Seattle author Lisa Wells’ new book asks how we can live in the face of climate change
This summer’s heat waves, catastrophic wildfires, and blistering drought have made climate change feel both very real and very overwhelming. What can we do, as individuals, in the face of such massive global disruption? That’s the question Lisa Wells set out to answer in her new book “Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World.” Wells, who grew up in Portland, talked to people all over the country who are trying to figure out new ways to live in a new world.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The poet and essayist Lisa Wells is our guest for the hour today. Her new book is called “Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World.” As she writes, the book proceeds from a basic, and in many ways, impossible question: ‘The world is burning. How then shall we live?’ Her attempts at answers, because there is no one answer, come through a blend of reporting, memoir and travel log. In the end, this is not a ‘how to’ book about what toilet paper to buy or how to advocate for political change. Wells is more interested in first principles. She’s against individualism and absolutism and the false binary that we’re separate from the world around us. She champions rootedness, attentiveness, community, the committed work of relationship with people and plants and place. Lisa Wells grew up in Portland. she lives in Seattle now and she joins me once again. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Lisa Wells: Thanks Dave, I’m so happy to be here.
Miller: I thought we could start with a reading from near the very beginning of the book.
Wells: Great. [Reading] ‘One of the ways we humans organize and make sense of our experience is through the telling of stories, and the stories we tell, in turn have profound effects on how we relate to ourselves and to those entities on which our lives depend. Many of us are learning that the stories we inherited are not only suspect, but in large part responsible for the threats we now face and will visit upon our heirs. The story of infinite growth, of survival of the fittest. The story of human supremacy, and incongruously an innate human selfishness and propensity to destroy. Chiefly, the story that tells us we are separate from the whole, at once alienated from the broader community of life and above its laws of ecological reciprocity. New stories are in order, but often, the dominant culture responds to the crises at hand by replicating old themes: Features about Doomsday Preppers, Silicon Valley Tech Bros with go bags and ATVs, million dollar compounds and Decommissioned Missile Silos in central Oklahoma. My particular vision of Hell. Stories about life support systems devised to keep self interested individuals alive, while the rest of us burn. Stories that are, of course, no deviation at all from the dominant narrative. Perhaps the fullest expression of this lack of imagination is the techno-utopian dream of colonizing other Galaxies, as if colonization weren’t at the root of our trouble, but it’s solution. The ultimate geographic cure. Even if some eccentric but benevolent billionaire invented a machine to spirit the human race to outer space, big IF, it’s delusional to think we wouldn’t take our problems with us. It seems to me there is a surplus of terror and delusion in the ether, but spare few visions of how you and I, relatively ordinary people, might live, otherwise. I believe the future of the world depends on those visions. If our descendants are alive and well in 100 years, it will not be because we exported our unexamined lives to another planet. It will be because we were, in this era, able to articulate visions of life on earth that did not result in their destruction.’
Dave Miller: That’s Lisa Wells reading from early on in her new book, Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World. It seems that you’ve been wrestling with some version of these ideas in some way for most of your life. You dropped out of high school to attend a wilderness survival school with a couple of your friends first in New Jersey, and then in Washington State. How would you have articulated the problem you were trying to solve or that you were responding to at that time?
Wells: My friends and I had read a few books that really were a source of this decision to drop out of school and go to survival school. Those books more or less summarized the problem for us. Essentially, this is how they told it: there’s civilization, or our civilization, characterized as a system of life that is dependent on totalitarian agriculture, colonization, and the building of permanent settlements that this way of life is inherently hierarchical and unsustainable and doomed to collapse. We were really responding to what we felt was an impending societal social collapse. This was back in 1998. We went to the survival school to acquire the skills necessary to make it through this calamity, and help to build more sustainable societies in the after-world.
Miller: Those are potentially different things, right? Survival is what... survival of apocalypse, and building a sustainable new society? Those were different things. What was the connection between them for you?
Lisa Wells: They are different things. I no longer think of these possibilities in such linear, chronological terms. I don’t really believe in a ‘collapse,’ like we’re all gonna wake up tomorrow and the world is going to be different. If anything, I think this big transition is already underway. Part of the problem is that I don’t think I had much of an answer to that question at the time. I lacked an image for what another life might look like. There was this vague theoretical idea that we’d sort of walk out of the wreckage into the wilderness, and whatever happened then would happen. But it wasn’t a very fleshed out picture. That ends up being a problem for a number of reasons, chiefly because it takes enormous energy and sustaining love and passion to fight the gravity of the life that you have inherited and that if you don’t have a positive construct to live into, the likelihood for burnout is like 100%. So, that’s what happened to us.
