From Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming:
"'Natural forces and human forces have intertwined,' writes geoscientist Paul Crutzen in defining the new geologic epic of the Anthropocene, 'so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.' The enormity of this change in the history of Earth places a new challenge before the human imagination in defining ourselves and the nature of the work we are called to. Communicating information has hardly brought the forces of greed, guns, and gutting of the planet to their knees. Information doesn't change people. Ask the alcoholic or the addict. Sometimes passion changes people. Sometimes empathy does. Sometimes the unconscious yanks you up by your heels, turns you upside down, and gets you straight with reality. Sometimes social cues ripple out from an event or a scientific finding and a cultural norm becomes abnormal. Sometimes the cue is grief. Sometimes the cue is love. Bothe tell us what we can't bear losing and create a resonance that can harden into conviction.
"This brings me to art. Adam Gopnik writes that 'art is a way of expanding our resonances, civilization our way of resonating to those expansions.' Art has been in the kit of adaptive strategies for at least thirty thousand years of human history. The late Pleistocene. That's when the great animal paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were made, were carved with mammoth tusks. In truth, art's time horizon is probably much more deeply buried in the mystery of the past. I have a photograph taped above my desk, a photograph of a hand ax, a hefty tool meant to fit into the palm for carving flesh from bone. This flint is from Norfolk, England, made by Homo erectus some 250,000 ago. The flint has been carefully flaked to create the utilitarian shape, but the maker has fashioned the carving to highlight a fossil mollusk in the center of one face of the teardrop-shaped ax. There sits the small scallop shell, rays fanning out in an arc, as if a little sunrise had been inlaid in stone.
"What hand caught this anomoly in the rock? What hand mastered the craft to chip away the surrounding stone, mindful of the beauty and mystery the fossil shell gave to the object in hand? At least three other hand axes are known from Europe. Archaic hunters spent artful hours getting the symmetry and edge and heft just right. The statement of beauty made by this object tranlates easily across the geologic eras. The skill and love of beauty are all the more impressive, as Denis Dutton illuminated in his rock-star TED talk 'A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,' when one considers that such hand axes were being made by hominid ancestors before language had developed.
"So what might art, this primal skill set, have to do with our adaptation to climate change? Climate skeptics sway public opinion because they appeal to emotions of fear of change, anger at authority, and denial of grief over loss. What good is a poem in a world of weapons and wounds and wastefulness? Art takes up such feelings as a given. Athletics provide a ritualized way for people to act out violence and competition while doing minimal harm to one another. Art provides a ritualized way to choose beauty over use, to use dissonance as as way to find harmony, to express something in a way that will draw a community together. Art cleanses the spirit of toxins that have weakened it. Art lets one inner life speak to another across vast spans of time and distance. It's not art's task to convey information, though it may interrogate the usefulness or truthfullness of information. Art is empathy. Empathy gets in the way of objective science, which is not to say that a scientist does not feel empathy. But scientists do not cultivate their empathy as an instrument to employ in their professional practice. Art tries to do just that. It weaves connective tissue between fact and feeling, self and world, individual and collective good. Art in a time of radical loss is an elegy. It teaches us how to mourn, whether in the context of family loss or the larger losses brought about by the extreme sport of anthropogenic climate change.
"Art can use the power of grief to speak to the depth of one's love for what we would protect and sustain. It can expose the failure of the old myths and raise appetite for new myths that can guide us."
Words: The passage above is from "Owl Watching in the Experimental Forest," in Zoologies by Alison Deming Hawthorne (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from The Cleansing of the Knife by Naomi Mitchison (Canongate, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors. Horizontal pictures: The king stone at Scorhill; the Walla Brook; stone walls and sheep in the Dartmoor hills. Vertical picture: Paleolithic hand ax, flint knapped around a Cretaceous fossil of the bivalve Spondylus spinosus, found in West Tofts, Norfolk. (Photographer unknown.)