A Conversation with Naturescapes

Interview by Carl Donohue for Naturescapes

CARL: Derrick, I thoroughly enjoyed your book Thought to Exist in the Wild – it’s a compelling look at the reality of zoos. One of the elements of the book that deeply resonated with me was your exploration of spectacles and entertainment, in particular the notion that novelty is intrinsically ever escalating. What’s the difference between spectacle, or entertainment, and art?

DERRICK: Well, I actually want to answer a slightly different question, and then maybe we’ll come around to that, which is “What’s the difference between spectacle and relationship?” The spectacle is something outside of you; it’s watching a football game, watching “Dancing With the Stars;” it’s watching. It’s something you don’t participate in, and you have no real relationship to. With the spectacle, it has to get more extreme over time.

Think about violence in movies, and how it’s gotten more extreme. I watched “Clockwork Orange” when I was in high school and it was incredibly violent; I happened to see some of it again maybe 10 years ago, and it’s not even particularly shocking any more. How is it that this always happens?

A real relationship, on the other hand, is essentially infinitely complex – you can continue to have interactions with the other person. As time goes on, if you’re both present, you’ll always be learning new things about each other, exploring, uncovering the layers. With the spectacle, you’re not involved in it; it’s not infinitely complex,; it’s one-dimensional.

That’s how the spectacle works in contrast to relationship.

Now how that relates to art: John Zerzan would say that all symbolic representation is inherently alienating, and I agree with that to a certain degree. An audience or reader is non-participatory, a witness. On the other hand, art can also point us toward enriching our experience. The purpose of art is to teach us how to live, teach us how to experience the divine, teach us how to be. Art can be a facilitator for our behavior. There’s a great line by a Scottish balladeer. “If I could write all the ballads, I wouldn’t care to write the laws, because stories are how we learn how to be.”

It doesn’t matter whether it’s art or anything else; you are what you eat and what you take into your body is going to teach you how to be.

To go back to zoos, what this is teaching us is that there’s this huge gap between human and non-human, an unbridgeable moat, a cage, or bars; that we’re here, we get to come and go, and they, at the very best, are our example of white man’s burden, where we have to take care of them, because they’re so ludicrous; a hippopotamus floating in a tank of turds. What does it teach you when you see a fur-matted orangutan sitting on a concrete floor doing nothing?

They actually call the cages “habitat.” That teaches you that habitat is distinct, that habitat for a bear consists of one acre, with a little waterfall, with a little pond and dog food being brought in every day to feed the bear. It teaches you that an anteater can be separated from its real habitat and still be called an anteater, or a wolverine could. That’s an incredibly harmful lesson.

CARL: Following on from that then, you’ve written before of the similarities between pornography and science. Can you articulate the difference between admiring the physicalness of a creature, or place, and the objectification of that creature? Like, how do I as a photographer, go out and take photos of bears or flowers or mountains without becoming a pornographer? How do I be an artist with that, with a relationship there, as opposed to…

DERRICK: I think a lot of it is the word you just said, “relationship.” I see a difference between somebody, two lovers, taking pictures of each other, and somebody taking photos merely for mass consumption. It all has to do with relationship. The way this comes back to photos of wild animals is that it has to do with permission. I live right near a pond and a couple of years ago I was sitting by the pond, and this weird creature I’d never seen before crawled out of the water and then climbed up on this little bush. It was just sitting there on this little bush, and it was just hanging there and I watched it. It started to break out of its skin, and I’m “What is it?” I’m watching, watching, watching and eventually it’s a dragonfly. But it takes a couple of hours to unfold, and I kept wanting to take pictures to chronicle that; I just kept getting this impression, no, No, NO. And then finally, when it was all spread out, sunning itself – I guess it hardens the natural lacquer on its wings and as its doing that, I just got this understanding, “OK, get your camera.” It’s like it didn’t want me to take its picture until it was ready, and then it’s like “That’s OK.” So for me, it all has to do with permission.

I guess also it has to do with intent. “What are you trying to do?” And it’s the same thing with my writing. There are those that I write about exploitatively. I’ve just written about this developer whom I hate, and I just tear him apart. I have no problem writing about him without his permission. But if I write about a friend, or a non-human friend, then I ask permission to write about them. It’s because I WANT to maintain a relationship with them. I don’t care if I have a relationship with that other person. So that’s part of it too; what is the relationship, and what is your intent.? Are you taking this picture to help the creature?

Sure, we all have to make a living too, and I think it’s OK to take a picture to sell to a magazine to make some money. That’s part of one of the compromises we all have to make living within this weird economy. And my experience, I don’t know if this is your experience, but my experience is that the non-humans with whom I deal understand and don’t mind. Like, “I know you have to write a book and make some money, so sure, we’ll help you out with this, too.” My point is I think it’s OK to take a picture of a wolf or a grizzly bear or a salamander and think, “I’m going to sell this and make some money.” Once again, as long as you ask permission. Is that your experience?

