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Hurricane Sandy, the Rotunda, and Thomas berry

r.graham.barrett's picture

During the height of Hurricane Sandy, I was in the computer lab of Haverford’s Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center (KINSC) when the power in the building and the rest of campus failed. Plunged into darkness, not only had the energy powering the building disappeared, but the energy I had previously possessed for doing homework disappeared along with it. The novelty of being in caught in a power outage and a curiosity to see who else in the building was affected by the outage inspired me to explore the building. As I wandered the halls of the KINSC, with the exception of two people lounging in Zubrow Commons and the people I had left behind in the computer lab, I was completely alone in the building and for the most part in the dark.  As my wanderings continued, the notion of being entirely alone with hardly any light to guide me or companionship to combat my solitary status was incredibly intimidating and my nervousness began exponentially increasing. My only comfort it seemed was that I was not outside in the midst of the storm, with Mother Nature’s raging winds not buffeting me with gusts, debris, and rain but rather the shielding walls of the KINSC, demonstrating that man-made constructs could withstand Nature. My comfort and faith in the strength of the KINSC’s ability to serve as a shield against nature was soon challenged when I came upon the central rotunda/staircase in the building. Within the rotunda, I experienced how the emergency lighting was not active here, leaving only the dim natural light of the stormy night sky showing only dim silhouettes. The windows themselves were being affected by the hurricane, with rain drops splattering onto them and each wind blast impacting upon them and actually making them move. The noise of the wind though, either the sound of it hitting the walls or the portion of it that was sneaking in via the rotunda vents and the window seems, was ever not lessened but rather amplified within the expansive space. Standing in the rotunda and experiencing all of this, my intimidation of what the storm had done to the building grew but at the same time a sense of awe also grew in recognition of what I was seeing. Although physically present and between me and the hurricane, it was like the KINSC wasn’t even there and that I was actually standing in the midst of Hurricane Sandy and experiencing all the natural elements man-made structures usual separate people us. Here though, nature still found its way into the building within the vacuum of power, was gripping me tightly.

            I feel that a big portion of my awe towards what I had experienced inside the rotunda was due in large part to how I had not experienced or been told to expect the idea that I, as a human being, could be physically separated from nature and yet it could generate enough of a presence within my sanctuary to overcome it and exist inside as well. Caught off balance by the shattering of the separation between nature and the man-made dominion of the KINSC, I realized I needed to reevaluate my way of thinking of seeing myself and the rest of humanity in the context of where truly stood in the context of nature. The idea of reevaluating my position in regards to my surroundings reminded me of author Thomas Berry’s The Dream of the Earth, where he describes his thoughts and ideas of the story about natural universe, mankind’s supposed role within it, and how mankind is actually behaving. Berry essentially believes that mankind has lost the meaning of the universe’s story, and we must remember it or craft a new one lest our striving for progress in human community destroys the future for the overall Earth community. Berry believes the means to do is the education of mankind via specific lessons/courses given to us in college level education that will convince us to return to our native place in the universe. When I had read Berry earlier on in the year, I did not think much of the steps Berry was suggesting I as a college student should perform as I doubted the effectiveness of the education system he was offering. After my experience of being inside the KINSC’s rotunda during the hurricane and the subsequent blackout though, I’ve begun to view Berry’s suggested educational courses as actual viable options to be considered in educating myself and others. I believe this in most part because the time I spent within the rotunda was in retrospect a combination of a few of Berry’s suggested courses.

            The first course I noticed had some presence during my time within the powerless rotunda was Thomas Berry’s idea of a course that examined humanity’s technological and scientific development throughout history. In Berry’s mind, a large part of how modern day human consciousness interprets our surroundings and the natural system is based upon the technological advancements civilization has accumulated over the past several centuries. With each subsequent technological advancement, humanity was becoming gripped with the notion that it now had the power to shape the natural world as we our consciousness wanted it to exist as. Instead of obeying the natural systems of the universe, technology was allowing us to think not in terms of nature but “ favor of a dominant preoccupation with human reason, human power, and the sense of the machine as the dominant metaphor for understanding the reality of things (Berry, 103). While technological progress has certainly brought benefits to civilization, Berry hopes that such a course will demonstrate how advancing our technology has likewise isolate us as well as led to some negative benefits as we attempted to reshape reality. Being aware of what each technological advancement brought to civilization then, as well as how it might have shifted our perception of how the natural world should be interacted with, will provide clues to a student on how to look at ways to make future advancements less harmful to the natural order of the universe.

