Turning the Soil

Cultivating our gardens in times of trouble

Jane Costlow
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

What does Russia–or Russian literature–have to say to Americans concerned with the environment and sustainability, with how small corners of earth like a single farm might thrive, and what role they might play in seeding hope within our larger communities? I know that when I ask my students to think about Russia and the environment, the things that come to their minds tend to be negative: the Aral Sea, smokestacks spewing toxins, the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl. They think of apocalyptic landscapes, corruption, abject legacies of the failed Soviet experiment. What the American demographer Murray Feshbach, in a book drawing on publicly available Soviet data, called Ecocide (1993). Places envisioned in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which one critic has recently interpreted as a landscape haunted not merely by the past but by the failure of the future.

But Russia is also a place that has been richly gifted with ecological visionaries–both practical and more “poetic” (there can, after all, be relationship between the two). In the ecological visionary category are soil scientists like Vasilii Dokuchaev, whose late-nineteenth-century work on erosion remediation helped American scientists address the Dust Bowl. Or the forester Georgii Morozov, who in the first decades of the twentieth century began working out a system of “stand types” that reflected “not merely a group of trees … in a given locality,” but a complex of properties, including climate, soil and geology, and human activities, “plus the changes wrought by the mutual interactions of all these factors.” Russia’s literary ecological visionaries include writers like Leo Tolstoy, whose critique of property and greed has specifically environmental aspects. (I’m thinking of stories like “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and “Master and Man,” but also of the “forest question” as it makes its way into Anna Karenina, and of Tolstoy’s own work, which involved extensive reforestation, at his estate.) And I could invoke a rich array of poets and lyricists whose exquisite eye for the complexity of nature is balanced–and sometimes challenged–by their acute awareness of social inequity. When Ivan Turgenev’s hero Lavretsky, in Home of the Gentry, submerges himself in deep contemplation of the measure and unhurriedness of the more-than-human world, he is wrenched out of his Zen-like immersion by complications that have everything to do with Russia’s vexed political history. It’s a moment that happens again and again in the Russian tradition: whatever the solace and sustenance of withdrawal from the world or modernity or politics, the world reclaims you. Russia is too large a country, and its literary and cultural traditions too diverse, for me to propose the existence of any single “environmental imagination.” But the imaginaries that I and others are charting are without doubt inflected by a history of profound class inequity, uprooted agrarian traditions and histories of displacement, a difficult climate, and a geography that offers quiet beauty but little in the way of “sublime” perspectives. (To this list I could also add a religious tradition that did not partake of the intellectual and political developments associated both with the Renaissance and the Reformation.)

My focus here is a novel, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, that even those who haven’t read it have probably heard of, if only from the famous 1962 David Lean film (which is far better than the more recent, much weaker, version with Keira Knightley). My thinking about this novel in the context of environmental questions comes primarily from a course I’ve been teaching at Bates College since 2010 called “Catastrophes and Hope” in which we examine a series of narratives of disaster–some fictional, some ethnographic and historical–and pose questions about how individuals and societies respond to cataclysmic upheaval. The disasters we engage with run a wide gamut, from earthquake and flood to the industrial and technological. Precisely what counts as a disaster, and to what extent it involves “nature,” are questions we consider as part of the class. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, numerous scholars have pushed hard against the language of “natural disasters”; humanly constructed systems and structures are almost always involved in the ways that different populations live through disaster and destruction. And cataclysms that are clearly human-instigated, like war, can have profound environmental impacts. I choose the reading for the course, however, not simply based on this array of definitional questions but also with an eye to how different genres–different modes of storytelling–configure disaster differently, allowing us to think not just of catastrophes but also of hope. From the perspective of what are, for the most part, comfortable and sheltered lives, we enter into places of trauma and suffering, but also often surprising resilience.

