Metamorphosis author profile: Fred Taylor

We are continuing our series profiling the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Metamorphosis. Learn more about the Metamorphosis volume here. Click this link to order this and previous volumes.

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

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Fred Taylor, Metamorphosis author of “Streams of Metaphor,” while leading a “Feeding the Writer” retreat on Cape Cod

In his lyrical essay in our Metamorphosis volume, “Streams of Metaphor,” Fred Taylor shares pieces of his story of connection with the natural world, particularly with water. For Taylor, water serves as a metaphor that serves as an outward guide toward inner transformation. He deftly weaves together stories of streams in his childhood, reflections of nature writers, and his own successes and failures in leading a class of college students to a transformative nature experience. He stresses the importance of allowing nature reflection to be a two-way street, where we go beyond gazing at narcissistic reflections of ourselves in nature, and allow nature to speak to us on its own terms. His approach exudes a mystical awareness of and connectedness to the world around him as he attempts to move through the world, listening to the lessons it has to teach him.

After growing up in Seattle, WA and connecting with streams and the salmon who inhabit them, he moved to the northeast, where he attended Union Theological Seminary in New York. He then taught, led outdoor expeditions, and participated in environmental activities in North Carolina. He noticed that these experiences helped him learn more about nature at the same time as he learned more about himself. Passions for literature, religion, and the environment formed anchors in his life and work, but he had a difficult time bringing these passions together. While attending Union Institute and University’s doctoral program, he reflected on his experiences in the North Carolina wilderness, developing an understanding of dialogue that included both the spiritual inner and the physical outer landscape. Moving north again to New England, Taylor began teaching at Antioch University New England (AUNE) with a focus on writing, environmental history, and reflective practice. He calls the perspective of AUNE “liberating,” allowing him, who is not a scientist, “to find a place where this inner dimension of environmental work was honored and seen as crucial.” Taylor has worked closely with Rowland Russell, Whole Terrain’s managing director, to nurture the community of nature writers in New England through leading the Glen Brook Writers and Artists Retreat, and AUNE’s Feeding the Writer Alumni retreats on Cape Cod.

In recent years, Taylor has felt drawn to working on climate activism in faith communities. Following Wendell Berry’s recognition that the environmental crisis is not so much about policy as it is about human spirit and culture, Taylor thinks one important way to reach people’s hearts and arouse a whole new environmental constituency is through faith communities. With this work he sees his role shifting from that of a writer/mystic to that of an activist. Taylor reflected, “As I go deeper into my own sense of interconnection with the natural world, I find more of an imperative not just to celebrate that but to act on behalf of that world.” In addition to his leadership of faith communities in environmental activism, he attended the People’s Climate March in New York City last year, and will soon teach an environmental activism course at Keene State College.

Though Taylor has connections with Whole Terrain going back to his essay “Beyond the End of Nature”  in our very first volume (and he contributed an interview of Lee Stetson on John Muir in volume 8), we have yet to spotlight Taylor himself on our blog. We sat down with Fred Taylor recently to discuss his background, environmental work, and the experiences leading to “Streams of Metaphor.”

Whole Terrain: Could you tell us a bit more about your early experiences in nature that led you toward your current understanding of the human-nature connection?

Fred Taylor: A connection with salmon became pivotal for me, growing up in Seattle, WA. I grew to see salmon as my metaphorical ally. As a child my family did the salmon barbecue every year, which became part of our family mythology. I had several experiences as a young adult fishing for salmon. As an adult I had an experience in the North Cascades, sitting by a stream after a rugged mountain hike, when I saw salmon migrating in the stream right in front of me. This life-changing experience drew me in and transformed me, and then also led me to begin to untangle the ecology of the salmon. I became fascinated with how salmon fit in with the ocean, estuary, stream, and forest, a part of the ecosystem across the whole range of their migration. I realized this mirrored my own life journey. That’s the time when it really clicked for the first time that this inner-outer mirroring was going to be a crucial part of my spiritual life. I shifted from more traditional religion to a more Earth-centered spirituality.

WT: In what ways does your work relate to Whole Terrain’s emphasis on “reflective environmental practice”?

FT: I try to create an ecology of work that keeps me connected with different communities and processes. I wear a lot of hats, which keeps me lively and growing, though it’s occasionally stressful and too much. I love to take people outdoors and let them have rich experiences, sometimes through writing or field trips or activism. For my upcoming Environmental Activism course, I’ve been thinking a lot about environmental advocacy, which includes groups working in local places such as Vermont all the way up to global issues covered by the media. I lead writing groups, and Rowland and I lead the Feeding the Writer groups that go to Cape Cod every year.

