Commenting on Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, Walter Benjamin sketches a disturbing philosophy of history remarkably prescient for our own time. “This is how one pictures the angel of history,” Benjamin writes. “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.
Questions for a Resilient Future: A Ten-Year Celebration
A selection of books by Contributors to the Questions for a Resilient Future
My mind wandered off from where I sat—purely alone, threatened by nothing, protected by everything. Solid. Framed by cliffs, side to side, by wild silence from above. I thought of Bears Ears, a huge wild chunk of land in San Juan County to the south. We held out hope that President Obama, in his last days, would proclaim it a National Monument. This after years of failed process, phony negotiations, and continued threat from carbon development. Already, inspired by all the publicity, people from all over the world had descended on this pure place, which was not ready for them.
After years of uneventfully observing crows out in the yard, there’s been a turn of events in my garden. Suddenly, they come bearing gifts. A murder of crows spends part of each year in the broad leafy canopy of trees that line my downtown street, but a crow I’ve come to call “Boxy” is an especially frequent visitor. I recognize his stout body, slightly boxy head, and the few grayish feathers running down his back that look as if they have been dusted in ash.
The Questions for a Resilient Future was conceived as a home for questions with a long life, questions that cannot be simply resolved, or resolved once and for all, and, importantly, questions that open onto further questions. These questions have roots in what philosopher Strachan Donnelley, founder of the Center for Humans and Nature, thought of as the root question: How ought we to live with each other and the whole community of life?
The older I get, the more certain I grow about only one thing: a full and well-lived life is one of inquiry, exploration, and constant growth. This is something my father, Strachan Donnelley, knew well, embodied, and, in his own way, talked about often. But when he was alive, I was too young—too uneducated, yet, in life’s challenges and opportunities alike—to truly understand and know for myself what he meant.
I thought it was a farm and the land stretched for acres and acres. The hill leading to it from the street was steep and dangerous—a monster to mow and weed. The rows were long and full: bushes of cucumbers and beans, stakes of tomatoes, gnarly freeways of squash vines, bordered by carrot greens, bouquets of mint, and parsley clouds. The plots were enormous and the vegetables endless.
In its largest sense, the term “nature” encompasses everything that falls under the laws of physics. It is the realm of the purely physical as opposed to that of the supernatural. From this point of view, we are clearly part of nature and everything we do is perfectly natural. But, equally clearly, it is as natural, in this sense, for life on Earth to be totally obliterated as it is for it to flourish abundantly.
How is nature critical to a 21st century urban ethic? To answer this question, I feel it is only appropriate that I establish a little street credibility (and I just can’t help myself). I’m from New York. Though I haven’t lived there for years, when asked about my origins, I always say New York.
Mercy. Humility. We thought we were in charge. We took what we could take. And now the subject of the experiment lurches and heaves in rage. Did we think it was not alive, with its own fury to survive? The moral arguments have changed little. The criminal charges have not been filed. No court would accept the brief.
Over the last two decades, as I’ve spoken with students and addressed diverse audiences regarding our human interchange with the rest of animate life, I’ve most often been challenged (and questioned) in the following manner: “Alright, Dr. Abram, I understand when you say that we humans are completely embedded within a more-than-human world, and I understand your claim that many other animals, plants, and landforms are at least as necessary as humans are to the ongoing flourishing of the biosphere..."
New York proposes a $20 billion project of floodwalls, levees, and bulkheads to protect the city from storms. Rotterdam announces its "Rotterdam Climate Proof" plan to make the city "fully" resilient to climate-change impacts by 2025, a plan that includes floating bubble-pavilions.
The mind is not the brain; love is not oxytocin. I take my starting point from these simple assertions of what should be obvious but is often lost in the modern discussion of mind and morals.
Since the age of six, I’ve known how to get “out of my head.” As one of the last Unangan (Aleut) to experience a true traditional upbringing, I was allowed to walk the six miles from the village out to the bird cliffs, even as a very young child. There, I could be in the midst of the tens of thousands of migratory seabirds that came to the island to breed: thick-billed and common murres, red and black-legged kittiwakes, tufted and horned puffins, least auklets, crested auklets, pelagic cormorants, red-faced cormorants, fulmars, and seagulls.
For Indigenous peoples, our pasts, presents, and futures involve living and being in reciprocal, consensual, and sustainable relations with the natural world, which includes human relationships to each other as well as with lands, waters, landscapes, atmospheres, and plant and animal nations (for brevity, we will collectively describe this network, imperfectly, with the English word “lands”).
Before there was light, when black was the only sacred colour, there was sound. A slow, steady beat of a soft rattle. Sh sh sh sh sh sh. Out of black was born this universe, and out of this universe was born our Mother, and out of our Mother was born all the grandmothers to be; each grandmother as the head of their family, watching out for their babies. Grandmother spider, grandmother tick, grandmother mouse, grandmother oak. And so on, and so on.
