For the last couple of years I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with a group of seniors taking the environmental science course at my school to talk about a bike ride across the country I took in graduate school. In the past, I’ve found that I focus on different aspects of my ride. This year was no different.
Most often, my focus has taken the form of reflections on the generosity of strangers. Throughout the 4000 mile journey, countless folks took me in and cared for me, fed me dinner and breakfast, packed me lunch, let me sleep in their guest rooms, offered me their shower, allowed me to wash my clothes, and even stay for a couple days.
One iteration of the presentation centered in on the reason I rode: to educate the people I encountered along the way about the plight of the asylum seeker in our country. Before the trip, I briefly worked as the coordinator of The Riverside Church’s Sojourners Immigration Detention Center Visitation Program. As a result, I made it my mission to share the stories and realities from detained survivors of torture, democracy movement leaders, and ethnic minorities who’d come to the US to seek refuge, but instead found imprisonment for months or years, waiting for an immigration judge to determine if they had a “credible fear.” All the while, shareholders in private companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) reap profits from detaining fellow human beings.
Other moments of reflection have focused on the sheer beauty of the ride–the Appalachian Mountains; the smell of burnt firewood just before sunset; the continental divide at 11,000ft; Utah’s buttes, domes, and vast systems of canyons; the high desert in Nevada. I had certainly rode through a variety of environments, but have little experience or training to speak of such things outside mere commentary on their beauty and the awe they instilled while visiting on bike. This has been challenging in the past because I want to relate my trip to their course. Yet, my takeaways from the trip, as noted above, rarely border upon science-proper.
I think part of the reason the presentation has been so changing is that my host never gives me an agenda. He simply invites me to come “talk about the trip.” I’ll pose questions concerning a direction he thinks I ought to take and he supports my thoughts, regardless of the content. Looking for ways I could draw my reflections a little closer to these student’s work, I opened up Hessel and Ruether’s (eds.) Christianity and Ecology and Leonardo Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor for some inspiration. And that I found!
Ruether, Johnson, McFague, and Keller provided me a framework I could work with, as most rooted the current environmental crisis in the platonic dualism that serves to secure the ideological foundation for anthropocentrism and patriarchy. This reminded me of Cone’s Whose Earth is it Anyway?, in which Cone situates the same destructive ideology in the logic of white supremacy. Dividing reality into in forces of opposition (humans–natural world, man–woman, white–black), with one archetype over and against the other, this ideological framework has led to some of earth’s most traumatic systems and experiences.
Yet, Boff spoke powerfully to a solution to such a crisis:
First of all, we must being about the great revolution in perspective that grounds the new cosmology; we cannot understand ourselves as separate from the Earth nor can we continue with the classic vision that regards the Earth as a lifeless planet, a clump of soil and water full of the hundred elements of which all beings are composed. We are much more than that. We are sons and daughters of Earth, we are Earth itself become self-aware, the Earth journeying… When an ecological agronomist studies the soil compositions, the cosmos is studying itself. When an astronomer points a telescope toward the stars, the universe is gazing at itself. (p. 119)
How incredibly poetic.
In truth, I’d centered in on what was shaping up to be a paradigmatic shift in even my own thinking. I don’t think I’d fully thought about the way dualism had shaped so much of my view of the natural world (which in itself, the phrase “the natural world,” is an expression of that dualism, right?) But to understand myself as a product of the earth, no more or less than a forest, reef, or bird, that is copernican in nature.
Further, both texts touched upon Rudolph Otto’s model for speaking of the sacred, something I’d certainly come to understand my trip as bordering. Boff writes that Otto’s notion of the sacred is experienced in two distinct ways: tremendum and fascinosum. A feeling that sends us fleeing in a kind of fear, yet draws us in all at the same time. Boff understands this acknowledgment of the sacred as just as much a part of the solution to our crisis as the rejection of dualism, writing:
When taken on in this manner, the sacred brings us back from our exile and awakens us from our alienation. It brings us back to the home that we had left, and we begin to treat Earth, each thing in it, and the whole universe, as we treat our body, each of our organs, every emotion of our soul, and each thought of our mind. Only a personal relationship with Earth makes us love it. We do not exploit but respect and reverence the one we love. A new era may now begin, not one of truce but of peace and true connectedness. (p. 118)
Finally, Boff posits that it’s not enough to learn about the world through books, movies, or the classroom. Instead, we ought to be out in the world and experiencing the sacred, a challenge I aimed to leave the class thinking about:
What we need is to be stirred and to have a deep experience. We need to enter into this knowledge about the cosmos, Earth, and nature, because it is knowledge about ourselves, about where we come from, about our deepest reality. It is in being stirred by such feelings that we change our lives. (p. 117)
In the end, I felt it was the best iteration of the presentation I’d done yet. And the more I think about it, I can’t help but wonder if its success was brought about by my host’s insistence on giving me free reign over my assignment. This certainly corresponds with my thinking before. In the portfolio design team I’d mentioned before, one of our weekly exercises was to share details about a peak learning experience in our development as students and teachers. For many of us, we cited moments in our college careers in which our instructors and professors gave each of us a large degree of independence with various assignments. We each expressed that it was the independence that facilitated the peak experience, even moving some of us a step closer toward our career in teaching. In that regard, I cannot help but wonder the negative effects of providing too narrow of a prompt for my own students, one that limits the scope of their work, their creativity even, too much. This, I’ll have to think about more over the summer, as we’re to the end here.
In regards to the peak experiences, I should note that many cited a moment in their junior year of college, strangely enough, as being the moment. I invite you to detail on your own peak learning experiences in the comments!
The image The Agony of Gaia at the top and in the presentation is from Kentucky artist Jeff Chapman-Crane. The video linked of Hogback Road in the presentation is from Ron Cox.