To Talk About Power Is to Talk About Shame

Janisse Ray in conversation with Amy Wright

"[Activism] is rooted in the needs of a community, in the imagination, in the history of activists who serve as role models and inspirations, in art, in centuries of intellectual thought regarding power."

AMY WRIGHT: Do you consider yourself a radical, meaning that you favor drastic political, economic, or social reform?

JANISSE RAY:
There’s no denying that I am a radical and that I favor far-reaching and extreme reform on many levels. We are at a place globally that requires drastic action. We need immediate action to mitigate the climate crisis, for example, and we need it on many levels, from global mandates and national policy all the way to personal agency.

However, the people who are spiking trees might not call me radical. The word implies activism. When I first began writing The Seed Underground, I interviewed a woman in Vermont, a seed saver named Sylvia Davatz, and she said, “I see in activism a kind of futility. The real action is in making broken systems irrelevant.” Sylvia was talking about protest when she used the word “activism.”

I’ve been a protester and will be again. That visible resistance is crucial for making change. But my life as a radical is quite different. I believe in radical sustainability, which allows me to be a kind of homefront activist working to make many broken systems irrelevant. Sustainability is a continuum, from extravagant and heedless luxury on one end to ethical, radical stewardship on the other. In my life, I want to always be moving—inching, if necessary—toward greater sustainability. We take so many resources for granted. We don’t even care that we use them up and toss them out, which is exactly what we’re doing to topsoil, forests, our atmosphere, wild species, oceans, girls, women, poor people, Latin[a/o] people. That throwaway mentality is what one has to counteract because it is not sustainable on any level. I’m trying not to live a throwaway life.

AW: Lao Tzu said, “Be alive to difficulty.” Do you think one should “be alive to difficulty”?

JR: I don’t think I choose a life of difficulty. I try to choose a life that allows me to be as human as possible, fully human, which to me means (among other things) to have a direct engagement with the Earth and the processes of the Earth, our home. I don’t think I’m giving up anything; I think I’m creating a life of great quality and profundity. I hope that I am. I have tried to live my life by thinking about service to the world and service to others, by imagining a way that we could live interconnectedly, communally, which is different from the way we’ve been living since the Industrial Revolution.

When we think about everything we’re losing, or everything that’s wrong, we can start feeling hopeless. So much about society is not working very well for a lot of people and things. People often ask me when I give readings, “How do you stay hopeful amid all the environmental devastation?” I say that’s the wrong question. The question isn’t how you stay hopeful, because hopelessness implies paralysis, and paralysis equals inaction. The question is how to stay full of love, since love requires action on behalf of the beloved. The answer to how I stay love-filled is—I wake up every morning and walk out into this beautiful world; I look at the trees, the flowers, the clouds, and I let love rise in me. I cultivate it. Hope is not a prerequisite for action.

AW: You have written that there are two kinds of power. “One is power over, held in place by victimization and oppression. The other power is personal power, the ability to make one’s life go well, to make good decisions.” How have you strived in your life to acquire the latter and resist the former?

JR: As a child, as a female child, as a southern child, as a poor child, I experienced a lot of “power over.” That kind of power is unpleasant, at best, for the person on the bottom. At its worst it’s violent, tragic, fatal. I could also see the ways that I, being white (actually a very light brown!) and being educated, was on the upper levels of this ladder.

The power that I’ve always believed in and tried to develop is personal power, but it is impossible to talk about power without talking about shame, because shame is one of the ways that we keep people from power. If you shame a person of color enough, or if you shame a woman enough, or a child enough, they internalize oppression, and internalized oppression doesn’t resist; it doesn’t act out. To be born into our current society is to be given a cross to bear, which is to figure out how to own your personal power without wounding anyone else, without wielding authority over anyone else.

I think a central problem of our current political and governmental system is that hierarchical power is intrinsic and therefore comes with so much shaming. Capitalism is a perfect economic system for hierarchical power. Once again, power is not making other people do what you want them to do. It’s the ability to make your life go the way you want it to go. Therefore, much of radical sustainability is freeing people, starting with one’s self, from both external and internal oppressions so that they can lead lives they dream of living, lives that do as little harm to other forms of life as possible.

inga spence / Alamy stock photo.

AW: What are the roots of shame?

JR: I think in the South it comes from the region’s willingness to enslave a people, or actually the region’s unwillingness to stop enslaving people. When the South became a colony after the Civil War, that’s when we lost our old-growth trees, and in many ways, we have never recovered. We probably never will recover. Remember, too, that as a nation we also have the shame of Native American genocide. The roots of most shame lie in rejection, it seems. If that is true, and I think it is, then an inclusive, open-minded, nonviolent family and community becomes important for us to understand and feel personal power.

