ASLE - The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment

Another cool morning in Victoria, BC, after a week of unseasonable heat. I came down to do a talk for the 9th biennial conference of ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, which is an international academic association of scholars, educators and environmentalists working in the burgeoning field of literary eco-criticism. The theme of the conference was “Island Time: The Fate of Place in a Wired and Warming World,” and the conference offerings reflected the astonishing international polyculture that’s grown up around “environmentally inflected” literature. (This is a phrase I read in the Association’s call for papers, and I liked it. “Environmentally inflected” -- the tone is light, understated, discreet. What would its opposite be? “Environmentally loaded”? “Environmentally charged”? “Environmentally fraught”? Hmm, not half so inviting...)

It was interesting to get a sense of how eco-criticism, by focussing its lens on the role of environment and ecology in literature, has elevated the status of “nature” from mere setting or background of story to that of the protagonist, or even the story, itself.

Here are some examples of the conference offerings:

• What Are You Doing Here? Environmental Justice, Inclusivity, and the Question of Community
• Fact and Fiction: Bruno Latour and the Representation of Nature
• Nature and Human Values: An Ecopedagogical Model
• William Wordsworth: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Authorship
• The Textual Animal: Birds, Pets, and Wildlife on the Page
• Get Outside, Get Dirty, Get Smarter: Ecopedagogy and Three Examples of the Outdoor Classroom
• RT: Returning Home: An Emerging Landbased, Ecofeminist Environmental Ethics in Taiwan
• Disaster! Collapse! Writing on Radical Change
• Globalization from Below II: Resisting Corporatization and Commodification
• Aves Triumviratus: Three Chicks Writing About Birds
• (Un)Natural Visions: Ecocritical Perspectives on Film and Visuality
• Environmental Identity: Sexuality, Disability, Ethnicity
• Let the Water Hold Me Down: The Poetics and Politics of Water
• So Descartes, Darwin, and Basho Walk into a Forest: Practrical Models for Science /Humanities Dialogue

…etc., and there was so much more. Six hundred and fifty plus scholars from around the world. Seven concurrent sessions, three times a day, for four days, plus plenaries, roundtables, workshops, pre-conference seminars, receptions, poetry readings, caucus meetings, and, well, you get the picture. It was intense. A bristling forest of ideas, a veritable storm of words. By the time I spoke, at the final banquet, my head was spinning.

So I decided to start with silence. With stillness. I asked everyone to get comfortable and then introduced a short “thought experiment,” directed at watching the mind, watching the body, watching the breath. You could call it a thought experiment, or a meditation, the words are not important. There had already been so many words, and I felt it would be interesting to try a more direct way of exploring the conference theme of "place," to create a direct experience what it is to be in place, exactly where we are.

Silence—alone, but especially in large groups—is such a profoundly powerful and intimate experience, and I really believe it's the basis for intelligent action, and speech, and engagement with the world. We need to learn to take a backward step, away from all the clamor and content and information coming at us, competing for our attention, and instead, from time to time, to direct our attention inward, carving out the space necessary to reflect and make intelligent decisions.

I wish I’d thought to end my banquet talk with a challenge to the members of ASLE. They are educators, and it seems to me that in order to counter the cacophony that is our wired world, they could make the time in their lives and classrooms to share some silence with their students. I’ve done this frequently with groups at colleges and universities, and the students are almost always astonished by the experience. Some find it uncomfortable, but most find it interesting, and many of them report that it feels really good. Their lives, they tell me, are never silent or still, and so it feels amazing to just sit. I'm always reassured that even if they forget the words I've spoken in my talks or classes, they will, somewhere in their bodies, remember that feeling of sitting in silence.

So if any of you ASLE folks out there are reading this and want to take up my challenge, here’s a great organization to check out. It’s the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, whose mandate is to work “to integrate contemplative awareness into contemporary life to create a more just, compassionate, reflective, and sustainable society.” And a great thing is that you can download MP3's of short guided meditations for free, to share with your students and to put on your iPods and practice with at home.

And if this interests you, you can also check out The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, part of the Center’s Academic Program, which “is committed to transforming higher education through the creation of a community of contemplative teachers, scholars, administrators and students. It supports the emergence of a broad culture of contemplation in the academy and the development of contemplative pedagogy, research methodology and epistemology that will be of value to students, teachers and researchers.”

I’m more and more convinced that we need to cultivate mindful silence, and share it with others whenever possible, if we are going to be able to make the careful and difficult choices we will need to make in order to survive in a wired and warming world. This seems to me to be a key piece of activism and eco-pedagogy that we can all learn to cultivate.

Finally, as a footnote to this theme of Island Time, I wanted to mention an interesting article I came across in the Telegraph about homo floresiensis, a now extinct and miniature member of the genus Homo, whose fossilized remains were discovered on Flores Island in Indonesia, and to whom we modern humans are closely related. The article, entitled "The original hobbits whose brain shrank due to remote home, cites a recent study which suggests that living on a remote island might have been the evolutionary cause of their brain shrinkage over time.

For those of us who live on remote islands, this comes as no surprise...