CARL: Oh definitely. Permission and intent are a part of it. It’s hard to articulate sometimes, but there’s a very real difference between being a photographer, following an animal, or a landscape for that matter, and being sort of the equivalent of the paparazzi. There’s a real difference there, and it’s hard to articulate, but I definitely know the difference when I experience it.

On page 87 (“Zoos”) you state, “I have seen no compelling evidence that humans are particularly more intelligent than any other creature.” Derrick, a LOT of people would argue with you here.

DERRICK: Well, I would take the notion that most people in this culture are intelligent under advisement, because it’s incredibly stupid to destroy the planet you live on. I can’t think of anything more stupid than that. But give me a measure by which we can judge intelligence.

CARL: Well, that’s really what it’s about, isn’t it? Most of the measurements we tend to use are very anthropocentric.

DERRICK: Well, even under those – Washo died yesterday, and the newspaper headline was, “Washo, chimp who talked died.” Tell me, that’s not talking? Between the scientists and the chimp, who’re the ones who are bilingual here? How much of chimp or ape do the scientists know? It’s incredibly narcissistic. They (animals, plants, etc.) make their needs very clear.

One of the things I realized whilst writing “A Language Older Than Words,” is that before you exploit someone you have to silence them, and this culture has set out to systematically silence members of the natural world. We’ve now naturalized this notion that non-humans can’t speak, which is, of course, incredibly convenient for those who wish to exploit them. Before you can exploit them you have to convince yourself that they’re “subhuman” – and isn’t THAT a wonderful phrase?

I guarantee you that dogs speak dog, and trees speak tree, and mushrooms speak mushroom languages.

We can take any measure we want. I’ve seen non-humans have a sense of humor, I’ve seen them sulk, seen them angry, make jokes, laugh. There’s a great line by Douglas Adams: “humans consider themselves the smartest of creatures because they’ve invented digital wristwatches and nuclear submarines, and dolphins consider themselves the smartest of creatures because they NEVER invented any of those things.”

We can always invent some tautological measure that says I’m the smartest because I can hold scissors, or whatever.

CARL: It’s somewhat amazing isn’t it, that we even have a discussion like this about intelligence – there are SO many examples of this – even something as simple as a virus can retro mutate, and we can’t even begin to fathom that kind of intelligence.

DERRICK: Yep, it’s stunning. And birds probably think we’re pretty stupid because we can’t fly.

CARL: You make a brief reference in “Thought to Exist” to successful breeding programs of captive animals. Certainly the breeding programs for species such as the Red Wolf, California Condor, Black-footed Ferrets, etc., have been critical to the species survival. Some might even posit that photographers shooting postcard and calendar images of captive wolves and mountain lions and wolverines have done much to promote an awareness of the beauty and the plight of these species, and that’s led to a number of positive steps, such as the wolf re-introduction program in Yellowstone, WY and concerted efforts to protect the Florida panther. Aren’t captive programs like zoos really a critical part of not just raising public awareness and concern, but also actually fostering tangible programs and efforts like these?

DERRICK: I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to reintroduction programs, and I’m also not opposed to captive breeding programs. But you’ll notice that the Black-footed Ferrets program wasn’t undertaken in a zoo; that was done in a place dedicated specifically to that purpose. Even the San Diego Zoo, which is considered a “big deal” for endangered species reproduction [allots] a trivial amount of their budget towards captive breeding; it’s actually nothing more than a big PR move.

So let’s say captive breeding is a good thing. OK, fine, so drop the zoo. Why have a zoo, why not just have a captive breeding program? There’s a great example in BC right now; I think there are 12 or 13 pairs of spotted owls left and the secretary for the environment says that they’re not in imminent danger (I don’t know how low it needs to go before they’re in imminent danger). So what he decides to do is capture all of these remaining owls so that they can clear cut their habitat. So they’re putting them into a tourist attraction, where you can go watch a logging show and then ride their air-gondola thing, and then go look at the spotted owls.

This takes attention from where it really needs to go, which is habitat preservation. It’s just extraordinary that all of this money can go toward imprisoning animals as opposed to actually saving their habitat.

In addition, there’s a whole question that maybe if we’re going to act in such a way that we extirpate wild animals and we cause them to flee from us, maybe we don’t deserve to see them anyway. I think it’s actually giving a really bad lesson to see pictures of wolves or to see real wolves in zoos: “You can destroy their habitat, and you can still see them.” But that’s all wrong, it’s pornographic. It’s no different than capturing a woman, making her your slave, taking pictures of her that then you can keep as opposed to acting in a such a way that she wants to reveal herself to you.