AW: The roots of shame, then, are like the starved remnants of forests and grasslands, which were stolen from Native Americans, razed of their resources, and used in turn to enslave another people?

JR: I like that. Destruction is a form of rejection. We rejected the Native people, we rejected the native landscapes, we rejected the idea of personal sovereignty. That would make the idea of white privilege culpable of instituting a tremendous amount of shame.

AW: The etymology of the word radical means “from a root or roots; inherent in the natural processes of life,” so although radicalism conjures upheaval, its origins suggest deep, underlying stability. Do you see radical activism as a natural or even inevitable process?

JR: If you think about it, the roots of plants or trees are reaching for water and nutrients of all kinds, in order to break new ground for growth. With human communities, it is the same: we’re looking for nourishment. We’re looking for connection, for a feeling of being part of something that’s greater than us, for a sense that our little lives matter cosmically, for a feeling that our lives and other people’s lives have meaning, for a sense that we will be taken care of and that other people will help us survive. So, we can re-nourish the impoverished landscapes of destruction by sending out radicals into the darkness, into hardened clay, to re-nourish and re-water and break down and re-inform and share.

I’ve never thought about activism being a natural process that suggests deep stability, but I love this idea of yours—that a radical seeking by its roots would ensure continued nourishment for an ever-changing organism. It makes sense. I blame capitalism for much of this destruction. Capitalism destroys rivers; it destroys farms; it destroys forests. Capitalism destroys so many connections. I believe capitalism is also what’s destroying our bodies, and if you want to know how, it’s easy to parse, which is through the pharmaceutical industry’s pushing of antibiotics, and the agricultural industry’s pushing of glyphosate, or Roundup, and other chemicals, and the food industry’s pushing of heavily processed food, and so on.

It’s very easy to blame corporations for all this destruction, but we are corporations. Corporations are just money piles attached to people who have bought into the system by becoming stockholders, ceos, trustees, and purchasers. We are all attached through capitalism. Capitalism’s unbridled willingness to turn every natural resource (including ourselves) into money is killing us.

There are economists who model alternatives. Our current model prioritizes growth in an uphill line, whereas a steady-state economy such as Herman Daly and others propose would follow a straight line, taking just what we need. That economy would require changing the entire global ethos, because American capitalism has mostly spread its growth model across the globe. It would take changing the global ethos to know when enough is enough.

There are a few ways we can oppose capitalism or live in such a way that we make this broken system less relevant. The way that I focus on is returning to the local. On our farm, Red Earth Farm, my family tries to produce as much food as we can for ourselves and our friends. We try to produce as much energy as we can, as much music as we can, as many services as we can, as much shelter as we can, and so on. We try to buy locally to strengthen and recreate communities. The idea is for a dollar bill to circulate as many times locally as possible. You buy your child’s birthday cake from a local baker, who buys her eggs from a neighbor and her wheat from a nearby farm, etc.

Of course, many people don’t have the access to land that we have. Thank goodness we had the money to buy the farm, so that we could begin to experiment with living as far outside of capitalism as possible. Are we plugged in? Absolutely. I drove here. We use fossil fuels every day, and every day we are flummoxed by the effort to say no to that. We still buy at least 50 percent of our food. We buy many other products. We use computers.

Wheat field, Georgia. Soba Samurkasov / Alamy stock photo.

AW: Why did you move back to your hometown in rural Georgia?

JR: Bill Kittredge, my major professor at the University of Montana, read the manuscript for Ecology of a Cracker Childhood as soon as I finished it. He handed it back to me and said, “I think you have something here, and it has to do with honor.” So, the reason I moved back to southern Georgia has something to do with honor, with place. I felt that if all the educated, artistic, visionary people were to leave a place, it would spell doom for it. Rural America has been experiencing this exodus for a hundred years.

I’d like to return to your concept of roots because the South has long had plenty of radical people. Since its settlement, intellectuals and wealthy people would send their children away to be educated, and those young people would come home and become the Atticus Finches of their towns. But, if a tree sends out its root tips, its radicals, and those tips are killed or blocked by Fox News, by obesity, by opioids—and there are tons of ways that make it impossible to break new ground in rural America—then the tree is going to die too.

I live a deeply rural life in southern Georgia. I know firsthand what is happening first to the American South, but also to rural places and people across the country. These places are being starved to death. They are starved for money, for services, for good food, for culture, for art, for young people’s fresh ideas. They are withering. As environmentalists, we talk about a rural life being unsustainable. We hear that people need to live packed together in cities, where their footprints can be smaller. Supposedly smaller. We have to remember that cities only survive because the hinterlands surrounding them are sending in food, water, resources, clean air, as well as its “best and brightest children,” as writer Paul Gruchow put it, and also because the hinterlands provide services like waste disposal. I believe that the solution for an unsustainable existence is not in the consolidation of urban areas. The answer is more like the Wendell Berry model, which is that, somehow, we have to get back on the land growing things for ourselves and for our neighbors.

