The power of stories

Campus is relatively deserted now, and watching all my senior friends walk across the stage at graduation has gotten me thinking about what I’ve learned here at Whitman over the past semester. This semester in particular, my classes and extracurriculars all interacted in a complimentary way. Weirdly, the big idea I’ve gotten out of this hasn’t been some academic theory or new conceptual framework for viewing the world. It’s a really simple thought—that the stories we tell are fundamentally important for understanding, constructing and changing society.

Right now, you’re thinking, Yeah Rachel, duh. I know, it’s not the most original thing in the world. But over the past four months, I’ve explored the idea of narrative and story from enough angles that I think there’s a deeper edge to my understanding.

I only had three real classes this semester—Political Ecology, Environmental Communication and The Nature Essay. Aside from school, most of my free time was spent writing for the Pioneer, telling stories about campus life. This combination created a lot of tension in my head, possibly due to the different expectations each of these classes came with:

Political Ecology: It’s easy to get seduced by good writing, so be careful of that and learn to deconstruct the author’s assumptions.

Nature Essay: We’re going to learn to seduce readers with our writing.

Environmental Communication: We’re going to analyze stories to see what they’re really saying and how we can use rhetorical practice to get our message across when talking about the environment.

The Pioneer: Write stories. Don’t be biased.

I definitely had a few nights where political ecology me got in the way of writing my nature essays, because I was freaking out about accurate representations of everything and the political implications of the words I was using. But all in all, that synthesis has been a really good thing. It’s such a healthy challenge to be critically interrogating language that perpetuates systematic oppression while also trying to write lyrically for a general audience—people who have never heard of things like hegemonic masculinity or gender dysphoria. It’s pushed me to become a far better writer, because I have to constantly think about the subtle implications of the way I’m portraying “reality.”

Stories, to be sure, can be insidious. When something is presented as fictional, it’s easy to not question the social norms it’s reinforcing. And when something is presented as “reality” or “objective journalism,” it’s easy to not look for the biases that shape everything anybody writes. News always involves choices—about which stories to print and not to print, about who to talk to, about how to present the issue in question. And it doesn’t take too many articles like the recent New York Times piecesexualizing and dehumanizing a trans woman who died in a fire to see the ways in which the stories we tell both reflect and shape our societal norms about how people should be treated.

With examples like that, it’s easy to get depressed about writing. But fundamentally, episodes like this reinforce the idea that there is power in the written word. For me, that’s a hopeful and inspiring place to be. I’ve seen this firsthand interacting with friends in the wake of my trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. You can argue facts and logic about immigration policy all day, and you’ll probably get people to agree with you. But it’s in the stories—the human, the personal, the stuff that hits close to home—where people actually listen. I’ve spouted immigration stats to friends who didn’t care much, and then seen their eyes open when I recount a story or show them the essay I wrote after that trip was over. People get it so much more quickly when there’s a narrative. Ditto with my articles about rape on the Whitman campus. I guarantee that the dialogue we’ve had on campus about sexual assault didn’t happen because of the statistics about how many reported sexual assaults occur every year. They happened because some incredible women were brave enough to share their stories with me, and those stories connected with people in a way that numbers can’t.

I’ve struggled a lot with the idea of being a writer. With the world so screwed up in so many ways, trying to make a living stringing words together seems silly and self-indulgent. And it is, to an extent. Writing won’t be enough to solve the world’s problems, and I don’t want it to be my whole life. But if I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that those stories aren’t meaningless. In the written word, there is both the power to define and shape reality, and the responsibility to do it fairly, accurately. In writing, I see the seeds of radicalism, of building something better. It’s not enough, but it’s definitely a place to start.


NOW AVAILABLE: Mining and democracy in Intag, Ecuador

For those of you who’ve been waiting for it (probably no one), I’ve finally translated my final study abroad paper into English. You can view and download the entire thing as a PDF here.

It’s a thrilling tale of mining companies, small-scale farmers turned activists, betrayal, lies, possible illegal cyanide dumping, long speeches at regional assemblies, journalism and constitutional law, and all for the low, low price of FREE!

