Sometimes, when the world gets to be too much, you just want to lie on your back on the shady grass and read the literary equivalent of fluffernutter sandwich. Or you want to pay to sit for two hours in an air-conditioned theatre and be engulfed in pleasant fantasy. When you emerge, the world is the same, but you’ve gotten a respite from it. Other times, when film or literature guides you deep into what you feel the urge to turn away from, you discover a certain peace in the midst of battle, or a truth that helps the world make a bit more sense. The works of two newcomers, author BK Loren and director Benh Zeitlin, had that effect on me this month.
BK Loren’s debut novel, Theft, explores a tracker’s quest to find her renegade brother in the Colorado wilderness, a journey that leads her down the dark corridors of her rural, poor childhood. For the protagonist Willa, her brother Jeb, and her tracking mentor Raymond, the boundaries between humans and animals, and the untamed lands they share, are permeable. They long for endangered wolves and old fishing holes that have long since been filled in and converted into parking lots for Taco Bells. They deal with it the best they can: by owning up, letting go, and working through. But there is never any question that their daily lives and destiny are integrally linked to the physical world in which they live.
Six-year old Hushpuppy, the irresistable heroine of Beasts of the Southern Wild, is navigating her own crash course in survival in a hurricane-ravaged, flooded bayou–called The Bathtub–that is an undeniable harbinger of things to come. The flawed adults in her life teach her to eat crab by tearing it apart with her hands, know the roots that cure sickness, and dream of the extinct beasts that both haunt her and test her strength. While trying to fix what is broken in the world, Hushpuppy is recording her own history, making artifacts to be discovered by scientists centuries in the future, after the world has demolished and remade itself.
Though set in opposite environments, the desert Southwest and the Louisiana Delta, both stories posit the predominance of nature. They don’t anthropomorphize a place or argue nature’s “superiority” to humans–instead they call attention to the relationship of people to their natural habitat. They remind us that people are animals, and animals are part of an ecosystem that has limits.
The characters in Beasts and Theft are uniquely adapted to their environment, and most do not survive well outside of it. Both the film and the movie beautifully pose the question: what does it look like when we humans, who have historically pushed through all the ecological boundaries that define our role in the ecosystem, run out of place? Beyond the survival instincts that we share with other animals, how do we do that uniquely human thing: make meaning of what’s left?
When I saw BK read from her book recently, I asked her what she thinks is the role that literature has to play, or not, in helping people understand the implications of what we face as a planet. She replied that conservation is compassion. Her words beamed like a flashlight down the rabbit hole. Isn’t compassion about recognizing that thing in some other being that connects with something inside you? Doesn’t literature, and film and art in general, have the power to grasp our face and turn our gaze toward that thing? And hasn’t our amnesia about that shared thing driven us off into the wilds of separation and gradual destruction?
In both Theft and Beasts, compassion is the current that pulls the reader or the viewer forward, despite the danger signs and discomfort, to a place of greater understanding. While it may not feel quite like a shady patch of grass on a hot summer day, meaning somehow makes even the most painful experience more bearable. It connects us to our humanity, which is simply connected to everything else.