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Developing an Ecological Orientation Through the Narrative Imagination

July 22nd, 2010 | 5 min read

By Christopher Benson

For the last several weeks I have been trying to develop an ecological orientation through the narrative imagination. By ecological orientation, I mean "a new consciousness of the country" or "a new relation to it," as the narrator of O Pioneers! describes in the exquisite passage below, which deserves a close reading:

Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch them, and to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it. Even her talk with the boys had not taken away the feeling that had overwhelmed her when she drove back to the Divide that afternoon. She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.

The word "felt" appears four times and "feeling" one time because the author emphasizes that a connection with the land must involve our emotional life. Lest we confuse this orientation with sentimentalism, the narrator links feeling with reflection, thought, and consciousness––a neo-Stoic conception of emotions as cognitive construals of the world. Alexandra interprets the prairie in such a way that her future is bound up with it, much in the way that our future, as Christians, is bound up with the groanings of creation, as the apostle Paul says:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the fruitfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:18-25).

When the passage from O Pioneers! is read in concert with this passage from the Book of Romans, we discover something very important: the nexus between creation, creature, and Creator. Too often Christians focus on the nexus between creature and Creator, neglecting creation. Unpacking Paul's logic, we can see our redemptive narrative in nature's mirror. Just as creation was "subjected to futility," our flesh was in bondage to the "law of sin" (7:21-25). Just as creation will be liberated, our bodies will be resurrected. At the center of this redemptive narrative is the Creator, who summons us to wait patiently for the eschatological climax, similar to the Nebraskan farmer who waits patiently for her crops to yield a harvest. The challenge, I propose, is to feel that our hearts are hiding down in creation, where the future is stirring.

How do we do experience this nexus between creation, creature, and Creator? Lisa Graham McMinn and Megan Anna Neff forthcoming book, Walking Gently on the Earth: Making Faithful Choices About Food, Energy, Shelter, and More, offers practical resources. I offer something else: the narrative imagination. This expression is borrowed from philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who defines it as "the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person's story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have." Nussbaum limits the narrative imagination to persons. I will follow another philosopher, Martin Buber, who extends sympathetic identification to nature. Where Buber contrasts the "I-It" relation, which exercises a will to power, and the "I-Thou" relation, which exercises a will to love, Cather contrasts two different ecological ethics: the ethic of conquest and the ethic of care. When Alexandra, in the above passage, has "a new consciousness of the country" and feels "a new relation to it," she no longer shares the view of her father and neighboring pioneers who only see the land as an "It" to be exploited. Instead, she views it as a "Thou" to be cultivated and cherished.

The very act of reading O Pioneers! invites me to undergo this shift. I enter the narrative where the land becomes its own character––alive, mysterious, beautiful, idiosyncratic. So, where does an ecological orientation begin? In the imagination or heart, as Willa Cather famously says in her novel: "The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman."

Further reading:

Christopher Benson