Saving the World with Metaphor: Toward an Ecological Poetics

By Robert D. NewmanMay 23, 2018

Saving the World with Metaphor: Toward an Ecological Poetics
RECENTLY, A GOOD FRIEND who has practiced and taught transcendental meditation for many years told me a story about a trip to India on the occasion of the death of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, his teacher, the one who famously instructed the Beatles during the 1960s. While there he consulted with a renowned Ayurvedic healer whom he had visited previously. This man’s gift was his ability to diagnose people based on touching the pulse points on their wrists. Scores would come each week seeking his counsel, and despite the volume of consultations and his own advanced age, he seemed always to remember his patients through the touch, even after several years, and could remark on the progress or lack thereof resulting from his prescribed therapy — usually some herbal remedy but sometimes a lifestyle change.

The group with which my friend traveled to pay homage to the Maharishi included a troublesome American woman who continually complained about the unhygienic conditions and general poverty she encountered in India. Her practice of meditation seemed to have little effect on her demeanor, and she often would hijack the conversation with negative rants. One day, my friend tells me, the group was walking down a busy street on their way to visit this pulse healer when the woman, who was once again casting her sour spin on things, suddenly stopped and turned in horrified dismay to her colleagues. A gull had just flown over and let loose on her face so that a white smear was now dripping from her nose — nature’s seeming commentary on her behavior. Temporarily chastened, she wiped her face clean, and they proceeded to their appointment. My friend tells me that the old man, after holding his pulse for about 15 seconds, remembered him and commented on his progress and the need to continue his herbal infusions. When it became the splattered woman’s turn, he held her wrist for a while and offered the following two remedies to alleviate her unbalanced condition: (1) she should watch cartoons daily, and (2) she should go to the local schoolyard and give candy to all the children.

One may speculate that both ecological and poetic justice are the morals of this true story. Clearly, the healer’s prescription for the woman’s miserable attitude focused on alleviating it through immersion in joyful, unmediated play and on personal action without expectation of reciprocation or consideration of consequences, on performing actions that are daring for their dramatic departure from the norm and truthful in that they reside in the purity and simplicity of the moment. Both require imaginative leaps fusing originality and the intensely personal in order to realize an absence and make it present. Such a discovery is also a recovery, an ability to see oneself again through fresh lenses.

Lest you fear that I’m preaching some evangelical conversion tract, well, I am. However, it is not premised on scripture or doctrine but on reclaiming our missions as humanists and ecologists. I wish to emphasize the dynamic and powerful linkage between these missions, a linkage that I believe we ignore at our peril, by emphasizing that success in — and proselytizing for — humanistic and ecological endeavors requires originality, imagination, and personal transformation. Such success assumes attaining a vision premised on connection, on finding something within the self that transmits us beyond the self. This kind of integration makes sense rationally, feels good emotionally, and presents a sense of spiritual wholeness or belonging that manifests the etymological root of the word “religion” — religare, to bind fast.

In arguing for more pronounced connections between the humanities and ecology, which the rapidly emerging field of environmental humanities has undertaken, I return to their original impulses and their primary methodologies: interrogation and bridging. I also worry about their frequent co-optation and marginalization, and locate at least part of the cause for this resulting diminution of potency in their capitulation to the colonizing discourses and practices that increasingly assess, evaluate, and define them, digesting their identities and disgorging them as peripheral, or even oppositional, rather than as central to the public good. I wish to argue for a restoration of a poetics of ecology and an ecological humanism, a reinvigoration of critical focus on the process of discovery as well as on product, and a celebration of the personal as it animates the collective rather than being subsumed by it. I also wish to argue that it is incumbent upon us as scholars, teachers, and advocates for the public good to enter the fray of contemporary concerns and to play a significant role in addressing the large questions that confront us.