Various factors led me to put the course together. I had just transitioned from teaching full-time in the Russian program (with occasional forays into the Environmental Humanities curriculum) to being the full-time Environmental Humanist in the Bates Environmental Studies program, and I was developing new courses. It seemed clear to me that while Russian and Soviet writers offered numerous examples of “catastrophe,” they also offered intriguing and less-heralded examples of hope. This course seemed like a good way to explore some of those dynamics. But the reasons leading to the development of the course stretch farther back than that, and are related to the intellectual and political landscape of my own life. I’m fairly typical of my generation (born in the mid-1950s) in being able to chart my personal development against the background of what cultural critic Frederick Buell has called a passage from “Apocalypse to Way of Life.” I participated in duck-and-cover routines during the Cuban Missile Crisis; had a more or less constant feeling as a child that the Russians could come at any moment and bomb us; and then–as a graduate student –was acutely aware that Ronald Reagan’s professed “jokes” about bombing the Russkiis might not be jokes the next time. The dramatic and unanticipated end of the Soviet era, with Chernobyl as toxic midwife, has given way to our own day, shadowed by war, terrorism, and the slow violence of climate change. There is a deeply troubling way in which none of us quite knows what the contemporary answer is to the perennial Russian question What, then, is to be done? In the face of all of this, a course that created an arena for thinking about kinds of catastrophe and forms of hope and what people had done in the past seemed like a good idea. (It’s been an oddly fun course to teach.)

The two novels that I have most frequently used as keystone texts for the course are both narratives of appalling, systematic violence that also feature gardens–small farms–as counterpoints to a catastrophic world. The first, chronologically, is Candide, written by Voltaire in the eighteenth century; the other is Pasternak’s Zhivago, which was published in 1957. Both fictions pose questions worth engaging with: What is it that gardens (and I have in mind a kind of productive, vegetable and maybe chicken garden, rather than the wonderful but nonedible flower variety) offer in a world of violence? Are these places of virtue? escape? delusion? a possibility of genuine transformation? How does the garden relate to the polis–to the public realm of disputation and action? And finally, why did these two very different authors both choose to figure gardens as places of respite and restoration, and what can we learn from how they embed these spaces of hope in longer narratives of catastrophe?

I’ll start with Candide. Voltaire’s narrative–it’s not a novel, it’s what he called a philosophical conte–records the journeys of a young, very naive man (Candide) in a world of almost constant, brutal violence. Candide has been encouraged in his naïveté by his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, who persists, despite all evidence, in calling this vale of appallingly casual torment “the best of all possible worlds.” Candide and his companion survive earthquake and tsunami, religiously motivated wars, plague, shipwreck, and then more religiously motivated wars … and come at the end of the novel to Turkey, where they establish a small communal farm. Candide ends with what has become a famously enigmatic final line: We must cultivate our garden, or as a different translator, David Wootton, puts it, “We must work our land.” Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

What does this sentence mean? A quick Google search will get you a vast array of differing suggestions. Is cultivating our garden a solution to the world’s ills or a way of avoiding them? Is it a means of modeling in miniature a kind of peaceful kingdom that might ultimately spread more widely? Is the key here that it’s not my garden but our garden–that we’ve moved beyond holding on to private property and established a place that can be held in common? As we begin to think about this, we begin, perhaps, to “philosophize”–and that’s precisely what one of the weary characters warns us against: “Let us work without philosophizing… It is the only way to make life bearable.”