I live in northern California, and I see bears every day. I saw them yesterday. I guarantee I’ll see them today. They sleep right outside my mom’s house. One of the reasons is because we live in such a way that …that…

CARL: …that they trust you.

DERRICK: …that they trust us. That’s a huge thing. If I take pictures, or you take pictures, by going to a zoo, I don’t have to do any of that. It’s like going to a strip club. I can go see a woman’s naked body when I haven’t done what’s appropriate to have her want to share it with me.

CARL: One of the lines you wrote in Strangely Like War, and I think it’s a beautiful statement, is “The solution isn’t technical, but political. The solution isn’t even political but social. The solution isn’t even social but psychological. The solution isn’t even psychological but perceptual. The solution isn’t even perceptual but spiritual. The problem is our entire way of living and relating to the world.” But then in Thought to Exist in the Wild, and, I’ve heard you say this a number of times, you mention that you “have no interest in spiritual purity.” How can we move forward if we don’t remedy the problem?

DERRICK: Well, I think there’s a bunch of remedies. We clearly face a perceptual problem, and that’s the notion (and it’s an utterly an insane notion that is so common in this culture) that the culture is what is real and the real world is what is secondary. You see that in all the so-called solutions to global warming, that the solutions all are trying to save industrial capitalism, and if we save the world along the way, well, that’s nice. As opposed to “The world is primary. We do need to do anything. Anything. This is not a game. We need to do anything to save the planet.” Without a planet you don’t have an economic system, you don’t have a moral system, you don’t have anything. So the problem we face right now is that yes, we do have a spiritual problem, but right now, we have a culture that’s trying kill everything.

There’s a great line by a Canadian Lumberman that “When I look at trees I see dollar bills.” If when I look at trees I see dollar bills, I’m going to treat them one way, if when I look at trees I see trees, I’m going to treat them another way, and if when I see a particular tree I see this particular tree, I’ll treat it differently still. And that’s how it’s a perceptual problem.

There’s this narcissistic, psychopathological belief that the world was created simply for you. I mean, what a weird, horrible and absurd and destructive notion (which, by the way, zoos add to entirely). I was at the Detroit zoo, and there are these little information kiosks, all over the place. When you push a button, this little sing-song voice sings “all the animals, at the zoo, are sitting here, waiting for you.” That’s it right there; this whole world is just waiting for us. We have gold just waiting for us in the ground, wasted until it’s turned into bars and sold. All the cod in the ocean are just wasted if they’re not turned into dog food.

CARL: Well, they’re not a part of our GDP. They only can become part of that once we ‘develop’ them.

DERRICK: Exactly, exactly! So those two come together, in that “Yes, it’s deeply a spiritual problem, and it’s a perceptual problem,” but we need to not get lost in that, and ignore the deeper immediacy of “How do I stop this destruction?”

And another way it’s a spiritual problem, a lot of people often say “Oh gosh Derrick, we just need to love, if we love enough” And I actually think that’s true, but it’s loving ourselves enough to not put up with this crap.

CARL: Derrick, it’s absolutely loving ourselves, which on the surface, with the way we’re conditioned in our culture, sounds extremely narcissistic, but underneath that, that’s exactly what the problem is.

You, amongst countless other writers, have written about “place.” What does that mean, and what’s wrong with seeing the whole world as a place, a place in which we live?

DERRICK: Because I don’t live in Bangladesh, I live here. That’s actually one of the problems I have with Christianity, Buddhism, etc, any religions that are transposed over space. The two functions of a religion as I understand them are (1) to teach you how to live, which means to teach you how to live in place, because if you don’t know how to live in place then, by definition, it’s going to be not sustainable, and (2) also to teach you how to experience the divine. If a religion is transposed over space, then by definition, it’s ignoring the divine in that place and it’s ignoring teaching you how to live in that place. So a religion that would work in what’s now Phoenix, Arizona, would not be the same as a religion or a cosmology or anything else that would teach you how to live in the rainforest of northern California. You’re going to need an entirely different mythology because your concerns are different.

Years ago I asked my friend Jeanette Armstrong where dreams come from. She’s an Okanagan Indian, and she said “Oh, everybody knows the animals give them to us.” Later on, I talked to Vine deLoria, his people come from the Plains. I told him what Jeanette said, and he started laughing, and said “Of course she’s going to say that; because she’s from the Pacific Northwest.” The cosmologies of those areas are really about how you maintain bodily integrity when you have all these creatures around you, all this foliage, all these plants, these beings of their own experience. He said it’s the same with the Cherokee cosmology; a lot of it is about maintaining integrity in the face of having all these other beings around. If you’re on the Great Plains, your cosmology’s going to be different, on every level, from the practical of how to live, to what dreams we have and where they come from.

