The Loneliest Species

“The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Somewhere along the line, we forgot that we are not alone on this planet.

Or, put another way: we forgot that this world is not simply ours for the taking.

The logic behind our isolation is not a new. It emerged in the Renaissance; look at Charles de Bovelles’ Book of Wisdom, in which the order of living and nonliving things on earth are illustrated in this way, from bottom to top: rocks, plants, animals and then man, who stands alone in his capacity for understanding.

Our anthropocentrism has shaped the world around us as technological advantages have surged forward. Our superpredator mindset has supported our endless appetite for resources: trees, livestock, land, all of it is ours for the taking. We’re the top of the food chain, so what’s the problem with humans only looking out for humans?

Extinct, written & directed by Kate Douglas. Photo by Stephanie Crousillat.

The cracks in this thinking are visible not only in the world around us (mass extinctions, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, acidification of the ocean) – but also in our psycho-emotional lives. We have lost our sense of legacy, time and most importantly, how to be part of a community instead of a food chain. A 2018 study by Cigna found that nearly 50 percent of Americans feel lonely – but perhaps there is something deeper at work here.

There is a term called Species Loneliness that Robin Wall Kimmerer describes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass as “a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship.”

For me, there is a profound truth in acknowledging our isolation as a symptom of our anthropocentric culture. It is at this moment when we are teetering on the brink of self-destruction that we need to nourish our relationship with the other living beings on this planet and reckon with our responsibilities.

Extinct, written & directed by Kate Douglas. Photo by Stephanie Crousillat.

I believe art can be a part of this shift in consciousness. My work aims to restore our mindset to the broad inclusiveness of plants as protagonists. Through such tools I hope to promote dialogue about nourishment, connectedness, and respect of humans and nonhumans alike. I believe the impact of creating a culture of people who freely whisper to trees and flowers can change our sensitivities to our impact on this planet in a visceral way.

I am currently developing several immersive theatre works in this vein, as I believe the medium has an enormous capacity for evoking visceral shifts in perspective in audiences. My environmental education and connection has taken place largely outside New York City (I study herbalism in Vermont, and I began my Master Naturalist Training this fall at Cornell University), and I am keen to bring this consciousness into my urban community in an acute way.

The first work I am developing is a children’s show called Middlemist Red. It aims to surprise children of the digital age with an analog mystery adventure in a greenhouse that emphasizes themes of interdependence, recycling, and sustainability. The second work is an uncanny dystopian dance theatre work called Extinct, set in a very strange office where productivity is synonymous with happiness and there is a strange infestation of plants growing up through people’s desks. This surreal work leaves space for audiences to investigate their relationship to nourishment, connectedness, and fulfillment as we enter the Sixth Extinction. My future goals include creating immersive experiences that surprise children with a plant-centric mystery and adventure inside of classrooms.

Key art from Middlemist Red, written & directed by Kate Douglas. Designed by Brendan Duggan.

I am particularly focused on youth as in my previous work with them, I have seen how easily and fluently they interact with plant life: telling them secrets, asking them for permission to pick them, and more. I believe the more we can nurture these tendencies from a young age, the sooner we can shift our culture from one of loneliness to one of environmental stewardship and responsibility for our non-human neighbors. We could all stand to be better neighbors.

This naturalist reverence is inside of us already. It just needs to be remembered and nourished. I hope my work can be a part of reactivating that piece of our imagination.

(Top image: Extinct, written & directed by Kate Douglas. Photo by Stephanie Crousillat.)

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Kate Douglas is a theatre artist seeking to challenge audiences about the limits of their world. Recent works include her immersive piece Extinct, which was awarded a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Middlemist Red, currently in development with New Victory LabWorks. Her work has been performed at Ars Nova, Joe’s Pub, and The McKittrick Hotel, and developed at SPACE at Ryder Farm, Rhinebeck Musicals, The National Theater Institute, and the Writer’s Colony at Goodspeed. As a complement to her artistic practice, she is studying medicinal herbalism and began her Master Naturalist training this fall at Cornell University.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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