How Art Can Help Defend the Natural World

A conversation between Kathleen Dean Moore and Bob Haverluck

In all the languages of fire and storm, the earth calls us to defend ongoing life. Can art itself be a kind of activism? Kathleen Dean Moore, an essayist, and Bob Haverluck, a storyteller and visual artist, brought their arts together in a new book, Take Heart: Encouragement for Earth’s Weary Lovers. Here they talk about the power of art to defend the wild, reeling world.

Kathleen Dean Moore: Well here we are, Bob, failing once again to meet in person.  I’m in the dark, mossy hemlock forest of the Oregon coast, waiting for the mushrooms to sprout.

Bob Haverluck: And I’m here beside a glacier-gouged lake in a poplar wood near Winnipeg, watching geese migrate south. It’s a wonder we ever found each other.

KDM: I found you when you emailed me your drawing, Duck re-inflating a deflated activist. Those duck lips against that sagging belly made my poor deflated self guffaw through my tears.

Gift subscriptions are now 20% off.
Purchase here.

BH: But first, I found you when a friend gave me your book, Great Tide Rising, those lyrical, logical essays. Made me growl and smile.

KDM: With notable recklessness, we decided to do a book of essays and drawings intended to hearten our climate- and extinction-activist friends, who are understandably discouraged and tired. But bless them, they keep on working through the onslaught of bad news.

BH: Our hearts have so often been broken by what we see being done, undone, and not done.  So often they have been patched and thumped and pumped up again. So yes: Hearten, verb, to increase confidence, to encourage; the on-going maintenance of the soft machinery of the heart.

KDM: We assumed that in the throes of this emergency, the long-standing notion of creating art-for-art’s-sake was long past its expiration date. In the vortex of a cosmic crisis so dangerous, so tragic, so unfair – and so full of possibilities for redemption, because we still have a last chance to avert the worst of it — everybody’s got to throw everything they’ve got at it. And if what we’ve got is art, then that’s what we’re going to put in our slingshots.

BH: Robin Kimmerer, the wise Potawatomi botanist, wrote that “if you know your gifts, you will know your responsibilities,” and I think that’s right. It’s all-hands-on-deck, each doing what they know how to do best.

So you’re the philosopher, Kathy. You start us off. How – in what ways – can art become a powerful, maybe essential, force in the struggle to defend the Earth from the demons of Bigger and More?

KDM: Okay. Let’s start by getting down a quick list. Then we can dig in. Number one. Art can reveal truths that are hidden or denied. The inconvenient truths, the ugly truths, the inspiring truths. This is essential when the public discourse is vandalized by lies, and the public is speechless with horror – or busy with golf or trying desperately to live in an increasingly cruel world. Now you.

BH: Two. The arts are elaborations of the body’s ways of saying, feeling, and knowing. They can especially be the heart’s ways of knowing and saying. This matters because we have seen that knowledge alone does not move people to action.

And related to that, art can help us do the necessary weeping and laughing, as we come up against the limits of what feels livable.

KDM: Here’s four. Art offers us a vision of the beauty and glory at stake. We have the amazing good fortune to live in the Cenozoic Era, when evolution has achieved a great fullness of flowering. Theologian Thomas Berry called it the “most lyric period in Earth’s history.” Art can display the dazzling beauty on loan to us, and so open us to gratitude. And gratitude requires us to reciprocate with our own gifts of loving care.

BH: Just as art can unveil beauty in what society calls ugliness, it can unveil ugliness in what marketeers call beauty. So art can help us reconfigure our seeing, thinking, and feeling.

KDM: And there’s this:  In a time of disastrous dogma, art is the master of the logic of imagination, of uncertainty, of possibility, of storytelling. Lord knows, we need some new imagining.

BH: Okay, that helps name some of activist art’s possible offerings. So let’s go back. Kathy, can you say more about art as radical truth-telling?

KDM: The truths of our time are hideous. If you need examples, here is a random sample:  In my lifetime so far, the world has lost 60% of its plants and animals. Unless nations act, the life-supporting systems of the planet will be irretrievably damaged by the time today’s children are middle-aged. By 2050, 1.5 billion people will be driven from their homes by storms and starvation. The facts splatter us with blood and stones. No wonder they paralyze us; how can anyone face their horror? They are like Medusa, so horrific that anyone who looks in her face is turned to stone. But art can represent the facts in a way that we can bear to see them – just as Perseus was able to slay Medusa by looking at her reflection in his magic shield. Art can be our magic shield, representing truths in ways that open our hearts without breaking them utterly. I think of Jill Pelto, an artist who maps graphs of rising CO2 emissions onto her paintings of forests in flames.

BH: Agreed. By image or story, or by slant and indirection, art says what has been unsayable and unfelt.