            While experiencing the intimidating yet awe-inspiring sensations of standing inside the rotunda during the height of the hurricane, I managed to find the lesson that Berry wanted me to find in the technological advancement course via the absence of light-providing electricity. For as long as human culture has existed, mankind has often sought for the means to combat the fear of the unknown that accompanies darkness, something I myself felt when wandering the KINSC halls. It is due to our dependency, as well as ravenous hunger for light, that the acquisition of the technology to harness electricity and provide a more reliable light source at night, rather than natural lighting or fires, was an advancement that civilization took advantage of. We now had a means to drive back the fear nightfall brings, and having that during the hurricane within the KINSC provided a comfort that isolated those within from enduring the raging conditions that existed outside in the natural world. But once the hurricane created the conditions in which the electricity was lost, and the light it provided was extinguished, I found myself thrust back into the unknown and intimidating darkness. After wandering and eventually reaching the rotunda, in which the darkness was paramount, I was forced to reach out with every sense that I had to try and make sense of my surroundings and combat the unknown. In doing so I was experiencing the howling fury of nature, with very little standing (save the physical walls) between me and the outside conditions. In standing there, I realize that had the lights been on, I could not have truly experienced the hurricane’s effect on the rotunda if the electricity had been running and providing light. Had the lights been on I would have merely limited my senses to what was inside/what the light was displaying in the rotunda, rather extending outwards beyond the rotunda into the natural world. What I discovered via the power loss, is that although the technology that is the source of the light certainly provides a comfort from fear and the unknown, it dominates my perspective and forces me to just keep my attention within the comforting aurora inside the KINSC. Thus the technology that gave me the comfort of being able to see inside the rotunda, as human minds intended, likewise took from me the ability my senses reach out beyond the physical boundaries and experience nature in its entirety, showing that our current technology left me truly isolated from nature.    

            Another course that has had some relevant connotations to what I had experienced inside the KINSC’s central rotunda was Berry’s fifth proposal for a course, one that deals with, “the age of the growing intercommunion among all the living and nonliving systems of the planet, and even of the universe entire” (Berry, 104). For Berry, an intercommunion atmosphere would entail reestablishing the awareness of what the world’s natural context is and how human activity affects all the actors and resources within the context. Doing so would mean human civilization would be more aware of the effects our actions had on the entire order as well as how the rest of system will affect us, both in terms of the effects of our actions and effects which are outside our control. Through actions such as having authority figures in religion and commerce rethink how they view as well as portray nature, Berry hopes for humans to stop disregarding the natural system and instead acknowledge its importance and show it some respect. Within the rotunda, the natural system manifested itself to me in the form of Hurricane Sandy. When the authorities had told me what to expect of the hurricane, they had portrayed as a phenomena that constituted a threat to my and other’s wellbeing, due to its destructive capabilities. Given the sounds I was hearing outside and the power outage, I initially agreed with such an assessment. But once inside the rotunda where I began to experience the visuals, the sounds, and the general sensation of the hurricane, I still held onto the warning given to me by the authorities but it was slowly becoming less of a priority in my head. Instead, I was viewing Sandy as a force that, while still dangerous and destructive, was a natural occurrence in the system that probably needed to occur. The raw power it was displaying while certainly intimidating, was showing to me of all the power and force that the rest of natural system possessed, and this power was something that could rival the power that civilization could use and display and was perhaps more beautiful. The hurricane had brought itself into the KINSC and the rotunda, and was showing to me all the natural system had. Sandy was bellowing for my attention and I was respectfully given it its attention, not as a destructive force outside of my control, but as something that fit perfectly into the natural system of the Earth just as myself was a part of.  

Having experienced the presence of Hurricane Sandy inside the KINSC rotunda despite its physical absence, I feel as though I have grown to overcome the intended separation between man’s place in the natural system and everything else within that same system. I did so with a though process that follows Thomas Berry’s prescribed college courses so as to help rewrite the story of the world so as to remove mankind’s conscious decision to reshape the world and accidentally harming it as a result. Although Berry was suggesting that each of these courses and the lessons they provide should be provided in an academic setting, what I witnessed within the rotunda was the result of a personal and a real-world experience outside a classroom. Had I merely had the intended lesson of the courses explained to me rather than experiencing them via an actual experience, I would not have felt such vivid emotions like I had when I was inside the rotunda. Had I been inside an academic setting whilst learning Berry’s prescribed lessons, I would have simply viewed the information as something I should keep in mind for the future but for the moment something I could easily put aside. Doing so would have probably distressed Berry, as such an attitude would simply be conforming to the current story of human activities that Berry believes we should change and so his recommended college courses would have been for naught. As much as I now the validity of Berry’s courses, in their current proposed form they will probably not enact much progress towards creating a new story of the universe for mankind to follow, perhaps explaining my initial disregard for Berry’s ideas. But if Berry was to craft lesson plans for each of his courses so as to incorporate personal experiences like my own, his courses would grow substantially in appeal. With this appeal, people would be generally interested in taking these classes and honestly develop the feelings necessary for writing a new story for viewing the world.    



Anne Dalke's picture

Radical pedagogy?

it seems that you are arguing here for experiential education: a process of teaching and learning in which students are engaged in hands-on experience (do you know the work of John Dewey? if not, you might want to check out his book, Experience and Education). I would be interested to hear you explore this further: exactly what sorts of experiences are you advocating? "Just get people outside," as (froggies315 reports) Winona LaDuke is suggesting? Have us brave more extreme weather? Put us in uncomfortable situations, where we can not rely on the technological advances that generally protect us from the weather?

In class last week, we read Carolyn Merchent's description of Radical Ecology; it sounds as though you are advocating a form of radical pedagogy that is in some ways akin to another classic of educational theory, Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed--but with a larger-than-human focus, one aimed @ altering human actions in relation to the larger-than-human world...

What do you understand about the psychology of learning? Do you think being afraid is an effective method of teaching? Is stripping people of all they think protects them from what they fear effective? I think there's much more to explore in relationship to such questions, if you'd be interested in doing so in your next paper. I'd like you to explain there your current understanding of "ecocultural complexity," or how ecological concerns seem to you to be inflected racially, culturally, or economically. How might this paper head in such directions?