In 1990, director Tim Burton released Edward Scissorhands, a fantasy film he co-wrote with Caroline Thompson, adapted from a story he’d penned based on his own lonely and disconnected childhood.
Filmed with Burton’s marvelously whimsical touch, the story relates the life of Edward, a nearly-human creation of an inventor who has died before he can endow his creation with hands. The gentle Edward is left, instead, with sharp blades protruding from his wrists, dooming him to the hapless fate of destroying all that he touches, all that he loves.
I’d watched the film at the time with a heartache that spilled into tears, and it came back to me as I read a recent article in the Los Angeles Times—Lithium in Electric Cars Takes Climate Change Toll— about what mining companies are doing to address the dearth of minerals available for the batteries needed to power what most of us had assumed were our environmentally-friendly electric cars.
It turns out that mining and extraction companies have been destroying sacred Native American sites and “the most pristine federal lands” to get the ingredients for those revolutionary lithium batteries, and they’ve more recently turned their attention to scraping the ocean floor.
Like many of us, I’d sadly grown used to major corporations raping the land and burdening the least politically empowered of us with environmental harm, but something about this last “source for raw materials” raised goosebumps up and down my arms.
Wait, what? Scraping the ocean floor?!!
Friends, we’re talking about that miraculous hidden realm where life on earth may well have begun. That mysterious terrain was movingly revealed by one of the most amazing films to emerge during this pandemic. My Octopus Teacher evoked in many of us a profound admiration and even love for its brave and vulnerable filmmaker, an equally courageous and risk-taking octopus, and our gloriously diverse sister and brother species at the bottom of the sea. (If you haven’t yet seen it, get thee to Netflix as soon as possible for one of the most extraordinary movie experiences imaginable.)
The film documents the transformational cross-species relationship that unfolds between a lost young man, Craig Foster, and a female octopus in the South African kelp forest. The backdrop and its denizens are so exquisitely varied and beautiful that no one with a heart can fail to come away from the film without a profound appreciation for the living treasures in the depths of the sea.
The prospect of disturbing that sacred and essential realm is articulated clearly by UC Santa Barbara marine science professor Douglas McCauley: “The ocean is the place on the planet where we know least about what species exist and how they function. This is like opening a Pandora’s box…. We’re concerned this won’t do much good for climate change, but it will do irreversible harm to the ocean.”
The idea that we humans would think we’re helping our precious planet by destroying life at the depths is, at worst, insane and, at best, awfully Scissorhands-ish.
But it wasn’t just the sea-scraping story that invaded my dreams this past few weeks.
I happened to come across a photo from a Time Magazine article on the untrustworthiness of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in his seeming determination to destroy the Amazon rain forest, whose trees have justly been described as “the lungs of the earth.” The article was sobering, but what got to me even more poignantly was the image of those glorious green giants, standing together to face the devastation of deforestation goose-stepping towards them.
I took that image, like the thought of machines scraping the ocean floor, very personally. I’ve been working for about a year on a sequel to The Fleur Trilogy, and some of the characters that share the stage with Fleur and her gang in the novel are trees. Well, to be fair, trees, rocks, a loquacious bobcat, and even a particularly talkative tortoise. Looking at those gorgeous green trees in that Time Magazine photo, quite literally facing their own extinction, I felt like I was witnessing my own friends facing a firing squad.
Can our species manage to do anything with our clever minds and drives for survival and comfort than destroy the land and sea upon which we depend? Do we have to share the fate of Burton’s Edward Scissorhands?
One approach we might seriously need to consider is to transition away from growth as the yardstick for a healthy society. A New Yorker article—Can We Have Prosperity without Growth?—explores just that question. I regularly measure my grandson’s growth on the door jamb of my service porch, but it would be catastrophic if he continued to grow forever.
I’m confident that many of you are just as distressed as I am by the myriads of ways that our species seems hell bent on extinction, but the sense of overwhelm—”What can I do?”—can be paralyzing, leading to denial and avoidance of the dying elephant in the room.
In some ways, the question might be posed, “How do we grow hands that can help us exercise creative agency in this crisis? How can we apply our fine minds and hearts to the purpose of reconnection and healing, rather than this dangerously accelerating destruction of our home?”
