Philosopher, Environmentalist Cultivates Questions
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:42

I first met Deidre Nelms when I joined the Green Amherst Project (GAP) and its coal divestment campaign. Every time I ran into her outside of GAP, she was partially hidden behind massive stacks of philosophy books and mounds of paper. This is probably a good representation of Nelms; a passionate environmental activist, a farmer and a brilliant philosopher. As her friend Sam Slaby ’13 describes her, “[s]he is an odd mix, interested in growing vegetables, but also a major brainiac.”

Whether a farmer-philosopher, or a philosopher-farmer, Nelms is an intriguing combination.

Thoughts on Thinking
Nelms manages to break the mold even within the seemingly disparate identities of philosopher and environmentalist. Rather than pursuing the normal philosophy major, for instance, Nelms created her own interdisciplinary major — what she calls “comparative philosophy.” Though philosophy at its heart, comparative philosophy pulls in the perspectives of other fields. The writing style is different as well, bringing in a more literary approach.

“A lot of traditional philosophy is about what we know, and how that knowledge is justified,” Nelms said. “But I was less concerned by those questions. I wanted to know what we were doing by asking those questions.”

For her thesis, Nelms explored the idea that the Tractatus, a philosophical text written by Ludwig Wittgenstein, was a tragic text, suffering from some type of internal failure.

“Wittgenstein attempts to draw a limit between the thinkable, the sayable and the unthinkable, the unsayable,” Nelms explained. “However, he cannot draw this limit without transgressing it himself. The text ends by declaring all of its own insights to be unthinkable and all of its own sentences to be nonsense. I wanted to spend the year considering what this performative contradiction means … I experimented with the idea that the Tractatus is a tragic text, which demands a decision of its readers: does philosophy exist to secure thought from failure, or is failure intrinsic to the practice of philosophy itself, as groundless questioning?”

One of her advisors on this interesting mission, philosophy Professor Alexander George, recalled a time when, “Deidre said with passion that she thought Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time,’ not a work that has warmed many hearts I think, was a ‘beautiful’ book. That stunned me, but she said it with such conviction that it almost made me want to pick it up.”

Nelms essentially understood philosophy as a performance of intellectual skill, an intriguing and unusual approach to the field.

“While of course she wanted it to turn out well,” said Professor George, “the finished product interested her less, I think, than what she would learn — about her subject, about intellectual exploration, about herself — in the course of the struggle. I admired that greatly.”

Going Green
Though difficult to uncover, the link between environmentalism and philosophy in Nelms’s life is strong.

“Philosophy has made me more willing to engage and question performative contradictions,” Nelms said. “Activists have to be willing to pursue these contradictions and realize themselves in them. This is what the coal divestment campaign is all about. Amherst’s growing wealth as an institution has enabled me to study and thrive over the past four years as the beneficiary of financial aid. However, Amherst’s wealth is a partial product of its heavy investment in the fossil fuel industry, which profits by violently exploiting the earth and harming underrepresented communities. As students, we have to make an imperfect decision regarding this contradiction.”

Nelms’s passion for the environment has been a continuous theme throughout her life. In Boise, Idaho, where Nelms grew up, she loved to spend time outdoors. Kayaking, back-packing and generally “traipsing around the mountains a lot,” were some of her activities of choice.

When Nelms got to Amherst she met Slaby at the Freshmen Assembly, when he introduced himself to “the first person I saw in tie-dye.” Nelms and Slaby subsequently became the only two members of the Amherst Garden Club. The two would constantly dig around in the backyard of the Zü, building things and growing vegetables.

“It was more of a hobby than anything else, really,” Nelms said.

“She is not afraid of big tasks, though,” Slaby said. “We built a green house, and neither of us knew how to do it, but we did it. It was an A-frame, and when we finished we discovered we had put the door on sideways. In the end, we just left it as it was.”

After her first year, Nelms worked on a CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) a non-profit which serves as a supporting network for local farmers in the Pioneer Valley. The work gave her the opportunity to meet with a lot of local Massachusetts farmers, peaking her interest in sustainability and farming.

The summer after sophomore year Nelms worked in France on a couple of different organic farms through the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program. As a place to stay, she lived with a collective of French artists, who called themselves “L’Escargot Migrateur.” In exchange for room and board, she helped them transform a dilapidated stone farm-house by remodeling it with all natural building materials, such as mud and straw. These experiences served to strengthen Nelms’s passion for farming and the outdoors.

Getting Involved
Since her first year, Nelms has also been loosely involved with the Green Amherst Project. Her serious involvement, though, only really began after her junior summer, when she interned with the Responsible Endowment Coalition (REC). At the REC, Nelms learned how truly enormous a college’s endowment really is, and what types of things could be accomplished with that type of money. But in order to mobilize that power, Nelms needed a cause.

“Amherst didn’t seem like the kind of environment that supported student activism,” Nelms said. “But in reality, we just didn’t have the energy or the cause yet. I wanted to give them that cause and energy.”

To that end, Nelms began looking into the divestment movement, sensing that it could be a movement to bring to Amherst. When she came back for her senior year, she brought the divestment idea to the GAP. Since then, Amherst has hosted renowned environmental activist Bill McKibben, rallied around divestment, passed a student referendum on divestment with 88 percent approval, the student senate has passed a resolution supporting divestment and the Green Amherst Project plans to meet with the Board of Trustees concerning divestment during their May meeting. This semester, the divestment campaign has developed a number of wonderful underclassmen leaders, who will be continuing to push forward next year.

All in all, Nelms leaves behind a powerful legacy of environmental activism at Amherst.

“Deidre is very serious academically, and very internally motivated,” Slaby said. “She made her own major because the philosophy department wasn’t what she wanted it to be. She wrote a thesis that consumed her life.”
Professor George echoed Sam’s sentiments.

“Deidre realizes what few students do, that her four years at Amherst are the time to go out on a limb and fearlessly follow one’s intellectual passions,” Professor George said. “She could have played it safe in many different ways, but instead she chose to dedicate her last year of study to a super-ambitious thesis whose subject truly consumed her in the best sense of the word.”

This all-consuming passion, in all aspects of her life, is really what makes Nelms remarkable. It is the reason she has found so much success academically, in her activism and in the friendships that she has made here at Amherst.

Beyond Amherst, Nelms has no concrete plans besides a summer working as a farmer’s apprentice on an island off the coast of Maine.

“I’m wary of having a career track. I want to take some time and explore,” Nelms said. “Read, experiment with other types of writing, have some unstructured time, possibly apply for some Ph.D. philosophy programs.”

Though she has no designs on the future, Nelms’s brilliance and motivation will surely carry her far. Plan to start looking for vegetables that Nelms has grown in the supermarket very soon. They will be the ones with the label that says, “Thoughtfully Produced” and will carry their own original philosophical treatises as added bonuses.