Violence to Our Planet/to Our Selves

Dr. Donald B. Moss
 Dr. Lindsay L. Clarkson, Dr. Lynne Zeavin, W. John Kress
 

The Village, the Window, the Earth, the Trees; Violence reverberates around the globe in a stream of episodic attacks.

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The Trees
 
Scientists estimate that nearly three billion trees now cover the surface of the earth.  Of course they are not evenly spaced, with more trees found in rain forests and fewer found in deserts.  But if that number is true, then for every tree on the planet there are, on the average, 2.3 humans per tree.  That ratio was not true twenty years ago when trees outnumbered people.  Today and into the foreseeable future people are and will be winning against nature.  More people and fewer trees.  That is why I feel a pain in my heart and a great sadness every time another tree is cut down and removed from the planet.  
 
I have seen this violence against trees happening everywhere I go, whether it is in the forests of the Amazon, along our American highways, or in my own neighborhood.  A lovely seventy-five foot beech tree around the block from our house, one hundred years old, still thrived everyday while it continued to reach towards the sky.  But somehow suddenly it stood in the way of progress, in the way of a new house perhaps for a newly arrived family in the neighborhood, so it is sliced into small pieces, ground into sawdust, and carted away.  This tree, which has existed on our planet far longer than this one family, this local neighborhood, our own community, is now gone, soon forgotten, no longer breathing, no longer pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, no longer providing shade and shelter, no longer sustaining other species. Just no longer.
 
I can understand violence against our own kind, people against other people, more than I can comprehend this violence against another species.  What is the cause of this violence we perpetrate on our trees?  Is it the arrogance we have as a species, the disdain for the rest of our natural world, the shortsightedness for our future, or the ignorance of the environment that is around us? Probably all of these things, but underlying these external forces are the internal conflicts that we have within us between what we can control and what we cannot.  And it is the realization that some things are not under our control, which leads us to such violence against things we think we can control.  As the atmosphere heats up, as the sea rises, and the weather becomes more severe, we realize what little control we really have over nature even though we can destroy her trees.   How long until we learn to distrust our violence?
 
The Earth
 
Violence reverberates around the globe in a stream of episodic attacks on festivals, marketplaces, nightclubs, even hospitals, leaving a threat that infiltrates and erodes one’s sense of sanity and safety in the world.  Its effects are evident in the refugee crisis and the xenophobia mounted in response to it.  In combination with the relentless backbeat of incendiary and maniacal rhetoric coming from Donald Trump, violence pools and overflows, creating a sea of agitation with no containment.
 
At the same time, the crisis in our natural world represents an ongoing assault.  Insidious and perpetual, unchecked, unexamined violence toward the earth will lead to our demise if not stopped.  Yet we deny its presence, we can’t quite grasp its scope.  Hanna Segal’s paper (1993), “Silence is the Real Crime” about nuclear proliferation speaks for and to our difficulties facing the crisis in the natural world.
 
Against this backdrop and with intensifying awareness of something like psychical and bodily unrest I am hiking in Norway.  The climb I am doing moves along a stone staircase, the stone cut into the mountain, making a path that edges up to a waterfall between two undulating hillsides.  In the immediate distance is a vast natural vista made of mountains and ridiculously verdant trees, rivers and rivulets, snow visible in the further distance though it is the middle of summer. 
 
As I walk I have the feeling and it is unmistakable of being held by the earth. The earth is taking hold now, supreme in its assertion of itself, it offers this path, and along with it a restatement of the reality of time, of ground, and this, thankfully, offers me containment.  I think of mother nature and all its implications.  Containment, when possible, is a prime maternal offering.
 
And then I think of the question posed by John Kress as to why we do violence to the earth in the first place. In her book, The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf describes Alexander Von Humboldt’s investigations in South America, his study of the intimate connection between all life forms in nature, what he called the ‘web of life’.  Like Kress, only 200 years earlier, Humboldt is pained and incensed by the cutting down of trees---he senses the damage to the earth through deforestation and the human urge to dominate the earth rather than live in relation to it.
 
The earth represents our internal worlds, the earth holds time, and the recognition of loss and mortality.  Perhaps the hatred and indeed fear of this drives the wish to dominate, to control, to tame—earth----to reject and deny our place in the ‘web of life’, the acknowledgement of which requires an acceptance of limit and mortality as well as a recognition of dependence—on the earth (mother nature), and earlier on, the maternal sphere. 
 
The earth can be a good object---as it was for me on my hike.  But a regression away from concern for the object implies a return to a more paranoid, self-protective/ indifferent to others) habit of being and the proliferation of destructiveness.
 
The Window
 
A window in my office overlooks a woodland area, with a stream running through it. With the window open, the quiet murmur of the brook, the wind in the trees, the birds’ songs, the dappled light are part of the analytic setting. Each patient finds her own way to engage or keep out the background experience of the natural world. 
 
