The Forest v. The Faithful: A Born-Again Environmentalist Tells All

Brenda Peterson is a nature writer, born into a family that believed that we are living in the end times. We talk to her about her Southern Baptist background, what fundamentalists and environmentalists have in common, and about her new memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind.

I Want to Be Left Behind: A Memoir

by Brenda Peterson
(Da Capo Press, 2010)

Beginning in Sunday school, Peterson tells her story of contradictory belief systems. Through refuge in neutral spaces like high school symphony or with like-minded, science-loving believers in the back row pew of the church sanctuary, Peterson seemed to have found solace that many young people with too many inconvenient questions rarely find before leaving home. In college in California, where environmentalism wasn’t such a fringe issue, Peterson found a way to combine her love of nature with her skill for writing. After a six-year stint at The New Yorker, she relocated to a family farm in Colorado that needed tending, all the while working on her first novel, River of Light. But as her mentor Diane Johnson predicted, publication changed little. She kept farming, and by the time she was nearly 30, she even came out to her parents as a backslider who no longer believed in the End Times.

A large gap in the book (though not a gaping hole) skips the years between Peterson’s departure from her farmland and settling in Seattle as a writer for REI’s Outdoor Review. It was during her early years in the Pacific Northwest—where she still lives today—that she made a startling comparison list of characteristics of fundamentalist Christians and environmentalists: every item from “enraptured by doom” to “fear of future consequences” to “evangelical” fit into both columns.

A love letter to physical manifestations of spirituality, and sometimes an overt celebration of material things — like elaborate desserts or musical instruments — I Want To Be Left Behind is an engaging memoir about balancing this life and the next. Brenda Peterson recently spoke with me about her work as a seal sitter, her excitement over the election of President Obama, and why she is a lifelong designated driver for her friends.

You grew up in a family that believed in a contemporary doomsday scenario — a fairly dismal, heavy reality for a young person. How have you cultivated and maintained your optimism?

I was born in the High Sierra Mountains on a US Forest Service station with millions of acres of wilderness, and more animals than people. This imprinted me with a sense of wonder and oneness with the natural world. As I say in the book, “The forest got to me before the faithful.” My father worked for the Forest Service and taught me to cherish the natural world as God’s creation, so environmental stewardship was always a part of our spiritual lives. Everywhere we lived, my father planted trees. In my nomadic childhood following his forestry work, these trees—“The Standing People” he called them—were like real, living “family trees.” We could touch them and still be with our ancestors.

Because of this natural birthright, I have always studied other animals to learn such essential survival skills as adapting to environmental change and blending in with the natural world. For decades I’ve studied and encountered wild animals, especially dolphins, whales, and wolves. Sightings, my National Geographic book about gray whales, and my first memoir Build Me An Ark: A Life with Animals, reveal how at every turning point, whether psychological or spiritual, an animal showed me the way. If our spiritual traditions included the earth and other animals, we might realize that the Garden of Eden is right here and that our souls are at home here on earth. We also might imagine a future in which all species flourish, along with us. A garden that is more beautiful than it is battered, more sacred than it is scarred.

On my Web site and blog I have a continuing series called “Reasons to Be Left Behind—food, animals, music, and the living Earth. This is a daily way of finding rapture here on Earth.

After an encounter with laboratory beagles in college, you ended up abandoning the sciences. How do you now feel about the ways humans use animals—as clinical subjects, as food, as companions?

My last novel, Animal Heart, is an environmental thriller that takes on these issues – genetic engineering of other animals, using animals for our organ transplants, the increasing dead zones in our oceans. It is an interspecies love story of the deep bonds between humans and animals—and of our inevitably linked fates. Since the oceans are the physical and spiritual wombs of our species, what happens in our seas is vital to our own survival. The novel begins with a mass stranding of marine mammals here on the West Coast because of military sonar. It is based on current events and cutting-edge science documenting the disturbing destruction of the life support system of this water planet. In the novel, grassroots groups and their compassion compel them into extraordinary acts of heroism.

We have to ask ourselves: Will our fear of some human enemy far outweigh our environmental foresight?

You say that you used amphetamines in college, thinking it might be a way to speed through experiences, in case the end was truly near. How do you feel about those choices now?

Silly and short-sighted! I have no genetic disposition for drinking or drugs, so since college, I just don’t partake. I can barely tolerate aspirin. My friends all call me a lifetime “designated driver.” At parties I’m probably more boring, but a better observer.

Do you think believing in Rapture could just be a cop-out for disengaged, apolitical people—a way to shrug off earthly responsibilities?

Again, it’s short-sighted. It’s an abandonment of faith and future generations to not practice environmental stewardship of this divine creation. To say things like “Where I’m going there are no drowning polar bears or melting ice caps,” or to plot our heavenly escape and leave this beloved earth and others to suffer so-called Tribulations—where is the mercy in that, the compassion, the loving kindness toward all that is alive?

Our next generations need healthy seas, fresh water, and wild lands. They also deserve abundant species as companions and teachers. It doesn’t matter how much good we do in this world for humans, if we have no habitat, no home. I believe the “new heaven and earth” are right here and my form of worship and devotion is to conserve all life as sacred.

The full interview is available at Religion Dispatches.

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