AW: The exodus you describe from rural areas of the American South suggests and anticipates problems worldwide as people evacuate or leave behind their homes due to climate change.

JR: Refugees of any kind create multi-layered challenges. Once we have uprooted people, how do they feed themselves? Where do they live? How do they recreate support structures? How do they reestablish communities? How do they respond psychically to displacement? As rural places become less habitable, so do all places.

I’m fascinated right now with the idea of loneliness. I believe that we have created, in the impoverished, depleted rural, an intense and intensifying agrarian loneliness. Yet, loneliness is epidemic everywhere. We build walls around us with our devices, and we emerge from our electronic equipment desperately longing to connect with each other, not only with our lovers, our neighbors, our families, and our deepest selves, but also with the Earth around us, with the generations ahead of us and the generations behind us, and those connections are part of what it means to be fully human.

I believe that to live sustainably also means to live in close association with others, or, as Berry says, to make common cause with others. I believe that we are empathetic, communal creatures, and embracing those aspects of our nature allows us to experience a fuller life. Obviously, I over-glamourize the rural. But I believe it to be a place where one can live closer to the land and the processes of the earth, where beauty is easier to recognize and experience, and where a radical life, a radical sustainability, is more possible.

AW: Does activism itself have roots? That is, have you witnessed human connections propagating unseen, before a corresponding emergence reveals their growth?

JR: I heard Gary Nabhan speaking about eating locally at a conference many years before we’d even heard about the hundred-mile diet or the local food movement. Gary had come from his home in Arizona and had brought his own food with him, cactus-pad salsa and mesquite tortillas. He said he was trying to eat a large percentage of his diet from his region. I asked him why he wanted to eat from such a small radius, and he said, “I’m trying to weave my life back together.”

With Gary, these human connections—and I mean connections between him and food producers in his region or between him and me or between him and everyone at the conference—were, as you say, propagating unseen. Those ideas emerged in a wonderful, hopeful movement that changed a lot of lives.

Let’s parse the metaphor a bit more. Plant roots work their way into new ground, seeking new nutrients, in darkness. What is that darkness for us, as writers and as changers, who wish to shine light into every corner of the universe? If we imagine people or communities to be, like plants, rooted in place and sending out radicals to get the nourishment they need, we have to know what that nourishment looks like, and what obstructs it. Who is getting what they need, and who isn’t? What damages certain root tips and causes others to be undernourished?

Does activism have roots? Certainly. It is rooted in the needs of a community, in the imagination, in the history of activists who serve as role models and inspirations, in art, in centuries of intellectual thought regarding power.

AW: Speaking to fellow environmentalists, you said, “We, of all people, have to show that life can be lived differently, and that the reimagined life can be beautiful, functional, and overflowing with rewards none of us expected.” How can we reimagine life?

JR: We need a different trajectory. We’re winging into a new era, and we don’t know what it’s going to look like, but we know it can’t look like most of society currently looks. It’s going to take imagination to redesign our lives, our bodies, our places.

When my son Silas was about seven or eight, he started to cry. We had recently moved back to Georgia from Montana, and he wanted us to return to Missoula, or to go anywhere really, other than the rural South. “What’s wrong with being here?” I asked.

He said, “Here, there’s no imagination.” That was from an eight-year-old kid! Later, I heard Barry Lopez say something similar. Lopez said, “Fundamentalism in any form is a sign of a failed imagination.” We have allowed so much fundamentalism in our lives. When I think of your metaphor of the tree roots, I think of fundamentalism as a withering. It is an inability for the radicals of the roots to move outward and downward to return nutrients and create webs of support for an organism. Reimagining life on earth is a full-time occupation, and part of it means asking of ourselves, at every turn, “Does this thing I want to do uphold life or destroy life? Does it restore or does it annihilate? And also, is it radical?” Because if we get radical enough, we get beyond the destruction and the oppression.


This interview first appeared in the Left/Right Issue (vol. 25, no. 3: Fall 2019).

Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject is often nature. She is the author of five books of literary nonfiction and a collection of eco-poetry. Ray lives on an organic farm near the confluence of the Altamaha and Ohoopee rivers in southern Georgia.
Amy Wright is the author of two poetry books, one collaboration, and six chapbooks. Her essays and interviews appear in Brevity, Fourth Genre, Georgia Review, Guernica, Kenyon Review, and online at awrightawright.com. This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
Header image: Jekyll Island, Georgia. PhotoAlto / Alamy stock photo.

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