On first encounter G, a student in her twenties, described herself from a robot’s vantage: an instrument to be tweaked and managed. G treated me as an automaton, a machine she sought out to provide adjustment to or riddance of faulty aspects of herself.  She knew psychological terminology for feelings but had no personal experience of such things. When G mentioned “feelings,” they bore no resemblance to intangible sensation or embodied experience, but were instead metallic and heavy things to be moved around. I often felt purely practical myself in response. It took work to round myself to more usual human empathy.
 
G was uncomprehending or condescending when I tried to understand what she was saying to me rather than answer her direct queries in factual terms. Occasionally I noticed a glimmer of warmth in response to something I said that indicated that I could understand G’s wariness to show me she had any life, because of the great risk this entailed.
 
One day, G came in looking blue; she happened to notice an orchid in my office, and commented on the warmth of its color. Unexpectedly, she went on to survey her surroundings, newly aware of other plants. She said she expected that I thought carefully about what kind of environment would be good for my patients, how it might affect them. She implied this was a delicate situation. Glancing outside the window, G remarked on a goldfinch perched on the balcony railing. She told me she loved birds. Then G confided she had a hamster herself, but she was always worried she didn’t pay enough attention to it- that it was neglected. The hamster had a rotating wheel in which to run, but G didn’t provide much stimulation, nothing very interesting. Worse, she was afraid she would forget to feed the hamster, and it would die.
 
Prior to this session, it was my impression that she had not perceived, except momentarily, the life in me, in my office or in herself. This day she not only was aware, but could take in, otherness, my attention to “patients,” not yet specifically to her, but with the possibility of a mother who might not forget to feed or pay attention. G went on to say, speaking more formally, that she had heard “that walking in green spaces might alleviate depression.” She did feel better when she was outside and was very worried about being forced to live in a small dark confined space, as she imagined an apartment in the future. I thought when she first spoke to me she was feeling more warmth, but then she found herself talking more formally, closing down, re-entering the dark space.
 
G’s original blindness to the natural world was a violent measure. I had the sense that to survive physically in a terrible situation, she disrupted her ability to be aware of a need for a living environment, turning to an autistic solution. What might appear to be a callous lack of attention to the natural world is a consequence of a vicious attack on any experience of meaningful kinship. The starvation of the caged and robotic hamster reflected an ongoing cruelty that created her internal poverty and despair. Her treatment of the hamster was both an identification with a murderous object, and an identification with the helpless creature at the mercy of such a caretaker. G’s dawning recognition of the life and otherness in the plants and birds was safer than extending herself to me as a trustworthy human presence, but carried a tendency toward fuller contact and growth.
 
The Village
 
I was raised to become a typical animal, to divide the world into three categories:  the one I would love and protect, the one I would use to feed and house us, and the massive other one—all the rest-- toward which I would be vaguely involved but basically indifferent. 
 
The only substantial difference between me and the other animals would be my superior imagination.  Unlike other animals I could, and would, imagine what wasn’t there, what could not be confirmed by my senses. 
 
Imagining both the possible and the impossible, my inner world, unlike theirs, would be steadily infiltrated with a wide variety of “what ifs?”  The most important of these was to be “what if that were me?”.   This “what if” – this imaginary empathy-- would underwrite my moral sense.  
 
Critical to how I was raised, imaginary empathy of this sort—vicarious pain, pain-by-proxy-- would not only be morally necessary; it would also be morally sufficient.    
 
Here is how the structure would work:  In order to wipe off our dog’s muddy paws, I stop her at the door, hold her down and grab a leg.  I always notice how tiny the bones of her forelegs are.  I also always ask myself:  what if I snapped them?
 
The image nauseates me.  I will never make it real.   Ruby belongs in the category of objects I love and protect. 
 
We then have our dinners.  For each of us, dinner usually includes the meat of a cow, a pig or a chicken.  These animals belong in the category of objects I am entitled to use, to indirectly order their deaths whenever we’re hungry.
 
Sated after dinner, I read the newspaper. 
 
I read about a nearly-dead five year old boy from Aleppo—a city entirely lacking in food, water, and medicine—a city from which there is no exit, into which there is no entrance.  I read about another flood in Louisiana, about a 30,000-acre wildfire near San Bernadino, about the recent extinctions of six different birds of prey in Provence. 
 
I cringe when I read.  I show the texts to whoever is near me.  I send them around. 
 
I have no direct hand in these events, not even an indirect one.
 
The cringing, and the showing and the sending and the talking mark the limit of my activity, mark my only contact with these malignant excesses. 
 
My empathic imagination goes to work:  “What if the boy from Aleppo were me, or mine?”; “what if I lost my home to a flood?”;  “what if we were on the verge of extinction?”
 
In that sequence—loving, eating, reading-- I live in exact accord with how I was raised. 
 
And how was I raised? 
 
I was raised as a citizen of a small village, only obliged to the maintenance of that village.
 
This village mentality sanctions and unleashes all the human appetites ravishing the earth, demolishing its life forms and slaughtering its peoples.
 
This village mentality—my village mentality-- is deadly, its fixed categories destructive. 
 
My children are moving out of the village.  They are done with it.
 
-Donald Moss (The Village)
-Lindsay L. Clarkson (The Window)
-Lynne Zeavin (The Earth)
-W. John Kress (The Trees)