Our environment consists of everything external to the self that affects us in any way: the physical world as well as other living organisms, including people, and all the social, political, economic and other organizational systems that surround us. As with the body, the environment is both an opening and an obstacle. Some people, notably mountain climbers, seek ways to overcome obstacles in the environment. The opportunity, among other things, is to gain a greater awareness of our abilities, thereby expanding them.
Here are narratives about how environment affected individuals and families:
- Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
- Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (Sandpiper, 2005).
- Zakes Mda, Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012): “Mda’s gregarious and transfixing memoir . . . chronicles the upheavals that have sharpened his skills as a wide-ranging social observer.”
Narratives on the physical environment shaping nations and cultures:
- Jared S. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).
- Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Alfred A Knopf, 2011): how with the arrival of Europeans in North America "plants, animals, microbes and cultures began washing around the world".
- Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2004).
- John Robert McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).
- David M. Lodge, "Biological Invasions: Lessons for Ecology," Tree, vol. 8, no. 4, April 1993.
- Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Oxford University Press, 2004).
- William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W.W. Norton, 1992).
- Thomas Gallagher, Paddy's Lament: Ireland, 1846-1847 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982).
- Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-1849 (Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962).
- Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016): “Worth . . . employs the familiar journalistic conceit of telling the history of the Arab Spring by presenting the stories of different individuals whose lives became caught up in it.”
- Alex Kotlowitz, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Nan A. Talese, 2019): “ . . . a powerful indictment of a city and a nation that have failed to protect their most vulnerable residents, or to register the depth of their pain.”
- William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976).
- John Aberth, Plagues in World History (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011).
- Michael B.A. Oldstone, Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future (Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Dorothy H. Crawford, Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History (Oxford University Press, 2007).
- John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (Harper, 2005).
- John Aberth, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).
- Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (Riverhead, 2006).
- John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (Penguin, 2005).
- Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005): “. . . a sweeping portrait of human life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.”
- Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011): “Mann’s outstanding new book . . . not only explains the chain of events that produced those candied fruits, nuts and gardens, but also weaves their stories together into a convincing explanation of why our world is the way it is.”
- Jelle Zelinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders, Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions (Princeton University Press, 2004).
- Elena Poniatowska, Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake (Temple University Press, 1995).
- The quakebook community, 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake (Enhanced Editions, 2011).
- Jay Feldman, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder and the New Madrid Earthquakes (Free Press, 2005).
- Paul Farmer, Haiti After the Earthquake (Public Affaris, 2011).
- Malcolm E. Barker, Three Fearful Days: San Francisco Memoirs of the 1906 earthquake & fire (Londonborne Publications, 20050.
- Nicholas Shrady, The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 (Viking Adult, 2008).
- Jelle Zelinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders, Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions (Princeton University Press, 2001).
- Edward Hull, Volcanoes: past and present (1904).
- Charles Morris, The Volcano’s Deadly Work (1902).
- Donna O’Meara, Volcano: A Visual Guide (Firefly, 2008).
- Patricia Lauber, Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1993).
Other deadly events of nature:
- Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave (Knopf, 2013): a memoir about the catastrophic 2004 tsunami
- Emmanuel Carrère, Lives Other Than My Own (Metropolitan Books, 2011): a second memoir about the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004
On contemporary life:
- Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (Random House, 2019): “What happens to people when they are forced to compete for the smallest bit of security? Who do we become when we’re always being watched?”
Technical and Analytical Readings
Spiritual views on making the most of wherever you are:
Two disparate view on the pros and cons of the computer:
- Elias Aboujaoude, The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
- Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press, 2011).
On peer pressure and conformity:
- Tina Rosenberg, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World(W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
On competing nations and cultures as part of the environment:
- Aaron I. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
On whether we choose history's course:
- Barry Gewen, The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World (W.W. Norton & Co., 2020): “‘His arguments for his brand of realism — thinking in terms of national interest and a balance of power — offer the possibility of rationality, coherence and a necessary long-term perspective at a time when all three of these qualities seem to be in short supply.’”