The world of Pasternak’s novel is in its own way just as violent as Voltaire’s conte, but because it’s a novel–because it’s filled with people we are encouraged to empathize with, rather than Voltaire’s much more cartoonish, one-dimensional figures–the violence is, for me at any rate, much more difficult to read. In David Lean’s version of Doctor Zhivago viewers are given a capital-R Romance in an epic setting, with gorgeous cinematography; the actual novel is something closer to a mixture of gothic and horror, interspersed with Pasternak’s extraordinary lyric renderings of the natural world. Zhivago follows the intertwined lives of several families through the profound dislocations of early-twentieth-century Russia: we begin in the apparent stability of ancien régime Moscow, then move through the Eastern Front of World War I into the early years of revolution, and then to bloody civil war. And while the novel is filled with moments of extraordinary beauty and an almost cosmic perception of how human lives are linked to the more than human, it also contains graphic descriptions of horrific violence. I’ve experienced moments in reading Zhivago when I’m convinced that Cormac McCarthy had Pasternak in mind when he wrote The Road. We are, quite simply, not allowed as readers of this novel to be at all vague about the impacts of revolution and civil war on daily lives and human bodies: the impaled cheekbone of a soldier who groans with what’s left of his tongue and lips, begging to be killed and saved from his “inconceivable torment”; the partisan who drags himself into camp after having been literally hacked to pieces, a “reprisal atrocity” that leads another man to murder his own family, so terrified is he that the opposing side will do something horrific to them; the casual bayonetting of an officer; the emaciated women picking through the ashes of a burned village; a humiliated Jew made to dance by Cossacks; a crazed mother who throws her crippled son into a cellar with a thief who proceeds to strangle the boy. Even the apparently good man, Zhivago himself, leaves his pregnant wife and family for Lara, the novel’s “other” woman.

So where, then, is Pasternak’s garden, both its geographical location and its place in the narrative? Voltaire’s garden comes at the end of the long journey through horror; Pasternak’s comes in the middle. As the Russian Civil War is beginning in earnest, Zhivago and family leave Moscow for the Ural Mountains in an attempt to “disappear” for a time. They make their way to a place called Varykino, which before the Revolution had been the family estate of Zhivago’s wife’s family, but which is now, in the wake of the Bolshevik Decree on Land, declared state property. They arrive at Varykino, where they settle into a small annex and begin the work of sustaining themselves: Zhivago and his wife talk about manure and seedbeds and whether the frost has left the ground yet. And by the time we meet them in the next section of the book it is winter, they are warm and settled, and have a root cellar filled with the summer’s harvest. Zhivago is beginning to write again, and we follow this segment of their journey through his notebooks: “What happiness, to work from dawn to dusk for your family and for yourself, to build a roof over their heads, to till the soil to feed them, to create your own world, like Robinson Crusoe, in imitation of the Creator of the universe, and, as your own mother did, to give birth to yourself, time and again” (all quotations are from the translation of Max Hayward and Mania Harari).

This section sets into the middle of the novel a passage of extraordinary beauty and apparent hope. Zhivago insists that he is not “building a system” or advocating for a Tolstoyan “back to the land” ethic, but the pages (only ten out of almost six hundred) devoted to this “garden” provide an icon, or illustration, of humanity and decency. It’s worth naming in a bit of detail precisely what goes into this image of how we might live.

It is filled with work, but also with rest. You work the earth, but you also find time to read and stare out into the wild world. You live with that wildness close by. When we find Zhivago in the pages of his notebook it is winter, and he acknowledges that during the earlier months he would have had no time for writing. But now the family uses the cold months for darning and mending, as well as for reading together and for long discussions of what they read. The stores of beets and turnips, salted cabbages and cucumbers, dried peas and beans–along with twenty sacks of potatoes–are literally the fruit of their labors, and of the labors of those who came before them and worked manure and compost into the beds that Zhivago and his family plant. The summer and autumn’s labors have created a “resting place,” with enough firewood to keep them warm until spring. The attention to the everyday–which is in fact an attention to life itself–is key in these passages. Pasternak’s prose gathers up cabbages and cucumbers along with the ponderings about art and meaning that are also essential to this good life. The cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has remarked that it is the act of pausing–and gestures of care–that make place. Varykino is, then, a place in which a family in flight (a family of refugees) pause and care both for themselves and for the earth.

