The Faraway Nearby

written by Elise Miller, EdM

Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, evokes Georgia O’Keeffe’s closing line in letters she sent to friends after she moved from New York to New Mexico—as well as her painting by the same title. In Solnit’s volume, gaining greater intimacy with one’s own inner topography is generated by traveling huge distances geographically, philosophically, and historically through her lyrical prose. In O’Keeffe’s painting, the stark articulation of an imagined and distant realm brings us closer in touch with our own mortality, embedded in each breath we take.

And in the kaleidoscope of our every day lives, we are absorbed one moment by the horrors that immigrants are experiencing as they flee persecution and violence in their homelands, and in the next, by the heart-wrenching sobs of our own child slighted by her best friend.

It is no different in the field of environmental health. This ever-changing lens of what seems faraway and what is nearby spurs our work on. We read a report stating that pollution kills more people every year than all the major infectious diseases combined. And then learn of a friend’s cancer that may have been triggered in part by chronic exposure to certain toxic chemicals. The magnitude of global threats is found in the particular, and the particular connects us to the universal challenges to our collective health.

Dancing between these different levels of knowing demands that we hold a systems perspective while exploring the intricate workings of a single cell—without losing ourselves entirely in either. And this is what CHE tries to do every day: Provide the latest science on, say, a biological mechanism activated by a particular exposure, while contextualizing that event in the complexity of interacting factors that can influence our health. In other words, we try to bring the faraway nearby and connect what is nearby to the faraway in ways that enhance our collective knowledge and leverage change towards a healthier future.

As Fall begins, please join our learning community in this dynamic, multi-layered conversation. One way to start is by registering for any or all of our upcoming teleconferences with leading researchers. Or sign up for a listserv that interests you to engage in civil, constructive dialogue. Through these services and many more, no matter how faraway you may be geographically, you can always be nearby those who are dedicated to improving public environmental health for all.

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