Author Interviews/Features


Meet Kathleen Dean Moore

Kathleen Dean Moore    Kathleen Dean Moore is the author of three books of nature essays. Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water (1995) won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award. Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World (1999) took the 2000 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award and The Pine Island Paradox (2004) won the 2005 Oregon Book Award. She also wrote the introduction to What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest, a publication of the Story Circle Network. Dr. Moore is University Writer Laureate and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as the founding director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word. Lisa Shirah-Hiers conducted this email interview for The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 11, No. 2, June 2007).

Visit Kathleen's website and the Spring Creek Project website.

Interviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 06/15/2007

How does your unique background influence your writing?

An education in philosophy can be an education in courage, to come right up to the edge of understanding and then to jump off the cliff. At the same time, it's an education in clarity, to say as clearly as possible what sometimes cannot be said. So how does the oddness of my background influence my writing? I like to think it makes the writing more layered than it otherwise might be, and more reckless about engaging ideas that are hard to understand. In the other direction, the essay [form] has transformed my thinking about my philosophical work. Traditionally, philosophical articles argue in support of a conclusion. But the essay is an exploration; when I begin an essay, I have no idea where it will take me, only hoping that the journey will surprise me. Now that I think of philosophy as an exploration rather than an argument, I'm having a lot more fun.

How has Western philosophy influenced the way we perceive and experience the world?

While people of wisdom in virtually every other culture studied the continuities that link human with human, humans with nature, Western philosophers were busy making distinctions. Early Greek philosophers separated humans from nature, on the assumption that only humans have minds. The divisions widened during the European Enlightenment. René Descartes separated mind from body, human from animal, user from used. Francis Bacon separated culture from nature and transformed knowledge into power over the natural world. Capitalist economics transformed the natural world into a commodity. John Locke argued that humans are essentially individual, related to others through competition. As I wrote in The Pine Island Paradox (p. 53), the result is that we imagine we live in a world of nothing but "matter and mechanical animal-clocks," that we are the only "shining eyes in a universe stripped of mystery, exposed to human understanding and control, reduced to human convenience." We have made ourselves a lonely world to live in.

In The Pine Island Paradox you talk about the need for nature writers to "show...that it's possible to connect deeply and meaningfully to the land without living by the pond." (p. 136) What did you mean?

Henry David Thoreau perhaps did us all a disservice by leaving Concord and going to [Walden] pond, in order to live "deliberately, to front the essential facts of life" and not to discover when he came to die, that he had not lived. That has encouraged generations of nature writers and others to think that nature (those essential facts) is out there somewhere, separated from the places we live. And so to protect nature, we have turned our attention to the ponds and mountaintops, neglecting or discounting the nature that is in every breath we take, every bite we eat, every skin cell brushing the air. We think we are good nature-lovers because we protect wilderness, even as we allow toxins into our own homes and foist our trash off on other people. We have a wilderness ethic. But we have no ethic for our own overfertilized, scalped, and poisoned backyards and our living rooms crammed with junk.

How we can connect in urban settings? What prevents us from doing so?

We have to escape from the walls we build around ourselves—work cubicles, locked houses, closed windows, locked cars, hermetically sealed office buildings, hurricane fences, and the terrible fear of strangers. We have to escape from the artificial world we dream-walk through—video games, TV shows, Walkmans, cell phones, advertising, and the delusions of power. We have to escape from the speed and busy-ness that are imposed on us by the imperatives of profit and power. Then we are free to go out into the morning and notice the light on the puddles and the force of the rain and the hope in students' faces and the flavor of the coffee or carrots. Then we are free to give conscious, joyous, ethical attention to every decision we make—what food we eat, what stuff we buy, what transportation we use, what work we do, what gifts we give or fail to give, what gratitude we express. Then we can begin the good work of connection. We know what this work is, because this is the work that gives us joy—planting a garden, singing in a choir, organizing a neighborhood, caring for elders, gathering food at a farmers market, learning again to live locally in this time and place.

Your work is full of references to music: the augmented triad sung by wolves and loons, the music of wind in the pine needles, etc. Are you a musician?

I love to sing, especially to sing harmony with other people, in groups large and small, around a fire or in a bus. My friends and I used to sing walking home from school, my children and I used to sing at bedtime, and I miss this. There's something miraculous about harmony—that strangers can come together, open their mouths, breathe out music, and tune themselves into a beautiful, resonant chord. If we can do this—if we can listen this closely, respond this perfectly, together create something this beautiful out of thin air—what other miracles might we perform? This is one of the few things that gives me hope.

What is the Spring Creek Project?

The Spring Creek Project began beside a little stream in the Coast Range, where Franz Dolp and I imagined a program that would nurture our sense of biological, emotional, and spiritual connection to wild places. We knew that if humans are to find ways to live on Earth without wrecking it, we will need all the ideas and dreams and insights and stories and knowledge and ancient wisdom that the human mind can provide. At the university, we often teach and work in disciplinary isolation. At Spring Creek, we wanted to bring together the practical wisdom of environmental science, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative power of the written word, to re-imagine our relation to the natural world. This is a high-voltage combination of ideas, we have found. We've brought scientists and writers together on Mount St. Helens, in the ancient forest, in the community, out in a coast-range cabin. It is amazing to hear the ideas that spark when the conversations begin.

When scientists and writers walk trails together, they both begin to see the world a different way. Writers delight in—and soon begin to use—the rich language of science. They tangle in the ecological description of the world, the rich networks of interdependencies and effect. Scientists are invited into deep traditions of celebration, the poet's gratitude and attentiveness. All are as joyous as school kids on a field trip, released from the strictures and distortions of a too-narrow focus, invited to see what they have never seen before.

What was most rewarding about working with What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest?

You have to know that I live in the Pacific Northwest, where the rains begin on Halloween and don't end until the Fourth of July, clouds rolling in off the ocean with all their dankness and fury. I live through the winters because (and only because) when spring vacation comes, I can go to the Southwest. For decades, I have fled to Death Valley, Grand Gulch, the Ajo Mountains each spring. And during the long winters, I have read the stories of the Southwest. So when Susan Hanson and Susan Albert asked me to contribute something to the book, I was grateful, the way a person is grateful for sun after winter. I was honored to be among writers I so much admire and love. To write the foreword was a great honor, and a challenge, to think about women writers' freedom and our constraints, what we share and what distinguishes us one from another.