KDM: The truth-telling function of art is particularly important when the genius and financial power of the extractive economy is spewing lies as fast as carbon dioxide. Some of the deceptions are outright lies ($3.6 billion dollars’ worth of Big-Oil lies in the last 30 years). Some of them are distractions (Do I need to talk about football?). And then there is the self-silencing. According to Yale Climate Communications, 61% of Americans are alarmed or concerned about climate change. But – get this – 67% say they “seldom” or “never” talk about it. What gives?

BH: Our dominant order funds (and, alas, many creative characters collude in) the manufacture of corrupted imaginations. And of course, there are pay-offs to complicity. Great inconveniences, sacrifices, and nightmares can be temporarily avoided by just going along. This self-policing, fostered by threats and bribes, is carefully taught and needs to be as carefully unlearned. Art – posters, films, theatre, music, dance – can help us see through the false and lure us towards the true. In this way, art can stir insurrections against the machinations of the violent.

KDM: Oh, may it be so. But tell us about laughter as a form of activism, Bob. Your drawings are hilarious and heart-breaking, funny and fierce. How can comic art stand in defense of the world?

BH: To help defend the well-being of the world, art needs to find its place in engaged communities and in the complexity of feelings bound up in the communities’ lives. Art needs to discern where people feel ‘up against it.’ That’s where the established self is at its boundaries. At those guarded borders, we may ‘crack up’ at comic art, break down, break into tears, break into laughter. But such a place may be not only a place of breakdown, of losing it, but of breakthrough, into a deeper faith and determination.

KDM: One of your drawings shows a woman holding a flower whose stem has been broken and then tied together with string. If you believe the Earth can be healed, you believe too much, the caption says. If you think it cant, you believe too little.

BH: Yes, by making people laugh, art can engage the struggle more fully in its bittersweet complexities.

KDM: Oh yes, life is sweet. And life is bitter. That’s why I try to write essays that read like a wave on a beach. Let the stories knock us down with sorrow and lift us with determination and moral resolve, the way a wave both smashes and lifts us in the same wild movement.  It’s important to weep as well as to laugh. Kafka says, “a book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”  That makes sense to me. I believe that part of an activist writer’s work is to unleash the anger, the hope, the love, and, yes, the grief that will move us to action.

If you love anything finite on this Earth, grief will knock on your door. I think it’s important to invite it in. Great grief comes only to those who care greatly. Grief affirms the meaning of on-going life. It’s a declaration of never-ending love, a ceremony of honoring, a howling yes. That’s why you and I — maybe paradoxically — included an essay about grief in Take Heart, illustrated by your drawing of a man dying of an unbroken heart – as he looks but does not see: rivers (polluted), trees (sick), Earth (mourning), and the coming sorrow of the childrens children.

These are the three great truths that grief teaches: That you love the wounded world, that it is worthy of your love, that your love requires you to act in its defense.

But now. This part is important. If despair should knock at your door, turn it away. While grief is a measure of the magnificence of meaning, despair denies all meaning and denies that anything is worthy of love. The anticipation of grief calls you to action to defend and restore what you love; but despair relieves you of all responsibility. That’s why I am so put off by the literature of disaster.

Buy your copy of Take Heart here.

BH: Does not the wise fool resist despair by acknowledging sadness? Both laughter and tears refuse the disempowering, deadening despair that the ruling powers want.

Activist art seeks to move the spectator to become a participant, engaged, a protagonist. Sometimes that requires it to be sneaky, innovative, unpredictable, putting a banana peel under the feet of consciousness.

KDM: Bob, you’ve written that “art in its forms various has often served as an anesthetic rather than as a radicalizing aesthetic.” And yet you quote Dostoyevsky as saying that beauty will save the world.

BH: In my stories and drawings, I try to conjure beauty not as sweets to distract from our three-alarm situation. I mean beauty that does not simply attract, but speaks of a kind of power and danger that makes it a “terrible Beauty,” as Yeats said. It helps us be in and reflect on the complicated character of our situation. Even as we yearn for utter simplicity.

KDM: Yes, yes, yes. Beauty is not only a blessed vision, not only a gift glimpsed. Beauty is a task demanded. Art that celebrates beauty reminds us that there is so much to be saved. Activist art celebrates the sweet singing pond, even as bulldozers fill it with rubble. It rejoices in the beauty of the blue planet, scarred now, singed and torn. And so Subhankar Banerjee offers us panoramic photographs of the russet tundra of the north slope, so that we see, really see, what beauty lies between the surveyors’ stakes at the oil field.

BH: Activist art – poetry, story, music  – says, Behold and be held by this. To the optics of my heart, the flooding of many First Nations communities in Canada, boreal forests, and creature kin in savaged rivers and wetlands  — all this land-grabbing racism was in part a failure of our imaginations to fully behold the goodness and beauty that surrounds and holds us.

KDM: Scientists say, “if people only knew the facts of climate change, they would act.” I would nominate that for the saddest misstatement of the century. I say, if people only felt the beauty and goodness of what is being taken from them, they would act. And that is the work of art.

