Image Credit: Nola Johnson
At the time of the transition to online classes, my high school students were reading Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower. The book opens in the year 2024 and depicts a United States in total societal disintegration due to climate change, wealth inequity, a weak and ineffectual government, and takeover of entire towns by militarized multi-national corporations. A large portion of the population lives outdoors and roams the streets, getting by through scavenging, theft, violence, or some combination thereof. All systems of healthy societal interdependence (health care, education, public utilities) have collapsed and natural resources are scarce. The book’s present is a frightening, worst-case, but not impossible, near future.
Spring of 2020 was both a difficult time and the right time to be reading Parable of the Sower. The spread of coronavirus has thrown into relief the fragility of our own systems, whether bodily or societal. It has acted as a lens that magnifies the pervasive effects of structural inequality, racial disparities, and the inadequacies of our health care system. Thankfully, the crisis also unleashes our capacity for solidarity, resilience, and mutual aid, as writers like Rebecca Solnit and Jia Tolentino have discussed. Our mutual precarity leaves us face to face with the deep, undeniable fact of our interdependence—even, or especially, as we retreat into physical isolation.
I worried how my students would respond to being immersed in the world of Parable all while dealing with anxieties and challenges both general and personal that come with living through a global pandemic. I feared they might overidentify the dangerous world of Parable with our own and this would cause further distress. As a result, I avoided directly asking them to make connections between our world and the world Butler foretells. Of course, I can protect them neither from knowledge of our real precarity, nor from its consequences. In the end, my students, as the youth so often do, rose to the occasion, reading with insight and offering relevant responses.
Yes, the book presents a terrifying vision of a near-future United States, and so acts as warning signal. It also offers wisdom on living and building a life with and through loss, instability, and change, and so acts as a beacon.
Parable’s protagonist is Lauren Oya Olamina, an 18-year-old Black woman who leads a small group of travelers, refugees from various forms of violence and destruction, north from the Los Angeles area to Northern California. She is forced on this trek after her own home and community are destroyed. Lauren is an example of a young person who meets her circumstances head on. She is intent upon surviving, which at times means using violence in self-defense, but she manages to raise her gaze beyond survival.
The seed implied by the title Parable of the Sower refers to Lauren’s invented religion, which she names Earthseed, and the text of the new religion Earthseed: The Book of the Living. Lauren would say she discovered rather than created Earthseed, as its premises only reveal observable truths about the world. The first and central verse in Earthseed: The Book of the Living takes the familiar idea of the immutability of change and highlights the interwoven nature of reality:
All that you touch you change
All that you change changes you
The Only lasting truth
Rather than protect herself from the reality of change, as adults in her life attempt to do, she forms a worldview with change at its center that allows her to enact agency in the face of the dramatic instability and danger of her world.
The world Lauren and her companions inhabit is rife with enmity. Social instability in Parable has heightened, or made more transparent, xenophobia and racism, a phenomenon paralleled in our current crisis. This puts Lauren’s racially and ethnically diverse group in even greater danger. It isn’t safe to befriend strangers or let your guard down. Lauren begins to take risks when and where she can to turn from an every-person-for-themself mentality to allyship, and to grow her Earthseed community. Her actions are driven by her understanding that she can either respond to and attempt to direct the course of the unexpected that comes her way, or she can remain at its mercy, but she can’t stop it.
When I tried to distance Parable from our current circumstances, I was, in a sense, afraid of what I would typically most hope for: that students would make critical connections between literature and the world. At the end of the semester, I assigned students a final creative project. Several chose to focus their projects on Parable. It wasn’t until I spent time engaging with their projects that I realized I hadn’t quite allowed the book to burrow into my consciousness and to commune with what I’m experiencing and witnessing. I had kept it at a distance. Their projects became a beacon for me, into and beyond the book.
One student painted the strong and self-possessed Lauren Olamina with hair tied in a purple headwrap and closed eyes covered in mint green eyeshadow. She looks serene where she stands with shoulders squared in the foreground, even against a backdrop of red, orange, and yellow flames. They do not seem to touch her. In the middle of her chest sits an image of the globe and on either side of that two slightly smaller orbs—one the sun, and the other the yin and yang symbol. Acorns rain down from the sky.
What does it mean for rain to be replaced with acorns? Acorns can’t put out the fire that rages behind Lauren in the painting. An acorn does not promise relief from emergency.
In the book, acorns are a symbol of renewal and a source of sustenance—when Lauren and her group reach Northern California, they plant oak trees and name their new community “Acorn,” an act that also recalls her new religion, Earthseed.
Each of the acorns falling around Lauren in the painting contains a dormant future. To reap the promise of acorns, one must provide that future the sun and water and soil that it needs. To plant a seed is to reach through time.
What seeds do we wish to plant how do we create the conditions for their flourishing?
We can’t go back to normal has become a social media refrain as we process the laying bare, not for the first time, of our society’s shortcomings, and consider what might be the path forward. Lauren’s vision, and this student’s painting, invite us to turn away from nostalgia for an irrecoverable past stability or normalcy, a normalcy that has devastated species and ecosystems, and abandoned communities while protecting the powerful, normalcy that continues to bare its teeth in the recent bail outs of corporations, further cuts in an already underfunded education system here in Colorado where I live, and the long, continuous history of all forms of state-sanctioned violence against and control of people of color. Through Lauren, Butler invites us to turn towards provision for one another, politically, civically, and personally, for the long haul.
