INTERVIEW: Kathleen Dean Moore

As the entire state holds its breath for the coming wildfire season, we decided to talk to one woman who has written the book on environmental activism. Actually, she’s written 14 books and a plethora of papers. And she’s done it right here in Corvallis.  

TCA: Hi, I’m Sally Lehman, and I’m with The Advocate. Today, I am talking with Kathleen Dean Moore, professor emeritus of Oregon State University, philosopher, environmentalist, and author of 11 Books. Eleven? Did I get that right? 

Moore: No, it’s 14, because there were three this spring and another one coming. 

TCA: Wow, that is amazing. Very impressive. Lately, I’ve been reading one of your books, “Earth’s Wild Music.” Can you tell us a little about it? 

Moore: Yeah, you know, I write in celebration of our cultural and moral relationships with the natural world, and for a while that was easy to do. You just go someplace beautiful. You open your journal and you open your heart and you take notes. But it became clear over time that the world that I was celebrating was disappearing quickly.  

In the time that I’ve been writing about birds, for example, 30% of songbirds have disappeared from North America. By the time I finish my career, I assume it’ll be another couple of years, the world will be half as rich in animal and plant and bird life than it was when I started writing. Can you imagine, in one person’s writing career? The world has lost half of what she’s writing about.  

So I decided that I wanted to write a book about what I cared about most, about the natural world, which turned out to be its music and to celebrate it. But at the end of each celebratory essay, I put a little box where I tell about its conservation status. So, as people enjoy the stories about the meadowlark, they learned then that the meadowlarks are half gone from their range. 

TCA: That is so sad and I’m so happy that you’re writing about it, because it’s a way for us to tell the people who come after, when we’re gone, to remind them about things and to remind them to be careful. And hopefully that was what you’ll be bringing to people, is that sense of being careful and taking care of the world 

Moore: Being grateful, being attentive, listening.  

TCA: Yeah, absolutely. You spend a lot of time in your book talking about the connection of music and the world. What kind of music do you like the best? 

Moore: I listen to classical music, as you may know from some of the films that I’ve made that have classical music behind them. I like bluegrass, but mostly when you ask me what I listen to, I listen to the trees, I listen to the birds out there and I listen to the frogs. And when I am looking for some kind of music to carry me to a place as people do, I go outside and listen. 

TCA: So do you feel the music and the environment, that they meet and coincide in places sometimes so that we have basically nature to thank for all of our music that we have in the world? 

Moore: Oh, you mean for all our human music, 

TCA: All of our human music? 

Moore: Yeah, well, that’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about it. I know that there are some pieces that are directly inspired by birdsong, for example, but I’m told that the human ear is not tuned particularly to the human voice, but it’s actually tuned to hear better in the range of birdsong. And I believe that. I can imagine that, that there was a time when everyone listened very, very carefully and learned from what the sounds were around them about ‘where is water, where is danger, where is safety.’ You know, the silence of the animals or the great joyful courses of birds will give so much information, ‘where is food,’ that I think that we are tuned to be listeners and whether that means that we’re going to then mimic the sounds in our own music, I don’t know. 

TCA: That’s wonderful. Yes, it has been said about this novel or I’m sorry, this book, that it “is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.” So as a philosopher, do you feel that that those two things contradict each other? 

Moore: It’s a very natural movement, isn’t it? You’ve been to the beach where you watch the waves and they lift and then they fall. And if you’re caught in that wave, it will lift you, but then it will smash you on to the ground. And I think that that can be the same kind of shape as an essay can be. And it should be. I don’t think we should turn away from our losses. I don’t think we should turn away from grieving. I think there’s an important difference. You, us, me as a philosopher, I think there’s an important difference between grief on the one hand and despair on the other.  

Grief assumes, rejoices, in the meaning of the world around us. It’s deeply meaningful and it’s deeply beloved. And so it’s very, very hard – it’s very, very sad – when it goes away. That’s grief.  

Despair denies any meaning in the world. It’s nothing. It means nothing. It means nothing to me. It has no purpose or support or reason for being. And so despair causes its own kind of sorrow by denying all of meaning.  

So, I really urge people to never give in to despair, but to invite grief in and let it hold you so that you can be aware of and value the losses.  

TCA: What called you to writing? 

Moore: I’ve written my whole life, I think that I was expected to be a writer. I don’t know. I had writing tutors when I was a child and I published a little newspaper. But then I turned to philosophy, which is a very different kind of writing, and so maybe the question I could answer is what called me back to literature or literary writing away from academic writing. And that was a felt need, a felt need to express the values, the sacredness of the natural world. 

TCA: In your bio, you say that you felt called to respond directly to the moral urgency of climate change or climate action. Was there anyone in your life who helped you with that? 

Moore: Oh, definitely. This turned towards climate action happened in Aspen, where I was at a conference, and the Dean of the Yale Law School was giving a talk and he said, “All we have to do to ensure that we leave a ruined world to our children and our grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we’re doing now.” And I thought, “Oh, my God.”  

