Monday 18 October 2010

Recovering From Optimism

[Coal Bluff overlooking South Cape Bay, Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area]

[Blog post #100 gets down to some basic issues ... including wild love]

Where would we be without words? They are our way around a complex and often puzzling world. Diane Ackerman calls them ‘small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world.’ She goes on to say:

‘As harsh as life seems to us now, it would feel even worse – hopelessly, irredeemably harsh – if we didn’t veil it, order it, relate familiar things, create mental cushions.’

Personally I am a huge fan, some might even say an addict, of words. I make a living out of them and spend much of my leisure time in their company. They are one way for me to give shape to thoughts and feelings that are really beyond words.

And yet I am aware that words can be wielded to many ends, and can obscure as well as reveal meaning. There is one mental cushion, more accurately a scatter of them, that I’ve begun to find lumpy and uncomfortable. The noun forms are the words optimist and optimism, but it’s the adjectival form – optimistic – that I struggle with the most.

Have you noticed the frequency with which environmentalists, climate scientists, futurologists and the like are asked ‘are you optimistic about the future?’ This optimism question seems to hold such power that if I answer no, I am a pessimist, a doom-sayer, a jeremiah. And if I answer yes, I’m a pollyanna, or a slave of the status quo.

How does the optimistic fallacy get away with it? I wonder if it’s a case of dress well, keep earnest or important company, and you’ll be held in the same regard. So because optimism hangs around with issues like global warming, famine and war, species extinction, and the very future of life on earth, it is taken equally seriously.

I’m coming to see it as a dead-end question, and a poor guide to anything that really matters. The tipping point was hearing and reading 81 year old deep ecologist and Buddhist philosopher, Joanna Macy. By simply asking ‘Does it matter whether I’m optimistic?’ she pricked the pomposity of the question, and laid bare its false foundation. In her book Coming Back to Life, Macy confronts this demand for optimism. She believes our pain for the world, ‘including the fear, anger, sorrow, and guilt we feel on behalf of life on earth, is not only pervasive. It is natural and healthy.’

She stands against the facile optimism – as well as the do-nothing, introspective pessimism – that seem to be the only choices open to us. ‘We don’t retrieve our passion for life, our wild, innate creativity, by scolding ourselves and soldiering on with a stiff upper lip.’

So what do we do? We do what we would do with anyone we love who is facing crises: we keep loving them. Whether we are optimistic about their recovery has no bearing on our action. The power of love far outweighs the power of positive thinking. Personally if I’m dieing I’d far rather have the love and presence of those I love than all the positive thoughts in the world.

I believe the same applies to wild places. Whether I’m optimistic about their preservation or not seems to me irrelevant. By way of illustration, let me choose a wild place, any wild place: somewhere like South Cape Bay in the far south of Tasmania. Its wildness is exemplified by the ferocious Southern Ocean, which sends swells whose roar may be heard kilometres before you arrive there on foot. And human self-propulsion is the only way most will ever get there.

As a pedestrian my journey to South Cape Bay may show me many aspects of this beautiful place. Perhaps before the roar of the ocean captures my attention, I will exult in the wild flowers through the Blowhole Valley. Possibly I’ll notice rushes and reeds; or ferns and fungi; or the play of water now flowing calmly, now pooling in ponds and bogs. The scale of what I see may vary from vast cloudscapes to squawking cockatoos; from hulking wooded hills to tiny nestling orchids.

[A Caladenia orchid in Blowhole Valley, Southwest National Park, Tasmania]

But there will always be that moment when I top the rise that leads through a tunnel of shrubs and out onto Coal Bluff. Then, especially if I’m a first-time walker, all else is likely to be swept away by the visceral blast of wind, and the aural assault of waves that have not seen land since Antarctica or South America. I will not be able to resist sitting and drinking a long draught of wildness.

Yet if I walk down the steep steps to the sand and cobble beach I may find that not all is feral or fierce. Catch the right day, with the beach at peace and the cobbles warm, smooth and sensuous; with gulls strutting and probing the wrack, and oystercatchers stalking ahead of me like wary cyclists awaiting the velodrome bell; find it on such a day and I might believe that the interaction of wave and sand, cobble and creature, is nothing more than a long story of the deepest, most abiding affection.

[Macrocystis kelp, part of the seawrack on South Cape Bay beach, Tasmania]

For it is all of these things, great and small, and the noticing of them, that bonds us to place. And noticing is vital, because it is far harder for we humans to wreak havoc in a place that we’ve come to know deeply and personally. For what is the sum of those things, if it’s not love, actually. And how inestimably more important it is to love than it is to feel optimistic.


Sally Oakley said...


MaureenSH said...

Well said, Peter. And what is well said here is also terribly important to say. Thank you. Maureen