Mythic Physics: How We See the World Changes the World

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By Madronna Holden

Our Goldilocks Planet

In The Universe is a Green Dragon physicist Brian Swimme asserts that physics needs a story large enough to encompass the meaning of the natural world and our place within it. Physics at least needs a story large enough to embrace its own puzzles. Ninety-six per cent of our universe, as New Scientist writer Michael Brooks puts it in 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense is “missing” – made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” that physics is unable to describe in spite of its wide scale effects. As our measurements grow more precise, science has also learned that those numbers once considered constants in the physical world vary in different places and likely in different times as well.

Such variability has spurred some physicists to suggest that our universe is actually a “multiverse” bubbling up fountains of “baby universes”, each with the potential to become a universe with its own variants of space and time—and laws of nature. Though, of course, we don’t know how or why this might happen.

For over a hundred years physics has been grappling with the fact that its theories describing the smallest and largest parts of the natural world do not fit together—they are off by a factor of millions. Relativity theory describing the behavior of the stars is wildly inaccurate when applied to the subatomic level, just as the quantum theory accurate at the subatomic level is wildly inaccurate with anything much larger.

Physicists are, however, sure of one thing. Whatever our ability to measure, predict and understand the laws of nature, here on our home planet earth, those laws pertain precisely as needed for us to exist. Like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, who found a place “just right” for her, the physicist’s “Goldilocks zone” refers to the “just rightness” of our own place in the cosmos. It is here we have come to life as if it everything has been prepared to us.

Astrophysicists searching for extraterrestrial life debate standards for locating other potential “Goldilocks” planets. But there is good deal more to our own “just right” planet than such things as being the right distance from a proper star.

In the eloquent words of native writer and naturalist Linda Hogan each of our lives is “the result of the love of thousands.”

Physics does not dwell on the poetry or ethics of our coming to life but it does count the odds—and they are literally astronomical. The Big Bang originating our universe took place with a temperature so precise that had it been off by a fraction of a degree so tiny as to be unimaginable all the matter in the universe would either have been instantly incinerated or condensed forever into a cold immobile point.

Instead it spread out to create galaxies like our own, in which stars spun off in the universe-making extravaganza, one of which was a sun like ours which broke off a piece of itself to become earth—a piece just the right size at the right time with the right orbit, with the right size moon itself breaking off from earth in a meteor strike—and as time went on, the right proportions of land and liquid water, as well as the right geological history under our blanket of air yielding breath, protection from most asteroid strikes, and warming us with just the right amount of solar heat while radiating the rest off into space. Thus physicists term ours the “Goldilocks planet” in a “Goldilocks universe”.

But we should perhaps take our analogy with the Goldilocks story further. Finding a planet so wondrously suited to our lives is not all there is to the story. There is a family of bears that created the home Goldilocks finds “just right” for herself. In like fashion, nature’s more than human lives prepared the way for our own.

And nature’s bears will also give us feedback if we don’t treat the home lavishly prepared for us properly—feedback such as the current cancer epidemic, the loss of our domestic honeybees and so many wild species that, as native writer Paula Gunn Allen puts it, no longer wish to be our companions here.

And increasingly tragic weather disasters and rising oceans are coming with climate change.

Just as the immature Goldilocks recklessly used whatever she found without any heed to its builders, we post-industrial humans have some growing up to do with respect to our treatment of our “just right’ planet.

Marrying the Bear: The limits of human thought

One hallmark of maturation is self-understanding.

It is not only physics’ mysteries that teach us humility with respect to our knowledge—but the limits of our own thinking. As Nobel Laureate Kurt Gödel’s theorem illustrates, our knowledge can go no further than its initial assumptions. Within any system of thinking, that is, the most elaborate findings can only be variations on the assumptions with which we start.

Thus if we build our society on the assumptions of a hierarchical worldview which places some humans over others and all humans over the natural world, for instance, we will be stuck with a society of winners and losers, of rich and poor– and a denigrated natural world.

Gödel’s conclusion that we can only properly assess any system of thought if we see it as a whole—from without—is supported by physicist Michio Kaku’s analogy of fish swimming in their small pond in his Physics of the Impossible. Such fish will know only the water in their pond—until the day it rains and stirs them to notice there is another dimension to their water: something from without.

In like manner, we need to get out of ourselves—and our worldviews– to understand our own world. Kaku uses his fish pond to discuss a many-dimensioned world like the one with the ten or eleven dimensions necessary for the string theory bringing relativity and quantum mechanics into alignment.

