Jeremy Pataky | “What do you do when the life rafts are burning?”

Thanks to all who turned out last week for a special Reading & Craft Talk Series event, this time held downtown at the 49th State Brewing Co. The event paired Kathleen Dean Moore and Libby Roderick on stage. Kathy is a philosopher and award-winning author best known for books about our cultural and spiritual relation to wet, wild places. Among her many books are Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water; Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World; The Pine Island Paradox; Wild Comfort, and Great Tide Rising.

Her “love for the reeling world” has led her to forego teaching at the university level, committing wholly to a new life of climate writing and activism. Her last book, Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change, follows the pivotal Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, testimony from the world’s moral leaders about our obligations to the future.

Libby Roderick is a poet, activist, teacher, lifelong Alaskan, and internationally acclaimed singer/songwriter with six albums. Libby has performed at a wide range of national and international gatherings, including the national Bioneers conference, the U.S. Department of Peace conference in D.C. (with Walter Cronkite), the World Wilderness Congress, and many others. In October 2005, the Alaska Legislature honored her art and activism with a citation of excellence.

Kathy’s new book, Piano Tide, “a savagely funny and deeply insightful” novel, depicts an imaginary Southeast Alaska small town’s struggle to defend its fresh water. It is her debut work of fiction, written from Corvallis, Oregon and a small tidal cove cabin on Chichagof Island, in Southeast, and it occasioned our event last week.

The novel portrays the fight between those who’d like to exploit the world for profit and those more motivated by a desire to make a home. Kathy said she was trying to write the book she wished she had when she was teaching environmental ethics. Mary Catharine Martin interviewed Kathy and wrote about Piano Tide in Capital City Weekly.

Questions around environmental ethics fueled the conversation. What work do “all hands on deck” moments of crisis demand of writers? If it’s a moral failing to deny the call demanded by circumstance, what constitutes responsiveness? What new forms might new circumstances require (or generate)?

Moore quoted scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, who answers the questions “What is your work?” (meaning what work ought one do?) with the question “What is your gift?”

Libby reminded the room that writers’ gifts involve language, the very medium of thought, ethic, and sense-making (not to mention ruse, obfuscation, and double-think). Speech is action, of course (as Anne Caston reminded January’s Poetry Parley attendees in Anchorage), and writers are especially equipped to “occupy language” in the face of those who abuse it, or who deploy language in the abuse of one another and the planet.

One audience member asked a question about hope and its fleetingness in an era of undeniable social, political, and environmental upheaval. In answering the question, Moore cited Joanna Macy’s notion of “active hope,” saying “Hope is not an emotion, but a verb.” Hope is born of actions designed to improve the future.

I appreciated her acknowledgment that hope, though, like despair, can function as a kind of trap, and that the stable mid-ground between the two is integrity, of doing right because we must, whether or not there’s hope to cure the world. Needless to say, our shared world will be better off in proportion to our collective acts of integrity, and better off the more people act for integrity’s sake, absent the potentially disabling dismay of outcomes-dependent decision making.

It was a treat to hear Libby’s ideas and music — and the many voices singing along — interwoven with excerpts from Kathy’s new novel and her own thoughts. They both spoke about their own creative processes, and to the personal ethics that fuel their respective, prolific art practices.

Thanks to everyone for coming. I hope to see another great turnout this Thursday in 49th State’s Barrel Room East, this time for a Crosscurrents event featuring visiting poet Roger Reeves and Alaskan poet Joan Naviyuk Kane. Don’t miss it!

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