I believe that all the lives of this world are astonishing, irreplaceable, essential, beautiful and fearsome, generative, and beyond human understanding.  If the good English word for this combination of characteristic is sacred, then that it the word I will use. It follows that damage to the natural world is a sacrilege, from sacra, which means sacred, and legere, which means stealer. The habitat-destroyers, the poisoners, the fossil-fuel billionaires are stealers of sacred things. Let art tell us the magnitude of their cosmic crimes.

BH: We act to defend the beautiful we stand to lose, but we are able to do so because of the unforgettable goodness of existence that art can at times help present to us.

KDM: Art, as you say, is the machine of emotional intelligence. Part of that is moral outrage.

BH: Oh yes. Art can cause us to recoil rather than be ‘taken in.’ Art of story or visual image can disturb and repulse those who wish art to provide a spectator’s distance. But sometimes it sneaks into the gated community of comfortable hearts, and that also is one of art’s essential roles.

A problem with avoiding looking at the damage and deadly businesses at work is we cannot truly see the particular mending and making well that we need to seek, together. Therefore, there is a need to name and dwell awhile on the details of the deadly stuff going on here and here and there. It means resisting flight into the distractingly beautiful.

KDM: Let’s think of an example of art about suffering from the point of view of the one suffering. I am moved by Charles Goodrich’s poem from Watering the Rhubarb. Here’s a small piece: 

Just let me get back to Mexico
The turkey vulture is thinking

Halfway across the Gulf
His shoulder socket grinding with pain. 

BH: Right. The arts can serve to fuel us with pleasure or spasms of unease and guilt that turn us in new directions with their portrayals of beauty or brokenness. That is, methinks, an important gift to our culture.

KDM: Art can be protest itself, not only its inspiration. I think of posters in the street demonstrations. I think of murals. And music. Yes, of course, music. Or think of Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings, which tells children that they have the power to shape a new world. So art can be a great howling no. But it can also be a triumphant yes.

BH: Or think of the counter-music, the resilient songs of a world without death-dealing machinations in the music of the jail cells in Selma and Birmingham, where “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome” rang out.

And, Kathy, you have written in Take Heart that activism has to be a kind of improvisational jazz. There is no score in our work for the world. We have to make it up as we go along.

KDM: Yes, I believe that if we are going to mend the world, it will be with the greatest exercise of improvisational imagination the planet has ever seen. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “jazz is the ability to take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.” This is activism — to riff on, respond to, elaborate on the lead notes of the boldest new ideas. Play on!

BH: What is art but a form of play?  Play is essential, especially when we are conned into believing that the game is fixed. We need to discover the play in things, the changeability of direction, the switches to re-route the trains, and ourselves.

KDM: We often think of activism as blocking, stopping, being against something. But it is every bit as important to be clear about what we are for. And this is where the artistic imagination comes in. What kind of world do we want to live in? Because I started out as logic professor, I think of the logic of the hypothetical statement – IF, THEN. If this is what we value, then this is how we should we live. Think how tragic it would be if our failure to address climate chaos turns out to be a failure of imagination. That’s how deep is our need for art.

But you, as storyteller theologian, Bob. How do you envision imagination as a form of protest? The cover drawing you did for Take Heart seems to be a reference to Sisyphus, the lonely Greek hero, who was condemned to roll a rock up the mountain every day, only to watch it roll back down again. What message does Sisyphus give to activists, especially artists who are activists?

BH: For me, this drawing is and is not Sisyphus, the heroic individual. Yes, we need again and again to push rocks. But we are not Sisyphus, because we are not alone. We are accompanied by creature-kin who are beside us, helping the world as they have been long before us and yet to come. In the cover drawing, the rabbit represents all who help lift our hearts.

KDM: Given the ease of destruction and the difficulty of restoration, the work of defending planetary thriving will not end. As activists know, it’s like pushing a rock up a mountain every single day, only to watch it bounce down again. The gratification of the work is not, therefore, in what is accomplished. We can find the gratification in the play and work itself, in its small victories and the camaraderie in tasks we do not have to do alone. Let’s savor the songs we sing together as we stumble down the hill to take up the task again. At the end of the day, let’s be glad for the heart that is tired but full, from doing what we believe is important and right.

Subscribe to Orion Ad

Kathleen Dean Moore is a philosopher, creative writer, and long-time Earth advocate. Her 2022 work includes a new book of essays, Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World, and a film collaboration with a concert pianist, “The Extinction Variations.”

Bob Haverluck is an artist and storyteller who works with community groups using the arts to help engage issues of conflict and violence against the Earth and her creatures. His drawings have appeared in Harpers, New Statesman, and other publications. A former adjunct professor at the University of Winnipeg and a current mentor with the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation in Montreal, Bob teaches with an eye to the role of comedy in social change. His most recent book is When God Was Flesh and Wild: Stories in Defence of the Earth.