Years ago a good friend related the experience of biking one summer afternoon along Lake Michigan and realizing that he would spend all of his life in his head, as if it were a cage, and that he would never inhabit another head. My friend wouldn’t know me and I wouldn’t know my friend and nor would my friend, now married, know his wife. Michael Cunningham, Yale lecturer and author of “The Hours,” concurs when describing how it feels to understand a character from a novel better and more intimately than his partner of 20 years.
Art allows us to inhabit another head and understand a perspective that is not and perhaps never will be our own. It provides fertile grounds from which empathy may grow. The Environmental Film Festival at Yale (EFFY), which offered free movies to the public beginning last Monday, screened its concluding film and hosted its final panel on Sunday evening.
The festival was a success, but environmentalism needs more festivals, more films, more art. Working in the environmental community generally means distilling ideas into solutions for use among a circumscribed group of professionals. Environmental art instead nurtures the insolubility of environmental complexity and pushes it into conversation among non-professionals. Good environmental art seeks clear illustration rather than strident persuasion; it tethers our causes to a wider empathic circle.
Take last Wednesday’s film, “If a Tree Falls,” which follows the story of Daniel McGowan. McGowan was once a member of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a domestic organization known for acts of “ecoterrorism.” The film opens with aerial news footage circling a $24 million lodge in Vail, Colo. The lodge, recently constructed, blazes against the thin dark air of night. The ELF claimed responsibility for the arson. McGowan himself took part in two arsons near Eugene, Ore. He is now serving seven years in prison, convicted with a “terrorism enhancement” label that places him for all seven years in solitary confinement in a Communication Management Unit. He is married, and allowed one 15-minute phone call per week.
“If a Tree Falls” is nothing if not troubling, complicated and thought-provoking. The film does not suggest forgiveness. It takes no sides. As the director said before the projector ran, “This is a film that raises far more questions than it answers.” Scattered applause punctuated the film during footage of a flaming horse slaughterhouse. Immediately after came the thick silence of confusion, ambivalence, even censure from a crowd that was less ready to associate arson with progress. But the film, unlike most environmental work, provided a common text from which everybody — radical or moderate, liberal or conservative — was able to work, interpret, converse. This common ground paired with the power of narrative establishes a strong ally for the environmental community and a bridge across divided ideologies and hopes.
One particularly poignant moment of the film captures a scruff, heavyset man whose family has long been in the logging business. He drives his pickup truck along a gravel access road and parks at an overlook. He steps down from the cab and, breathing heavily from exertion, walks to a vista of denuded valleys. Environmentalists are branded as radical, he explains, when they strike out to protect the forest. But 95 percent of the original forest in this country has been logged. The fact that a group of people is trying to preserve the remaining 5 percent is not a radical proposition. This, he says, sweeping a hand across the barren landscape of fallen trunks — the fact that 95 percent has already been logged — is a radical proposition.
He walks along the ridge until he comes across a massive log. He rests his foot on the base from which this log was cut and leans in to estimate the rings, running his hunting knife up the bone-white radius. Probably about 500 years old, he tells the camera. Here just about when Columbus was coming into the country. He sighs and his sadness is out of line with the masculine image. The rings of the fallen tree have told a story, and, as this logger reads them, it is a moving story.
The environmental community must better use art to bind man and everything outside of man with empathy.
Dylan Walsh is a a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.