Miller: You did eventually leave the wilderness training school. What led you to be disillusioned with it?
Wells: At the time, if I’m honest, I mostly was disappointed in myself because I just wasn’t really getting the hang of it. I could make a fire. I could build a shelter. But I wasn’t living into this vision I had of being this super self-sufficient stealthy child of the earth, was the way it was phrased by the writers we liked at the time. In reality I just wanted to spend my time reading Allen Ginsberg and smoking cigarettes and talking to my friends. It was a classic example of my actual interests and passions being at odds with my idealized vision of myself. But then later I developed some criticism about the whole project. I don’t think running away... well, one, running away to the woods might be questionable, ethically, while the rest of the world burns. But also, we can’t really run away to the woods anymore because they themselves are burning.
Miller: One of the books that was really significant to you and your friends at the time was written by this self-styled tracker expert, and one of things that’s interesting about your new book is that, decades later, you again spent time learning about tracking, meaning trying to find, for example, people who are lost in the woods, this time with a master tracker named Fernando Moreira. Can you tell us about him?
Wells: Fernando Moreira is a guy who I first heard described as a sort of master tracker with supernatural abilities. People would get breathless when they talked about what he was capable of. He had contracted for search and rescue to help find missing people and also sheriff’s departments to find criminals who were on the lam. This guy could supposedly track a man for miles over solid stone. That’s how sensitively attuned to the environment he was. His backstory is pretty fascinating but the nutshell of it is he grew up tracking in every spare moment that he had. His dad was a military tracker. He went to war for Portugal when he was 14, and was a tracker on the job. So in this adrenalated [sic] state, his skills swiftly advanced. He wound up moving to Boston with his mom and his sister, and had no English and no formal education, but he kept building up his tracking skills and eventually became a contractor for SAR [Search and Rescue] and for sheriff’s departments. I went out to his camp to train with him. One of the things that was really humbling about that experience is Fernando is a really sweet guy, but he’s not in any way ‘crunchy,’ or by any stretch of the imagination does he view his skills in environmentalist terms. He is more of a Tom Clancy special forces kind of guy. Yet he was more sensitively attuned to the ground and all that moved upon it than anyone else I’ve ever met. That really threw into relief this issue of our professed values or the stories we tell about our relationship to the world and our actual relationship to the world.
Miller: This gets to one of the reasons I wanted to have you read the next chunk in the book because as I was reading the chapters about tracking, at first I was confused by why they were in this book to begin with... the book about how to live in this world... and then you much explain it. So do you mind reading us another section from the book and then we can talk more about it, but the deeper lessons of tracking?
Wells: Sure, I’d love to. [Reading] ‘Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul,’ wrote the 17th century philosopher Priest Nicolas Malebranche. If we believe him, it follows that whatever commands our attention will determine the form of our God. If we mainly train our attention on the screens of our devices, that’s one kind of prayer. If we train it on the dirt, or the birds, or the faces of those we love, that’s another. Most of us run a gauntlet of rotating concerns with little agency over the convulsions of our minds, or else we forego agency entirely, and remit our attention via any number of substances to high. In any case, our preoccupations become objects of worship. In the most basic sense, to track is to attend to be alert to the signs of another, whether human or animal or elemental, and responsive to their calls. This is a form of worship, but it’s also a form of love, a method for overcoming the numbness or the distraction and disconnection that allows us to screen out the killing of the world. Naturalists describe this relationship like a kind of a cosine law, linking attention to intimacy and intimacy to care. A precept of the Senegalese Environmentalist Baba Dioum is often quoted: ‘We won’t save places we don’t love, we can’t love places we don’t know, and we don’t know places we haven’t learned.’
Miller: It was in this section that I came to see tracking less as a process of finding missing people and more in terms of your interest in it as a kind of open eyed meditation, a form of attention giving to specific things. Is this something that you practice regularly, even if you’re not trying to find kids who are lost in the woods?
Wells: Yeah. I think, in spite of all its flaws, one of the favorable legacies of that school that we went to is that, once you start orienting to your environment in this way, it’s not too hard to continually view the world through that lens. So trying to understand inter-relationships and getting pleasure. I think it’s very easy to get pleasure from finding these traces of other people or animals on the landscape and trying to puzzle out what they mean.