Our current status as humanists and ecologists — in charge of policy, financial allocations, conveying information, and molding perceptions from the halls of Congress to university trustees to media and entertainment outlets to mundane daily conversations among our polarized voting citizenry — is often surrounded by misunderstanding, conflict, and suspicion. Why? In part because we, the rhetoricians, have ceded the rhetorical advantage. In our reactive defensiveness, we have become reliant on the discourses that have overtaken and colonized us, discourses premised on circumscribed accountings couched in vocabulary that is, at best, reductively economic, impersonal, and quantified without context, and, at worst, arrogantly dismissive, condescending, and adversarial. Much of our response, especially as academics, has been to seek compromise, to accept dominance, and to adjust our practice and product to the requirements of assessment, allocation, or appeal. I keenly recall serving on a university committee to award competitive research grants, on which I was the lone humanities person, and being told by the associate vice president for research who chaired the committee and whose appointment was in the health sciences that “now I would see some real research.”

As a former dean who established the country’s first graduate program in environmental humanities, I recall the frequency with which I responded to requests for economic justification of the humanities from parents, students, legislators, donors, community members, and the corporate sector as well as my own provosts, presidents, decanal and faculty colleagues. While the culture wars of the 1990s were fraught with questions about what the humanities should be, today the conversation is more often concerned with whether or not they should continue to exist. The same kinds of economic exclusivity pervade policies and processes used to justify the recently accelerating deregulation of environmental protections, conservation practices, and species safeguards. Such arguments and justifications are premised on half-truths, misinformation, and short-term thinking that violates the integrative principles and holistic approaches at the heart of ecological and humanistic thought, ultimately undermining both individual fulfillment and collective sustenance.

It is not overly difficult to muster economic counterarguments to the STEM-only mantra in education. We might cite the fact that today’s students, unlike their grandparents, will change jobs several times over their lifetimes and require the adaptable problem-solving skills fundamental to a humanities education. Or that statistics show liberal arts graduates earn more money over the course of their lifetimes than business majors. Or that majors in both the physical sciences and mathematics appear to be diminishing more rapidly than those in the humanities. Or that a substantial proportion of those who graduate in STEM fields are not working in these fields after 10 years but do not possess the foundational skills taught in the humanities necessary for adaptability in a changing workforce. But many institutions of higher learning have seized the one-dimensional STEM trajectory, the logical outcome of which is that they might become little more than vo-tech schools with football teams.

A counterpart tale in this regard is China, where educators and industrialists have recently realized that their exclusive emphasis on STEM-focused training has resulted in inherent weaknesses in their workforce’s ability to solve problems and innovate. And, while the Chinese education system now produces more than 10,000 PhD engineers each year and over 500,000 BSc graduates, China’s continued economic success requires more than a large, technology-trained workforce. For this reason, as the United States continues to devalue the humanities, our Chinese counterparts are rebounding in the other direction, reforming their educational system to include a strong liberal arts core.

Meanwhile, under the new regime in Washington, facts now have alternatives, and not only journalistic accounts but also intelligence reports, economic data, and congressional testimony have been labeled fake, hoaxes, lies, manufactured, ridiculous, and the work of “a culture of radical alarmists.” By constantly casting what traditionally have been legitimate means of conveying information as sinister manipulations to achieve a depraved agenda, trust is destabilized, paranoia enriched, and insecurity heightened. For those who succumb, the only consistency and reassurance rests in accusation and in the grandiose promises of halcyon restoration. Such is the well-trod historical path to totalitarianism.

The assault on nuanced thought and critical interrogation, the essential methods of the humanities, is also evident in the prevailing language and its means of conveyance. The spatial and intellectual constraints of a tweet negate any complicated unfolding of metaphor. Simple declarative phrases and hyperbolic clichés in fewer than 280 characters have become the new lingua franca, a perfect vehicle by which to virally transmit impoverished positions masquerading as empowering solutions. The strategic appeal of simplistic fantasies, with their inherent disregard of reason, is articulated in that best-selling guidebook to achieving power, Tony Schwartz’s Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987): “I play to people’s fantasies. […] People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”

