Dr. Kathleen Dean Moore is a writer, speaker and moral philosopher. She taught at Oregon State University for “many years” before leaving “to write and speak full-time about the moral urgency of action to stop fossil fuels and the consequent global warming.” She is the author of Pine Island Paradox, Riverwalking, Moral Ground, and, most recently, Great Tide Rising.
360 By Bike would not exist without the writing of Dr. Moore. I wrote this letter to her, offering my story as thanks. It took shape over this past week, and as it did, I realized that it hardly overlapped at all with the story I tell on the About page of this site. In the spirit of climate stories, I wanted to share it here and get your perspectives.
Kathleen Dean Moore,
My name is Forrest, and I’m cycling around the world to collect stories of humans and climate change. I’ve been on the road for about 8 months now and have come to a point of inflection, where the path ahead curves away out of sight and I look back to get my bearings.
So much life has passed that it seems impossible that I left college only two years ago. I could never understand or even catalog everything I’ve seen. But there’s a moment that is still clear in my mind because of your writing, and I wanted to write to explain to you what happened.
My family sat in the dust on a lakeshore in June. Maia, my sister, read some pages from The Pine Island Paradox, and we listened to her voice and the wind behind it as they sailed out over the water. That moment gave me a way to participate in justice and activism, and for that I am grateful.
In American Gods, Neil Gaiman writes that All revelations are personal. I believe they don’t exist in moments, but in stories. This is mine:
My family has problems focusing. My granddad seems to know nearly every word in the English language, and when he retired from his practice as an architect, he decided to teach himself about evolutionary biology. When she was 20, my mother dropped out of college to travel to a Guatemala on the brink of civil war. She had been studying geology, but switched to medicine upon her return, specializing in pediatrics and infectious diseases so she could be of use in the poorer communities of Latin America. My father is a biochemist who enjoys making old bicycles work and sponging up whatever bits of information happen to be lying around. Maia began college as a physics major, but is now studying Spanish and visual arts.
I don’t mean to paint them as geniuses or be boastful, but to show you how we get wide-eyed over every little piece of the world, how we find it hard to settle on just one thing to study and be good at. I think that for the most part we like this way of being, but it doesn’t always fit our world.
I studied what I wanted in college—Spanish and a combination of biomolecular sciences—without paying much attention to what would happen when I graduated. Then, the summer before my senior year, I got a job in a lab studying a common form of muscular dystrophy. My line of inquiry was to see if a series of fluorescently active molecules could be used as analogs to test the ability of potential drug molecules to bind DNA. I was testing a test to help us understand a property of our molecules that was still at least a step away from their ability to remedy the disease.
I spent most of that summer in a windowless cave of a room (though perhaps rabbit hole might be more apt), pipetting clear colorless liquids into other clear colorless liquids and pressing buttons. It was repetitive work, but that wasn’t what bothered me. I loved looking into that little quartz vial and knowing that not one living person understood what was happening in the invisible world within. Knowing that I might be the first.
My problem with the work was personal. My mentors had hinted throughout the summer that in order to be useful, in order for my work to matter, I would have to become an expert, prioritize my approach to the world based not just on what was interesting, but on what was related to my work.
The idea repulsed me. I valued few things more than the freedom of my search for knowledge. I began to contemplate other paths, ones that would at least postpone the inevitable.
My Spanish class that semester was on the dissertation work of a new professor: literature of exchange, shipwrecks and piracy in the ancient Mediterranean. We read tale after tale of poets, scholars and philosopher-kings, who journeyed across the sea in search of knowledge and made absolute fools of themselves. There was a saying that bounced around the region, credited to the French saint Bernard. I learned it in Spanish: “Más hallarás en los bosques que en los libros,” “You’ll find more in forests than in books.”
I decided to bicycle around the world.
I wanted to keep exploring, to supplement my academic education with implicit knowledge of the world. I also felt it was time to do something. I had put my focus on learning up to that point; that was fine, but now I was itching to have an impact on the world that I saw.
Soon after, Bill McKibben came to my school to speak. I had always been politically minded and tried to stay informed, voted in every election since I turned 18, but I didn’t see myself in the activists I knew growing up in Eugene. They liked talking to strangers and yelling slogans. I hated to be the focus of attention; when I turned five, I hid under the table for the entire Happy Birthday chorus.
McKibben slouched as he spoke, and rarely glanced beyond the fourth row of our campus’s thousand-person auditorium. But he filled the space with his energy and the moral power of his arguments. He re-legitimized the environmentalism of my childhood, which turn-of-the-century politics had trampled underfoot. He held up our world’s environmental crisis as an issue of justice, equally complex and fascinating, and he did so in a voice like my own.