What if we seek not only to put out fires, but to plant trees, to care not only for the necessary immediate relief, but future relief, from hunger, from air pollution, from violence, from a treeless horizon?
The above rendering of Lauren makes me think of something Octavia Butler said in a 2000 interview. Her characters “who are often Black and female, behave as though they have no limitations…They just … do what they need to do.” There is a real, stubborn hope there. Butler wrote into Lauren Olamina an unquestioned adherence to the way things could and should be even amid impossible circumstances.
In the book’s opening chapter, Lauren dreams of fire, a recurring dream that, in that first scene, gives way to a deeper, closer dream, one that she doesn’t often reach—a childhood memory of looking at the stars. Earthseed is more than an idea or a metaphor, and more also than planting trees for the near future; it has a larger destiny “to take root among the stars.” Amid unending chaos, Lauren looks to the stars and aims to take humanity there, to other worlds. She criticizes, but is not deterred by, the government’s defunding of moon and Mars programs under the logic that they are “wasteful, pointless, unnecessary.” She dares to imagine a destiny that seems impossible in her current circumstance and makes decisions in accordance with that vision.
This Lauren undeterred by flames, this Lauren with the bright green eyeshadow—I’d like to see the vision behind her closed eyes.
In another student’s artwork, slender hands centered in the foreground hold a small bright earth against a navy expanse of sky salted with stars. Below the sky looms a dark cityscape of nondescript, unlit buildings. From one end of the miniature earth descend roots that burrow into her wrists and forearms. From the other end ascend green tendrils that curl around the fingers. The hands are lit by a source of light beyond the frame of the image. The earth and hands both are limned in a subtle, soft glow. We can imagine Lauren reaching into the frame of the image from beyond it.
In the movement from seed to star, there is a formal and imagistic continuity. Seeds in dark earth and specks of light in the dark sky. Compared to seeds, stars are infinitely large. Of course, seeds are self-perpetuating, regenerative, and so could be understood as infinite in the vector of time.
The vector of time is another continuity between these images in the book. Planting seeds and looking to the stars are both future-oriented. In Parable, seeds must come before stars, but planting for the years to come doesn’t mean Lauren’s larger vision of taking humans to live in space is on hold. When she rejects an obedience to the logic of scarcity by inviting vulnerable people to join their community, she sustains that vision.
What is your vision? What is ours? Who are ‘we’? How expansive can ‘we’ become?
And what do the answers to these questions require of each of us?
While the pandemic continues, individual choices around handwashing, mask-wearing, and staying in add up to large-scale risk reduction or increase. Out of caution and care, we have been careful not to touch one another, careful about touching objects that others will or have touched. I’m thinking now more than ever about how each of us are held by so many hands each day. The hands of farmworkers, the majority of whom are immigrants, of grocers, of delivery people, of nurses, of doctors and pharmacists, of those in our households.
The image of Earthseed in the hands of a young woman offers a simultaneous broadening and narrowing of perspective. The scope of the image is the entire world and the hands of one person. What we nurture in our hands is so small and so large and so deeply mutual. We are inside the earth and we tend the earth. The earth is in our hands and we are in the hands of the world—each other, each feature and creature of this planet. In the image, Lauren nurtures the seed and the seed in turn becomes part of her, alters her, spreads new veins or maybe cracks in her skin.
We do risk discomposure when we give into, and help shape, the fact of our interdependence. We risk being altered. We risk shattering the false vision of ourselves as independent and separate. We assure destruction if we don’t take such risks. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” wrote Dr. King, whose vision for human flourishing continuously expanded throughout his life, a life taken by violence, a life endlessly fruitful. He knew the struggles of Black people intersected with the struggles of workers of all races, and that those killed by our military overseas were not disconnected from those victimized by the state at home.
Our separateness—human from non-human life, human from human, people over here from people over there—must be the most insidious lie ever told and to unlive this lie the most worthy of daily devotions.
We may say we want change, but when faced with an opportunity, we often cling to what is familiar. My reaction at the start of online learning showed a concern for students’ mental and emotional well-being, but also, I think, a deeper fear of letting Parable bleed outside the edges of a literary lens, a fear of what that might require of me as a teacher and as a person. After all,
There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you
In the book Lauren Olamina knows that clinging to a quickly fading reality will not keep her or her community safe. She responds to the signs of coming change, not by carrying on, but by taking the future into her own hands. She observes the world around her and analyzes and reflects in her journal. She listens and she discerns the right time to speak. Lauren reads books on native plants, on survival techniques, on philosophy and religion. She is fortunate that her Baptist minister father, before she loses her home and family, owns a small library. She reads what happens to be available to her, she considers each person a bearer of essential knowledge about the way things are, and when the time comes, she acts.
We happened to be reading Parable of the Sower during a pandemic. Coincidence is a teacher, as is catastrophe.
What is my role as a teacher during this time? That is, as a person with a responsibility to other people.
I see my students’ artwork centered on the leadership of the young Lauren Olamina—Lauren serene with the world burning behind her, Lauren holding the familiar and fragile blue green orb in her hands—and think my job is both bigger and smaller than teaching, and being taught, Parable of the Sower. To tend to. To nurture. To intersect with. To listen, speak, repeat. To change. To let myself be changed by. To be reminded and to remind that:
are all around you
Sarah Thompson lives, writes, and works as a high school teacher in Denver. Her poetry, reviews, and translations can be found in Asymptote, Berkeley Poetry Review, New Delta Review, Western Humanities Review, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from CU Boulder.