So, what forms of resistance might we practice, as environmentalists, as humanists, as environmental humanists, to combat this adversarial atmosphere? More clearly and strategically explaining our influence, our distinction, and our significance would be one obvious route. But I think it is also important that we do so not only by assembling cogent bullet points but also by owning and celebrating the flights of imagination that provide us with our purpose and our means of expression. While we must arm ourselves with factual economic and practical arguments in order to counter misinformation, I think we make a mistake in dwelling only in that arena, ceding our poetic power in order to fit into a procrustean bed. The humanities remain distinct from the quest for certitude that governs the sciences; they interrogate facts, parse proclamations, and invert binaries. While the humanities always have been and must remain at the forefront of interdisciplinarity, so that complex problems may be addressed comprehensively, demonstrating our contributions too often has been curtailed by one-size-fits-all forms of evaluation with which we have been too compliant. By adapting ourselves to the voice of the colonizer, we permit our language to be appropriated and marginalized, its nuances and complications elided, and its emotional impact rendered suspect. Should our defense of what we do so consistently be rendered in terms like “toolkits,” “data points,” “headcounts,” “taxonomies,” “drill downs,” and “metrics”?

What seems clear is that proponents of humanities education and advocates for the humanities overall have fallen short in their efforts to connect with their fellow citizens. If asked to define the humanities, most Americans would likely refer to the list of disciplines that are most generally associated with humanities curricula — history, literature, philosophy, et cetera — rather than considering their shared pursuit of common questions about what it means to be human, what constitutes a good life, how we know the truth, and how we preserve democracy. Similarly, conversations about the humanities and their value too often narrowly focus on what is delivered by the field’s constituent products and components rather than on the greater importance of the core processes and methodologies. What is so often missed about the humanities is their revelatory, even transformative, power. They are so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives and into the culture surrounding us that we often fail to notice how we came to know and understand the things they uncover, how they provide the materials from which we construct our world.

In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville reminded us that “poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantage of democracy […] [that] [l]iterature was an arsenal open to all, where the weak and the poor could always find arms.” Indeed, he argues that democracy is founded on the imaginative expanses and critical interrogations fundamentally embedded in the humanities.


The conversation I hope to spark with my comments would insist on posing alternative or supplementary means of assessment more suited to the methodologies and contributions of the humanities, including the philosophy of unification that has steered ecology from its inception in the mind of Alexander von Humboldt in the early 19th century. The very term oecologie, coined by 19th-century German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, comes from the Greek word for household (oikos) as applied to the natural world. What if we better underscored and unwrapped the metaphoric possibilities of this etymology as attached to the conservation of the natural world, linking such practices to good housekeeping and a fuller understanding of what constitutes home and why we must be attentive to its maintenance? Public acceptance generally is attached to personal understanding, and the sustainable recognition of personal meaning mostly proceeds through identification with a compelling narrative. Therefore, it is paramount that we facilitate conversations and construct adjudicative lenses that are invested with a richness and delight in language more common to a Lincoln letter than a Trump tweet.

“Can anyone imagine anything so cheerless and dreary as a springtime without a robin’s song?” Rachel Carson presciently warned in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, a cautionary volume that launched the modern ecological movement. I ask you to imagine a world without metaphor, a primary means in the humanities for understanding and explanation, if not belief. Metaphor orients the mind toward freedom and novelty, permits one to experience simultaneously the perpetual and the instantaneous, and conjoins disparate items through the act of imagination. The very act of imagining an absence of metaphor proceeds metaphorically, but in the attempt we glimpse the flat, homogeneous, and linear perspectives that persist when we cease to augment or disrupt them. In doing so, we might begin to fathom how the erosion of comparative and integrative thinking that is fundamental to both the humanities and ecology robs us of our method and our substance.

