David Orr, Earth in Mind

I've heard David Orr talked about a lot of times in recent years, and he's long been on my unbelievably extensive "gotta get there eventually" reading list. Last weekend's Times-Colonist book sale gave me the chance to pick up one of his books, and I knew that the daily transit trips for the immediately following SEAP-BC workshop on sustainability education in the province's colleges and universities would give me the chance to get some extra reading done, so the obvious decision was there to be made.

Accordingly, in my bag the first morning at SEAP, I had both Thomas Berry's The Great Work: Our Way into the Future and David Orr's Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Imagine my surprise to hear the workshop's coordinator, Dr. Geoffrey Chase, quote from BOTH these books in his opening remarks! I cling to my atheism regardless (though I did make a point of asking Geoff about spirituality and environmentalism, something that has always turned me off. He thinks it's essential, though he carefully distinguishes it from religion in a way I find hard to trust, but then I'm a godless heathen Canadian. What do I know).

Clearly, though, I'm at the point in my careers as a reader and teacher where my response to particularly relevant texts are difficult to articulate for others and yet (to me) troublingly straightforward in my own mind. Because Earth in Mind is a thoughtful, potent work, and when it appeared in 1994, it would I think have been extremely valuable to me. Fifteen years on, I'm familiar enough with the standard environmental claims, and calls to action, that I'm much more distracted by the Q&A structure (multiple A, invariably) than I would have been on first encountering it. There are six useful characteristics of student experiences of nature; two answers to any number of questions; five reasons to defend particular places; and so on. It's the rare essay here, of the twenty-three, that doesn't feature at least one such catalogue, and I did get tired of it. Similarly, I was mildly displeased to see the same quotations used more than once, especially when they're neither authoritative nor especially well written, as in statistical info from the New York Times.

But having said all that, there are still some gems of phrasing in the book, and Orr's perspective remains valuable even for jaded readers like myself:
We are never more than one generation away from losing the idea of forests as places of wildness and ecstasy, mystery and renewal, as well as the knowledge of their importance for human survival.... [T]he power behind the idea of decent forests depends on the experience of decent forests, not on secondhand, bookish abstractions. (p.65)
Orr lays out a clear, focused explanation of why and how we need to change the way we humans live in the world, with a special focus on postsecondary education that means it's especially close to my own concerns. I suspect I would have read this book differently in 1994 when it first came out, but it can't be helped. Right now, it feels to me like an artifact. I feel badly at some of the book's apocalypticism, since it underlines just how extended the experience is of this culture's crash and dissolution, but also badly FOR some of it, since the crash remains at or near what one might call environmentalism's event horizon: we're clearer about some of the ways we're approaching disaster, but the pace of our approach is still difficult enough to understand that apparently well-meaning people don't do much beyond meaning well.

The velocity of modern travel has damaged our ability to be at home anywhere. We are increasingly indoor people whose sense of place is indoor space and whose minds are increasingly shaped by electronic stimuli. But what would it mean to take our places seriously? (p.163)
I don't know. Let's take our places seriously, and see what happens.


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