At first the prospect of confronting a place that has been damaged by toxic waste, clearcutting, urban sprawl, industry or some other cause can seem daunting. Why would we deliberately choose to engage with some awful situation we would much rather turn our backs on? Because sometimes it is necessary to touch the monster we fear and hate.
Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the United Nations representative in Rwanda during the genocide that took place in that country in 1994, writes in his book of a meeting he had with leaders of Interahamwe, the death squad organization that would ultimately be responsible for the death of more than 800,000 people. At that meeting Dallaire was introduced to, and shook hands with, a man whose arm and white shirt were spattered with dried blood. “I felt I had shaken hands with the devil,” Dallaire wrote, noting that afterwards he felt disgusted with himself for having automatically used that customary form of greeting with a genocidal murderer.
Dallaire fought for the people of Rwanda even when no one else in the world would come to their aid. So what did it mean that he shook hands with a man he equated with the devil? Perhaps, on some level, he had to find out who this devil of an enemy really was. The man with the bloody hand and shirt, an agent of torture, rape, and murder, may have seemed like a force of pure evil, but when Dallaire shook his hand, that hand turned out to be simply human flesh. Perhaps by shaking that hand and then freeing himself from the grip, Dallaire realized on some level that the perpetrators of the grotesque war he was fighting were indeed human and perhaps in that instant, too, he recognized an even stronger reason to keep fighting: because there was something to fight, and it was human and tangible, and human enemies can and must be resisted.
The great contemporary scholar of myth, Roberto Calasso, has remarked that the big mistake Oedipus makes is that he fights the Sphinx with words alone. He doesn’t get down and dirty with her. “The monster can pardon the hero who has killed him,” writes Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. “But he will never pardon the hero who would not deign to touch him.” Touching a piece of the monster in Rwanda and finding in his grasp the shape of a human hand may have empowered Dallaire to keep up the fight.
Similarly, because those of us who love the earth know in our deepest hearts and most compassionate souls that we must confront the reality of the Earth’s degradation, we decide that we will shake hands with the monster: we will confront the reality of what has already degraded and endangered lands and species that matter to us, so that we may gain strength to love what remains to us and fight it for its survival.