In imagining a world without metaphor (and I draw a sharp distinction between cliché and metaphor), we might begin to reimagine, or at least expand, the entire value proposition for the humanities and ecology. Rather than focusing exclusively on finite material end products, counting books, articles, grants, seats, what if we were also to concentrate on illuminating the process of discovery, describing the “a-ha” moments, the severing of mental Gordian knots, the crystallizing stray conversations, unexpected literary passages, natural wonders, or other-species encounters that emphasize how imagination and reflection help to solve problems while bridging personal and public concerns? What if we were to locate the value of the humanities and ecology more directly in the transitive rather than the static, the sudden openings and cognitive diasporas that require rigorous and multidimensional reconceptualizations to address? This process of invention inevitably proceeds via metaphoric linkage. In his Poetics, Aristotle states that “a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” Employing tropes of transference, metaphor seeks congruity, instilling poetic energy into a deliberately inexact but adventurous yoking. Bridging, along with interrogation, constitutes one of the primary methodologies of the humanities and ecology. Such a methodology is at the heart of creativity and deserves elucidation, examination, and celebration.

Such a shift in perspective reminds me a bit of the 2016 film Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life” (1998) by Ted Chiang, where the breakthrough in communication with an alien species depends on a recognition that their concept of time is convergent rather than linear. “Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness,” Chiang writes, “while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness.” Indeed, I am advocating an alien mode, a radical decentering that replicates the work of metaphor and instills it as a mode of analysis simultaneously subjective and connective, resistant to codification or quantifiable measurement. It rests more in the realm of revelation — how we perceive beauty, for example — and therefore depends to an extent on emotional impact. In ecology, the landscape becomes sacramental, consistent with the hermetic tradition summarized in W. B. Yeats’s statement that “the grass blade carries the universe upon its point.” Environmental communication acquires a poetics just as poetics becomes affiliated with an ecological sensibility in its attachment to place. To underscore the conversant nature between the two is to foreground the power of each.

Personal impact becomes inextricably bound up with collective human experience, which mutually sharpens both. The process of recognition then focuses on the means to the end rather than on the end itself. An ecological perspective might entail studying the process of belonging to a place with attendant human/nonhuman social intricacies rather than owning it via anthropocentric impositions. A humanistic one might map the points of discovery in solving a problem and excavate those points to establish a pedagogy of inquiry. Such processes are immensely practical in fostering replicable applications, deepening our understanding of personal empowerment through creative methodologies, and affording reflection regarding the precision and the implications of our techniques.


Recently, the National Humanities Center launched the Humanities Moments campaign, premised on illustrating the fundamental role of the humanities in civil society by demonstrating the critical intersections between humanities lessons and transformative moments in people’s lives. The campaign carries all the intrinsic value of a powerful story collection but also concretely links the humanities to intensely personal moments of discovery. Additionally, the project facilitates sharing those “Moments” with one’s own virtual communities, which in turn seeds its viral growth potential. Potentially working with all state and US territory humanities councils, the project envisions potential exposure to people from all walks of life. It also has a strong K–12 component that integrates the humanities across disciplines in the high school curriculum through the “Moments” strategy, a scholars-in-public-libraries program, and a series of summer seminars for humanities scholars. In the latter, scholars will be asked to focus on their process of discovery as well as how to teach that process.

The Humanities Moments project is broadly conceived as an intervention in our national discourse around the humanities’ value — at the level of the individual and the nation as a whole. The project encompasses a broad strategy designed to touch people from many walks of life, urging them to recognize and reflect on their encounters with the humanities, to listen to others, and, as a result, to begin to understand intersections in their personal and professional lives as well as in their roles as citizens. The project seeks nothing less than to create a bridge between the intimate and personal and the national and functional. Through an examination of the monumentally personal, emotional, and powerful junctions in our lives, it helps us relate to and connect with those moments whereby we become who we are and discover who we want to be.

Humanities moments are based in the essential skill of problem-solving, specifically those episodes when one achieves a resolution to a seemingly intractable problem or a vexed situation by reimagining it from a humanities perspective. Such an application of humanities precedents and contexts has led, time and again, to transformative personal and communal understandings. Indeed, one could argue that the United States was founded on a humanities moment, James Madison’s humanities moment. When the Continental Congress issued a call in February 1787 for a convention to devise a new plan of government, Madison repaired to his history books to find an answer to the problem of the moment: why did republics invariably fail?

