- John Steinbeck, Pope Francis, and Deep Ecology
There was the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The violence present in our hearts . . . is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).—Pope Francis, “Encyclical Letter”
Increasingly, Steinbeck Review is receiving articles that touch on the topic of Steinbeck and deep ecology. To illustrate, the lead article in this issue, Juliana Restivo’s “Steinbeck’s Pregnant Bodies: Childbirth, Land, and Production,” and the intercalary piece, Robert Searway’s “Conflicting Views of Landscape in John Steinbeck’s Literary West,” both hint at this topic. In A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, early environmentalist Aldo Leopold captures the heart of the philosophy underlying today’s deep ecology movement: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land- community to plain member and citizen of it” (204). Brian Railsback’s study of parallels between Charles Darwin’s scientific expeditions and John Steinbeck’s aesthetic provides a similar perspective on the interrelationship between humans and what Leopold calls “the land-community”: “Steinbeck’s extensive use of personification and anthropomorphism underscores his view of Homo sapiens as just another species” (132). Although this Darwinian view strives to see “the whole”—of which humanity is a part—the phrase “just another species” nevertheless diminishes [End Page v] the human, reducing all things to the animalistic. Rather than leveling all beings to the lowest common denominator, however, Steinbeck falls more in line with the biblical view that raises the interrelationship between human beings and nature together to the level of the sacred, reciprocal, and respectful. To illustrate, over the Joads’ breakfast table, Jim Casy’s prayer of blessing for the food gives an account of his time spent in the hills, just “thinkin’,” and tells of a mystical epiphany: “There was the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy” (110). To this vision of the oneness of all things, Leopold’s “Land Pathology” provides a complementary manifesto, maintaining that human beings are obligated to extend moral and ethical consideration beyond themselves to include the land and collectively everything on it. In The Grapes of Wrath especially, Steinbeck presents ethical consideration of land as prerequisite for ethical treatment of people, with the one evolving from the other. As Leopold maintains, “That land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics” (viii–ix).
Steinbeck, then, has as much affinity with St. Francis of Assisi and today’s Pope Francis as he has with Charles Darwin. “Our Sister, Mother Earth,” St. Francis writes, “sustains and governs us, and . . . produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs” (113–14). Similarly, in his 2015 May 15 “Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si’ on Care for Our Common Home,” this saint’s namesake, Pope Francis, avows that “our Mother Earth” is among the forsaken, abused poor in our midst: “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” Like the mystical vision of St. Francis and Pope Francis, Steinbeck sees the kinship of all things, the oneness and interdependence of all things. Like saint and pope, he raises the earth and all living beings into the moral and ethical realm of the human. Like people, the earth suffers; like people, that memorable turtle in chapter 3 of The Grapes of Wrath struggles to transcend hard times.
In story, drama, and picture, Steinbeck establishes this sacred kinship...