I’m not sure I can be him, though. I’m not even sure I would want to play that part, of the man with the answers. I know I want to find truth, and I want to bring prosperity and justice to the world. But aren’t those mutually restrictive in some way? How can one make large-scale change, participate in movements for social justice, be convincing to those not yet convinced, without conviction? And how can one find truth among the truths when one has committed one’s life to a given cause? I’m still stuck on this question, this contradiction of my values.
We went backpacking the summer after I graduated. I was on my way to China for a teaching fellowship and my sister was in her first college summer. We returned to Pamelia Lake and Hunt’s Cove, up in the shadow of Jefferson, where we had gone every year as a young family. We didn’t use maps there anymore; we knew where we were. Mom had told so many stories on those trails, many of them super-powered adventures with Bigelow the environmental crusader and sea dragon. We had swum in those cold lakes to earn our milkshakes and sat reading for whole afternoons in the summer shade of the pines. Every time we go back there, my dad’s voice almost leaves him as he recalls my sister as a toddler, laughing her head off at bats along the shoreline.
This was the last time we’d all be together there, at least for a while. Mom was rather weepy. We were virtually alone, and we spent the evenings reading near the lake. Maia read a passage from The Pine Island Paradox, the one where you take your class out and you talk together in the night and the words about wildness are important but it’s the act of exchange that really matters.
And I thought, that is something I can do. I thought, maybe truths can bring justice when they get to the core of things. When lies become an art and a science, so cleverly removed from the violence they make easy, when truths become so tribal and tangential that they become a distraction from reality, then maybe justice can be found in a pause, in a smiling lostness, in the resettling of a reality that has ballooned to the point of bursting.
Maybe climate justice can be found in collecting the plural truths of all human stories.
That was the first time I really contemplated writing. It wasn’t that I hadn’t spent time writing in my childhood—Mom and I gotten into our most heated arguments over sentence structure in school essays, and I’d written on my own—but I’d never published a single sentence. I had never taken writing seriously, really committing to the practice of it.
Hearing your words, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to replicate your work, but that they showed a way for a person like me, for truth, to participate in action and eventually justice. I found value in the search for truth in writing and the joyful freedom of it. And I remembered that in the months that came, when people told me I ought to switch from writing because after all, video gets more views and attention for the cause.
Justice can be a whisper, I thought but didn’t always say, and there is value in the quiet notions that filter through a movement. A movement needs shouts and a movement needs silence. Creation must reflect its medium, and it’s a sorry day when a movement neglects its blindness. Propagation is one thing, but a movement must be always renewing its language and turning over its ideas. I will remember this.
I still do not see a resolution to the truth-justice conflict. Your words did not answer that question, but they did better: they offered questions to keep me company in the paradox of my being.
So, thank you. Three final things:
I gave a copy of The Pine Island Paradox to my Chinese teacher. I’m not sure where it is now, bouncing around China somewhere.
This is my project’s website, where I publish the results of my journey:www.360bybike.org
By choice and disposition, I don’t often write as creatively as you. But this is a poem I wrote:
A wildfire carried by wind,
that rain-soaked moss
withers and lights,
Whips across miles,
Like dust in a gentle breeze
For the orbital lens
An ember rests deep in the ashes
Ripples its old light out in darkness
The bond tears, the grain cracks
And there, it flies free
A destroyer of invisible worlds
We woke up this morning
left the sheets all scorched and melted
Outside our window
Stands a forest of withering pines
We got in the boat, went down the road to the sea
Sat drifting a while
rose past the sands
and crumbled the mountains we knew.
We came home around four,
I tripped on the stair.
I sat on the edge of the tub while it filled and ran over
The kids rustled through the tall grass out back
then went on through the pines,
Burned down through our necks
And water spilled out from our fingers
We went out walking
under a front-lit sky
Shouts escaped a window,
from that big house on the corner.
Looking in through the walls, the pine, the still-wet paint
There’s the muzzle flare of their mouths, the smoke rising
from their eyes
We walk on
We walk for days and days, and
There is the dome of the roof
The door at its base ajar,
And we look up and learn to see
The far-off fires;
We falter into understanding
And then further on, past memory and unkempt thoughts.
About the title: The various dictionaries of Pleco (the only Chinese-English dictionary app you will ever need) define 爥, zhú, as “candle,” “to illuminate,” and “to simmer, cook over a slow fire.” It is an old variant of 烛, long out of use in everyday exchange. I found it one day in my dictionary, and I liked the look of it, though I didn’t know exactly what it meant. So I wrote a poem.
All the best,
Forrest Quinn Watkins