The republics of ancient Greece and Rome, the Italian city-states during the Renaissance, and, most recently in Madison’s day, the Dutch Republic had all succumbed to factionalism, civil war, or the rise of tyrants, among other ills. Madison concluded from this history, however, that the Founders could create an enduring republic if they constructed it to prevent any one faction, region, or individual from gaining too much power over it. Madison’s Plan of Government provided the basis for the debates in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Its principle of checks and balances, moreover, laid the foundation of the US Constitution and what is today the oldest republic in the world. Thus, Madison found a concrete, practical solution to the seemingly intractable problem of republics in a creative reading of history.


Let us remind ourselves how the work of metaphor functions as dramatic revelation that is at the heart of personal fulfillment and empathic engagement by returning to literature, that supposedly impractical pursuit that does nothing less than tell the story of the human condition in all its exasperating complexity:

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

In this sonnet, Rainer Maria Rilke wonders whether the observer defines the art object or the object the observer. The poem powerfully provides a personal revelation in the final turn in which the authentic beauty perceived in the statue, despite its missing parts, forces an awareness that something essential is lacking in the observer. Ironically, the headless statue reveals itself to be fluid, its beauty suffused with energy — brilliant, gleaming, dazzling, running, flaring, cascading, glistening, bursting, all-seeing. The observer’s epiphany is that his is the life that is static and must be transformed. This is a humanities moment, full of sudden clarity, the shock of recognition, insisting on translating revelation into action. Feeling and thought collide in ways that strip the moment bare and force a daring leap of imagination that is simultaneously disturbing and renewing.

The poem is also a thought experiment in which one must use one’s powers of empathy and imagination to unite with another self through the intercession of art. We do the same thing when we read novels, placing ourselves in the minds and situations of other characters and discovering what is hitherto unknown in ourselves. It is an innate, unscientific, unmeasurable, unsalaried skill, immensely worth honing and intimately connected to what makes community communal and home, well, homey.

Metaphor is impossible to codify, so poetry is inherently different from science. Efforts to codify myth in the latter 19th century, such as James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), became, as Seamus Heaney writes, efforts “to banish the mystery from the old faiths and standardize and anatomize the old places.” By contrast, Yeats’s far-flung engagement in mystical societies constituted an “embark[ing] upon a deliberately counter-cultural movement to reinstate the fairies, to make the world more magical than materialistic, and to elude the social and political interpretations of society in favour of a legendary and literary vision of race.”

Humanities moments have their analogues in countless ecological moments, moments that transcend codification and embrace science within the realms of astonishment and empathy. Such codification finds an analogue in our anthropocentric dismissal of animal communication, stemming from Descartes’s assertion that animals lack the ability to think and therefore have no souls. Descartes follows the lineage of Aristotle, who designated speech as the primary separation between human and animal, the means of expressing rational thought (logos).

Of course, we have now studied various forms of animal communication and are beginning to understand its intricacies and identify its parallels with our experiences of what were previously considered exclusively human behaviors — grief, empathy, laughter, play. Although we fail to appropriate the funds necessary to change economic conditions in order to dissuade poachers or sanction countries that collude in elephant slaughter, we now understand that elephant song amazingly spans 10 octaves, from subsonic rumbles to trumpets, from about eight to 10,000 hertz. Carl Safina’s groundbreaking book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (2015), tells us how their low-frequency rumbles create waves not only through the air but also across the ground. Elephants can hear rumbles inaudible to humans over distances of several miles. Their great sensitivity to low frequencies derives from ear structures, bone conduction, and special nerve endings that make their toes, feet, and trunk tip extremely sensitive to vibration. A significant part of elephant communication is sent through the ground and received through the feet, below human hearing — in addition to ear-flapping and the streaming of their temple glands.

