Category Archives: Myth + Spirituality

Thinking about Gaia

Image of Earth from spaceIn this month of Earth Day and marching for science and climate, I’m thinking about Gaia.

A hashtag popped up on Twitter last week: #ifonlytheearthcouldspeak. Yes! That’s a good prompt to contemplate right now. The hashtag elicited a range of responses from funny and snarky to thoughtful and earnest. Some tweeters suggested that the earth is speaking, but we’re not listening. Would that be Gaia? The environmental scientist James Lovelock first formulated the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s, proposing that the Earth could be seen as one vast living and self-regulating system, and naming it for Gaia, the primordial Greek Earth goddess. The idea has been borne out since then, but its popularity may owe a lot to Lovelock’s naming it for the Greek Mother Earth, thus connecting it in our minds to the much earlier and long-lived human sense of the earth as a living force.

In the last week, the earth’s atmosphere reached an ominous new milestone: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels broke past 410 parts per million, after hitting 400 parts per million in 2013. The last time atmospheric carbon concentrations were this high was in the Middle Pliocene, 3.6 million years ago. Our continuing to pump carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, combined with the unknown effects of climate feedback, are cause for alarm. For those of us who don’t deny the facts, it’s a scary time. I’ll be at the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. in a few days, one of the hundreds of thousands of people needing to bear witness to the urgency of this moment.

But are facts enough to rally people to action? You can’t see carbon concentrations, and even though the earth is now experiencing changes that are much faster than the normal geological time scale, these changes are often too slow, too big, or too abstract for us to easily take in. As author Kim Stanley Robinson has said, “Fiction can tell us how new situations will feel, and also, what things mean.” Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140, set in a partially submerged future New York, is one of several just-published works of climate fiction (cli-fi), the emerging genre that invites us to picture the human consequences of climate change. Robinson offers a vision of people muddling along and making their lives in the Venice-like canals of New York, both coping with the disasters that have occurred and aware there may be worse ahead.

But where is Gaia in this future? If Earth can be seen as a living thing, couldn’t we also benefit from trying to take its perspective—as different from ours as it may be? Science fiction has gone there already. Apparently inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, Isaac Asimov included a newly discovered, sentient planet named Gaia in his 1982 novel Foundation’s Edge. And Piers Anthony made “Gaea” a main character—an archetype of the Earth, embodied in a mortal—in Becoming a Green Mother (1988), part of his Incarnations of Immortality series.

The Book of Joan, an ambitious novel by Lidia Yuknavitch, just out this month, offers a character who is empathically connected with the Earth. Living only a few decades into the future, the visionary child-woman Joan of Dirt leads a rebellion among the survivors of an environmentally ravaged earth who are now living on an orbiting space-station sanctuary ruled by a billionaire dictator. This Joan of Arc for a nightmare future can manifest volcanic eruptions—her symbiosis with the planet allows it a form of expression that can’t be ignored. It’s a risky novel, also taking on issues of gender, sex and race, and it’s on my to-be-read list.

These and other cli-fi novels do a great service by bringing the human consequences of climate change into vivid focus, at a human scale we can reckon with. If they tend to be dystopian, that is the kind of future that seems to be staring us in the face, given the forces we have already set in motion.

The Earth is speaking to us now, in her own language, not just through beautiful sunsets, but through rising sea levels, droughts, and strange weather patterns. Of course we need to be able to imagine the human costs of climate change. That’s how we think, and it is the most promising way toward changes in policy. But I also feel the need to see things from Gaia’s point of view—even if it means facing eruptions of traumatic scale and strength. What may be dystopian for us, may just be a cloudy afternoon for our long-lived planet. We desperately need to de-objectify the earth, and to try to reengage in something more like an “I–Thou” relationship with Gaia—not of equals, but in respect, and awe and wonder. I hope more writers will take up the challenge of imagining what she is saying, and might be saying in the future.




The radical leaps of A Wrinkle in Time

The witches of A Wrinkle in TimeI was in sixth grade when I was swept up in the world of A Wrinkle in Time, part of the first generation of girls to discover it. Madeleine L’Engle’s novel imprinted itself on my imagination and gave me a sense of what speculative fiction could be, before I had read much science fiction. Its tingling sense of possibility, and its fearless leaping into deep territory stayed with me, as I later found and read other pioneering authors like Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler.