They settle into ground that has already been prepared–both the beds that are already good soil but also the books they read, the stories they turn to during the long winter nights. Zhivago tells us that they read aloud–War and Peace, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. (Many of those books are about war and revolution.) Zhivago ponders poetry and language, and the way poetic form can come to seem like a “measuring unit” of human life. He smells the “earth, roots, and snow” of the cellar, with its harvest of vegetables, and watches hares and lynx cross unmarked snow. He ponders the meaning of conception–his wife is pregnant with their second child–and he thinks about the relationship between the “private,” the familiar, and the broad, philosophical concerns that have always been central to Russian literature. He describes how private lives and a writer’s work become socially significant by comparing them to apples: the “individual concerns” that Chekhov and Pushkin wrote about “have since become of concern to all, and their works, like apples picked while they are green, have ripened of themselves, mellowing gradually and growing richer in meaning.” It’s a lovely way of imagining the marriage of the human and the more-than-human. The social significance of individual actions can’t be forced or rushed. They have their own rhythm of gestation and ripening. Apples are cultivated, grafted, pruned, and picked–and then left to “ripen of themselves.”

As I was writing this essay, I became interested in whether Pasternak himself was a gardener. It turns out to be a tricky question to pose, on Google at any rate, because Pasternak is not just the last name of a superb twentieth-century writer, it’s also the word for “parsnip” in Russian. So every time I tried to use digital search technology to find out how autobiographical Pasternak was in this Varykino gardening, I would be led to advice about where to buy parsnip seeds, how hard it is to find them at the market, and why they are the “ideal crop” for your dacha. But perhaps there’s something wonderful about finding Boris Pasternak’s poem “They’re sleeping at the dacha” interspersed with gardening advice. As at Varykino, it combines the earthly and the cosmic, what sustains both body and soul, the labors of the pitchfork and the page. I also found a wonderful image of Pasternak with what looks like hoe in hand standing in front of the house that has become iconically his, Peredelkino, outside Moscow. The photo was taken by an American journalist who made a surreptitious trip to visit Pasternak just before it was announced he had won the Nobel Prize, at the height of the controversy that followed publication of Doctor Zhivago abroad. (The novel was published in the Soviet Union only in 1988, under Gorbachev.) The setting of the photograph is also where Pasternak was memorialized in 1953 by his fellow poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, who paints Pasternak not quite as a gardener but as someone who stands between what is wild and what is cultivated:

Black is the pine-wood behind this old house:
In front of it, a field with growing oats.
A cloud of unimagined beauty
Hangs in the soft sky like a ball of silver.
Mistily lilac-hued to either side
But in the middle bright and menacing–
The wing of a wounded swan
Drifting slowly away.
While below, upon the old veranda
There stands a grey-haired youth:
Like a portrait in an antique circlet
Made of field camomile-flowers,
He peers through slant-cut eyes,
Warmed by the sun of the Moscow countryside–
Forged and hammered in the storms of Russia:
Poet, and my heart’s interlocutor.
And all the while the forests stand like night
Behind the house: in front, the oats thrust crazily …
That which before was alien to the heart
Is here made close to it. [trans. Robin Milner-Gulland]

Zabolotsky’s Pasternak is standing between the dark forest and a field of oats. The field at Peredelkino, as best I could ascertain, was part of a sovkhoz–the collective farm that included the village where Pasternak’s house stood. The field itself was called “Ne yasnaya polyana”–the not clear glade–which is someone’s joking allusion to Tolstoy, whose estate was “Yasnaya polyana,” clear glade. The sovkhoz sometimes used the field to plant oats, sometimes to plant potatoes. But never, as far as I can tell, to plant parsnips, or Pasternak.