In my faith communities work, I’m part of a regional group called the New England Regional Environmental Ministries Group. It’s a very lively group where we dream up ways of bringing the environment alive in faith communities. I’ve led workshops in Vermont, particularly in United Church of Christ churches, around environmental justice. The Pope’s recent encyclical reminds people of faith that environmental issues are social justice issues. That linkage provides a powerful tool for faith communities who are committed to justice as a central theme. If they haven’t yet gotten a sense of the environment as part of that, now is the time.

I’m working on a program that will happen this fall called A New Awakening: Season of Prophetic Climate Witness. It will be focused on the UN Paris climate talks in December 2015, trying to provide a faith-based voice leading up to those talks and building awareness in faith communities. We will be planning pilgrimages, worship services, vigils, and so forth to highlight the importance of those talks.

WT: How did this particular piece, “Streams of Metaphor,” develop? In what ways do you feel it speaks to the volume’s theme of metamorphosis?

FT: This is a story with several stages. The experiences I wrote about were in the late 1980s in North Carolina. This piece was there right from the start, but sat there for 20 years. I started thinking that this story is really about transformation, so what I’d like to do is take the essay and shape it for that.

My dissertation focused on metaphor and metamorphosis. A phrase came to me during one of my doctoral committee conversations: “metaphor is a two way street.” It is not just something exterior that reminds us of something in us, but we actually take in the qualities of the world around us; we become porous. That process is profoundly transformative. That’s when the notion of metamorphosis came in.

It was a great process that started way back in North Carolina and kept being reshaped all through to the end last year. Originally, the piece had many more quotes. I usually dump everything in and pull stuff out to make the story cohere. Revising is part of my work as teacher and writer. I had to cut about 1000 words to get to the heart of the story. It’s painful, but that’s what I tell students all the time: “Find the story within the story and cut all the extraneous stuff,” but it’s hard to do for yourself. Nat Morgan [editor of Metamorphosis] helped me focus it down. We wrangled over the Joanna Macy quote a bit. He suggested shifting the quote to a new place, which is a great example of the editorial process being really exciting. Often when you have to make changes or cuts, you get to the heart of something in a way that opens up new meaning.

WT: Who are some of the major influences on your environmental thought and perspective?

FT: One of my favorite environmental metaphors comes from a writer named Jim Lichatowitch, who is also a fisheries biologist. He talks about an environmental iceberg: most of what we see is what floats above the surface. Science, policy, and individual actions are on the surface, but beneath the surface there is one’s worldview, personal stories, and ethics. Unless we look at all of that hidden inner dimension, we’re not going to get to the heart of the environmental problem.

Joanna Macy has also been a big influence, particularly the theme of gratitude. I wonder, can gratitude make our activism more grounded? Her understanding of gratitude is crucial, because it’s not tied to external circumstance, because it’s an inner stance of the spirit. It frees us from being dependent on external circumstance, and therefore it frees us to not be consumers in our consumer-oriented society, but to act from a different locus of value. One thinks of gratitude as an inner experience, but I’ve come to see that it’s very much a stance toward the world and the ways we act toward the world.

Kathleen Dean Moore says in an interview with The Sun Magazine that environmental care is not a question of hope vs. despair, because if you’re just resting in hope you become complacent, and if you’re stuck in despair you become powerless. In the space between hope and despair is the terrain of moral integrity.

WT: In what ways do you see “Streams of Metaphor” connected to the work you are doing now?

FT: This piece sort of ties everything together. The writing I’m doing now is primarily around climate change, a reflection of my activism work. I’m writing a series where I’m hoping to articulate spiritual insights around climate change that will help people to see that it’s a spiritual issue, and provide some tools to work with it. I’m trying to do it through personal stories in nature, because so much of the climate change conversation is at a global scale.

So many people ask, “How do we know what to do? It’s such a big issue that we can’t really see it!” Seeing the unseen and the hidden things: from invisibility to computer viruses, ticks, and climate change, invisible presences have huge impacts on our lives. We need to tune in to that invisible dimension if we’re going to make decisions about the everyday world. Those sorts of questions help to ground us so we can have a more solid foundation for engaging the deterioration and collapse of natural systems.

I think the theme of metamorphosis is so powerful because it touches on both outer transformations and inner transformations, and also the inner-outer transformations where what we experience in the outer world transforms who we are. Those experiences and stories are a really important part of helping us become more engaged citizens in the world, and more spiritually alive. Transformation is what Buddhists are talking about when they say, “Everything is changing.” To feel the power of that constant change, and as enlivening rather than terrifying, is part of the power of it for me.

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Bio: Fred Taylor, PhD, is a professor and writer who teaches in the environmental studies programs at Antioch University New England and Keene State College. His essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including the North American Review, Alligator Juniper, and Scribners’ American Nature Writers series. In Teaching in the Field (University of Utah Press) he writes about his Antioch writing classes and Cape Cod field trips. He also leads environmental workshops and retreats for community and church groups.

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