Book Review: Frog Pond Philosophy: Essays on the Relationship between Humans and Nature by Strachan Donnelley

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University

Strachan Donnelley founded the Center for Humans and Nature in 2003 after years of pondering the ethical responsibilities of humans within the natural environment. Early on in his life after receiving a doctorate in philosophy, he became a member of the Hastings Center, the think tank in New York that studies bioethics. He became its Director of Environmental Ethics, then its President, and finally the Director of the Humans and Nature Program. He began collecting many of his articles on the question of humans and nature in 2003 but died in 2008 before he was able to ready the book for publication, although he had written an introduction that is contained in this edition. Frog Pond Philosophy is edited by his daughter Ceara and Bruce Jennings, a long-time friend and the editor of Minding Nature, the Center’s journal. Each editor writes an afterword recalling Strachan Donnelley and discussing his life-long interest in the ethical responsibilities of humans in the natural world.

Donnelley gratefully acknowledges the fact of having been able to spend a lifetime concentrating on ethical matters related to the environment of which humans are a part and to which they have responsibilities. He was an heir to his family’s paper industry fortune. But he decided early on to use his financial independence to promote the ideas that helped shape his own thoughts and actions, ideas derived from Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Alfred North Whitehead, Aldo Leopold, Ernst Mayr, Hans Jonas, and Boris Pasternak. Pasternak, as Donnelley explains, represent the artists who are necessary, according to Whitehead, to complete philosophic thinking. Donnelley maintains that one cannot read Doctor Zhivago without understanding the philosophy behind it.

As this list of thinkers indicates, it isn’t just those who were philosophers that influenced Donnelley. Those like Leopold, with his definition of a land ethic, and Darwin with his scientific observation of species development, had firsthand experiences with nature that shaped their conclusions about the natural world. So, too, Donnelley’s narratives within Frog Pond Philosophy anchor his philosophical and ethical positions to a world that the reader untrained in philosophy can readily understand.

In the nineties, Donnelley met Father Francis Kline, the abbot of Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner, South Carolina. It was a fateful meeting. Father Kline had come to Donnelley’s office at the Hastings Center on the Hudson to talk with him about the work of the Humans and Nature program already going on in South Carolina, New York, and Chicago. Donnelley and Kline became close friends, even though Donnelley preferred philosophy and evolutionary thinking to religious belief—a view that Kline, who was not a dogmatic Catholic, understood. Soon thereafter, Donnelley, Kline, and other “stakeholders”—including fishermen, hunters, other recreationists, cultural historians, landowners, and businessmen—met at Mepkin Abbey to talk about a development being planned that could adversely affect the Santee-Cooper River natural areas of the South Carolina Lowlands, already suffering from ecospheric change and rising sea levels. The meeting helped coalesce Donnelley’s thinking about the Center for Humans and Nature by proving to him how the Center could contribute to discussions among disparate stakeholders by urging them to understand their human “moral and civic responsibilities to the future….”

Father Kline, a self-styled “marginalist” who “spoke truth to power,” died two years before Donnelley. Donnelley was invited to talk at Kline’s memorial service. The editors place Donnelley’s eulogy to Kline at the end of the collection, a fitting summary of Donnelley’s and Kline’s understanding of the importance of the natural world. Donnelley explained this to those at the memorial:

[Father Kline] did not argue for cultural and natural conservation in terms of economic expediency, for example, ecosystem services, or biological and ecosystemic necessity, as important as these might be. The conservation of nature    and human cultural communities are matters of ultimate concern both for    ourselves and to the natural communities and landscapes within which we live. These, at bottom, are matters of moral and spiritual responsibility and should be explicitly recognized as such. Thus Francis’s unflagging and passionate moral  concern for the future of the Lowcountry’s natural landscapes and ecosystems and many human cultural communities, both in their many-leveled, value-laden dimensions. Thus his concern for the past, present, and future of the Cooper River and Berkeley County. Thus his passionate intervention in the Bonneau Ferry saga. Francis forcibly threatened to bring the wrath of God down upon those complicit in it potential development.

