The Wilderness Within
Brokeback Mountain is that mainstream audiences come away recognizing the power of love. I came away with a lingering impression of the power of nature and wonder if there are lessons the gay community might teach environmentalists.
A movie like Brokeback Mountain is no longer a story we allow ourselves to tell in the gay community, but Ang Lee, the director of this seasons critically acclaimed "gay cowboy movie", is an outsider looking in. So is Annie Proulx who wrote the short story upon which it is based. A story that reveals universal truths about denying love and the cost of not being true to yourself. We in the gay community see this theme of internal flagellation as a failure of spirit and seek to break through it, demanding in our films, self-discovery, revelation and celebration. Brokeback Mountain has been called the crossover movie that brings queer cinema to mainstream audiences in order to tell a great love story. If this is so, we owe Ang Lee and Annie Proulx our heartfelt thanks.
What struck me about the movie was that what happens to those men out on the mountain was also about being viscerally connected to unmitigated wilderness. The mountain took them outside of society, free from the violence of homophobia and social mores, but more so to a wild place of attentiveness that allowed them to connect with their feelings and let a forbidden love seep in. Only by returning to the mountain could they continue to tap into this wilderness within.
It is this power of nature that the environmental writer, Wendell Berry, talks about when he counsels us to preserve the wilderness so that it may sustain our deepest selves. In closing ourselves off to nature, we are in danger of not only losing the planet, but ourselves as well. How did we end up getting so cut off from the vitality of the earth that supports us?
Author Richard Louv has set off a flurry of discussion with his book "Last child left in the woods". He attributes childhood obesity, ADD and hyperactivity in children, to what he calls nature-deficit-disorder. Local environmentalists at the Foundation for Global Community, started a program called Hooked on Nature to make sure children got a chance to appreciate nature, because, they reasoned, only by bonding with nature as children, would future generations care enough about the environment to save it. Scary to think that humans could grow up so estranged from the earth that they did not know enough to save it.
What about animals? And the imagination? Children are a natural for animal stories. The Narnia Chronicles might embody the story of Christ, but it still has, as its messenger, a lion. The Wind In The Willows was a classic of my literary English heritage. Harry Potter and his friends have their animal companions and take instruction in the care of Magical Creatures. Animals are still part of our human narrative.
So when our navy dominates the ocean with sonic blasts capable of bursting the eardrums of whales and carbon emissions have warmed the earth to the melting point, reducing the ice fields that polar bears need to survive, the beings of my childhood start to disappear. Such wholesale harming of these large and beautiful animals fills me with outrage that we are so shameless in our capacity to destroy, so disrespectful of such power animals, hardly pausing to realize we would soon destroy ourselves. But what could I do with such feelings? Would despair drive me to nihilism?
Repressing feelings, whether of dismay about planetary degradation or forbidden sexuality, not only takes a lot of energy, but leads to reactionary behavior, actions of blaming, scapegoating, violence against others and self. A story we have already lived in the gay community.
Deep ecologist, Joanna Macy, points out that "it is our refusal to acknowledge and feel despair that keeps it in its place." The ability to feel pain for our world speaks of our ability to be part of it and what we discover as we move through this pain, is that we are all connected, she observes. It is not enough to simply be informed about the effects of toxic pollution and environmental destruction, she counsels "we need to process this information on the psychological and emotional level in order to fully respond on the cognitive level. We already know we are in danger. The essential question is: can we free ourselves to respond?"
Here environmentalists have been struggling to garner interest in dire environmental issues, but have become mired in a dialogue of half measures that pits the appetite of civilization against the preservation of the wilderness. The suggestions made hardly seem to surmount the problem, while the message continues to be "saving the earth does not mean sacrificing our lifestyle, just tweak the technology a bit".
In the early 80's the gay community entered a life threatening perfect storm called AIDS. At the time the community congregated in large numbers at the bars and the baths. Those who knew of the ramifications of the disease pressured the bath owners and bar owners to do everything in their power to spread the word, to warn men about the danger of certain sexual practices, even to close down the baths to stop promiscuous, unsafe sex. Discreet posters appeared in back rooms warning of the spread of AIDS through unprotected sex. Condoms were recommended. When criticized for doing so little, the bath owners explained that were they to really come down hard with the news of the spread of AIDS through unsafe sex, the men would take it as an act of oppression on their hard won liberation and rebel against any measure of protection. And since the baths were the centers of communication in the community, to close them would be to stop the flow of information that would save lives.
This is the point at which I see the environmental movement standing today. While the leaders are listening to scientists tell of the dire consequences of global warming, they discuss among themselves how much they can really tell people, how much can they really pressure people into drastically changing their lifestyles, before the public stops listening to them and calls them alarmists. The scientists advise education on the monumental consequences of global warming and the drastic measures needed to stop its impact. Environmentalists, meanwhile, talk of solutions, preferring not to discuss consequences and offer the equivalent of condoms, encouraging solar panels and hybrids, but only if you can afford them, meanwhile try pumping up your tires to save on gas.
In the AIDS crisis, the science won out when men were dying in such numbers that the community went into a tailspin of despair and funerals became the places where survivors congregated. The baths were closed and gay men were forced to take a hard look at the lifestyle they had been espousing under the guise of liberation. Fortunately for a community used to pulling together, it took only a short time for a new movement to be born that was part grief counseling, health counseling, community building, education on every level and support for the dying.
Science and the consequences of global warming will very likely win out in the environmental crisis, before environmentalists build up enough of a movement to prevent much of the damage. Businesses might well take up the call and even the military. As we learned from the report that came out of the Pentagon, the military fully recognizes what measures may need to be taken given the consequences of global warming. And we might not like these measures, as we are left to the fate of Katrina victims, told to evacuate, but without the means to do so, while taxpayers' money is used to finance the war for remaining resources.
But if we recognize, now, that our psychological health is directly tied to the health of the environment, then saving the planet becomes a different sort of task than just a pragmatic preserving of resources so that we might have enough for later. To begin with, we would really see the damage being done from the intimate focus of a lover.
Such wholehearted embracing of the facts would be so distressful that we would experience a disconnect that would force us to change to survive. Force a shift of consciousness; force us to evolve a different way of living. Sustainable consumption would be foremost in our minds, just as safe sex was for the gay community. We would begin to rebuild every aspect of our lives around safeguarding the planet and its occupants, evolve healing relationships in our business practices and commerce instead of exploitative one night stands, build stable long-term relationships with fair trade policies, surround ourselves with life affirming agriculture and architecture, build a global community that affirms our existence as part of nature.
We would have to stop pretending that we are separate from nature through our clever technology and realize we are beings of the earth, rather than dominators of the earth. And in our individual decisions to come out on the side of the planet and shift into saving our part of it, we would be participating in our own healing and redemption, improving our own state of mind, finding joy even.
Indoors in the dark of cineplex theatres, our unconscious desires surface as we look to movies to both catalog nature and remind us of the great natural beauty of the earth and its creatures. How magical is the stunning New Zealand landscape featured in Lord of the Rings, how adorable the creatures in The March of the Penguins, how heroic the birds of Winged Migration. (Moralists commend the penguins for embodying family values in raising their young, yet say nothing of the thinning ice that will soon fail to support their ritual reproduction.)