I’ve recently completed a third book in a trilogy of novels, the final part, For Hope is Always Born. The title, like the other titles in the trilogy, is a quote from Cervantes’ Don Quixote:
For hope is always born where there is love.
It’s a trilogy that charts a great deal of suffering, loss and grief, but despite everything that life throws at the characters, it resists despair. Writers witness to much that is tragic, but to do so without giving way to cynicism and without losing all hope is a blessing the world greatly needs.
The complexity of hope
Hope is not a glib or simplistic outlook.
In All Said and Done, Simone de Beauvoir notes:
My natural bent certainly does not lead me to suppose that the worst is always inevitable. Yet I am committed to looking reality in the face and speaking about it without pretense… It is just because I loathe unhappiness and because I am not given to foreseeing it that when I do come up against it I am deeply shocked or furiously indignant — I have to communicate my feelings. To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it. It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism; but this rejection implies hope — the hope that truth may be of use. And this is a more optimistic attitude than the choice of indifference, ignorance or sham.
That the truth may be of use
Photo by Dikaseva on Unsplash
Starting from the truth in order to go forward in hope is something that would resonate with the ecologist Lauren E Oakes. In her book In Search of the Canary Tree she recounts her hunt for the yellow-cedar tree. The have survived centuries of change and are traditionally revered by native mystics as well as being commercially valuable for their golden wood. Related to the giant sequoia, they are true cedar.
But when Oakes went in search for them this is what she found:
I came to Alaska looking for hope in a graveyard. Ice melting, seas rising, longer droughts — in a world seemingly on fire, I chose to put myself in some of the worst of it. The Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska is a collection of thousands of islands in one of the scarce pockets remaining on this planet where thick moss blankets the forest floor and trees range from tiny seedlings to ancient giants. But I wasn’t loading into that Cessna four-seater to look for fairy-tale forests of spruce, hemlock, and cedar. I was flying in search of the forests I’d study — the graveyards of standing dead trees and the plants I so wanted to believe could tell me, through science, that maybe the world is not coming to an end.
If trees were people, anyone would have called it a tragedy — an epidemic running rampant throughout the community in the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest on Earth.
We, like those trees, are ‘Nature’. We are not seperate. Our fate and their fate are intertwined. As Rachel Carson noted:
Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.
For Oakes this response involved finding hope:
There was no driving on from the graveyards of standing dead, no going home, and no forgetting. I didn’t know it then, but those trees would change my life. In the moment, soaring above them, they made me feel vulnerable to our warming world in a way I had never felt before.
There’s a threshold and tipping point for every species — humans included. […] What I didn’t know then was that these dead trees would eventually give me more than just hope. They’d give me a sense of conviction about our ability to cope with climate change. They’d motivate me to do my part. They’d move me from pessimism about the outlook of our world to optimism about all we still can do. As we made our way back … I could see green peeking up and around the barren trunks. I wondered if there was a new forest forming and what individuals could survive amidst the changes occurring. They were there. I could see them reaching toward the light through the broken canopies. I was committed to finding an answer — but for more than just the fate of the trees.
In search of that answer, Oakes travelled across Alaska speaking with local hunters, weavers, naturalists, foresters, and even climate change deniers. Like de Beauvoir, Oakes believed the truth to be of use. She writes:
We create and re-create narratives throughout our lives to make sense of what happened, to process experience, to interpret and reinterpret our view of the world as life unfolds. I believe that beautiful and difficult process is what it is to be human.
What she concluded was difficult and honest:
In the modern world, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to be hopeful, but it’s equally stupid to be hopeless. You can’t live out of a hopeless life.
And this is how she decides not to live out of hopelessness:
What occurred to me a few years ago was that I don’t have to get caught in that trap. The best thing for me to do is to develop my inner voice and to steer as close to that as I can and to act as if what I do matters. And allow the future to decide what comes of who I am… There was a fairly brief period in my life when I was pretty well philosophically prostrated by this because I couldn’t bring myself to play these little hope games and say, ‘Oh, see that little thing over there, notice now that the car is using a few gallons per hour less,’ or, ‘Look, someone just put a solar panel on their roof. And so things are getting better!’ Well, they’re not getting better. I didn’t want to play that game with myself, and yet I didn’t want to be trapped in the abysm of being depressed over it. I want to live a more joyful life than that. […] Grace is what we decide to take with us and what we leave behind.
That separateness is not sustainable
As she talked to people living in the midst of the loss of the yellow cedars, two other insights became crystal clear:
Firstly, that the notion that some of nature can be designated as ‘wilderness’ is spurious and destructive. One local Tlingit weaver put it forcefully:
Wilderness is a curse word.