But stepping out of the human-centered worldview as a method for making choices is a practice of long-lived indigenous cultures—whose stories and rituals prompted perceptions from a more than human perspective. The Rose Red tale from Europe as well as numerous tales throughout Native America relate how the bear who appears dangerous and savage in one human view can in another view be seen to be so much like us that we fall in love with its distinction and spirit. Unlike the immature Goldilocks who treats the bear’s home with such abandon, these stories sport brave and compassionate heroes who marry the bear –who in turn becomes an ally essential to survival.

Discovering and honoring how the lives of others contribute to our own is science’s way of “marrying the bear” today, when expanding our limited worldviews is more important than ever.

It is especially important to protect remaining global biological and cultural diversity as the library of our own expanded consciousness.

How We Perceive the World Changes the World

Changing our perceptions of the world changes the world. Quantum theory tells us that the building blocks of the physical world go in and out of existence as waves and particles. In his uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg tells us more: if an observer sees these quanta as waves, they become waves, and if that same observer sees them as particles, they become particles.

To change our perception of the world is to change the world.

This is very different, however, from controlling the world. That would only work if we were alone in it—if there were no other lives here with their own perceptions and purposes. We are instead in intimate and inescapable relationship with others in our world in the way of any two atoms that once touched. Move them to the opposite ends of the earth and what happens to one is registered in the response of the other. This “action at a distance” is another of contemporary physics’ mysteries.

This is also how intimately connected our world is: our gaze upon it changes it—as in the traditional belief that directing an appreciative gaze on a plant helps it grow. As we direct our gaze upon the earth we create a wave-or-particle-world by turn certain and visionary: as solid and sure as the earth beneath our feet and as fraught with possibility as the seed pressed into that earth.

Thus the world turns in our eyes—as it also turns in the eyes of others. His Lower Chehalis ancestors told Henry Culture, “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, explaining that it is before those eyes that human understanding of right action emerges. The Chehalis also believed those eyes of the earth judged human longevity as surely physicists believe that our observations of them construct waves and particles.

As I write this in January of 2015, I cannot predict what waits for us in the year ahead. But I can predict this much: the way we perceive our “just right” home planet will change the world. And if we shape our perceptions with respect, gratefulness and care, this will be a very good year indeed.

Plants as Persons: New Science Meets Enduring Ethics

By Madronna Holden

In his groundbreaking Plants as Persons:  A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall reveals botanical discoveries that indicate plants have individuality, self-recognition, self-direction, learning capacity, self- preservation and self-initiated movement.  Does this make them persons?  Hall’s conclusion is a resounding yes.

But if plants have the traits of persons on the list above, this does not make them persons like human persons.  Though Hall argues plants have a mind exhibited in the communication between plant parts by means of neural hormones, for instance, he stresses that they do not have a mind like the centralized human brainInstead they have a kind of “network mind”.

And though they may learn and adapt in the course of their lifetimes, their choices are not analogous to human free will.

What we have here is a contrary view to either the anthropocentrism that lays the world at the service of human ends or the anthropomorphism that projects human qualities on other natural lives.  Instead the particular qualities of plants challenge humans to expand their sense of personhood to include natural lives very different not only from humans but from all  persons in terms of a “zoocentric” bias that Hall argues permeates too much of our science.

Many indigenous peoples also attribute plants with the characteristics Hall outlines—in their worldviews the perception of plants as persons is commonplace.  Importantly, as Hall underscores in his detailed cross-cultural and historical analysis, those cultures with worldviews that see plants as persons also characteristically treat plants—and the living biosphere of which plants make up the substantial part—with respect and care.

The traditional Chehalis of Washington State, for instance, did not cut cottonwood or burn it for firewood, since they observed that it moved on its own—when there was no wind. Their respect for the cottonwood, that is, led to both careful observation of it and ensuing special treatment.  Notably, the water-loving cottonwood grows along river banks and in wetlands– and not cutting that tree helps preserve and cleanse local water tables protected by its roots.  A parallel case is that of the fig that grows along river and stream banks in traditional Kikuyu territory in Kenya.  Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt Movement responsible for the planting of a billion trees, inherited the Kikuyu belief that the fig is sacred and should not be disturbed where it grows along such watercourses. Thus she learned the relationship between these trees and the preservation of precious water resources.

Such examples are legion:  I was told by an herbalist at Makah (on the Olympic Peninsula) that local loggers refused to cut the alder which their tradition considered sacred.  Not incidentally, the alder is a nitrogen-fixing tree that plays an essential role in re-establishing tree growth in areas ravaged by fire—or clear cut logging in the modern era.  The respect for the alder’s healing power was such that when native loggers learned alders were due to be cut in a modern logging operation, they would stay away from the job to avoid having any part in this.