Safina offers the story of Lyall Watson, who describes finding himself in an extraordinarily poignant and personal encounter on the cliffs of South Africa’s seacoast while he was watching a blue whale:

The sensation I was feeling on the clifftop was some sort of reverberation in the air itself … The whale had submerged and I was still feeling something. The strange rhythm seemed now to be coming from behind me, from the land, so I turned to look across the gorge … where my heart stopped …

Standing there in the shade of the tree was an elephant … staring out to sea! […] I recognized her from a color photograph put out by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry under the title “The Last Remaining Knysna Elephant.” This was the Matriarch herself …

She was here because she no longer had anyone to talk to in the forest. She was standing here on the edge of the ocean because it was the next, nearest, and most powerful source of infrasound. The under-rumble of the surf would have been well within her range, a soothing balm for an animal used to being surrounded by low and comforting frequencies, by the lifesounds of a herd, and now this was the next-best thing.

My heart went out to her. The whole idea of this grandmother of many being alone for the first time in her life was tragic, conjuring up the vision of countless other old and lonely souls. But just as I was about to be consumed by helpless sorrow, something even more extraordinary took place …

The throbbing was back in the air. I could feel it, and I began to understand why. The blue whale was on the surface again, pointed inshore, resting, her blowhole clearly visible. The Matriarch was here for the whale! The largest animal in the ocean and the largest living land animal were no more than a hundred yards apart, and I was convinced that they were communicating! In infrasound, in concert, sharing big brains and long lives, understanding the pain of high investment in a few precious offspring, aware of the importance and the pleasure of complex sociality, these rare and lovely great ladies were commiserating over the back fence of this rocky Cape shore, woman to woman, matriarch to matriarch, almost the last of their kind.

I turned, blinking away the tears, and left them to it. This was no place for a mere man …

An ecological moment steeped in a sense of connection, and a meditation on belonging and the loss of home.


Magic, stories, elephant vibrations, interspecies empathy. Is this mere airy-fairy stuff that evades the meat and potatoes of life while also failing to put them on the table? Here is the core of the misperceptions we must directly confront. What unlocks our passions more than exposure to compelling and emotional ideas that motivate us to think in new ways? What excites us more than unexpected identifications that expand our concept of who we are and what we can do? Rather than circumscribed and xenophobic retreats, the humanities and ecology promote generosity of vision and spirit. Rather than maniacally guarding our wealth, the humanities and ecology enthusiastically redistribute it. Rather than erecting walls, the humanities and ecology deliberately make boundaries permeable. Rather than resisting self-examination, questioning, and change, the humanities and ecology embrace them.

Further, the elitist disdain for work that engages the public domain must take a back seat to the necessity — rhetorical, ethical, and for the sake of survival — to translate the impact of our inquiries both within the esoteric communities of experts and in the profound intersections where broad ideas touch everyday pleasures and struggles. We are a culture of rigor, pluralism, innovation, and evidence. As long as these values are maintained in our processes and products, the shape our work takes, the audiences it reaches, and the valuation it receives benefit from a healthy multiplicity and a resistance to static definitions and one-dimensional accountability. Our mission includes knowledge production and dissemination not only for the benefit of an esoteric scholarly community but also for the common good.

Wallace Stevens writes, “I am the necessary angel of earth / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again.” He describes an alchemy of vision, a restorative glimpse, akin to ecological affiliation and poetic renewal. Discovering our angelic and poetic selves, which reside in profound and personal collisions with imaginative tangles, enables us to lift ourselves above restrictive linearity and confining quantification in order to understand and convey collective attachments to place and polis, idea and ideal, human and not. Such discoveries constitute an ecological poetics, a substantively influential methodology that deserves celebration, the resilient core from which resonant paths of identity and resistance emanate.


Robert D. Newman is president and director of the National Humanities Center.

LARB Contributor

Robert D. Newman is president and director of the National Humanities Center. He has authored and edited numerous books and articles on modern and contemporary literature and culture. His current work focuses primarily on explaining and advocating for the significance of the humanities.


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