Documentary and Educational Films
Robert Flaherty made several early films examining human struggles to live within an often hostile natural environment. They include:
- Alfred Sisley, Flooded Field (1879)
- Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snow Storm (1842)
- Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fishermen at Sea (1796)
- Willem de Kooning, Gotham News (1955)
Madame de T.'s salon was all that Marius Pontmercy knew of the world. It was the only opening through which he could get a glimpse of life. This opening was sombre, and more cold than warmth, more night than day, came to him through this skylight. This child, who had been all joy and light on entering this strange world, soon became melancholy, and, what is still more contrary to his age, grave. Surrounded by all those singular and imposing personages, he gazed about him with serious amazement. Everything conspired to increase this astonishment in him. There were in Madame de T.'s salon some very noble ladies named Mathan, Noé, Lévis,--which was pronounced Lévi,--Cambis, pronounced Cambyse. These antique visages and these Biblical names mingled in the child's mind with the Old Testament which he was learning by heart, and when they were all there, seated in a circle around a dying fire, sparely lighted by a lamp shaded with green, with their severe profiles, their gray or white hair, their long gowns of another age, whose lugubrious colors could not be distinguished, dropping, at rare intervals, words which were both majestic and severe, little Marius stared at them with frightened eyes, in the conviction that he beheld not women, but patriarchs and magi, not real beings, but phantoms. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume III – Marius; Book Third – The Grandfather and the Grandson, Chapter III, Requiescant.]
Human societies all have what is called in theatrical parlance, _a third lower floor_. The social soil is everywhere undermined, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. These works are superposed one upon the other. There are superior mines and inferior mines. There is a top and a bottom in this obscure sub-soil, which sometimes gives way beneath civilization, and which our indifference and heedlessness trample under foot. The Encyclopedia, in the last century, was a mine that was almost open to the sky. The shades, those sombre hatchers of primitive Christianity, only awaited an opportunity to bring about an explosion under the Cæsars and to inundate the human race with light. For in the sacred shadows there lies latent light. Volcanoes are full of a shadow that is capable of flashing forth. Every form begins by being night. The catacombs, in which the first mass was said, were not alone the cellar of Rome, they were the vaults of the world. Beneath the social construction, that complicated marvel of a structure, there are excavations of all sorts. There is the religious mine, the philosophical mine, the economic mine, the revolutionary mine. Such and such a pick-axe with the idea, such a pick with ciphers. Such another with wrath. People hail and answer each other from one catacomb to another. Utopias travel about underground, in the pipes. There they branch out in every direction. They sometimes meet, and fraternize there. Jean-Jacques lends his pick to Diogenes, who lends him his lantern. Sometimes they enter into combat there. Calvin seizes Socinius by the hair. But nothing arrests nor interrupts the tension of all these energies toward the goal, and the vast, simultaneous activity, which goes and comes, mounts, descends, and mounts again in these obscurities, and which immense unknown swarming slowly transforms the top and the bottom and the inside and the outside. Society hardly even suspects this digging which leaves its surface intact and changes its bowels. There are as many different subterranean stages as there are varying works, as there are extractions. What emerges from these deep excavations? The future. The deeper one goes, the more mysterious are the toilers. The work is good, up to a degree which the social philosophies are able to recognize; beyond that degree it is doubtful and mixed; lower down, it becomes terrible. At a certain depth, the excavations are no longer penetrable by the spirit of civilization, the limit breathable by man has been passed; a beginning of monsters is possible. The descending scale is a strange one; and each one of the rungs of this ladder corresponds to a stage where philosophy can find foothold, and where one encounters one of these workmen, sometimes divine, sometimes misshapen. Below John Huss, there is Luther; below Luther, there is Descartes; below Descartes, there is Voltaire; below Voltaire, there is Condorcet; below Condorcet, there is Robespierre; below Robespierre, there is Marat; below Marat there is Babeuf. And so it goes on. Lower down, confusedly, at the limit which separates the indistinct from the invisible, one perceives other gloomy men, who perhaps do not exist as yet. The men of yesterday are spectres; those of to-morrow are forms. The eye of the spirit distinguishes them but obscurely. The embryonic work of the future is one of the visions of philosophy. A world in limbo, in the state of fotus, what an unheard-of spectre! [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume III – Marius; Book Seventh – Patron Minette, Chapter I, Mines and Miners.]
- Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), a fictional account of the London Plague of 1665.
- Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust (Perfection Learning, 1999).
- James Jones, From Here to Eternity (1952), about “the poignance and futility of the love lives of the professional soldiers involved, as well as the indictment of commanding officers whose selfishness can break men devoted to soldiering. They are trapped in a world they made and one that defeats them. Above all, it is a portrait etched in truth and without the stigma of calculated viciousness”.
- Elizabeth Graver, The End of the Point: A Novel (Harper, 2013): a family’s summer house serves “as a kind of second mother,” bringing the family together and easing a young man’s angst.
- Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch: A Novel (Little, Brown & Company, 2013), about events surrounding an adolescent’s life, which entrap him like a goldfinch in a painting.
- Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel (Viking, 2013): about a tsunami, a diary washed ashore, and the writer who finds it
- Rosellen Brown, The Lake on Fire: A Novel (Sarabande Books, 2018): “Rosellen Brown has a great ear, a great eye, a great love of the painful twists and turns that happen in a human life and the big twists and turns of American history.”
