A Humanist and a Theologian Reimagine Nature

Professors Jedidiah Purdy and Norman Wirzba begin an ecological conversation they believe we all should have
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March 11, 2016

On an overcast morning in December, Jedediah Purdy pulls his gray Subaru hatchback into a small gravel parking lot at the base of Occoneechee Mountain, a high bluff about fifteen minutes from Duke’s campus. Purdy, Robinson O. Everett Professor of law, is running a few minutes late and hops out of the driver’s seat carrying only a glass jar of water. The label reads “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION”—it had originally held the unpasteurized “raw” milk favored by people who believe in getting closer to the sources of their food.

Purdy is one such person. His earnest manner and intellectual interests seem tailor-made for these farm-to-table times, but in fact, the times have simply caught up to him. It has been seventeen years since he burst onto the intellectual scene with For Common Things, a book urging Americans to give up the irony and apathy of contemporary culture in favor of authentic community. Just twenty-four at the time, he would follow that with two well-received books on American political identity. His latest, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, traces the political, cultural, and legal history of Americans’ environmental imagination and has been called “the Silent Spring of the twenty-first century.”

Waiting for him at the trailhead is another Duke scholar whose personal and intellectual pursuits converge in the outdoors: Norman Wirzba, professor of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies in the divinity school, teaches and writes about the connections among faith, food, and the environment. Like Purdy, he’s prolific. He has published six books, including two in the past six months, Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity and From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World. The latter also argues for a new “environmental imagination.” But Wirzba’s approach is rooted in theology. He sees the Earth not as a way station that Christians eventually will leave behind, but as “the good and beautiful world that God made, the object of God’s daily concern and delight.” The book counsels Christians to pay closer attention to the ways in which people are destroying the world and themselves, and to bring a religious perspective to the environmental movement.

Purdy and Wirzba have never taught or written together—or hiked together, for that matter—but their common interests frequently overlap. This year they will join colleagues from the law school, divinity school, and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions to study “Religious Faith, Environmental Concern, and Public Policy” through an Intellectual Community Planning Grant from the provost’s office.

As they set off on a trail carpeted with damp leaves, their talk turns quickly to the immediate surroundings and the secret intelligence of plants and forests. It’s a language about which both men are curious, even if their areas of scholarship are miles apart. “There’s a conversation going on, a conversation conducted in the language of chemicals rather than words,” Wirzba says. “The connections between things are deep and profound.”

If the idea of a conversation between a couple of ferns seems fanciful, Purdy and Wirzba probably wouldn’t disagree. That’s the point, in fact. Both writers argue that the concept of imagination is crucial to our relationship to the environment, perhaps now more than ever. Scientific evidence— rising sea levels and real-time melting of glaciers, for instance—hasn’t inspired people to act with urgency or even to find consensus on the policies these realities demand.

“It’s pretty clear that data is not enough,” says Wirzba. “We’ve got so much data. More than we have ever had, more than we know what to do with. But it seems not to be doing the job we need it to do, which is to promote communities and habitats with healing and peace. That’s why imagination is so important. Because imagination is the capacity of people to move into positions of empathy and appreciation of things.”

By placing environmental concerns in a spiritual context, Wirzba invites Christians to embrace a vision of protecting the environment through how they live, eat, and work. Likewise, his premise asks secular environmentalists to open their minds to a vision of ecology that is “grounded in an appreciation of the sacred character of creatures,” he says.

Both men agree there’s a huge opportunity, some might call it an imperative, to bring new voices into the conversation about conservation and sustainability. But how?

“Goethe, who was writing in reaction to Enlightenment tendencies to separate the knower from the known, would say if you want to understand the plant, you can’t just take measurements,” says Wirzba. “You actually have to spend a good bit of time attending to the plant. When you do that, you start to see the thing as a living thing and not just an object. And once you see it as a living thing, then there’s the possibility for kinds of empathy that maybe wouldn’t be there otherwise.”