Letter to a human 10,000 years from now

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
Dear person ten thousand years from now,
Today it rained in the morning. The rocks around me are red-orange, made of sand stuck together, forming ridges and shelves as far as I can see. Here, I walk on my feet and sometimes my hands. The rain adds uncertainty to the land, so I slide twenty feet down bare rock faces, not able to control my speed, barely able to change direction. I almost fall into puddles of orange water pooled in the rock. I walk up sandstone ledges arranged like a staircase, each step a different width, half of them breaking off as soon as I put my weight on them. I let the shape of the rock guide me, abandoning the concept of efficiency. I want to move north, but the rock that way is too steep, and I risk falling, sliding down into a canyon three hundred feet deep. Instead, I go west, finding level ground, rocks that curve upward gradually, gentle enough to walk on.
I wonder if you still go outside, if you see the sky with clouds and with sun. I wonder if it still rains in the desert. I wonder if these canyons, sheer rock faces plunging down hundreds of feet, are still here or anywhere. I wonder if they’ve all been filled with trash or something radioactive, something with a half-life greater than the time between my death and your birth.
I hope you know what it is to be wet, to be cold, to feel so hot there’s sweat dripping off of you back and you can barely stand to smell yourself. I hope you’ve been hurt, feared for your life, known that one misstep might cause you to fall into an abyss, hopelessly trying to fly on your way down. I hope you’ve climbed on top of something and felt free to scream knowing no one can hear you.
I hope you’ve been alive, and been human.

Starving land (my second epiphany)

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and wondering what it would be like to starve to death.

I remember myself at six, thrilled when I could convince my vegetarian mother to cook hot dogs for dinner. I stopped eating meat when I was eight, no longer able to stand the thought of killing a cow to feed myself. I saw Finding Nemo and cut out fish too. I lived secure in the knowledge that no animals were being killed to feed me. I lied to myself for eleven years.

I’m looking at an ocean of corn and seeing death. I see Bhopal, India, 1984, where a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked methyl isocyanate and 2,259 people lay dead in the street while the company denied the chemical had been leaked, then denied it was toxic. Years later, with the death toll estimated at 20,000 the CEO would be convicted of negligence in a US court and fined $2000: the maximum allowed by law, or about $10 per human life. I see a river where walls of concrete stop salmon from spawning and take the water away to irrigate fields growing crops we don’t need or want. I see workers in a “natural foods” plant with neurological diseases from breathing in too much hexane, the gasoline refinement byproduct used to extract protein from soybeans. These are the things we allow in the name of cheap food. This is our hierarchy of values, etched on the land.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and thinking about eating a cow. Cows eat grass where they find it, transforming grasslands into a mosaic of sagebrush and bare ground. Cows put the cost of their existence in front of us, and we cry foul at the moonscape of incised channels and cowpies that results. Seeing this reality, we’re willing to stop eating beef. If our fields were lined with billboards showing every Superfund site where pesticides have been manufactured, every rainforest clearcut to grow soy, every mother who has had to watch her child die of cancer caused by exposure to agricultural runoff, would we give up monocrops?

I’m looking into the eyes of a cow and seeing a violation of nature. Here, in the feedlot, nine calories of blood-soaked corn will be shoved down its throat for every calorie I will eventually eat. Here, the water runs brown and pregnant women are told not to drink it. Here, the names Tyson, Cargill, Monsanto and Simplot are carved into the land, deeper than the channels their cows incise.

I’m walking through a farmer’s market and trying to have hope. Know my farmers, have a garden and a goat, learn how to can fruit and buy local—I know how to feed myself. If I become a locovore, grow my own vegetables and only eat grass-fed, organic meat, will I feel any better when the next Bhopal happens? If I never touch another drop of high fructose corn syrup, will it wash the blood of Indian children off my hands?

I’m scanning packages of 99 cent ground beef and praying for revolution. More often than not, this is what food stamps pay for. Lentils and quinoa may be cheap, but they take time, and time is a precious commodity for someone with three kids, two jobs and a green card that expired ten years ago. Sometimes, at 10pm, a mother will come through my line with two screaming toddlers who should be in bed and tell me she just got off work. She buys a gallon of milk, some candy to quiet the screaming, and her food stamp card is declined—not enough left to cover the three dollar purchase. As she counts quarters and dimes out on the counter, I wonder at the optimistic liberals who think we can save the world with local, organic, grass-finished beef that costs $6 a pound.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush, knowing seven billion people have to eat. In the name of feeding the world, we razed the grasslands, plowed the soil, and replaced rain with dams. Maybe it’s time to cut my losses and accept reality. People live in the Mojave and the Sonoran. They have to eat, so we pipe water in from the Colorado or truck food in from the East. I can’t force Phoenix to relocate, make farm subsidies go away or bring back the salmon.