We are all familiar with narratives that have been crafted for this place by those from other lands. These narrative histories often begin with the idea that history started once Europeans arrived here. This narrative gives life to the notion that our collective, shared history on Turtle Island (now known as North America) began at an exact moment. This is untrue. As Indigenous people, we have always been here. We have always known what stories the land holds.
As part of the ten-year celebration of the Center for Humans and Nature’s Questions for Resilient Future, I am joining editorial fellow Christine Luckasavitch and photographer, Alyssa Bardy, the women who collaborated to create the Questions for Resilient Future series, "What Stories Does the Land Hold?".
We at the Center for Humans and Nature are thrilled to share a new series of volumes inspired by kinship—its reality in our lives, the possibilities for strengthening our bonds with our fellow earthlings, and invitations for how we can cultivate these relationships on behalf of more adaptive, resilient, and beautiful communities of life.
Five years ago, I recorded a conversation with my mother, Ellen Yang, and another with an astrophysicist, Jeff Oishi, as part of a project called Interviews with the Milky Way. The Milky Way is our home galaxy. From our terrestrial perspective, it appears like a distant expanse “out there,” when in fact our planet and its solar system are nestled deep within it. This means that every pebble and poem, person and pinecone, is just as much an authentic manifestation of the galaxy as any blazing star or unsparingly dense black hole.
Unclap your millennial gates
& unhinge the heavenly armor
ye knights & bishops
[we] are watching a documentary
about home birth when [you] first feel
[neni] kick // if our doctor recommends
a “c-section” if [we] cut open
The Australian crust is rarely active, often exposed to high temperatures, and relatively isolated—meaning its soils are ancient, dry, and nutrient poor. It is difficult to imagine rocks and soil as lively kin when timescales operate so incongruously with the human experience. But sometimes, especially when disturbed, minerals assert their agency and demand kinship. They migrate down rivers, drift across borders, seep into flesh, and settle in our bones.
In the wooded den of a local park
Named by a man who has not lived
Over the past two decades, a remarkable body of scientific literature has emerged on the intelligence and sheer virtuosity of plants, and a maverick group of scientists and philosophers now talk about “vegetal consciousness.” One of the leaders in this field is Monica Gagliano, an Italian evolutionary ecologist who is a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney in Australia.
She says my hair smells
like corn tortillas.
I raise an eyebrow.
The concept of race is a recent concept and social construct in human history. Many sociologists and biologists do not see race as real. Yet it is real in terms of the damage done to people, particularly those who are already marginalized. It also damages those who perpetrate social hierarchies based on race and materially benefit from this caste system.
The winds toss the brown autumn leaves in the chilled morning air as I walk with a mentor, Birgil Kills Straight, of the Lakota Nation, along the barbed-wire barriers. We linger behind our group of international visitors who have come to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, the largest concentration camp during World War II, to spend four days of silent remembering for those who perished during the “Final Solution” from 1940 to 1945.
There among the silences
find the ghost tree—
the split black branches making
fissures in the clearing.
We were given a fractal glimpse of Jeremy Lent's new book The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, in his previous book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. In Part 5 of that book, also called “The Web of Meaning?” Lent examined our “cognitive history“ and concluded that some humans have engineered a series of disconnections from nature, other humans, and their own essential humanity.
It’s early morning. The heavy September dew coats the grass and soaks my socks through my boots. There’s a chill in the air that wasn’t here all summer, a fog that is slowly creeping across the field from the creek where the mudcat are burrowed into the bottom. All is quiet except for White Throated Sparrow in its fall migration distantly calling to a friend, maybe speaking of the chill in the air.
Dilijan is a town located in a northern region of Armenia. It’s a magical-realistic place that many people, especially youth, often travel to with the aim of climbing high mountains; getting lost or finding themselves inside the violet fog; studying local Soviet modernist architecture; and, primarily, merging with nature. Armenia has very rich biodiversity. Dilijan—or “Forestland,” as I usually say—is home to over a hundred types of edible herbs and to even more types of edible mushrooms, some endemic and some endangered and requiring protection.
songbird you leave the nest at eleven days
that’s how things always begin here
every life so precious so close to
peril fallen bird wet in the grass
I’m paddling against the churning tide
on the East River, a gull’s glide from Brooklyn Bridge.
The ferry captain waits for me,
half in disbelief, half in pity, to quit or pass his dock.
On the Cover: “Beadworker Talitha Tolles, Georgian Bay Métis, stands within the waters of Lake Ontario facing the setting sun.” By Alyssa Bardy