Where is the edge of an island? Does it vary between high tide and low? What about tide pools on the beach? And what of the submerged surface linking the island to the mainland? Distinctions that seemed so clear suddenly lose clarity upon reflection.
Using island as metaphor, Kathleen Dean Moore tackles the fuzziness of boundaries and the mutability of distinctions in her latest book, The Pine Island Paradox. Moore, a professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, reads at Auntie's on Oct. 7. Using her personal experiences in the natural world -- camping, kayaking or quietly observing -- she questions the assumptions of Western philosophy that underlie our worldview and the moral implications for our actions in light of those assumptions.
"While people of wisdom all around the world were looking for connections, Western philosophers were looking for distinctions," she says. "You can blame Descartes, you can blame Democritus, you can blame Pythagorus -- all of them were dividing humans from the rest of the natural world."
From her first two books of essays, Riverwalking and Holdfast, Moore's work has evolved into an investigation of these worldviews -- the Western view of separation and distinction and the opposing view of interconnectedness. The essays in The Pine Island Paradox look critically at three key ideas in Western philosophy that emphasize separation: the notion that humans are separate from and superior to the rest of creation; the premise that an individual's well-being can be disconnected from the broader biological and social systems; and the assignment of value based solely on utility. Moore meditates on the natural world, particularly the remote Alaskan island of the title, with lyrical passages full of wonder and gratitude. But this sense of wonder leads inevitably to social responsibility, she believes.
"If we think of ourselves as other than the landscape we inhabit, then we might make this horrible mistake of thinking it's possible to degrade, disrespect or destroy our habitat without degrading, disrespecting or destroying ourselves," she explains. "There's no distinction between 'this is wonderful' and 'this must remain.' You can't say 'this is wonderful' and then stand by idly while it's destroyed. We're not watching a movie here. We're creating the future with every decision we make."
For Moore, her work with the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word at OSU provides an opportunity to overcome the separations imposed by western philosophical thought.
"We bring together the practical wisdom of the environmental sciences, the insight and clarity of philosophy and the emotion and power of creative writing to create events and communities that will help people re-imagine their world and cross over boundaries that separate us," she says.
One of those events is a symposium, Nature and the Sacred: A Fierce Green Fire, scheduled for Oct. 28-30 in Corvallis, Ore. The program will gather writers, scientists and people of different faith traditions to ponder the relationship of the sacred and nature and what that means for human lives.
"I think we'll find a confluence between what scientists are thinking and what Buddhists are thinking," she says. "If we do think of nature as sacred, then that calls upon us to take action."
Drawing readers in with her graceful prose and quiet, often humorous, reflections on natural places, Moore then challenges us to adopt what she calls a "moral ecology," a sense of responsibility toward people, places and communities. She doesn't preach a specific course of action; that's left up to the individual. She simply tells the story and offers her own reflections.
"The process of writing is a process of self-discovery," she says. "My job as a philosopher who's a writer is to reflect on the story. It's only when you start reflecting that you start to understand the deeper impulses. Reflecting and writing help me discover what I most deeply believe, to see what faiths and beliefs emerge from the stories."
Connecting with the natural world may come easily in the middle of a forest or at the edge of the sea, but what about in the middle of the city, smack in the heart of busy urban lives? Moore says one of her biggest challenges is remembering to notice the wildness amid the concrete and glass. The key, she says, is quiet attentiveness and being open to ideas as they flow.
"So many of the forces around us demand our attention -- the TV, the telephone," she says. "But the wilds are gentle, waiting for us to notice. Part of paying attention is putting yourself in the position to receive the gift, to be open to it. I think it's a matter of recognizing -- in all of our surroundings -- how extraordinary, how contingent, how beautiful our world is. It could be, or it could not be, and there's nothing we can do about it. That's a characteristic of a gift, much like forgiveness. We haven't earned it, and we have no control over it."