Miller: Do you find that you do that? If you go for a walk in the woods now, are you paying attention to tiny things and trying to make narratives out of them?
Wells: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes, I’m walking in the woods and I’m having a fight with a family member or something I saw on the internet in my mind and I’m not paying attention to anything at all. But when I’m awake to the world, that’s what I’m doing for sure. I think one of the ways that I think about tracking now is a refreshingly straightforward practice for reconnecting to the world that’s surrounding us at all times. These connections are always there. We just won’t, or can’t, permit ourselves to feel them. So it’s like 99% of the time that we talk about the natural world, quote unquote, or the species that are going extinct or the resources on which our lives depend. We’re talking in abstractions and it’s very disembodied. So how do we bridge the divide and actually form relationships? Here’s one technology for doing so.
Miller: You went to Taos, New Mexico to attend something called a reconciliation ceremony that went on for a couple days. What was the ceremony part?
Wells: I was kind of out of my depth with this, but I had been speaking to a woman in Taos whose father was from Taos Pueblo. They had, at various points, attempted these reconciliation ceremonies where officials from the city council and the local government would come to the town square. Then settlers and different folks who we’re living in the area would come and members of the tribe would come. There would be some attempt at more than reconciliation, like a formal acknowledgement of some of the atrocities of colonization that had happened. The particular ceremony that I wound up attending kind of fell apart in some respects because not everybody showed up. Then some of the city officials who showed up basically got on the mic and rejected the project entirely. It wound up opening up a lot of questions for me around legacy and ongoing legacies of injustice. But also unmetabolized grief, and how the cultural shadow really inflects and over determines the way that we relate to each other in some respects.
Miller: Why was this important to you for a chunk of the book? What’s the connection between that kind of reckoning with racism and colonialism, and going forward living in our climate changed world?
Wells: I don’t want to be too pat, but I just think in order to understand how to proceed in any given situation, you have to understand how you got there. If at one point the earth was a biodiverse garden with lots of egalitarian communities, practising mutual aid and living in reciprocal relationship with those landscapes, and that changed and we find ourselves here, how did that happen? And of course, we can’t answer that entirely, but we can answer it somewhat. Any provisional blueprint for a positive construct to live has to take into account the land you’re on, and what kind of unresolved wounds and what kind of ongoing injustices exist. That’s true between people and it’s certainly true between people and the land, and all of the other species who still want to live here.
Miller: How did you think about your own whiteness as you were working on this book?
Wells: I would say that it added a layer of reflexive suspicion or scrutiny of my own assumptions and biases and blind spots to what is, frankly, already a fraught process for me. Like I’m not a trained journalist. I’m not a sociologist. I’m not an expert of any kind. I’m a high school dropout who trained in poetry. So I’m not an expert in any of the fields I write about. I’m certainly not an expert on any of the people that I’m writing about. I’m a person who is trying to hold space for their stories as they tell them. I’m a person who’s trying to be honest on the page about my own confusion and attempt to understand. So, I’m not writing about rich and powerful people. It’s always an anxiety provoking process for me because I want to tell as complete and complex a story as possible. But I also don’t want to blow up somebody’s life who is just struggling to get by. In the case of this book, folks are really, for the most part, living on the margins. So that was an acute concern.
Miller: Let’s turn to one of the people who was living on the margins. You spent some time in Eastern Oregon with a woman called Kanesha, I hope I’m pronouncing her first name correctly, Medrano. When you met up with her she was living with a group of people called the Prairie Fairies or the Land Tenders. What was their vision and their practice?
Wells: The time that I went out to her camp...I don’t know that those kids would call themselves Prairie Fairies. Maybe they would, but it was a different collection of people. For me the story is pretty complex and she’s a divisive, complex character. But the nutshell of it is that she, for 40 years, had lived off the grid, trespassing her way through private and public lands, first as an itinerant self-anointed minister preaching this esoteric, apocalyptic gospel out of a covered wagon. It was a horse drawn covered wagon that she was driving all over the States. Her ministry was basically, the way she told it, is if you are living in such a way where you’re taking from the earth and not giving back then you are a ‘whore of Babylon’ as she phrased it- and a sinner. The only way to live in keeping with Creation or to do right by God is to give life to that which gives you life. She had a lot of colorful terms for describing that ethic, but essentially a form of reciprocal land management where you’re feeding that which feeds you.