The garden in Doctor Zhivago is a place of deep fertility, of physical labor and profound imagination, of connection to the work of Russian and European culture. It is a place that connects culture and agri-culture, both forms of deep continuity in which what is personal and individual is situated within much longer traditions–cycles–of growth, maturation, and mellowing. It is a place in which one family situates itself within longer rhythms of life and inheritance. The Zhivagos do this with a heightened awareness that their “privilege” now makes them criminals. They are living illegally on property that is no longer theirs; it has been appropriated by the Bolsheviks. And in the eyes of the Bolsheviks their background also marks them as suspect or worse: they are beneficiaries of the prerevolutionary class society that the Bolsheviks have seized power in order to overturn. By the ideological standards of Lenin and the Soviets, their claim to a place of privacy is fundamentally illegitimate. The first point of the Decree on Land, issued in October 1917, proclaimed: “Private ownership of land shall be abolished forever; land shall not be sold, purchased, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated. All land, whether state, crown, monastery, church, factory, entailed, private, public, peasant, etc., shall be confiscated without compensation and become the property of the whole people, and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it.”

But even by the standards of a very different ethic, the Zhivagos’ oasis is fraught, and perhaps illegitimate–and it is here that I think we find the sternest challenge to our own dreams of what gardens can mean. This other ethic is explicitly suggested at an earlier moment in the novel, at the beginning of the first terrible winter of the Civil War. Zhivago has returned from the Eastern Front to his family in Moscow, and he has brought a duck. The duck was a gift from an odd stranger he met on a train, a deaf-mute hunter who has engaged the doctor in long philosophical conversation. Together with vodka that his wife manages to buy on the black market, the duck becomes the centerpiece of a party the Zhivagos give; but the party is a failure–not because they don’t have side dishes or bread (though they don’t), but because the party itself is, Zhivago realizes, “a kind of betrayal. You could not imagine anyone in the houses across the street eating or drinking in the same way at the same time. Beyond the windows lay silent, dark, hungry Moscow. Its shops were empty, and as for game and vodka, people had even forgotten to think about such things. And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness.” By this measure, none of our parties is successful, and one wonders about literature seminars and Monday-afternoon lectures.

There are more resources in our cultural traditions than many acknowledge, precedents we might draw on as we think of how to understand and respond to climate change.

When Pasternak dissolves the garden-life at the center of his novel, the Varykino interlude, he scatters his characters back out into a world of deprivation, violence, and death. They have cultivated their garden, but the world has impinged on them, in various ways, and the garden is abandoned. There are various reasons for this, including Zhivago’s own emotional vulnerability to Lara, who is the second great love of his life. But in a deeper, philosophical sense, it’s not just Zhivago’s “weakness”–a version of the “weak heart” that will ultimately do him in–that destroys the garden. Disquiet also arises about the ways in which the garden and its bounty are not shared–the garden is a place of completely arbitrary privilege (with an element of brute selfishness and naïveté in the family’s refuge, since their presence could seriously endanger the caretaker). But the novel also conveys the sense that there is no place that is immune to human violence; there is no place that is not vulnerable to the brutalities and derangement of the larger world. There is simply no hiding place, and if you’re going to garden you have to acknowledge that and keep on gardening anyway.

One of the things I find intriguing about Pasternak’s novel is how he includes references to what we would call the “environmental” impacts of war. At moments throughout the novel we’re reminded of how land gets plundered and abandoned in the midst of military conflict. The village where Zhivago is stationed at the end of World War I is “an inexplicably intact island in the midst of a sea of ruins.” As he and his family make their long train ride east from Moscow they pass through villages that have been decimated by troops. But the most terrifying landscapes are, paradoxically, not those that have been burned but the agricultural fields that have been abandoned: unharvested fields provide Zhivago with handfuls of grain that he sometimes eats raw, but they have also become home to a “plague of mice.” “These flame-colored fields blazing without fire, these fields silently proclaiming their distress, were coldly bordered by the vast, quiet sky… . Never had there been such a plague of mice. They had bred in unprecedented quantities. They scurried over the doctor’s face and hands and inside his sleeves and trousers at night, when he was caught by darkness and forced to sleep in the open, they raced across the road by day, gorged and teeming, and turned into squeaking, pulsing slush when they were trodden underfoot.” I’m struck by how these descriptions turn from a kind of sublime beauty that is purely visual (“flame-colored fields blazing without fire”) to the repulsiveness of vermin that cover Zhivago’s body and are then squashed under foot. Pasternak’s language makes me squirm and shudder. These are, to quote one of the novel’s central characters, “apocalyptic times … this is the Last Judgment.” And in such times, lush fields of grain are abandoned, unharvested, and people starve. “That period confirmed the ancient proverb, ‘Man is a wolf to man.’ Traveller turned off the road at the sight of traveller, stranger meeting stranger killed for fear of being killed. There were isolated cases of cannibalism. The laws of human civilization were suspended.” And again the fields with mice: “Deserted by man, the fields looked orphaned as if his absence had put them under a curse. The forest, however, well rid of him, flourished proudly in freedom as though released from captivity.”

