What are the conditions our communities need to see the Milky Way?
This is the question that Chanda Prescod-Weinstein poses near the end of her book The Disordered Cosmos. I hadn’t meant to include a book on astro/physics when I created April’s topics, and indeed when I first thought of April I thought only about Braiding Sweetgrass. But I follow Chanda on Twitter and she’s been on the podcast and when I saw that she had written a book it occurred to me that we don’t look up often enough, so I asked her if she thought it would be appropriate and she thought that it would be. I hadn’t read the book at that point yet, it wasn’t published until early March, but we really don’t look up often enough.
When Chanda was on the podcast I had made a cheeky comment about Thoreau sitting in the woods thinking his Big Thoughts while his mother brought him sandwiches. It’s a common remark, intended to remind people of Thoreau’s privilege and the nonsense of Enlightenment ideas about pristine wilderness. Chanda turned this over and reminded me that the people who make her meals, who empty her garbage can, who sweep the floors and do all the myriad caretaking that exists in the world are also part of the scientific process. Enlightenment ideas about wilderness are nonsense, but not because Thoreau didn’t make his own sandwiches.
So what are the conditions that our communities need to see the Milky Way?
To notice badgers and raccoons?
To gather moss?
To watch the growth of plants and their relationships to each other?
To be undrowned.
Each of this books talks about how our relationships with the world around us are made complicated and disconnected. Animals are an inconvenience. Food comes in packages. Weeds get pulled. Pets are much loved but still commodities, animals we buy and sell and who themselves live in disconnection. We learn to listen to the world around us on its own terms, not just to draw lessons from them. They are teachers, but we need to be careful about the way we think about that because they don’t exist in order to teach us. Teaching is part of reciprocal relationship, it is not transactional and as Chanda notes in quantum physics, the act of observing has consequences, it changes the thing being observed.
So when we think of the conditions that we need in order to see, to know, to gather, to watch, to be undrowned we think about all the barriers that exist. The lights that drown out the stars and the distance that you need to drive, if you even have access to a car, to be somewhere that you can see. The way that we live in cities, not the fact of cities but the way that we have constructed them to pull resources from places we call remote and then concentrate them to meet certain needs, depriving those places of the resources that they need.
We think about our location, because our location and the way that we think about it is what complicates these things. And thinking about our location helps us to work through what we might do differently. How we might imagine, and then enact, a world where Black children can see the night sky and dream big dreams that come true.
If you haven’t had time to read the books, that’s ok. Please join us anyway. I have resources for you:
- This conversation with Daniel about his book Raccoon that comes out in June.
- This conversation with Mi’kmaq astronomer Hilding Neilson about Indigenous stargazing.
- This magical interview with Mari Joerstad about the ways in which the Hebrew Bible describes a world that is filled alive with other than human persons.
- And this article about the first three months of conversations.
This month’s panel:
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an American and Barbadian theoretical cosmologist, and is both an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy and a Core Faculty Member in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of The Disordered Cosmos, a book connecting theoretical physics and Black feminisms.
Daniel Heath Justice is a American-born Canadian academic and member of the Cherokee Nation. He is professor of First Nations and Indigenous Studies and English at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter which we discussed in January as well as Badger and the soon to be released Raccoon. Daniel also writes Wonderworks, which are speculative fictions.
Neil Ellis Orts is a writer and performer living in Houston, Texas. His novella, Cary & John, is available for order wherever you order books. He is currently putting together a short story collection. Themes that emerge from Neil’s body of work include identity and religious faith, and of course grief. There is almost always someone dead or dying in his stories, having absorbed the Pauline line about death being the final enemy. His performance work often invites his audience into self reflection.
Ben Krawec is self-described forest geek. A wild harvesting, dumpster diving, Anishnaabeinnini.
Celeste Smith is an Oneida woman living in Anishnaabe territory and the founder of Cultural Seeds, a plant-based business rooted in Traditional Indigenous Knowledges.
Mothers. A topic made complicated by a European binary that didn’t exist in many Indigenous cosmologies. What does it mean to live in this patriarchal world as a woman, a mother, a person who is Not Male. Nick Thixton, Tate Walker, Sean Carson, Robyn Bourgeois, and Angela Gray join us to talk through the books and the ideas.