Further north, in the Koyukan lands, the birch was thought to carry out reciprocal relationships with its human users. This idea limited the harvesting of birth bark so that trees were not harmed in the process.  In terms of its contract with humans, the birch would retaliate with environmental depravation if its bark were overused or wasted.  Such reciprocal relationships between humans and plants prevailed throughout native North America, where cloth weavers, basket makers, canoe makers, and house builders used plants according to human-plant contracts in which plants were thought to give permission for their use—which they would never do if humans wasted or overused them—ruined their habitats or harvested them in any other destructive way.

Altogether, the perception of plants as beings with minds and choices of their own led to both the careful observation and the respectful treatment of plants and their habitats—as well as special sensitivity to the interdependent relationships between humans and plants.

All knowledge of nature might be considered a form of story—a paradigm, as modern philosophy terms it.    What Hall’s work raises for consideration is the question of which stories are in line with the scientifically observed dynamics of the natural world and also elicit ethical consideration of that world from humans.  He argues that the idea of plants as persons fills both these criteria. By contrast, the story of plants as “automatons”, as Hall argues, is not only wrong on scientific and rational terms—given the characteristics of plants that make them very different from automatons– but wrong on ethical terms—which license humans to treat these living creatures with such carelessness.

So why do the members of modern industrial society often miss these special characteristics of plants outlined by Hall—and thus fail to treat the natural world that sustains us with the respect and care that such a view engenders?  According to Hall we can chalk this up to a mistaken turn in Western thinking that took up Aristotle’s dualistic and hierarchical philosophy, dividing humans from nature as it set humans above all else on earth. There were other choices:  for instance, pre-Socratics who argued that all natural life should be accorded equal consideration since it shared the same natural sources.

But Aristotle’s views went well with a culture based on empire—whereas the view of the equality of all life did not.  Not incidentally, Aristotle’s views of the natural world mirrored his views of humans, which divided them into classes allotted at birth—with male urban Greek landholders placed above the farmers from conquered cultures and slaves originating as war captives. And all men placed above women whom Aristotle saw as soul-less vessels good only for reproductive purposes—unlike some pre-Socratics who held female thinkers in high esteem.

The worldview that sees things in terms of domination and hierarchy can also inhibit scientific understanding—as Hall argues that it does in what is misses in botanical life. Further, the worldview that separates humans from other natural lives has historically given little attention to the interdependent or reciprocal quality of that world– in which each action has consequences. This worldview, that is, often licenses the dismissal of ethical concerns with respect to the treatment of the natural world.

The stories we tell of the natural world are not accidental, but set in cultural contexts:  they both serve and reflect social purposes.  The best science transcends the limits of the dominating worldview—as did Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, who attributes her brilliant results to her “speaking with the corn”. Though presently recognized with this award, she at first had a good deal of trouble publishing her work, given both the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field and had such a holistic, reverential attitude toward the corn she studied.

It is no mistake that societies that sustained their ways of life for tens of thousands of years had a worldview that encouraged both the careful observation of plants as living beings—and the ethics that flowed from such a view. And Hall points out the ways in which modern science parallels such ancient ethics.

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Madronna Holden’s review of Plants as Persons  was published in the newsletter of the International Society for Environmental Ethics ( summer 2012).

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

The Trouble with Progress

By Madronna Holden

In his classic work, The Death of Ramón González, Angus Wright analyzes how contemporary corporate agriculture undermines human health, local economies, and the environment. He points out that even short term productivity of modern “super” crops relies on extensive pesticide, fertilizer and water inputs that are unsustainable in most global climates.  According to the World Health Organization, the pesticides used in this type of farming are responsible for 20,000 reported fatal poisonings a year –and many times that which are not reported. They are also a prominent  cause of the current cancer epidemic.

But even as Wright details the ruthlessness with which agri-business maintains its profits in the face of unfortunate technological strategies, he observes that there are alternative technologies that do not poison our air, food, and water, erode soil, or undermine ecological and economic systems.  Agri-business might just as well profit from these.

So why make bad choices—and pursue them with vehemence?  The crux of the issue, Wright proposes, is the worldview that holds progress in such esteem.  “Progress”, the GE saying famously had it, “Is our most important product”.  But the same worldview that elevates progress in this way never critically examines it. It loosely equates “progress”  with “advancement”, continuing the legacy of Francis Bacon, who asserted that humanity’s purpose is to control nature through science—and anything that humans invent to do this is good.