Everything has to be different, because everything comes from the land. The land is everything. I have a new line, which is “Protect your landbase, you can’t have sex without it” because without a landbase you have nothing; you don’t have life.

You have to live differently in different places. I don’t want for one thing to replace this culture; I want for 10 thousand different cultures to replace this culture, each one emerging from its own landbase. That’s the only way you can have a sustainable or sensible culture, is emerging from its landbase.

CARL: That kind of idea is so stark, it stares us in the face all the time, yet we sort of ignore it. This brings me to the last subject; you’ve written that the problem is not a lack of information but one of having ignored the deeper knowledge of how to live a different way. I read writers like yourself, or Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez or Jack Turner or Ed Abbey, these amazing people, and it’s so clear. It amazes me that we’re still pointed in the wrong direction when all this stuff is out there, in black and white – it’s like, if Terry Tempest Williams can’t save us, we’re doomed. What’s missing? Why are we ignoring that.

DERRICK: Well, one of the reasons why we’re ignoring that is because we couldn’t be living this way if we didn’t ignore it. We all want our computers and ice cream 24/7. One of the reasons that many of us in the first world are not rebelling against this system is because we’d lose our cable TV. We have been bought off, and we’ve been bought off very, very cheaply for what we’re getting.

That’s part of it. Another part is that the problem is psychopathological, and this is something I haven’t seen many people write about, and it kind of distresses me. The problems we face are not fundamentally rational, which means that they’re not amenable to rational solutions. You’re not going to talk a serial killer out of his behavior; well, you may, but you’d be pretty lucky. It’s the same thing here, there have been so many chances for redemption with this culture, and it hasn’t taken them. The problems are not fundamentally rational.

One of the most important parts of, and this takes us back to zoos, A Language Older Than Words is the part where I talk about the vivisectionists who drove monkeys permanently insane. The point here is “permanently.” They were able to construct child rearing conditions, and to do things to the monkeys that made it so they were never reachable, so they could never be socialized. I’m sure both you and I have seen a lot of animals in zoos who have been driven permanently insane. In fact its something I talk about in Thought To Exist in the Wild; if I took that bear that I mention at the beginning of the book and put her back in Montana, I’m not convinced that she would continue to do anything but walk in a square, because I think she’s been driven permanently insane.

And it’s the same with this culture; it is fundamentally insane to have a way of life that changes the climate, and then to get excited because that means you can explore for more gas and oil in the northwest passage, and that makes more money for people. It’s insane for people to value money over life. The reason that information is not sufficient here is the same reason information would not have cured Ted Bundy.

None of this stuff makes any sense to me. I’ve written how many books now, fifteen? All of them exploring this stuff, and it still makes no sense to me. I wake up and I go “This can’t be really happening.”

What I find most times is that people will just dismiss it, and they say “I don’t wanna talk about it.” I did this talk recently to about 300 people, and I went straight to Q&A. At one point somebody said something about being optimistic, so I asked “I’m just curious, how many people in this room are optimistic?” And I couldn’t believe it, about one fifth of the audience (sixty people) raised their hands. I said “OK this is really fascinating – how many of you are optimistic about the salmon?” and about three people raised their hands. I said “How many people are optimistic about the oceans?” and about three people raised their hands. I said “How many people are optimistic about global warming?” and about three people raised their hands. I said “OK, I’m confused.”

One person told me afterward “I have kids and so I have to be optimistic. I am optimistic and the reason I’m optimistic is because optimism is not based on physical reality, optimism is my attitude toward physical reality.”

My reply was “No, actually the word you’re looking for is ‘denial.’ The way we use the word”optimism” is that it’s based on an assessment of physical reality. I am optimistic that I’m not going to die of cancer today, because I’ve never been diagnosed for cancer. I am not optimistic that I will never have diarrhea again, because I have Crohn’s disease, which causes diarrhea. For me to say I’m optimistic I’m never going to have diarrhea again would be for me to simply ignore physical reality.”

CARL: It is denial, which falls very much in line with symptoms of addiction. The more I look around, the more what I see points toward it being a systemic addiction. It fits every symptom of addiction: denial, dishonesty, control, thinking disorders, delusions of grandeur and so on.

DERRICK: I totally agree, and the problem with that is a heroin addict is mainly killing themselves, and with our culture, the addiction is killing others first.

CARL: Exactly. Well, it has to. If it didn’t, it’d be long gone wouldn’t it?

DERRICK: We can say the same thing for heroin addicts though—a lot of times they wreck the lives of those around them before they hit rock bottom and quit.

CARL: Yeah… that’s probably true.

Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen
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