As a scientist and Sun subscriber, I was frustrated to read an interview so littered with common misconceptions about science and scientists [“Where the Buffalo Go: How Science Ignores the Living World,” interview with Vine Deloria, by Derrick Jensen, July 2000]. A more thoughtful title would have been “How Western Culture Ignores the Living World.”
Science is about understanding how the universe works, or, more simply, about satisfying curiosity. We are genetically programmed to investigate the world around us, and this is the reason our species has been successful (so far).
It is simple-minded to blame the ills of the Western world on science. Our disconnection from the living world stems from the deeply rooted arrogance of the Western psyche, combined with a dominant cultural philosophy that values personal material wealth over all else. If we could teach compassion rather than greed, the great discoveries of science would no longer be a threat, but a blessing.
It is true that science tends to be more focused on reducing and isolating phenomena than on understanding the intricate relationships that make up whole systems. But in many cases, the strategy of reduction just plain makes sense. Say a plant has remarkable curing power but also a horrible side effect. Why not try to separate out the beneficial components?
Of course there is bias and dishonesty in science, but I know from experience that the majority of scientists are earnestly seeking truth. Vine Deloria’s claim that it’s standard scientific procedure to “throw out the results you don’t agree with” indicates that he is either ignorant or cynical, or both.
And why do so many science bashers make vague statements about how modern physics has somehow come full circle and become mystical? Modern physics is the fruition of painstaking calculation and experiment, of picking apart the material world at the finest possible level and observing the pieces in their most isolated state. Yes, some of the theories are paradoxical, but they are validated through scientific method, not superstition.
All the scientists I know are relatively sensitive people who understand better than anyone the limitations of the work they do and the immense complexity of large systems such as the planet earth. No scientist in his or her right mind expects science to provide the meaning of life, or even predict the weather, for that matter.
Maybe it’s true, as Deloria suggests, that science has become the dominant religion in our society, though I hope not, because it’s not cut out for the job. Science was never meant to provide spiritual guidance. We need to recognize both the value and the limitations of science and focus on improving our hollow collective Western soul.
And contrary to what Deloria says about “almost anything anyone with a Ph.D. says” being “taken as gospel,” I have a Ph.D., and nobody listens to a damn thing I say.
The difference between seeding clouds and conducting an Indian rain ceremony is not, as Vine Deloria says, “the difference between commanding a slave to do something and asking a friend for help,” but the difference between doing something and asking an imaginary being to do it for you. Science does not ignore the living world, but merely the imaginary world that exists inside Deloria’s head. It is not science, but Deloria, who tells “beautiful lies.”
Bill McKibben’s “Consuming Nature” [July 2000] shed new light on a period of my past. In my twenties, I reveled in experiencing natural places: sweating in the heat of the Nevada desert, hitchhiking through the Sierras in the snow, poking around the edge of the San Francisco Bay at low tide with foghorns blasting. Those times were sandy, blistering, insect-ridden — and fun. I loved them, but I knew they couldn’t last forever.
Now I have a new nature to experience, one that can’t be erased with air conditioning or Malathion or credit cards. Its tedious name is “chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome and fibromyalgia,” but my body doesn’t care what it’s called. Being ill has made me a nonproducer (except of squash plants and poems), and a nonconsumer (except of herb tea and Salvation Army clothing). I’m living on nothing while waiting for the Social Security system to decide if I really am too sick to work.
Meanwhile, every day I awake to scorching deserts of pain, snowy mountains of fatigue, and bug-infested swamps of depression, all right here in my own body. I love them, too.
Reading Ruth Foster’s “Death of a Milk Cow” [July 2000] reminded me that I, too, named all the four-legged near relatives on and around the farms I visited and worked on as a kid. Well into my adult years, I wrestled with the whole issue of a “natural” food chain. As a student of theology, I learned that the first Genesis story involving food had all of us eating vegetation. (The more familiar Genesis story came a bit later.)
The current explosion of genetic information leads us to conclude that we are more related to the other members of the food chain than we might comfortably admit — we’re all at least genetic cousins. It wasn’t just apes learning American Sign Language that convinced me that animals know more than we think they do. The local deer would migrate into the state park a full week ahead of the hunting season — until there had to be a hunt inside the park, too.
Perhaps, however, we can admit our kinship and honor it (even with a name now and then) and still keep the food chain. If any culture has managed to do this, the Native American traditions are close. Meanwhile, the nearby rendering plant still stinks.
I was appalled by the disgusting misogyny in John Tait’s “Cementhead” [June 2000]. I already avoid the mainstream media because of the sexism that pervades them. I have higher standards for The Sun. If you continue to print such offensively chauvinistic writing, I will not hesitate to cancel my subscription.
As it has taken on the larger questions of the way we live, The Sun has become powerfully subversive, medicinally disorienting. In June, I read the words of the Tibetan exiles photographed by Stephen R. Harrison [“Whispered Prayers”] and was physically struck by the thought We are more like the communist Chinese than we are like these Tibetans.
This month, Vine Deloria and Bill McKibben were a one-two knockout punch. It’s quite an experience to be jarred, even briefly, out of the narcotic trance that we call “the pursuit of happiness,” which is destroying the planet and draining real contentment out of our lives. What to do about it I’m not sure, but no change can begin until our sleep is disturbed.
I appreciated Ruth Schwartz’s Readers Write story about paying the bridge toll for the next driver in line [“Making a Difference,” June 2000]. I’m seldom moved by exhortations to save the planet or help the homeless, but her simple suggestion of a different way of looking at life insinuated itself into my consciousness.
“I could have more joy in my life,” I tell myself, “if I’d open up to the possibility that it’s OK to give a little.” The walls I build around myself don’t protect me from others — and they certainly don’t protect me from my own habits. I know we are all linked somewhere down deep. Why can’t I let go of my defenses?
Maybe I was just ready for your issue on “Making a Difference.” I think it did that for me.
Who is Tony Hoagland, and how is it I’ve never heard of him before? I was stunned by the beauty and bravery of his poems [May 2000]. He starts the reader down a path and then, before you realize what’s happening, brings you to a completely different, far more interesting place than you expected. I was jolted by the power of his words.
Speaking of powerful writing, Will D. Campbell’s “Reconciled” in the same issue finally gave me a definition of Christianity that I can stand behind 100 percent. That man speaks the Gospel in the radical way Jesus intended. I was changed by his story.
It’s been more than a month since I attended the twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration for The Sun at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center, but I remember vividly the first group discussion, about whether The Sun is too consistently bleak in tone. Editor Sy Safransky said that he wanted to make the magazine “more celebratory,” an idea that appeared to upset a number of people. I supposed they feared The Sun might start feeding us the usual American-media diet, which tends to seal us into our isolation and despair, rather than opening us up to connection and hope.
I understood Safransky to be suggesting that The Sun aim for a blues feeling, an expression of the human spirit amid a misery that cannot be denied. That indigenous African American art form provides an archetype for a voice that is truly celebratory, yet also accepts the reality of death and loss and pain — and even makes song of them.
From my own experience with mental illness, I can attest that the move from misery to celebration is no piece of cake. I had a breakdown six years ago. Although I would like to celebrate that excruciatingly horrific experience, which brought me back to life and gave me back my own story, I don’t want to emphasize the resurrection at the expense of the suffering. It’s difficult for me to find the right blues tone because, unlike the inventors of the blues, I am conditioned by my culture to deny the darker emotions. The story of my breakdown is my point of connection with the rest of humanity, but I feel the compulsion to keep it undercover, or to dress it up in the brighter colors of victory won.