Miller: And this isn’t a metaphor. I mean, it’s also a metaphor but it is first and foremost, very literal physical practices, in terms of gathering and also putting things literally back in the earth. Can you describe the actual process of what she and her followers and collaborators would do?
Wells: Sure. So she was mostly invested in tending these flowering tuber plants. So plants like Biscuitroots, Bitterroots, Yampahs, Camas Lilies, and the way that she constructed the story and as I understand it to be true, is that the Great Basin certainly, but probably all of the Americas and maybe even the world were once covered with these edible gardens that indigenous peoples the world over tended. And in the Great Basin, these gardens were super abundant and within a couple hundred years of colonization, a lot of these roots had been [eradicated], pigs had been dropped on the land and they ate them up or they ‘cowed-out’, ranching had compacted the soil or they were plowed under, etcetera. But there were holdouts on stony plateaus where the gardens survived. So it was her desire and mission to keep those gardens living, and also to survive by them, by digging these roots. I was introduced to a concept that was totally new to me in her camp that wound up being echoed by certainly all the indigenous land managers I spoke to, her Land Tenders. Really, everybody I talked to in the book, and this idea of abundance through disturbance. This false binary that most of us have inherited from the cultural worldview about, either we’re going to control and dominate the land through mono cropping or we’re going to leave it completely alone and treat it as a cathedral that’s untouchably beautiful, and we might enter it to have our spirits cleansed, but we’re not going to interact with it in any meaningful way. In her camp, I learned about this vast spectrum of interrelatedness between those two binaries where in the case of these roots they do better when they are being interacted with in these low intensity sort of disturbances. So when animals dig them or people dig them, it aerates the soil and then they drop the seeds in the hole that was made and they do better than if they’re just left alone, probably because they were tended for so many generations in these co-cultivating relationships with indigenous people.
Miller: This is related to a word that you taught me in the book, Ruderal. What does that word mean?
Wells: I mean yeah, once again I’m not an ecologist, so this is probably like my perversion of the term, but these are plants that occupy disturbance essentially. So sometimes they’re native, sometimes they’re invasive, and ecosystems can be characterized as ‘ruderal’ but it’s essentially like an ecosystem that’s coming back but that has been seriously disturbed either by human activity or some other kind of disaster. And they are the first responders in a sense they come into a landscape and maybe begin fixing nitrogen or breaking up compacted soils, sinking carbon, sinking water, that kind of thing. So they are the first responders and then over time they tend to die back while other species succeed them.
Miller: Lisa Wells, we have to take a quick break, but we are going to have a lot more coming up. Stay tuned.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking today with Lisa Wells. She is a Poet and Essayist who grew up in Portland. She lives in Seattle, now. She is the author of the Poetry Collection, “The Fix”. Her new book is called “Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World”. It is part essay collection, part memoir, part travel log. It’s animated by one big question, what are the new ways to live in the world that we are remaking through climate change? You spent some time visiting a Meadow in the Sierra Nevadas, that the people who have been working on it, which include Native Tribes and Forest Service. They did not want you to tell the rest of us readers where, exactly, you were. They’re working to encourage biodiversity and habitat and a return to a kind of complex flourishing. What was this area like before they began this work?
Wells: Yeah, so the way it was described to me, I think Ron said it was a tree farm, which is a term that people who are critical of like, U.S. Forest Service, Land Management, tend to employ this term. Obviously, we’re seeing some of the fallout from these choices to pack stands of Conifer like we see on public lands. There were a lot of desiccated conifers and lots of dried brush and tons of illegally dumped human garbage. So it was just a mess, and it certainly wasn’t a functioning meadow at that point. Ron and the volunteers who showed up the first day to help, cleared out the trash. Ron set a cultural burn, which is one of these low intensity burns that we’re hearing more about these days and cleared out the brush, and 15 years later when I went to visit the Meadow, it was a not only a functioning meadow in that it could hold moisture that was coming from snowmelt coming out of the Sierra Nevada, holding it in the land before releasing it into the sea. A natural spring had returned to the land now that all of these saplings and brush were not sucking up all the moisture. Not only that, dozens and dozens of species had returned - edible plants, medicinal plants, plants that were used in traditional crafts and lots of mammals, tons of pollinators, praying mantises had returned, and they are the natural predator to these beetles that had been booming during the drought and destroying a lot of the trees down there. So it had a huge impact with relatively simple intervention, elegant, but it didn’t involve a ton of people applying fire and pesticides to the land. It was just a beautiful place to be. And it was amazing.
