If life as we have come to know it in the past few months has led you to ponder your new relationship to the world, then perhaps a few articles herein will aid you in this pursuit, as they have me. In “Guardian of the Glaciers,” a report by Alex Basaraba on the growing movement to attribute personhood, or legal status, to parts of nature such as mountains and rivers, he points to Ecuador’s recognition in its constitution of “Nature or Pachamama, a reference to the earth mother goddess of the indigenous Andean peoples.” The constitution grants her “the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its life cycles.” My own inchoate notion is that nature, or the earth, or what I did not know to call Pachamama has, with or without legal status, a tendency to regulate herself—that we can push her only so far without a firm push back. The effects of global warming would seem to be the most dramatic example of this earthly response, and perhaps the latest—but undoubtedly not the last—coronavirus is one aspect of it. The rights-of-nature movement shares with indigenous peoples around the world and with much of non-Western thought the idea that humans’ proper role is not to have dominion over nature and other living things, or to see ourselves as some sort of evolutionary apex (a misreading of Darwin), but is something humbler and more respectful.
Sy Montgomery’s review in these pages of Jennifer Ackerman’s new book, The Bird Way, gives ample evidence that birds possess talents, even beyond flight, that far exceed anything humans have. Here is one reason why we might resolve to live less destructively in their presence. And David Gessner’s cover story looks to Thoreau for lessons about how to live now, at an enforced distance from the world, and how we might live when that distance diminishes. Gessner takes us well beyond the explicit message of Walden that we must learn to live simply; he looks more deeply into Thoreau’s books and journal to find a broader and more explicit philosophy about taking our proper place in the natural world. If COVID-19 is nature’s stick, then perhaps the recent evidence of clearing skies, cleaner waterways, and a shrinking hole in the ozone layer will be seen as nature’s carrot.
Since the period of isolation began, the Scholar website (theamericanscholar.org) has featured a series of pieces under the heading Viral Days. It is a forum for brief articles by many hands, ranging from pieces on public health to meditations on a particular writer’s mental state to ways to distract ourselves—primarily with books, but also with music, film, cooking, porch sitting, and much else. Please have a look.
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