I’m dreaming of a grassland I have never seen. A carpet of switchgrass, swaying gracefully in the breeze, so beautiful I almost forget I am starving. My stomach aches, crying out for food, but there is nothing I know how to eat here. Panicked, I start to run, and collapse, exhausted. The grass encircles me, stroking my hair, whispering to me, and I know I will die here. Resigned, comforted, I lie down, no longer feeling the emptiness of my belly. And a bulldozer comes, plows up the grass and plants wheat in its place. Someone hands me a piece of bread. I eat, ravenous, only looking up when it’s too late. The grass has vanished, and I wake up from a nightmare where I can eat to my heart’s content.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and hoping against hope we can turn it back into grass. Maybe we can teach people to keep chickens in the city, turn food deserts back into Eden with a bit of compost and a lot of love. Maybe we can take kids outside and show them the beauty of a pronghorn sprinting, whisper that sometimes at night, you can hear wolves howl here. Maybe we can share our knowledge and our kale with neighbors, take it to food banks, preach it in church, on the bus, and in the classroom. Maybe, if everyone with a dream in one hand and dirt in the other decided to do more than just opt out, we could learn to feed ourselves and take care of each other. Maybe we could make space for wild grasslands in the West.

Dispatch from the West

Our latest assignment is to write a dispatch from the West, 250 words or less on one of four topics: wolf at the door, aspen, incised channels or water out of place.

Incised Channels

We were raised by a generation that doesn’t know what a stream looks like. We were taken hiking and told: this is nature. We were lied to.

They’re spread out like scars across the dried skin of meadows and desert sagebrush. In summer, heat evaporates moisture and the skin cracks, but there is no blood. The channels run straight and dry, banks trampled by cattle, aspen eaten away by elk. The groundwater is thirsty, praying for rain, but it doesn’t rain in the desert. When the snow from distant mountains finally melts, the water runs quickly, hurried without sinuous curves that used to slow it down. The stream is our journey West, the frenzied rush to build railroads and conquer the continent. We called it Manifest Destiny, and it manifested itself in beaver pelts, smallpox blankets and dams. It’s been a long time since beaver ponds told the water to slow down, stay a while. When you’re trying to squeeze profit out of dry land, water gets squeezed out too. A cow pie, a solitary puddle at the bottom of a canyon and acres of cheatgrass: this is our destiny, manifested.

We see the lie. We walk across the scars under the heat of a desert sun and fall asleep dreaming of the breeze playing with a yellow aspen leaf as it falls onto the surface of a pond built by beavers, the only animal that has ever been successful in its efforts to bring more water to the desert.

Playing with fire

After a week of writing in the Sierra Nevada mountains, we had to come up with an epiphany—a personal essay about something we’ve learned or realized on Semester in the West. We spent all of today reading them out loud to each other, and it’s been fantastically interesting to hear what everyone’s been thinking about. Here’s mine.

Playing With Fire

In Wallowa County, I saw a forest that wasn’t a forest. A century of fire suppression had created a dense understory, with Grand Fir shrubs blanketing the floor and threatening to overshadow the pines. With nature left to its own devices, lightning strikes would have reduced the green brush to ash, nourishing the soil and triggering a release of seeds from the seratenous cones of the lodgepole pines. In the forest, devastation gives way to new life. Nature is a phoenix, constantly being reborn and reinvented after each blaze.

Humans, naturally, are uncomfortable with fires. Fires leave charred landscapes in their wake, interrupting our serene nature walks with the intrusion of death. More often than not, people who claim to love nature means that they love lush riparian vegetation or snow-covered alpine slopes. Fires burning out of control threaten safety and aesthetics. We want the wild, yes, but we want it safe for RVs, families, wheelchairs, God and scenic photos.

The Forest Service has come to recognize fire is needed, but also knows that uncontrolled, it poses a danger to human communities. Current policy in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is to suppress all fires immediately unless they’re in a wilderness area. Forest management includes fuel removal and prescribed burns designed to mimic the effects of natural fires.

I saw several forests that had been treated to reduce fire danger during our stay in Wallowa County. Although they looked healthy, they concept of “managing” nature makes me uneasy. Past attempts to control nature and make it “better” have included hunting wolves to extinction in the lower 48 and building enough dams on the Columbia to make salmon passage nearly impossible. Underlying management is the assumption that we understand how ecosystems function, even though our knowledge is a process, constantly being changed, revised, updated and contradicted. Current strategies focus on restoring balance to the natural world rather than exploiting it for human use, changing us from blind destroyers to benevolent engineers. Though this outlook is an improvement, it relies on the unspoken assumption that we are separate from, different than and above nature. We have the power to bend natural forces to our will. We can put out fires, dam rivers, kill off and then reintroduce wolves. We are gods, and trees, bison, rivers, salmon and wolves are mere mortals.