It’s what Thoreau did in Walden, adds Purdy. “There’s this amazing passage where he says, ‘I could almost turn to the pond and ask, Walden, is it you?’ Which is like this primordial act of looking in the eye of another, only of course, it’s a different kind of eye. It’s the pond. It’s an eye of the world.”

Purdy and Wirzba, who stray from the trail to sit atop a pair of small boulders jutting out of the hill, are rigorous observers. “[Thoreau] said that if he woke up in a swamp from a trance that he would know within three days what time of year it was,” says Purdy, eyeing the landscape before him. “He would know the date within three days, because of what was happening around him.”

While Purdy talks, he spots a bird in the sky above them. “It’s a turkey buzzard,” he says. “It’s curious about what we’re doing.” He and Wirzba both are troubled by the degree to which people see themselves as separate from the environment, distinct from the living things that share the Earth with us.

“As long as we talk about nature as an abstraction, I think we’re not going to get very far,” says Wirzba.

In the woods we’re reminded of our primordial, or at least pre-digital, selves. “People are sensing that there’s a kind of artificiality which deadens their life,” says Wirzba. “Or slowly degrades the sense that they are living beings.”

There’s a simple antidote on campus, a place that has drawn the involvement of both men: the Duke Campus Farm, a one-acre plot of land on which students grow fruits and vegetables for dining halls and local events. The purpose isn’t to feed the campus, of course, but rather to inculcate in the university community an appreciation for and understanding of healthy, sustainable agriculture.

Both Wirzba and Purdy grew up on farms. Raised by back-to-the-land parents on a small farm in West Virginia, Purdy spent his youth exploring trees and gullies. At ten or eleven, he took a microcassette recorder and grilled his neighbors for details about the natural mysteries in their midst. “Most people don’t know what you can find in the woods,” he says.

Wirzba grew up on a larger farm in Alberta, Canada, and planned on becoming a farmer until industrialized agriculture forever altered his family’s business. Instead, he pursued degrees in history, religion, and philosophy. “I was on a farm in which there was a conflict that was being played out for me to experience, front-row seat,” he says of the period in which his grandfather’s traditional farming practices were overtaken by industrial methods. “It was small-scale agriculture. The emphasis on the care of every living thing was just paramount. The push from the bankers, however, was that you become industrial. It was a degrading form of doing agriculture.”

This conflict is ever present in the writings of Wendell Berry, the poet and novelist known for his environmentalism, who is a touchstone for both men. Purdy describes him as the first writer he ever met. Wirzba, editor of The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, counts Berry as a friend and professional collaborator.

Berry’s writing inspired Purdy’s parents to set up their homestead. They grew much of their own food, hunted their meat, and logged oak out of the woods for outbuildings on the property. “They were really trying to bring—it’s an age of Berry’s—the lines of their interdependence as close as possible so they could actually know where everything was coming from and where everything was going,” he says.

Not one to romanticize harsh realities, Purdy is quick to point out that the landscape that so shaped him was itself “really a wrecked place.” Depopulated when white settlers arrived, and subsequently cleared and farmed in destructive ways. “The creeks are kind of sluggish, and the hills are pretty bare, and the trees kind of tip over. There are a lot of gullies.” And yet, he says, “it is my image of what it means for a place to be beautiful. It was just a place that had taken the boot so many times, and yet, it’s the place where I learned how to be in a place at all.”

Wirzba considers this, and says, “What’s interesting is that by committing to a place, your parents could take the time to learn the history of the place, to see the wounds. [Aldo] Leopold has this great line where he says, ‘The punishment or penalty of being an ecologist is that what everybody sees as a pretty landscape, you see as a place of wounds.’ ”

Purdy knows the exact reference and, without missing a beat, offers a slight correction: “The consequence of an ecological education is that you live alone in a world of wounds.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Wirzba before returning to his point. “This is something which our screen culture doesn’t appreciate. Planet Earth and Winged Migration, they’re fabulous to look at, but they give you a sense that the world is a place where you come as a spectator to look. And hopefully it’s pretty. All the places of work are the places of wounds; those become forgotten and, as a result, we have a romantic vision of the world around us. It’s not realistic, it’s not honest, and it prevents us from doing the hard work of healing and repair.”