There are not sacrosanct areas and the rest there for exploitation but a contiuum of connection and how we interact. This doesn’t preclude living off the land in a harmonious way, but it prevents a notion of protecting only tiny areas that are set apart and ‘separate’ while the rest is ravaged.
To sit there in Ernestine’s home by her loom and hear her call wilderness a curse word, to claim the designation itself is to blame for the imbalance we’ve created on our planet, that struck me.
Our separation from nature stems from our early efforts to protect it? And that separation is the cause of our problems today? There was an irony and unexpected twist — the once well-intentioned act of protecting wild places had broken the relationships needed to sustain the larger whole over a much longer time frame.
Ernestine said their relationship to the land and trees had always been one of balance and respect. Just as a curse word divides two people in conversation, setting aside nature tore it apart from humanity.
Secondly, that we cannot frame our relationship to nature in terms of commodity.
Another Tlingit weaver, Teri Rofkars told Oakes that the term natural resource only divides us from the idea that we are part of nature. Viewing nature as ‘other’ and as an exploitable commodity prevents us being in relationship:
When we resource, we don’t make the ties of what was lost in order to gain something.
But of course if we think in terms of relationship, we also begin to think in terms of responsibility, Oakes puts it like this:
At what point will adaptation become triage, caring for the people most affected? Like an epidemic, an extreme weather event ca devastate whole communities of people, but when do we start investing in getting out in front of the next one? … Waiting for the top-down approach is an excuse for doing nothing from the bottom up. Adaptation requires me to stop thinking about climate change as someone else’s problem and accept it as my own. It requires me to stop thinking about the global risks and to start seeing what’s happening in my own community, and then to reach out to others. It requires me to consider the more vulnerable places and populations to ask, “What can I do to help?” These are the things this cypress, and all the people connected to it, have taught me. What happens at the local scale matters when it comes to climate change because that’s where people’s lives are carried out.
That we focus in order to care
Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash
By narrowing the focus to the local and manageable Oakes is not becoming myopic and exclusive, but signalling how we can act in small ways to begin an effect that ripples out towards the whole planet. It radiates insight into the largest global problems:
I can observe the changes occurring around me and embrace the struggle to accept them, to respond to them, to adapt to them. I can look ahead and live today holding space for tomorrow. I can fight for what we can still curtail. I can play a part, not live apart, and I can act with care for others when the floods hit, when the seas rise, when the snow melts, the rivers run dry, and the flames rage. Defeat may only be a failure to adapt.
If fear is the absence of breath, and faith is a positive force, I want to breathe into an uncertain future. If this tree species and all the people connected to it gave me one great gift, it is this: the realization that there’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red — that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today. To me, that is thriving. To me, in this rapidly changing world, that is grace. It is how I choose to live with what I know.
What has this to do with the writing life?
We, above all people, are committed to being witnesses to the stories. Hope is a vital element of the story of our time. It is neither ‘everything will be alright’, nor ‘we may as well give up now’, rather it is:
That we live in tension
After WW1, his marriage recently torn apart by his wife’s mental illness, Hermann Hesse moved to Switzerland and became a signatory to Romain Rolland’s Declaration of the Independence of the Mind, a manifesto of pacifism also signed by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Rabindranath Tagore, Jane Addams, and Upton Sinclair.
At the same time he wrote to a young correspondent:
You write me that you are in despair and do not know what to believe, what to hope. You do not know whether or not there is a God. You do not know whether or not life has any meaning, whether or not love of country has a meaning, whether, in the wretched condition of the world, it is better to strive for spiritual goods or merely to fill your belly. I believe your state of mind and soul to be the right one. Not to know whether there is a God, not to know whether there is good and evil, is far better than to know for sure.
In the The Gay Science Nietzsche offers a simlar thought in aphorism 268;
What makes Heroic? — To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.
Hope is not simplistic. It exists in the midst of real sorrow and doubt. It is not a claim to having all the answers but a refusal to become bitterly sceptical or to give in to desperation and utter anguish.
In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit frames such tension like this:
This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.
It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.
That hope is always born
Photo by Giuseppe Bandiera on Unsplash
As writers we know that new shoots don’t appear from nowhere. Suddenly it is spring and there are flowers blooming wildly but the truth is that things have been happening underground to make this so.
The same is true with change in the human story. As Solnit says:
Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists …
How the transformation happened is rarely remembered … power comes from the shadows and the margins … our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage.
Change is rarely simple. But as writers, we witness to it and we work for it, knowing that hope is always born where there is connection, where there is love, where there is life.
Becoming a different story
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David Gilbert says
This is another particularly lovely one Jan. Thank you for all you do. x