Strachan Donnelley, philosopher and founder of the Center for Humans and Nature

Such words describe the thoughts and actions of Donnelley as well. When in 2005 Kansas decided that evolution was no longer an appropriate subject to be taught in the public schools, Donnelley was outraged. He went to Kansas to see what he could do to return Darwin’s theories to the classroom. In January of 2007, the decision was reversed by the School Board.

For some, Donnelley’s life-time experiences of hunting and fly fishing might be difficult to reconcile with his ethical approach to the natural world. But he discusses them forthrightly. He describes a venture in duck hunting and devotes a number of pages to his pleasure in fishing for trout. But he knows the lesson Aldo Leopold learned by seeing the light in the dying eyes of the wolf, an experience that Leopold describes in A Sand Country Almanac in his chapter “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Donnelley understands Leopold’s longing for wildness. He writes, paraphrasing Leopold, “I am keenly interested in wildness, its complex reality, significance, and importance. Some people can live without wild things and some cannot. I cannot. Why? And why am I so captured and captivated by water wildness?” He tells the story of hooking into a trout that helped him learn the lessons of wildness in a chapter titled “Big Little Snake: Metaphor Mongers and Mountain Rainbows.” Donnelley says that he always remembers the fish he loses more than the ones he lands and often releases back into the water. One large rainbow in the Little Snake River broke his leader but gave him a cherished memory: “Big Little Snake [his name for the fish] got its freedom; I the natural encounter and enduring memory.”  Wildness helps explain Donnelley’s need to have real encounters in the natural world. Philosophy, he says, does not provide the final answers to what our moral obligations might be.

The arrangement of the essays allows the reader to become familiar with the more philosophical portion of the book in section “IV. Recovering a Philosophy of Nature,” which includes chapters on philosophic cosmology, Spinoza and Whitehead, neo-Darwinian cosmologies, life and ethics of responsibility, and the philosophy in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Readers have been prepared to delve into these more philosophic chapters by the experiential encounters that they have had with Donnelley’s explanations of his search for ethical responses to climate change, over population, genetic engineering, and other concerns that today are heavily debated. Philosophy, Donnelley tells us, does not provide definitive answers. It is, however, an essential part of the process of understanding our place in the natural world. In a chapter titled “What Cosmology Can Teach Us,” he explains:

But what are our ethical, earthly responsibilities, especially given that we are confined to paths of enlightened ignorance? That is, given that we in principle do not have, and cannot have, final and certain moral truths, dogmatically fixed moral stars to guide us? Does this situation resign us to moral nihilism or, at best, aimless moral relativism, an “I’m OK, you’re OK” syndrome?

No. Manifestly, this is not the inevitable outcome of the path of enlightened ignorance. Quite the opposite. By renouncing the quest for certainty and correlative dreams of perfection, we become, or ought to become, more wedded to the finite and vulnerable realized goodness of earthly life—all earthly life. Given what we can discern “through a glass darkly,” our moral responsibilities are systemic: to earthly processes, structures, and communities of life, as well as to life’s interconnected individuals. Moral responsibility is naturally ecosystemic as well as humanly communal and relational.

To Donnelley, a philosophical approach to nature is a starting point and a framework and must be considered if we are to fulfill our responsibilities to making the right choices for the future. After reading this book, it will be difficult for the reader to return to a Cartesian dualistic view of the world that sees mind as different from matter. It is more helpful, Donnelley says, to view the world as Spinoza did, as a monistic entity always developing.

While Donnelley would not want all of his conclusions to be taken as absolutes—after all, he points out that philosophy, like the natural world, evolves—the book is a valuable tool for those who would want to argue the importance of our understanding of our place and our obligations to build a future within a monistic natural world.

Frog Pond Philosophy: Essays on the Relationship between Humans and Nature

University Press of Kentucky

Read an excerpt from Frog Pond Philosophy in Minding Nature journal.