Among other things, what strikes me in these passages is the way that Pasternak juxtaposes the visual and the bodily, and the way he suggests acts that are, quite frankly, far beyond what we want to see. The reputation of the book (and the movies made from it) manage to dress it up, obscuring the horror it incorporates. (Incorporate–make bodily.) The back of my old Pantheon edition says that it’s the “story of the life and loves of a poet and physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.” But these passages about famine, fear, devastation, and a plague of vermin–like the passages about impaled cheekbones and burned-out villages–suggest Dante, or maybe The New York Times accounts of Syria or South Sudan. At the opposite pole from “the garden” in Pasternak is a landscape so devastated that we almost cannot bear to look at it. Photographs of the famine that accompanied the Civil War, and continued into the next decade as a tool of the state, are for me almost impossible to look at.

Part of what happens when we read passages like these is that the boundary between the reader and the thing depicted is nearly collapsed, in a terrible way, so that we feel the terrible vulnerability of the human body. The challenge for a writer is first to figure out how to represent horrific reality without it being so horrific that we turn away, and second to evoke from our feeling of vulnerability and horror a response that is compassionate and perhaps transformative.

So why, amid all this violence, should we cultivate a garden? The garden in Pasternak’s novel is not a panacea, nor is it presented as such. It will not solve the world’s ills. It does not last very long. It is possible that the cabbages that Zhivago and his family planted in that next spring–after the winter we read about–sat there rotting during a terrible and hungry time, after the family has abandoned their temporary refuge. Cultivated land needs constant attention, the touch of human hands, the intervention of human imagination, planning, labor. Otherwise it goes fallow and the mice arrive. It is, as Pasternak puts it, “orphaned.”

Perhaps we plant a garden as an act of defiance, staking the slim possibility of a future of sustenance–and sharing–against “the beast who sleeps in man.” Or perhaps we plant a garden because God has told us to: God has created a world of incredible beauty, and has given it into our hands to care for. The biblical injunction to be a good steward is deeply implanted in the imaginative landscape of Pasternak’s novel, and each turn to violence, or betrayal, or hoarding–not sharing–is a fall from the cosmic bounty and generosity of the universe–a bounty and beauty that are visible and tactile on virtually every page of Pasternak’s novel. But so is the human fall. Another reason we garden is to enter into the delight of God’s world, since to garden is to know–tenderly, tactilely, patiently. Again, Zhivago’s winter notebook: “What happiness, to work from dawn to dusk for your family and for yourself, to build a roof over their heads, to till the soil to feed them, to create your own world, like Robinson Crusoe, in imitation of the Creator of the universe, and, as your own mother did, to give birth to yourself, time and again.” As is so often the case in his ecstatically cosmic poetry, Pasternak wraps into one sentence the maternal and the divine, self and universe, human and more-than-human action. All under the sign of Happiness.

I trust I don’t need to remind my readers why this novel is relevant to our own day, and our own gardens. Assorted individuals, mostly from highly privileged families, who have every reason to believe that their lives will continue in abundance and relative tranquillity are thrust out from what seems in retrospect like Edenic lives into almost inconceivable turmoil and violence. They are highly educated. They have life plans. They go to college. They get married. All that ends. They become refugees. They are homeless. They must wander the face of the earth, hoping (irrationally, almost magically) to find refuge and comfort among strangers. Their fields are abandoned. Their children drown. Pictures of them wind up on the front pages of newspapers that people like them read as they take their morning coffee. And no one quite knows what is to be done.