But when we equate progress with anything humans come up with, we wind up with methods of food production that have so many disastrous results.

Indeed, there is considerable tragedy to unexamined notions of advancement. Throughout history, conquerors asserted they were bringing progress to “backward” societies as they took over their lands.

Today the notion that industrial technologies are progressive as a matter of course licenses one-size-fits-all development that too often subjects third world peoples to debt, cultural disintegration, and ecological ruin. The assumption that industrial nations are more advanced than others inhibits both our partnerships with non-industrialized peoples and our acceptance of alternative technologies tested for centuries on local landscapes.

The destructive consequences of this logic haunts our own society us as well.  According to social historian Ulrech Beck, technology becomes our fate when we accept it without evaluation. That is, when undefined “progress” is considered good per se, we don’t get to choose it, we just have to figure out how to deal with its results.

This lack of critical perspective on progress and the technologies under its umbrella twists perceptions of reality—as in Monsanto’s response to the decimation of its BT corn from pests gaining resistance to its  engineered corn within three generations.  Responding to reports from scientists in Iowa that BT corn fell over in the fields from root damage, Monsanto denied it happened. There is a parallel dynamic with Monsanto’s assertion that its gmo seeds are “high yield”, in spite of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, “Failure to Yield”, which shows just how far such crops fall short of the mark.

Biotech ads asserting that we can’t feed the world without their technologies only work in the context of a worldview which assumes new technologies yield positive results without seriously evaluating them.  Farmers are not the only ones to whom such bogus progress is sold.  Consumer gadgetry hawked on the basis of its being new technology adds to the burgeoning consumerism that is ravaging our planet.

And tragically, a worldview that sets up unexamined “progress” as its shining light also gives its manufacturers dispensation from moral responsibilities. This is an essential historical lesson derived from Wright’s analysis of industrialized agriculture.  If our worldview did not sanction progress in the way that it does, agribusiness would not have this ground with which to license their attacks on presumably “backward” forces that challenge their profits.

The logic involved in fighting such challenges is exhibited in Monsanto’s decades-long battle against the labeling of genetically engineered foods.  Labeling gmo foods, the head of a Monsanto subsidiary stated in 1994, is tantamount to putting  a skull and crossbones on them. (Kansas City Star, March 7).

Such an argument only carries weight if one assumes that manufacturers have the right to impose a new technology on consumers in spite of their resistance—that is, if biotech “advances” override democratic choice.

Monsanto’s fight against the public right to know parallels numerous other violations of justice, public health and the environment in the name of progress.  Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner document such egregious industry practices in their rigorously peer-reviewed Deceit and Denial, using industry’s own internal documents.

For instance, they detail how the lead industry used notions of progress to create an Orwellian double think, in which the very thing that is supposed to make our children’s lives better—progress—winds up destroying their intelligence as well as their health.  Thus there were those ads claiming that lead solder used to seal baby formula cans was a modern technology supporting babies’ health.  Even though industry knew better from its own research, the assertion of progress–and protection of profit–  trumped their ethical choices.

Indeed, when a worldview with an unexamined idea of progress operates in an economic system that rewards profit however it is gained, there results moral as well as environmental disasters. There is, for instance, the case of plastics manufacturers in the 1950s.   At the same time that they boasted that their plastics were the wave of the future, industry leaders had in hand x-rays of the dissolving bones of the workers who manufactured them. Their response was to hide this data not only from the public in general but from the effected workers.

Historically, coal mining, asbestos, steel smelting, lead, vinyl chloride and pesticides industries, among others, have likewise hidden data documenting the disastrous effects of their products on workers, local communities and the environment—sometimes for decades. When such information finally did become public and irrefutable, these industries told the public such negative effects were the necessary price of progress.

I would assert, however, that no society can call itself advanced if its “progress” undercuts justice, community power, quality of life and self-determination for some in order to create profit for others.  Nor can any technology that undercuts the sources of all life by destroying natural systems rightly be termed advanced.

The European Union has a better handle on technological advancement. It puts  health before profit through the precautionary principle which mandates that manufacturers certify a new chemical harmless before it is released into the public domain.  If we were to institute this principle in the US, industry might attend to more land-friendly food production,  just as historically they might have paid attention to a non-toxic gasoline additive discovered—and ignored– as ethyl lead became the additive they pursued.