And then another speaker – well, no, it wasn’t a speaker, it was an article I read shortly after that that said that by the time our children are middle aged, our children are middle aged, just the life supporting of the system, the life supporting systems of the planet will be irretrievably damaged. And, you know, you put those two things together and I thought, I can’t do anything but this. This has got to be my work. This has got to be my life. 

TCA: I can understand that. Those are very powerful words, very powerful sentiments. I can understand that. So in your writing, have you learned anything from one book to the other that you would share with other writers? 

Moore: The book that I would share with other writers, I think is edited rather than one that I wrote myself, and that’s a book called Moral Ground. And we asked one hundred of the world’s moral leaders to answer this question in a short essay: “Why is it wrong to wreck the world?” Or, on the other side, “Why do we have an obligation to leave a world as rich in possibilities as our own?”  

We got back incredible responses and we put them together into a book categorized by the kind of reason” for the sake of the children, because all life is sacred, because I believe in justice, because I want to be compassionate on and on the list goes is. So I would hope that if there were anything I would hand to writers, it would be the kind of moral compulsion that is felt in these writers to be active and to participate in, and celebrating and saving, the world. 

TCA: What are you reading right now? 

Moore: Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin. Oh, did you read it? 

TCA: No, but I love Ursula Le Guin. Yeah.  

Moore: Then you’ll love it. 

TCA: I have it on my shelf, I just haven’t gotten to it yet. I have a lot of books on my shelves, but I just recently got to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So yeah, Le Guin is coming up. 

Moore: Good. She starts out telling the story of a young woman in Italy before Rome, after the Trojan horse and before Rome. And you start reading along and you think, you know, I think I’ve read this story before. And sure enough, I think I know these characters. And what she’s doing is she’s retelling the story at the end of the Iliad, the great poetry. So she’s a spectacular writer. 

TCA: She was. That was a big loss when she passed away. If you could tell if you could have every American read just one book, which one would it be? 

Moore: Oh, my gosh. Maybe it would be Silent Spring. 

TCA: Ok, why? 

Moore: This book by Rachel Carson that talks about the possibility that we will kill the birds with all this poisoning, and it really made a difference with that book, such that DDT was then banned, at least in the United States, not around the world.  

But what she does that I think is a model that is really a quite wonderful model, is that she was both a beautiful writer, a very strong storyteller, and a scientist who got her facts straight and a moralist of a person who really had strong moral convictions and a strong set of values.  

And so I think it’s a model [about why] people should be afraid, very afraid of what we’re doing and whom we’re poisoning when we’re poisoning the planet. The kind of level of destruction that we look ahead towards if we don’t change course. But it’s also a very beautiful celebration of the world, so just off the top of my head, that might be it. I’m sure I’m missing something that’s far more important to me right now, but I can’t rule it out. 

TCA: And you can have everyone in America read one of your books. Which one would you want them to read? 

Moore:  Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a time of Planetary Change. It’s a mixture of reflection and exhortation and on the other hand, an essay. It makes some claims, it makes the arguments, attacks as a philosopher and an activist. But then it tells a story. About the terrible thing about throwing bread to the birds at the coast, or maybe it tells about a child and then it goes back into talking. So I think it makes important statements about what we’re facing and what kind of sense certain kinds of strategies make. 

TCA: Thank you. Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers? 

Moore: Well, I would tell them about my newest book, which is called Bearing Witness: The Human Rights Case Against Fracking and Climate Change, and it uses a set of opinions from an international human rights tribunal to make these claims that climate change and the fossil fuel extraction techniques that fuel it will cause – they’re on track to cause – the greatest violation of human rights the world has ever seen.  

[Its] second claim, that governments are in collusion, an axis of betrayal, with the fossil fuel companies so that they have not only failed to protect the rights of their citizens – which is what a government is established to do – not only that they fail, but they’ve been active participants in their violation. And so courts – national courts, local courts and international human rights courts, should call governments to account and require them to force the fossil fuel industry to respect people’s rights. 

TCA: How does fracking and human rights violations, how do the two connect? 

Moore: I would list the rights that are violated by fracking – the right to clean water, the right to security of person, the right to health, in some cases the right to life. But I think I would rather kind of paraphrase Ibram X. Kendi, who says that it’s impossible for fracking not to be a racist practice. That first of all, you can’t frack unless you destroy the land. Shave it! Poison it!  

And you can’t destroy the land and the water without destroying the homeland and life ways of people. And you can’t destroy the homeland and life ways of people unless you lack any respect for them or their interests, their particular interest. And when you have no respect for a group of people and you don’t respect their interests, that is racism.  

I think that he said that very, very well. And when you see Standing Rock, for example, where the native people are trying to protect their fresh water, trying to protect their homes, you understand pretty clearly that once it’s fracked, it’s denied to them. The water never comes back in fresh form. 

TCA: That’s very sad.  

Moore: It’s sad. It’s also criminal. 

TCA: So, readers of the Advocates please check out Kathleen Dean Moore’s multitudinous books and essays out in the world, and enjoy the prose because she is a beautiful writer, but listen to the message as well. Thank you for being here, Kathleen. 

Moore: Thank you.  

By Sally K Lehman