Practically speaking, letting fires run their course is impossible. There is too much wood to let it all burn, too many people living nearby to risk a full-scale forest fire. Humans have sought to change nature and bend it to our will as long as we have existed, and controlling fire is no exception. But I see a separation in our current management that troubles me. A farmer, rancher or homesteader putting out a forest fire does so for immediate personal reasons—their entire livelihood will be reduced to ashes unless they act. They live with nature, aware of its destructive potential, but also know that it sustains them. The Forest Service putting out all fires as a matter of policy strikes me less as an act of self-preservation and more as a capitulation to the timber industry, which would rather not lose valuable board-feet, and to tourists, who would rather not see charred plant skeletons during their sojourns in Eden.

In the natural world, beauty and destruction dance dangerously around each other, opposing forces that could not exist independently. There are no snow-covered mountains without crevasses and avalanches. The sleek fur of a wolf is nourished by the blood and bone marrow of elk, slaughtered out of necessity and with indifference. The healthy forests which support thousands of reptiles, insects, shrubs, mammals and trees would cease to exist without fire. We cannot have one without the other. A farmer understands that the rains which nourish his crops today can bring floods which destroy his house tomorrow. A city dweller who backpacks during summer weekends may not understand that the blackened trees he sees are necessary to sustain the green forest he finds so beautiful.

Forested lands are managed for multiple uses, including timber, mining, grazing and recreation. I would ask only that habitat be added to this list, as an equal consideration. Natural communities have a right to exist, a right which must be weighed against the rights people claim to cut down trees, suppress fires and otherwise control nature for their own benefit. A healthy, functioning ecosystem includes periodic fires; if we suppress all fires, we deny trees the opportunity to thrive and animals the chance to live in a balanced ecosystem.

I do not believe fires should never be put out. People living in and near forests are understandably concerned about their homes, property and livelihood. However, people need to be realistic about the risks inherent in living by forests before they build vacation homes in the middle of wild areas. Fires can and do happen. Firefighters should not be expected to risk their lives for a house which was unwisely placed in an at-risk area, or for the future profit a private timber corporation hopes to make off of public lands. Some fires may need to be put out for public safety, but others can and should be left to burn.

The Oldest Tree on Earth

A few days ago, we got to go to the bristlecone pines groves high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. These gnarled trees are the oldest on earth, with some dated to about 4900 years. Hiking around at 10,000 feet, I remembered a story I’d read a while ago about the oldest tree on earth being cut down after a researcher got a tree corer stuck in the tree. I did some research and talked to the ranger, and discovered that tree was another bristlecone in Great Basin National Park. Because that tree was cut, the oldest living tree on Earth is now here, in the Sierra Nevada, a mere two miles from where we were. Our task was to write something as we pondered the bristlecones, so here’s what I came up with.

The Oldest Tree on Earth

When I was nine, I read a story in Muse about a researcher who cut down the oldest tree on Earth. Trying to age the bristlecone pine, his tree corer had gotten stuck, and the Forest Service gave him permission to kill the tree to retrieve his equipment. When the tree had fallen, its age was finally revealed. Reading the story, I put down my magazine, fighting back tears as I wondered about the thing we choose to value.

Now, as I see these ancient trees for the first time, I realize the story I read tells more than I originally thought. Suppose the corer had gotten stuck in another tree, not quite so old, perhaps a younger sibling. The trunk would have succumbed to the same chainsaw, the thousand dollar piece of equipment saved from its entrails. No one would have seen fit to write an elegy for a tree only 4000 years old, not quite holding the all-important record. The incident would have been written off, forgotten. No one mourns the second-best.

Still, my mind tries to fathom the sequence of events that ranked a mass-produced piece of scientific equipment above one of the oldest trees on Earth, for surely the Forest Service was not ignorant of the age bristlecones live to. Where were the conservationists and concerned citizens offering to donate money to replace the corer? Where was the conscience of the student, the bureaucrat who once loved trees before he was trained to see them as a commodity? How do so many of us, knowing trees are alive, refuse to see them as living? Some loggers have sworn they’ve heard trees scream as they’re pulled from their roots, torn apart and hacked into pieces.

Walking through the bristlecones, I take pictures. Frame after frame, taking and taking with tears in my heart because I have nothing to give. I wonder what these trees have seen over the years. I wonder if any of them screamed when they lost their oldest brother. I want to apologize for hubris and capitalism, but it is not my apology to give, nor theirs to accept. I walk on, my heart heavy, and I hear nothing bul silence from the oldest trees on Earth.