What makes A Wrinkle in Time such a touchstone, a kind of pole star that has helped many readers, and particularly girls and young women begin navigating their sense of themselves in the cosmos? Many people have written about the power of encountering the anti-cheerleader Meg—a twelve-year-old girl who excels at math and science—not to mention Meg’s mother, Mrs. Murry, who is both a working scientist and a loving, understanding parent.

But it’s not just these two strong female characters that made this book different. L’Engle pulled off something wildly, radically original, marking her own path into a field that is still male-dominated. The title slyly announces its difference: it’s a “wrinkle” in time, not some grand, adventurous noun (Trek, anyone?), but a humble, domestic thing that normally reminds us of fabric—the tangible women’s work of sewing and ironing. Yet this image animates the Tesseract concept that allows Meg and others to leapfrog through space and time on their quest to find her scientist father. Likewise, the story roots itself in the creaky details of Meg’s shabby but welcoming old house before launching into its playful exploration of different planets and ways of being, all without recourse to any of the shiny, tech-heavy details that characterize hard science fiction.

That’s not all. L’Engle, who knew her world mythologies, offers three characters who are introduced as witches—one of them is even named Mrs Which. But these witches are thoroughly de-demonized. No shrill Queens of the Night or interchangeable Weird Sisters here; these are three old-lady pals who genuinely like each other, each with her own distinct personality. They are in fact mentors and helpers to Meg and her companions, and even as they shape-shift, shedding their gender to reveal more cosmic identities, they retain their profoundly good intentions.

And then there are the inhabitants of the planet Ixchel, where Meg is taken to recover from the near-death trauma of Tessering through the Black Thing. These huge furred creatures understand the world completely through sensitive tentacles, and communicate without words. Instead of nightmarish, Alien-like insectoids like those encountered in Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game, we’re given many-limbed beings with the enveloping tactile and emotional ambience of the mother-infant bond, as Meg is regressed and re-raised by an individual she names “Aunt Beast.”

No wonder publishers didn’t know what to do with L’Engle’s manuscript at first. The human characters (Meg and her mom) and the supernatural characters broke the gender barriers of their time. Two archetypal extremes are embodied as female: the celestial, sky-flying, far-seeing witches, and the feelingful, earth-connected species of Ixchel (the planet was named for the Mayan goddess of healing and childbirth). And there are no man-eating monsters among them. If A Wrinkle in Time has given boys something new to chew on in these recast archetypes, that’s great. On behalf of stargazing girls everywhere, I’m grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for letting her imagination fly.


An elegy for Tesla

Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail
Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail

Jeanne Jaffe’s ambitious Elegy for Tesla is a high-tech, dreamlike and heartfelt meditation on Nikola Tesla, the legendary scientist and inventor. Jaffe’s multimedia installation fills the Rowan University Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D printed models of his iconic inventions, and animatronic, motion-activated figures of Tesla that move and, in some cases speak.

Tesla stands as an avatar of massive creativity, with his hundreds of patents, and basic breakthroughs in alternating current, radio, robotics, and even computer circuitry. Jaffe pays homage to his achievements, while embedding them in the medium of a life that had strangely mythic elements. She’s particularly sensitive to the poignancy of the older Tesla, the eccentric loner who fed and cared for pigeons, whose limitless imagination had run up against the limits of the public’s reception of his work.

This aspect of Tesla is part of what drew me to work with composer Jon Gibson on Violet Fire, an opera that tried to capture the inner life of Tesla in all its strangeness through music, movement and video. So I was delighted to be asked to write the catalogue essay for this exhibit. One part of the Tesla mythos is the white pigeon he befriended, and who triggered in him a vision of blinding light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds herself, surrounds Tesla with a flock of tenderly modeled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as carriers of his ongoing inspiration, and markers of his intense, intuitive connection with the natural world.

Elegy for Tesla, gallery view
Elegy for Tesla, gallery view

But Tesla, in the form of his motion-activated doppelgangers, steals this show. Curator Mary Salvante coordinated an NEA-funded collaboration between Jaffe and students and faculty in Rowan’s Engineering Department to create the systems that animate her sculptures. They stand, and move, in a perfect salute to Tesla as “magician” of wireless electricity.

I’ll be at the reception on Thursday – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through January 30.

Elegy for Tesla, an installation by Jeanne Jaffe

Rowan University Art Gallery/West, Glassboro, NJ, through January 30, 2016

Reception Thursday, October 8, 5-8 pm, starting with artist presentation and panel discussion at 5 pm.