disadvantaged such that our circumstances prevent us from feeling empowered to contribute to a discussion about the future of the Park?” Then, in response to what I’m sure would be another unanimous head shake, we could talk about why these types of conversations don’t feel inviting and why a feeling of being a “local outsider” prevents certain people from joining in.
A similar debate rages in the area of “environmental pragmatism.” In short it asks whether wildlife management decisions should be deliberative, inviting a range of viewpoints and perspectives from professionals and laypeople alike, or whether the decisions should be left to specialists with merely a back-end nod at the democratic process that invites comment from the unwashed.
I have heard it said that some opinions are worth more than others. I think that those of us who are empowered either by social or economic circumstance are obligated to do more than to rhetorically toe the liberal party line. And if our objective is deliberative and democratic then no, no single perspective or category of citizen is worth more than another.
I was nineteen when I first considered what has become a personally recurrent theme: what is the role of the divine in an aesthetic life? Is a beautiful life animated by the poetic mysteries?
One etymological reading of “atheism” is to be abandoned by the gods, godless. And as if abandonment wasn’t enough to spur repentance, a beloved and deeply spiritual teacher once told me that to be an atheist is to declare a world without the divine. Why, I wondered, does that world seem as attractive as a strip mall, so terribly un-poetic and not at all like a reality that I want to inhabit? My attempts to answer this question have charted an interesting intellectual and (dare I say) spiritual course. It’s true that a godless world isn’t absent its natural beauty, but in a godless world I am confined to behold it without mysticism.
I prefer Emerson’s belief that “the world exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty.” If only so I can observe with him “…the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. […] I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.” At the same time I resist Thoreau’s disenchantment when he writes of spirit, “however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent. Perhaps these questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry.”
Throughout history poets, painters, philosophers, musicians have drawn on the human condition and its mysteries to inspire their craft – from Emerson’s Christianity to Thoreau’s reliance on the Hindu Vedas. After all, society expects this from those of us in the humanities who seek to understand what it means to be human. I share their desire for a beautiful life animated by spirit, enlivened by the mysterious and written in poetry. This desire fuels a personal resistance to an explainable life. In this I am at least in pretty good company. Among others, conservationist Aldo Leopold who considers it fortunate that “no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them.”
I was thinking of this and of Leopold recently when a colleague in biology compared Leopold and his Land Ethic with the prophet Muhammad and Christ. Did I hear what I think I heard? Certainly the Transcendental style of Leopold’s predecessors can be read in Leopold’s own, and as often as Thoreau resisted doctrinal spirituality, he embraced naturalism and animism in turn. I would even argue that it is impossible to read Thoreau’s chapter titled “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in Walden without recalling Leopold’s chapter called “July” in the Sand County Almanac. And as influences go, Leopold’s voice emerges also in concert with his contemporary John Muir. Muir’s observations on the Wisconsin prairie are cited in Leopold’s Almanac and call to mind Muir’s description of the great forests of the western United States as “God’s first temples.”
Nevertheless it is one thing to acknowledge a spiritual quality in our own work and in the work of someone like Leopold; to chart his influences back to a mostly Christian origin provides context and reveals some of what is unspoken in philosophy and science. And it is another thing entirely to elevate the work and the man to the level of prophet. We would do well to remember that heresy and prophecy are two sides of the same coin and they make dangerous the critique that is essential to responsible scholarship.
Three times last week someone approached me in a crowd and asked, “Are you the Adirondack Philosopher?” Since I wasn’t wearing my customary toga, my chariot was parked some distance away and I wasn’t strolling through the square asking leading questions, I was at once pleased and caught off guard.
It is a testament to the popularity of the Adirondack Almanack that this happens as often as it does, and in the most unlikely places. Last week it happened while I was inside a medium security prison, it happened again at a planning meeting several towns away and again at a party where the conversation tended more towards ice climbing than Kant’s moral imperative. » Continue Reading.
You are invited to contribute to the discourse, re-interpret the topic and skew the pitch. Join in the process and take part in influencing the way we think about land use and ethics. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Northern Forest Institute invites submissions for its Symposium of Interdisciplinary Scholarship in Land Use and Ethics, to be held at the Adirondack Interpretive Center on Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb. See full symposium details here.
On its best day, philosophy succeeds in sending “the conversation off in new directions.” With a free exchange of ideas and a commitment to inquiry, philosophy as both catalyst and conveyor ought to “engender new normal discourses, new sciences, new philosophical research and thus new objective truths.” I envision this project as an opportunity to open up the dialog around issues of land use and ethics on local, national and global scales. This is the place for ideas in-process, unfinished research and to introduce work in its various stages of development. We’re welcoming research from across professions and disciplines on topics related to balancing individual and community priorities with respect to land use and the associated expectations for human and ecosystem stewardship and social and environmental ethics.
I hope to see independent scholars alongside industry and agency professionals and students from across the humanities and the sciences. Presentations are meant to generate conversation around a variety of approaches to land use, the moral implications of these approaches, as well as the ways that they influence the ongoing debate over how to achieve social and environmental justice.
Philosopher John Dewey referred to active discourse as “breaking the crust of convention” and I’d like us to use this symposium to get together and get on with it.
For information on how to join the conversation email [email protected]
References from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty
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