In the fourth year of my graduate study at Yale, I left the Slavic Department to work part time at the Christ Church soup kitchen. It was a decision made not entirely for personal reasons, though my mother’s death at age fifty-eight had left me deeply wounded. But it was also the early 1980s, and political reasons played a part, as well. Ronald Reagan had just been elected. His saber-rattling speeches had led many of us to believe that the world was in immediate danger of stumbling into nuclear war. The inequities of our own society were all too visible, as Reagan’s policies–including the de-institutionalization of patients with mental illnesses–led to spiking numbers of indigent showing up at Christ Church for food and community. Many of those people were also deeply wounded, and often only shakily stable. I wasn’t sure, with all this going on, what difference the arcane work of literary criticism could make. (This was the days of deconstruction, though thankfully not in the Slavic Department.) We did not use the term “food insecurity” in those days, but that was the reality I entered into at the soup kitchen. It was what I now think of as an interlude of “gardening” before returning to finish my degree. I didn’t plant anything, but I chopped lots of vegetables, picked up day-old bread and leftover soup from area restaurants. I did physical labor, and then I had time to read freely, without needing to “deconstruct” or analyze. I made remarkable friends among the guests who came every day for soup. It was a place in which the world came back together for me; it wasn’t “I” who put it back together, but the place itself, and the community of people who gathered there: Catholic radicals, Henry Nouwen, street people, and more than a couple of graduate students who simply wanted to get their hands wet and mingle with people who weren’t academics. And the experience reminded me of how important our stories are, and how much we need communities in which to both hear and tell them.

To come back to my disaster course and the books we read in it: in addition to Candide and Doctor Zhivago we read myths of the Flood from different cultures, ethnographies of both Chernobyl and Katrina, and a book by Rebecca Solnit called Paradise Born in Hell, which is about the resilient communities that have been created in the wake of many disasters. (I think it’s telling that civil wars do not create much opportunity for the sharing and openness that Solnit documents.) Toward the end of the course we turn our attention to climate change, the slow-moving disaster that for many writers is an incipient apocalypse. One recurring motif in much of this writing is that climate change represents a historically unprecedented disaster, one for which we are ill-prepared politically, psychologically, or culturally. I will confess that I am not wholly persuaded that this is true: while I recognize, absolutely, the seriousness and extreme peril of climate change, I think there are more resources in our cultural traditions than many acknowledge, precedents we might draw on as we think of how to understand and respond to climate change. The critic George Steiner observed in the early 1970s that “we feel ourselves tangled in a constant, lashing web of crisis”–and then went on to wonder whether that feeling was “entirely legitimate”: “It may be that our framework of apocalypse, even where it is low-keyed and ironic, is dangerously inflationary.” His question hinges on acknowledging how appalling and, well, disastrous have been so many of the eras that precede ours. A huge part of my agenda in “Catastrophes and Hope” is to have students immerse themselves in those earlier eras and then ask what, as Steiner puts it, “were the mechanics of hope, indeed of the future tense itself”? How did people survive? How did they find hope? How did they build resilience? What were their gardens like?

At the end of his novel, at Zhivago’s funeral, a Pasternak character says–and I think it’s directed not just at Lara, Zhivago’s lover, but at us as readers– “You must never, under any circumstances, despair. To hope and to act, these are our duties in misfortune.” To hope and to act. To plant cabbages and cucumbers, potatoes and beets. To write poems. To read poems. To pick green apples that will “ripen of themselves … and grow richer in meaning.” To live in such a way that we do not “betray” the world around us, in a way that will address the “most vexing [issue] of all”–“that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life.”

Jane Costlow is the Clark A. Griffith Professor of Environmental Studies at Bates College.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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