That question takes me to the fairy tale of “the handless maiden,” a story that’s been told with minor variations throughout cultures and eras and was popularized by the Brothers Grimm. Its general gist is that a young female is sold to the devil or a devilish man by a greedy father. In the course of the tale, the heroine’s hands are cut off, leaving her profoundly helpless, though her servitude to the dark masculine does result in the birth of a precious child. In some versions of the tale, her fate is transformed by her daughter’s near-drowning in a nearby lake; the mother instinctually reaches out to save her child and a hand organically grows from each of her wrists to accomplish the task.
But how do we grow such lifesaving hands? I love how my environmental activist and writer friend David Goldstein put it in his 2014 Common Dreams op ed #BecauseLove. His essay was in response to the Obama administration’s proposal (later rescinded, then reinstated by Trump) to use “sonic cannons” to search for oil deposits off the Eastern Seaboard. David began by describing how he nearly thew out his back carrying his “huge-hearted,” old and sick dog Spike outside, adding—rightly I believe—that most of us would perform similar acts of sacrifice for our beloved animals, who often feel just like family.
As David put it: “If any one of us, possibly excluding the diagnostically sociopathic, could bond with any single one of those dolphins or whales to the degree that we bond with our dogs and cats and horses and parakeets, we would practically break our backs (perhaps we would break our backs!) to prevent unnecessary harm from befalling them. Just imagine — your companion dolphin, who comes to the cove by your house for a daily visit, is swimming along, frolicking with his family, when, in mid-dive, a sonic canon boom turns his radar system to jelly. His world explodes. His family watches, helpless and puzzled as he stops eating, stops hunting… and then dies.”
So here’s my own fantasy—my pitch, if you’ll have it—for one way we might approach sheathing our species’ scissorhands. What if each of our children’s classrooms “fostered” or “adopted” a specific species or habitat? What if they, individually and together, researched those life forms, learned the ways they’re under threat and what they require for continued health or healing, and created some sort of project, no matter how small, that took psychological ownership for what happened to them? What if churches, temples, and synagogues took on similar projects? What if neighborhood associations joined together to save road verge trees, as a group of folks I know did via nextdoor.com? It’s but one small idea, but my protagonist Fleur alerted me early on to the hidden power of the butterfly effect. From a project like this, who knows what ripples might spill over to families and friends, communities, and the larger body politic?
At the very least, it would, for each participant, put a face to a species, a physical image to a habitat, and perhaps even grow hands of meaning and purpose where once was stabbing nihilism and the psychic woundedness of knowing that, as a species, we’re killing everything we touch, everything we value and love.
I’m certain that you who are reading this have your own ideas, eager to emerge. Your own hands must be aching to reach out to save our children and grandchildren and future generations from drowning. Certainly, my environmentalist friends are working overtime to bring our species to the conscious realization of our dependency on the vast interconnected web of life. But I deeply believe that we each have something in us, some slight flap of a butterfly’s wings, that can make a meaningful contribution. (Some people I know literally midwife the birth of monarchs—an endangered species—providing milkweed and safety for their five-stage journey from tiny, translucent eggs to soaring butterflies.)
As a Jungian Analyst, I witness on a daily basis the truth that the soul’s survival and flourishing requires a sense of meaning and connection. Butterflies or forests, beaches or bobcats—making a personal relationship with endangered life forms on our planet can nourish our souls and also help sheath the scissorhands of greed and growth that threaten all that we need to survive, all that we hold dear.
I’d love to hear your own ideas about how to make this challenge embodied and personal, how to make the rescue of the glorious human experiment our very own.
P.S. I’m going to begin listing programs whose work is along the lines of what I’m suggesting, in case you’d like to join, support, and/or learn from them:
The Center for Biological Diversity is spearheading multiple campaigns to save specific endangered species and habitats;
Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots;
The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership is a marvelous example of a “habitat-adoption” program;
The Environmental Defense Fund affiliate DefendOurFuture.org supports and organizes chapters for young people seeking to make a difference.