- Inês Pedrosa, In Your Hands: A Novel (Amazon Crossing, 2018): this novel “explores the lives of three generations of women in a wealthy Lisbon family . . .”
- Tayari Jones, An American Marriage: A Novel (Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, 2018): “The novel focuses on the failed hopes of romantic love, disapproving in-laws, flawed families of origin, and the question of life with or without children that all married couples must negotiate. It is beautifully written, with many allusions to black music and culture — including the everyday poetry of the African-American community that begs to be heard.”
- Yan Lianke, The Day the Sun Died: A Novel (Grove Press, 2018): “ . . . Yan’s fable, joining a long lineage of so-called ‘records of anomalies’in Chinese literature, forces readers to reflect on the side of the world that is too absurd, too cruel and too unpleasant.’ This makes ‘The Day the Sun Died’ a relentless and even brutal experience. Yet its description of a society seized by its worst impulses, enacting the repressed hatreds and nightmarish obsessions of its inhabitants, felt more familiar the more I considered it. Yan’s subject is China, but he has condensed the human forces driving today’s global upheavals into a bracing, universal vision.”
- Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days: A Novel (New Directions, 2014): “ . . . imagines five different versions of the life of its nameless female protagonist, ultimately encompassing much of the 20th century’s dark history.”
- Anuradha Roy, Sleeping On Jupiter: A Novel (Graywolf, 2016): “In brisk, almost breakneck strokes, Roy depicts the violence of a war that suddenly engulfs the citrus-scented birthplace of its central character, Nomi, brutally claiming her father, then her brother and mother, and leaving Nomi to be consigned by boat to an unknown future.”
- Douglas Preston, The Lost City of the Monkey God: A Novel (Grand Central Publishing, 2017): “ . . . few other writers possess such heartfelt appreciation for the ways in which artifacts can yield the stories of who we are.”
- Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1: A Novel (Henry Holt & Company, 2017): “The four versions of Ferguson’s early life are so similar that the reader has to struggle to keep one separate from the next. In each of the variations, however, a fateful event at Stanley’s business (a burglary, a fire, a tragic death or a buyout) leads to altered circumstances.”
- Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones: A Novel (Bloomsbury USA, 2011): “ . . . a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale. Think of Noah or Gilgamesh or any soggy group of humans and dogs huddled together, waiting out an apocalyptic act of God or weather.”
- Julie Orringer, The Flight Portfolio: A Novel (Knopf, 2019): “Her Marseille breathes as a city breathes: architecture, gardens, streets, hotels, cafes, skies, smells, weather, food, cigarettes, the interiors of suites, offices, prisons, internment camps, the moods of authority and tyranny and spite, the cunning of confederates and criminals, the fury of betrayal by seeming allies. She evokes the crooked geography of flight — Spain, Portugal, Martinique, the trek on foot over the Pyrenees, the ships that disappoint.”
- Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe: A Novel (Harper, 2019): “Like all children, Eli must live with the consequences of decisions made by others.”
- Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth: A Novel (Knopf, 2019): “What follows this abduction is a novel in the form of overlapping short stories about the women who are affected both directly and indirectly by the kidnapping. The purpose of these stories is not to unite a community around a tragedy as a less daring and more conventional narrative would have it, but to expose the ways in which the women of Kamchatka are fragmented personally, culturally and emotionally not only by the crime that jump-starts the novel, but by place, identity and the people who try, and often fail, to understand them.”
- Jacqueline Woodson, Red At the Bone: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2019): “Is there a more fraught, vilified figure in American letters — in worldwide letters, perhaps — than the mother who abandons a child? To be a mother who goes away, physically or emotionally, is widely considered to be a mother who turns monstrous, a towering figure who inflicts enduring, ne plus ultra pain upon the offspring she leaves behind. But what if that departure isn’t necessarily monstrous; what if the wound of maternal abandonment could be not only alleviated, but also, perhaps, healed by other kinds of love?”
- Caleb Crain, Overthrow: A Novel (Viking, 2019): “ . . . explores the fallout that occurs when friendship’s intimate ambiguities become ammunition in an information war.”
- Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981): “The ''midnight's children'' of the title are the 1,001 children born in the first hour of Indian independence, Aug. 15, 1947.”
- Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt: A Novel (Flatiron Books, 2020): “The story of a mother and son’s desperate attempt to flee Mexico for America, it arrives on a gust of rapturous and demented praise — anointed ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ for our time . . .” “Their painful and thirsty hours in the desert haunt me still.”
- Marcial Gala, The Black Cathedral: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “Arturo Stuart, a Sacramentalist preacher, kicks off the action by moving his family to the Cuban city of Cienfuegos, where he’s been called by God to erect a fortress to his faith.”