Miller: One of the things that’s really striking about this story and others is two things, how quickly these changes happen and how ready the earth is to make them happen. We get the sense that in some cases, seeds or roots are underground the whole time, just waiting for the right circumstances to spring back to life or, they’re somewhere else in the area and birds are happy to eat a berry and then fly over and poop it out. And then, five years later you’re set. But how it happens without human intervention, some initial human intervention, and then it takes over from there.
Wells: I think it’s important, first of all, to say that they didn’t bring in a single species from the outside. So they weren’t planting plants. So, exactly as you’re describing, this had been a gathering place for the Mono. So that landscape had been tended actively by human hands for a long time, and only in the last couple of hundred years had it been taken over in this way, But they didn’t bring in a single species, you just put fire to the land and all of this life came back. So, that was something that came up again and again in the book. Whether it’s talking about this restoration site in Jordan, where they just fenced the area from cattle, and species that no one had seen in 150 years had come back, just by leaving the land alone, they had bloomed and these were species of plants that were presumed to be extinct in the area. Then of course a lot of these flowering tuber plants, they’re very hardy and they can wait underground for years waiting for the right conditions to rise.
Miller: You were just getting there, you talk to people who’ve been involved in some really large scale projects all over the world, including the Sinai Peninsula and China and Ethiopia. What did you learn about the scale of what’s possible?
Wells: Yeah. I mean, and again, disclaimer, just a poet. But the photographic evidence is very convincing. I didn’t actually visit any of these places in the flesh, but I was turned on to all of this by the work of a guy named John D. Liu, who started the Ecosystem Restoration Camps, which is an organization that partners with different people locally to restore seriously degraded landscapes. The deal is, if you go to one of these camps, you volunteer your sweat and your labor. In exchange, you learn how to rehabilitate these landscapes either by terracing the land, finding ways to sink water and encouraging the return of native species. So John D. Liu had been a Documentarian for a long time and he ran the CBS News Bureau in Beijing. While he was there, he was sent to the Loess Plateau in China. This was an area that at the time was massively degraded and the Loess soil was eroding and coming into the Yellow River and blowing as these huge dust storms and it was a land that had once been a very fertile place and the birthplace of Han Chinese Civilization and it was like a dust bowl basically. The Chinese Government, in collaboration with a bunch of International Organizations, sought to replant it and they actually put plants in the ground, built these terraces, sunk water and a few decades later everybody’s pretty much astonished by the amount of biomass that has returned and most importantly water now sinks into the ground.
Miller: Closer to home you talk to people who are trying to bring back Paradise, California, which was almost completely destroyed a couple years ago in one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history. What’s happening in Paradise?
Wells: I actually don’t know what’s happening now, because these guys just keep getting hit, but at the time that I talked to Matthew Trumm, who is the fellow who set up the Ecosystem Restoration Camp in Paradise which was the first American site. And it was in the immediate aftermath of that big fire that we all heard about that really was so terrifying and just annihilated the town. So his plan at the time was to distribute wattles to help stop erosion and to start rehabilitating key sites around the town, but also to really brainstorm with residents who wanted to return and weren’t sure if they could, or people who were set on returning about now that our town has been razed to the ground we have the space to imagine a different way of life, like what kinds of structures might we build, what kinds of energy sources might we lean on? So, maybe we don’t want to lean on the electric grid in the same ways that we have been. And so that they were just in initial stages when I talked to him. I think they’re probably still in transition given the repetition of fires in that region.
Miller: The caveat you gave at the beginning, you’re not sure what’s happening now because the fires keep happening, it does make me wonder about the viability of so many of these interventions, some of which are small and some of which are are huge, given that we seem as a species to be nowhere close to getting our hands around climate change. Politically, there is not enough will to stop fossil fuel extraction and burning. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but I’m wondering how that makes you think about the various kinds of localized solutions and interpersonal solutions that you’ve been exploring.
