ENVIRONMENTALIST PARABLE INTERPRETED
My name was Shelli. Now they call me ‘Patient 029’ here at the state psychiatric hospital. I am not a ‘fruitcake’. All that I saw and heard are real; more importantly, I know what they mean.
After Shelli is found in the woods talking to a tree, fish and viruses, she would be taken to the state psychiatrist hospital. She remains detained in that institution as long as she continues to insist on sharing the fruits of her conversations. She is adamant. As she states in the opening words of the concluding chapter, “I shall not be silenced by the judgement of others.” Society wants to confine her to its binary frame of understanding, zero to nine. The author clearly does not believe she belongs to a mental institution and wants the reader to similarly see meaning in Shelli’s reflections. The following background information expounds the setup of the story and the role of the characters in The Dialogue With Nature. It also highlights the broader context, strategy and web of meaning, in the book. Hopefully, the reader will come to an appreciation of Shelli’s world.
Genre: The preface to this environmentalist parable insists: “essential to understanding this work is an openness to the world of symbolism.” In other words, the book is not a magical realist work, in which a tree talks and a fish sings. Rather, these conversations represent Shelli’s own introspections. As those reflections are triggered by what she terms a “reproachful silence” in the woods, the tone of the dialogue is generally serious. In light of the gravity of the subject matter, the language is also mostly direct and formal. The Dialogue With Nature is therefore not meant to be a ‘satire’ that entertains. The irony of the work centres on the role of the main character, Shelli, who would eventually symbolize humanity in general.
Main Character: The main character is like the primal Eve or mother of humanity. While acting on behalf of the human race in general, her particular social status and place of origin are not insignificant. As a socialite from the Niger-Delta, Shelli is aware of the vast environmental degradation evident in the notorious pollution of land, water and air, and caused by the rich oil companies in her native land. Hence she does not display much incredulity about the dialogue ensuing within her. Shelli admits that she herself has benefited immensely from the wealth of those companies. She also acknowledges that she has not always been a selfless person.
Now alone with Mother Nature, “a transcendental experience” enables her to consider others, especially the poor, and “to give a voice and identity to non-human creatures and inanimate beings.” What is discernible in the entire dialogue is that Shelli wrestles with herself before embracing this truly noble cause: social and ecological justice. Her projection of that inner struggle gives the conversations an aggressive tone. Similarly, the book initially ascribes to her an arrogant persona in anticipation of the fourth chapter.
Lastly, she embodies the irony of the book. The main character assumes that she always sees life through the vast windows of her mansion. Rather, Shelli’s vision is via what is mirrored by one of the other characters (tree, fish and virus) that she derides in the dialogue. Eventually, in her conversation with the virus, this woman of power would be on the receiving end of her own principle of domination. It is a principle that she previously asserts in vehement terms against the other two characters. For example, she says to the fish:
Cry not for me dirge singer. No song of tears can overcome the tide of progress. Everywhere below the waters shall experience the dawning of ever-new human futures.
Earlier, the tree responds severally to such sense of dominance over creation. Similarly, the fish now reacts to Shelli’s unrelenting desire for domination: “Will the strangler not be strangled?”
Other Characters: The other characters in the dialogue generally symbolize the known issues affecting the land, rivers/seas and the air, in the Niger-Delta area and beyond.
The tree represents the plight of damaged vegetation and other landed creatures of Shelli’s native land. A tree, downed after a cloudburst, is chosen among the living-beings on land because it embodies the voice of silence in nature. It obviously symbolizes as well the current deforestation in Africa and other parts of the world. In its words: “Nowadays are we frequently cut down; we are blown about by angry winds; despoiled of bloom; trembled by the violence of merciless rainstorms.”
The fish is the voice of marine life in the murky waters of that oil-rich region. The choice of the fish among other water creatures is significant because it is specifically the victim of much indiscriminate fishing by foreign trawlers on the Atlantic waters of the Niger-Delta. It responds generally to such mechanized fishing: “Your technology seems tied to a selfish interest, rather than mutual cooperation, and yet you remain overly optimistic of your own ability.”
The role of the virus is different. A virus is generally not considered a ‘living organism’, because its sole life-trait of reproduction only occurs by invading the cell of a host and hijacking its genetic tools. Here is one of its glowing self-descriptions in the dialogue: “You shall not insult me the way you do the animals of sea and land, including the vegetation, for I am not as affected by the dictates of humanity.” Therefore the virus is not representing creatures affected by air-pollution. Although Shelli’s viral infection may not be unconnected to the polluted air of the Niger-Delta region, the virus ultimately represents its role in the dialogue rather than any environmental cause. Its role in the dialogue is that of a “mirror” for the main character. While the tree and the fish offer a window for Shelli to appreciate each of their dire situations in the environment, the virus presents a mirror through which Shelli must view the world. Therein lays the book’s strategy.
