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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hey, Cumulonimbus... YO MAMA!

In memory of Randall Gloege: a brilliant, funny and thoughtful human. 

Randall, his wife Mary Beth, my friend Aaron and I stood in Yellowstone Park, watching the elk and the river rushing by one fall afternoon. We were hoping to see a wolf, but no luck. We noticed that the friendly fluffy clouds overhead were quickly turning grey. They became more ominous as we headed back to the rental car. Within a few steps of safety, the weather was still relatively calm and Randall turned to the clouds and asked in a booming voice: “I wonder what would happen if I said ‘YO MAMA” to that cloud.”

We all laughed, rolled our eyes and turned to the car. Classic Randall. Almost immediately, the sky darkened, the wind started to whip and booms of thunder cracked in the distance. We quickly settled into our seats and headed to the main road only to find that the wrath of the wind had blown a 60 foot pint tree across the road. Cars were blocked on both sides and Aaron, Randall and I headed to see if we could help the gathering crowd remove it from traffic. We were bombarded with dirt and pine needles, shivering from the icy chill of the wind and by the time we got back to the car, we were soaked. When all the doors closed, Randall’s expression changed to one of mischievous awe and he said, “I had no idea I was that powerful!” We all burst into laughter and forgot about the beating we had just taken from Mother Nature.

The first time I met my friend Randall, it was to ask him to take me on (a naive art student) as an independent study in Environmental Ethics. He was a bear-sized man, and I was immediately intimidated. Not because Randall was ever intimidating on purpose. It was his sheer size, quick-wit and slight twinkle that made him so. He was deeply intellectual and believed in the specificity of language. In addition, I was intimidated by anything or anyone that resembled authority. And besides towering over me, he was a classic academic, white hair and beard, distinguished with a bit of rumpledness. I was a first generation college student, majoring in art and no one took art students seriously.

I was prepared to work hard, but I don’t think I was at all prepared for how much Randall would make me think. He would assign voluminous reading and writing assignments and we talked for hours about the dilemmas facing the planet: pollution, habitat destruction, species protection and many many more.

I was a product of Disney, raised on cartoons and movies that anthropomorphized animals. I had also never heard the word “anthropomorphize”. I think during the first discussion, I heard it 16 times. [It means: Assigning human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.]

I grew up in a violent, dysfunctional and very alcoholic family where being outside and being close to animals were the only solace I had. Essentially, my pets and plenty of sunshine kept me sane. So, through these experiences, I felt a kinship with animals. I related to them much more easily than I did humans, even in adulthood--even now. As a result, I did plenty of anthropomorphizing even though up to this point, I really didn’t know what that meant. I was taken aback when Randall scolded me for referring to the feelings of animals because it was “un-scientist-like”.

It turned out not to really be a scolding, but instead a brilliant way for Randall to start a discussion. He used this as a way to shape my thinking. He told me that in order to care enough about something to save it, we (humans) must first love it. That anthropomorphizing was in fact, okay, because it taught us to love things, places and species that weren’t human. And if we loved those things, we would surely see their intrinsic value and work to protect them. But he reminded me that using this technique instead of evidence, was not the way to win my argument. He helped me to understand the science behind the cause. I hadn’t heard the word “intrinsic” either. Needless to say, I spent most of my post-Randall appointment time with a man called Webster!

We discussed so many things: the rights of nature, how religion affected our view of the natural world, and wolves. We talked about wilderness, becoming eco-warriors, creative “monkey-wrenching” and the importance of a single spider in the grand scheme of what we call earth. Randall didn’t care much for religion and instead believed in what he could see and touch. He believed in bears. He believed in trees. He believed in wilderness.

Randall, was teaching me to question... everything. He was teaching me to think, to defend my point of view with more than my intuition or my passion and to listen as well. At the end of one particularly grueling session, I felt a little hopeless. We had come to the conclusion that just by being alive, every human being is essentially killing some other being. For instance, I may have stepped on a pile of ants while walking to his office. Poof! Dead ants. It could be that I ate a hamburger. Poof! Rest in peace, cow. Don’t even get me started on what damage I do by driving my car. The problem was, I loved cows. I also loved hamburgers. Living was a catch-22! On the verge of tears, I asked, “So, what is the point? Why do we even try if something else is doomed to die when we take a step or a breath?”

I don’t remember exactly what Randall said, but the gist is this, we can be aware. Every time we make a decision, we can remember that the decision holds consequence and it doesn’t just affect us. A decision creates a ripple. If we can see ourselves as accountable, we can make better, less negatively impactful decisions. That in the process of living, we would probably eat more than a few cows, step on a few hundred ants, maybe even kill things on purpose with our own two hands or a shotgun... but that we can be conscious of those actions.

Randall also taught me that intrinsic value should never be ignored. He asked me if rocks had value. I assumed monetary value, so I said some do. Immediately, he questioned why some do and some do not? That’s a good question, by the way. Some do and some do not because we (humans) say so, but why is that our decision? Wow. I hadn’t thought of anything that way before. It’s a matter of arrogance to think that we assign value to everything... but who assigns value to us? Does a wolf decide that one rock is valuable while another is not? You want to say no, don’t you... but be careful. How would we know? Only the wolf can tell us and we’re just not smart enough to understand his point of view yet. Randall introduced me to Aldo Leopold and a quote that has become so important to me:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Over the next 10 years, Randall and Mary Beth became very important to me. Although life eventually took us on different paths and I didn’t see them very often between the 11th and 20th year, I thought about them both, nearly every day. I did not become an eco-warrior, but it’s a rare day if I don’t have a discussion inspired by the things Randall taught me. Mary Beth deserves her own letter. But as for Randall, who once wrote in my birthday card, “Keep the faith! Not in God silly, in ecosystems.”, you were deeply important to me and I wish I would have said these things sooner:

Dear Randall,
Thank you for affecting me, for making my life better... for making me - better. Thank you for teaching me that a rock has just as much value as I do. Thank you for making me laugh every time I saw you even if your jokes were lame. Thank you for the walks, the conversations, and for sharing a little of your life with me. I loved your poetry and was honored every time you offered to share a new work. Thank you for encouraging me and even for calling me fat when I was fat. You are the only person I’ve ever met who can use that word objectively and without any malice whatsoever. 

Thank you for treating me as an equal even though I can never hope to be as smart and as thoughtful as you. Thank you for arguing with me about the true meaning of the word “perception” for 4 hours straight. Although I was ready to strap you to the hood of my car by the end, you were right. I still use it incorrectly, by the way, because everyone does, but it drives me crazy when I do. Thank you for introducing me to Yellowstone and for saying YO MAMA to that damn cloud. It was one of the best days of my life. Thank you for opening my mind and being my friend. And I hope you can forgive me for not saying all of this sooner and for not being as patient as I would have liked.

You once told me that if you believed in reincarnation, you would have been a polar bear in a previous life. I always loved that image because thats the way I thought of you. It breaks my heart that we will never have another discussion or that you’ll never tell me another stupid joke. But, as I was missing you today, I started to wonder how beautiful it would be if you got to be wild again. Maybe in the transition of your molecules and atoms, as you would say, you can experience wilderness as a wild thing once more, untethered to asphalt and car exhaust. No thought of paychecks or retirement or other annoying human obligations. Perhaps you can see the world as a mountain,where you and the old wolf can live with a fierce green fire.

Keep the faith, Randall! Not in God, silly, for you are a mountain and need no such thing.