Wells: At some point, I just had to come to terms with the fact that even if everything went well, we don’t have total control over the outcome anymore. I don’t want to sidestep the fact that a hundred fossil fuel companies are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, but I do think it’s important that we look to these outcasts and these outliers and these folks who are living on the margins, who are trying to construct sustainable ways of life or create structures into which we might live, because while I think those multinational corporations have lost their way and succumbed to a kind of sickness and have to be stopped. It’s not an either or proposition in my mind, it’s a ‘yes, and,’ I view them as an extension of a system in which almost all of us are implicated to greater and lesser extents, which doesn’t mean, okay, recycle more and take shorter showers. It means how do we lessen our dependence on these structures so that we’re no longer supporting them with our energy and our money and our dependence like how do we find ways to live that will not only sustain us through this massive transition that is inevitable at this point, but plant seeds for future generations for a garden and a way of life that we won’t live to see. So it’s more about leaving a legacy, and also I think it’s a burden to live in a way that makes life impossible for other species and for future generations. I just think it’s a painful burden that most of us would rather live without. So let’s find ways to, with joy, and pleasure, and exuberance, reconnect to one another and to where we live and to serve something greater.
Miller: For someone who is not religious, a lot of the language that you use in the book is connected to religion, at least rhetorically. You talk about prophecy and revelation and apocalypse, about faith. The title of the book again, is ‘Believers...,’ all of that is separate from the chapters that are explicitly focused on religious groups who are working to bring humans back in balance with the world. What’s the connection for you between faith or belief and as you put it, making a life at the end of the world?
Wells: Well, I haven’t said so explicitly, but what a lot of what I’ve been saying gets at this idea of a crisis of narrative, as in the passage I first read the stories we inherited, not only aren’t serving us in this crisis moment, but they may be brought us to this brink. So faith or the idea of serving something greater, even if you don’t mean that in religious terms, even if you just mean the idea of future generations of plants or animals, I think can be a sustaining force when you’re up against things that are so overwhelming and forces that are ultimately outside of your total control. In terms of the Christian terms that show up again and again in the book, I’m not religious, I wasn’t raised religious, but I am living in a country where those metaphors were in the groundwater. Part of what’s so interesting to me about these Eco-Christians or Watershed Disciples as they call themselves, is that they’ve taken this story that had been worked in lockstep with the empire, for centuries, and they’ve sort of recovered it or at least, re-interpreted that story in such a way to serve the people in the moment. So the way that these Radical Christians in Taos and in Philadelphia read the Bible, they read it as an argument against empire and they view sin as not an individual personal transgression, but as a lifestyle that is not in keeping with our task to serve the Garden of Eden and to tend Creation. So this is interesting to me because if you come from an Impact Culture where every aspect of your culture, in the way that you make your living, serves your ecosystem and generates more abundance, then you don’t really need to jump away from the life you’ve inherited. You’re going to need to defend that life from aggressors from the outside. But it’s a different thing to be born into a tradition and into a culture that is laying waste to the world. How do you fight the gravity of everything you’ve ever known and live in a radically different way? You need some greater force to ally with.
Miller: The title of the book, as I said a couple times, and it’s worth saying again, “Believers: Making Life at the End of the World”, when I first read it, and as I was reading through the book, I imagined that it referred to the collection of people from around the country that you talked to over the course of a couple years. Now, I’m wondering if you consider yourself a Believer?
Wells: Yeah, I mean I’m the Ur-Believer, I think…
Miller: What does that mean?
Wells: Well this is the joke, because I’m not like a very hard nosed reporter, I’m a person who, if somebody’s talking to me passionately about what they believe I’m pretty much totally credulous, and it’s only later that I, when I’m sitting alone in a room, that I start to develop a critical apparatus for sorting through the material. I think I’m a big believer in individuals and in the natural world, if we want to call it that, one of the threads in the book is that when I grew up I spent a lot of time by myself as a small child, and that I developed a relationship with the ruderal landscape outside of our house and it became a caretaker for me and a source of solace in difficult times and in a way, I think whatever the Spirit of that place was, is not only the thing that I feel I’m in service to, but it is something that transcends this moment in time, it’s much bigger than our fear and our hope. It’s what I lean on, I guess, when I feel hopeless.
Miller: I was struck by some of the language that one of the environmentally focused Christians that you talked to, Ted Myers, that he used, he and others have used the word ‘covenanting’ as in like forming a covenant with the land and you asked them what that means, and he said it’s like a marriage. Can you explain what he meant by that?