The Plot: The book’s central strategy is revealed in the title of the fourth chapter: “Windows and Mirrors.” Shelli’s flu offers her a window into the reckless behaviour of the virus. On the one hand, she is thus horrified by the sense of impunity assumed by this “ravenous creature.” On the other hand, the virus offers her a mirror for self-reflection. In fact, a Socratic introspection is a condition for conversing with the Super Virus. It says to Shelli: “The unreflective life is not worth living, for you must dwell on the purpose of life.” During Shelli’s exchange with the Super Virus, she is generally now confronting her own species.
The Super Virus indeed introduces itself as a product of the bioterrorism of the human species. It always insists on identifying with humanity, despite being constantly regarded as a fiend. Shelli detests the close parallel drawn between her race and an army of fiends. She still symbolizes humanity at large, as evident throughout the book, but she struggles with the insinuation that her actions in the environment are comparable to that of the virus that dwells within her. Could this alleged “affinity” be true? Her own words, “I have also become a feverish host to ruthless inhabitants”, may, in this context, seem analogous to global warming. Yet, for Shelli, any such analogy cannot and must not be true. She therefore takes a moral high ground and, in the process, embraces holism.
Her worsening fever increasingly provides the urgency to stop these “ruthless inhabitants.” They would not go away. According to the Super Virus, “ask nothing to go away before you have learnt something from it.” The image in the mirror cannot go away, however much it is despised, but it can be transformed. Eagerly, Shelli tries to reorganize the virus communities into genuine democracies on the path of sustainable development. In chapter five, she strives to become a “Mirror of Things Eternal” and begins to advise the virus on how to build such an ideal society. Meanwhile, the plot thickens. As the transformed Shelli acts as a voice for all of nature, the virus is mirroring a version of human societies that she now despises. From her lofty heights, this reformed reformer is actually saving herself and her kind.
Message: The central message is about humanity’s transformation for the sake of social and ecological justice. It is worth stressing that Shelli’s transformation only happens after a profound reflection in the silence of the woods. This would eventually become a central message of the book. A lesson the author wants the reader to take away from his work is the invitation to listen in silence to “an environment that is communicating to us ever so urgently.” Rapid urbanization, so “fast and furious”, may impede this sober listening. Yet it is through such silent reflection that Shelli becomes the ideal humanity —summarised as “Conclusion” in chapter six.
However, she grows existentially into this holistic identity. “Unless you are a flatterer, I am still unaware of what you speak”, she says, in reply to a question about “the ennoblement of your race; those principles of the ideal human.” Therefore her “transcendental experience” is not a sudden transformation but a growth in self-awareness and consciousness of others. Even late in the dialogue, she is still struggling to overcome “the demon inextricably linked to our language” vis-à-vis other creatures. There is nonetheless a difference. Unlike her deliberate and hostile attitude in the early chapters, her sporadic “insults” against other animals are now inadvertent. Only in the conclusion would she come to fully embody the “principles of the ideal human”, particularly, those virtues that she lacked in the opening chapter of the book (“Introduction”):
I cared not for the intrinsic worth proper to any individual creature or thing, unless they could yield wealth and success. Unbeknown to me was a huge world of generosity, tenderness, self-sacrifice and a universal communion. Most unfortunately, I never thought of the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of the different aspects of life – all life.
There is one more message. At the end of the dialogue, the author inserts a unique section subtitled “Farewell.” This is a post-dialogue inquest, an evaluation of “Windows and Mirrors.” The brief section provides Shelli with a crucial lesson of the dialogue. Having fulfilled its role as a mirror for Shelli, the virus states the grave import to her of that role: “…the unrealisation of my potential resides in you.” Above all, its ultimate message is a call to action: “Now you know what to do, if you desire to live. Otherwise, embrace the hope of death while it lasts.” It is a stark call for humanity to embark swiftly on the mission for social and ecological justice.
Conclusion: Such is the centrality of the symbolism of “Windows and Mirrors” in understanding The Dialogue With Nature. The previous chapters, in addition to underscoring holism, serve as a backdrop to this central theme. Specifically, Shelli’s preceding conversations with the tree and the fish constitute a window to Shelli’s actions as anticipating and mirroring that of the virus. Later, the virus would indeed seem to represent human societies. To the undiscerning reader, this shift in roles may appear to invert the work’s mood and flow or even undercut its lesson. With a firm grasp of the imagery of “Windows and Mirrors”, the reader can see the unbroken thread that challenges human actions and situates all things in nature as morally valuable. Unlike the tree and the fish, the virus appears to act outside this moral order. As earlier mentioned, its role is not that of a living organism. Living man, humanity, should therefore not consider himself apart from that natural order. The saying, by St. Irenaeus, is right: ‘The glory of God is the human person fully alive.’
 This should be Shelli’s opening statement in the concluding chapter. However, the reader is left to judge for him/herself whether Shelli is a “fruitcake”, as society deems, or she is rather the reformed reformer with a message for humanity.