- Lawrence Wright, The End of October: A Novel (Knopf, 2020): (a pendemic)
Film and Stage
- The Exterminating Angel, about the breakdown of decency, society and convention under dire circumstances
- Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray’s first film and the first in his Apu trilogy, the film tells the story of a family’s struggles through the eyes of the boy Apu
- Aparajito (The Unvanquished): as Apu’s story continues, he confronts heart-wrenching choices between the practicalities of life and the pull of life’s inner meaning (Satyajit Ray’s summary)
- Berlin Alexanderplatz, about a difficult life in 1920s Germany, suggesting that life outside prison may be harder than life within it
- The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Daka Tara), about poverty and familial dysfunction in a Calcutta refugee village
- From Here To Eternity, about the lives of military men on the cusp of war
- Gas Food Lodging, abouta woman and her two teenage daughters, who struggle to orient themselves “in a place where women are hopelessly anchored while the men drift through like tumbleweed”
- Mean Streets: a young man tries to live like St. Francisamid the mob
- Mouchette: this “grim but moving story of a girl forced to grow up quickly” . . .
- Los Olvidados (The Forgotten, or The Young and the Damned), about difficult young lives of “impoverished Mexico City youth”
- Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco i suo fratelli), about five brothers from rural Italy trying to start over in Milan
- Shoeshine (Sciuscia): about homeless Italian children struggling to survive
- The Travelling Players (O thiasos), about members of a travelling actors’ troupe, who cannot escape their political environment
- Two or Three Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 Choses que je Sais d’Elle), about the influence of consumer culture on a woman and a city
- Shame (Skammen): a married couple cannot escape the raging war or their own marital troubles.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Nōgaku, or Noh: this traditional Japanese music presents the inescapable conflict of forces in sound. UNESCO has called it the “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
- Explanatory video
- Video on the history of Noh
- Nōgaku in Japanese theatre
- A brief scene of Nōgaku in Tokyo
- an album of Noh music
- Encontro de Nogaku
- Noh theatre videos
- Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major, Op. 10
- Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
- Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26
- Piano Concerto No. 4 in B flat major, for the left hand, Op. 53
- Piano Concerto No. 5 in G major, Op. 55
- Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1
- Piano Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 14
- Piano Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28
- Piano Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Op. 29
- Piano Sonata No. 5 in C major, Op. 38
- Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82
- Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83
- Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 84
- Piano Sonata No. 9 in C major, Op. 103
- Visions Fugitives, Op. 22
- Sarcasms, Op. 17
- Henze, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1967): external forces from within the orchestra continually bombard the pianist-protagonist: 1. Moderato; 2. Vivace - meno mosso - Tempo; 3. Moderato; 4. Vivace; 5. Lento; 6. Vivace.
- Trachsel, Symphony No. 3, “Apocalyptic” (2014), is a contemporary symphony, which musically expresses the idea that events swirl around us.
- Szymanowski, String Quartet No. 2, Op. 56, M 64 (1927): evoking the “unrelenting severity of life in the mountains” (per the composer)
- Frankel, Symphony No. 6, Op. 49 (1969) evokes a series of life challenges.
- Goetz, Piano Quintet in C Minor, Op. 16: as in his Piano Quartet in E Major, Op. 6, Goetz explores relationships but here he does it in a minor key, pointing out that they can be difficult as well as supportive.
- Weinberg, Chamber Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra & timpani, Op. 147 (1987)
- Rouse, Concerto per Corde (1990): 1. Adagio doloroso; 2. Allegro molto; 3. Largo. Lamentoso.
- Liszt, Mazeppa (Poème symphonique No. 6), S. 100 (1851)
- John Adams, City Noir: conveying the excitement and challenges of city life
- Bazelon, Symphony No. 4: evoking life in the 20th century, or the 21st
- Nordheim, Greening, for orchestra (1973)
- Raga Basant Mukhari (Vasant Mukhari), a late-morning raag evoking the environment as an obstacle (performances by Chaurasia, Ali Akbar Khan and Amir Khan)
- Raga Nat Malhar – also evoking the environment as an obstacle, this raag usually is performed during a period of heavy rain (performances by Joshi, Sathe and Amonkar)
- Steve Argüelles, Robert Dick and Christy Doran (A.D.D. Trio): “Instinct” album is a nature-wild musical venture.
- Jazz trombonist George Lewis offered three albums that couple a jazz style that could be called modern jazz minimalism with John Cage-like environmental sounds: “Chicago Slow Dance” (1977), “George Lewis” (1977) and “The Imaginary Suite” (1978).
Books of poems:
- Valzhyna Mort, Music for the Dead and Resurrected (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “A child in Belarus bears the weight of an accordion and countless repetitive war stories, nightmares of blood and bones and radioactive soil.”