Wells: I think his phrasing was, ‘it’s like a marriage, you commit to a place as an expression of limits because life can flourish within that limit.’ You’re saying, ‘I’m gonna keep showing up for this person or for this landscape day after day and all kinds of weather, no matter my mood in sickness and in health.’ This is the love that sits at the dying person’s bedside, that tolerates the worst in the other. To me it was a beautiful metaphor for what we are capable of. Like maybe we’re not capable of spreading ourselves so thin as to serve the whole world at all times, but we can kind of draw a circle around our place and say, okay, this is a manageable path. I can nourish and support the life within this limit. And I’m gonna commit to coming back again and again, no matter what.
Miller: There may be a danger of extending the metaphor too far. But it seems like the opposite of that would be just a series of potentially mutually destructive one night stands with a landscape.
Wells: Well, I mean, now I want to extend the metaphor further. But yeah, I think in a way this sort of brief encounter with the other that is largely based on our own projections rather than actual intimate knowledge of them is the modus operandi of the dominant culture and is not doing anyone any favors.
Miller: I’m impressed. You were able to say that without using any swear words…
Wells: Thank you, because I’m always on the brink, Dave.
Miller: Some of this reminds me of a quote that you note that you heard from your oldest friend, the Rewilding Champion and Teacher, Peter Bauer, along the lines of this: ‘The social skills like cooperation and conflict management are going to be more crucial going forward than so called hard skills of wilderness survival,’ the kinds of things that you and he and others sought to learn when you left high school - how to start a fire with a flint and a stick or whatever how to build a shelter. What’s it going to take though? I mean you went to school, briefly, to learn those survival skills. Where are we going to learn skills like cooperation and conflict management?
Wells: Well, it’s not gonna happen online, I don’t think. I think it’s going to happen with people in close proximity who have to look at each other’s faces and feel each other’s shifting energy and live with the fallout of what they say to each other and what our impacts are. So I think, on the one hand, this culture breeds individualism and isolation and it’s to our detriment. There’s a lot of pleasure and joy to be had in rediscovering what it is to live and work with people, on behalf of one another in mutual aid and also on behalf of the future, but I think that’s probably the next frontier for me as a writer is to look at group psychology and and to ask this question. I think another thing that it’s going to require of us is to step away from this punitive model of social interaction and toward making room for people to learn and to find paths back into the fold to reconnect to one another, because I don’t think that people who are already drenched in shame, I don’t think guilt is a great motivator for them. I think you want to think about impacts. So people who are lit up and feel connection and belonging are probably going to be more effective servants of the world than people who are drenched in shame.
Miller: You note that as you were writing the afterward, you were nine months pregnant, you now have a 14 month old. How did getting ready to bring a new life into this world affect the way you thought about all the issues we’ve been talking about?
Wells: Well, I’m more invested than I was because at some point you just stop really caring about your survival. I mean, back to the question of hard skills versus social skills, like anyone can survive big deal, but what are you surviving for? A child is a lot of things, but it’s sort of an answer to that question. To some extent, I have more skin in the game now, and it’s less an abstract conversation about the children that are still coming and it’s like the child I have to face every day.
Miller: What lessons do you want to teach your child about how to live now?
Wells: I mean, I just want him to have his own relationship with the place that he lives and the people he depends on. I don’t want to over-determine that too much, but when the time is right and he’s a little bit bigger, maybe we’ll work on some basic survival skills.
Miller: Just briefly, how much have people asked you about hope since your book came out? It’s an issue that comes up over and over, and we have meaningful conversations now about climate change.
Wells: That’s the perennial question, what gives you hope? And so I’ll just say, as I say at the end of the book, and the book’s epigraph actually talks about this too, that the opposite of love is despair. It’s not hate. So despair is the absolute absence of hope, it’s enervated. Whereas love, I think it is an active form of hope. So it’s not, cross your fingers and wish upon a star, kind of passive thing. It’s dirty, on your hands and knees in the dirt, forming that covenant day after day, showing up and sowing seeds for a garden that you won’t live to harvest. To me that is a profound act of love and it’s rooted in hope.
Miller: Lisa Wells, thanks very much for joining us today. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Wells: Thanks so much. I’m very grateful.
Miller: Lisa Wells is the author of the new book, “Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World”. Tomorrow on the show, one of the chapters in the latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was overseen by a professor from Oregon State University. We’ll talk to Alan Mix about the role oceans are playing in climate change. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow. Think out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliver, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust and Ray and Marilyn Johnson.
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