It’s not as easy to love the wounded places, but it’s unavoidable.

“We have no choice,” Purdy says. “No good choice.”

Wirzba nods. “We don’t have any other places to go, right?”

As they make their way along the two-mile trail, the surroundings come into view. Wirzba, who lives nearby and runs this hill with his sons, points out the the historic town of Hillsborough, the subdivisions of three- and four-acre homes that abut it, and, further out, the farmland that remains, albeit bisected by two interstate highways. It’s an area with which Purdy, who lives in Durham, is less familiar.

For all their similarities, he and Wirzba make their scholarly homes in two different worlds. Wirzba grew up in an Anabaptist church, and a major part of his work today is with pastors and churches.

“Faith communities have, within their own traditions, tremendous resources for talking about the world in ways that can promote health, repair, flourishing,” Wirzba says. “A large part of the work I do, when I write theologically, is to try to engage parts of Christian traditions that can be useful in the work of environmental restoration.”

Purdy interjects with a mischievous smile. “I always realize, at some point when Norman and I are talking face-to-face, that there is this deep difference,” he says. “That he’s a monotheist. I’m not even a theist.”

Nonetheless, he notes, “we come to many of the same places and are interested in many kinds of the same work and are going to say many of the same things, even when we turn in different directions, to different and overlapping populations.”

Purdy’s writing is aimed at those who may be despondent over the Earth’s ongoing destruction at the hands of humans. In After Nature he posits a vision for future political action that acknowledges that human life has now shaped every inch of the planet.

“It’s not just the fact that our fingerprints are on everything. And that, as a factual matter going forward, the world that we get to live in is going to be the world that we’ve, in significant part, made,” says Purdy. “But also, that talking about nature has been a way for people to talk to one another about how they were going to relate to the rest of the living world [and] how they were going to relate to one another.”

All the more reason, says Wirzba, to “recover the language of creation. I’m not saying we dispense with the word ‘nature’ altogether. What I want to dispense with is the idea that there’s something natural about the term ‘nature.’ ” Its true meaning, both men agree, has been degraded by whims of self-interest and the sharp turns of history.

Purdy argues that politics is the only solution to our environmental challenges, even as he acknowledges that politics right now is pretty ugly. Wirzba’s challenge is similarly daunting: He wants to revive the idea of Creation but admits that Christians are far from living out a scriptural vision in their relationship with the world.

“I’m not optimistic,” admits Purdy. “I think we are in a threefold crisis of ecology, economy, and politics, and that they are mutually interactive. Politics is the inescapable pivot point because it’s the only way of deliberately, collectively binding ourselves to a direction.”

But, he adds that he’s hopeful in general, because history is genuinely full of surprises. “People have pulled off transformations that were thought to be impossible before they happened, and which they emerged from as different kinds of people.”

Wirzba dismisses the language of optimism and pessimism as beside the point. “Christians might say that our hope is not simply in ourselves but in the power of [the Holy] Spirit, which is an active player in the creation of the world,” he says. “The spirit is a healing, beautifying presence in the world. It can take root in all sorts of surprising ways.”

We should prepare for the surprise, Wirzba adds. Embrace it. Promote it. “Because it’s going to take the creative powers of everybody to imagine a better world.”

The two men are back at Purdy’s Subaru at the base of the hill, but still in the thick of conversation. “Hope is not fanciful, because people are doing it,” continues Wirzba. “Or as Christians would say, ‘The Spirit’s at work.’ Right?”

“Amen,” says Purdy, the mischievous smile having returned.

Wirzba laughs and claps Purdy on the back: “All right. We got an amen.”

Park is executive director of communications and events for Duke Law School and author of Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not).