Indeed, if we had more of an eye to the social and environmental effects of our choices, we might not now be getting around in gas-fueled vehicles with all the attendant problems of climate change. There have been alternatives to this single-car system from the start– alternatives attacked by General Motors, who was only belatedly fined for undermining the street car systems in major cities.

Progress becomes our most destructive product when we don’t critically examine it—but it might be our most beneficial product if we hold it to standards of social and economic justice and sustainability.  The GE commercial was right.  “Progress is our most important product”. This is the very reason it must not be our most unexamined product as well.

Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.

 

Night-Mares and Horsepower: Domestic Partners in the More than Human World

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By Madronna Holden

Why should we call our bad dreams nightmares?

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves related an ancient story from the British Isles that tells how– after men captured wild mares and kept them in stalls and bred them at their whim– the Night Mare visited these men’s dreams with her long teeth and punishing hooves.

As a girl, my family once had a mare who was a nightmare for a man who wished to control her, a huge thoroughbred with her ancestral wildness still in her. Since we were moving two thousand miles away, we sold the mare to a man who wanted to train her as a jumper.  But I got a phone call from him complaining she was unrideable.

I went immediately to the stable and the ring—the like of which the mare had never seen—to show just how well she handled.  I let her reins go slack as she read my body, turning on a dime and cantering like a dream.

As I slipped off her back, the trainer drawled, “No offense, but you can make that mare look like an old plug”.

That odd complement was centered in the Western worldview: the idea that I was a good rider because I made that mare look so tame.  I knew this man was wrong.  I didn’t do it. The mare did– as many other examples in the Tao of Equus demonstrate other horses as doing.

Though this mare would do anything you asked her to do if you asked properly, she refused to be manhandled.  She broke my heart with her grace that last time I rode her.  I hope she somehow understood it was out of my hands to let her go—and that she taught her new “owner” something about getting along with the world larger than himself.  In this case, about 2000 pounds larger.

After all, it was the job of mares to socialize others in their wild herds.

There is danger involved in assuming that such creatures are at our service just because we purchase  them– as this man found out.  And as we ourselves find out in our attempt to control the natural world with inappropriate technological development– though we still try.

As illustrated  in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we and our technology inevitably shape one another.  Human life in the machine age has become increasingly mechanistic even as we project our own psyches onto our machines. Advertisers know this as they sell trucks with the not so subtle claim that they will increase the masculinity of their drivers.

But the understanding of our psychological entanglement with our technology is not complete if it stops and starts at the human psyche.  There is something else to consider:  we are not alone in the world.  Domestication does not merely shape our consciousness.  It is about the relationship between human consciousness and other natural life.

Such lives cannot be simply reduced to the energy we measure as the “horsepower” of our machines.  Different cultures have very different ideas of domestication than the contemporary industrial impulse to count “horsepower” as force harnessed on our behalf.

Indigenous peoples in Western Washington very much valued the horses introduced into their territory after the coming of whites to this continent. They loved to race them and sometimes, to travel with them—though canoes made better vehicles of transport on landscapes so crossed with rivers. Horses were more useful for travel in the open areas across the Cascades and along the Columbia River.

Stories from pioneer families I gathered in Western Washington record astonishment at how an Indian might labor for months to obtain a horse he  favored from a white family—but then never keep that animal under fence.  One Indian man explained that if the horse came back after he turned it loose, that was great–and if it didn’t—well, it had a life of its own.

At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings in the mid-nineteenth century, the Nez Perce entered with a display of horsemanship that left the US cavalry in a state of wonder, as reported by a cavalry lieutenant who observed it.  But he also wondered at the fact that those who rode such magnificent mounts let them graze the open prairie without any human restraint.

Local native people on the Oregon coast indicated their attitude toward horses in their lack of bridles and reins.  Coquille elder George Wasson came to speak in my Linfield College class shortly after the film Dances with Wolves was released. He pointed out the glaring cultural misstep in this film in the portrayal of Indian riders as using bridles.

Norman Dick was a pioneer child whom Siuslaw man Andrew Charles sat in front of him on his horse and took for long rides.  The Indian man used his arms to hold the toddler securely, since he rode his horse “Indian style”– without reins.

There is an essential lesson in the attitude toward “horsepower” that does not forget that there is a life behind it —a life that is more than the harnessing of it for human purposes.  It is better to cooperate with such life than fight its rebellion.

To try to  “break” any other life for our use, as the old West terminology has it., is bound to cause  us problems.  We may try to “break” a horse—or a cow that stands unmoving in a milking stall all day given hormones and antibiotics to keep it alive and maximally producing– or a plant that is genetically engineered to rein in its DNA to our use.  But there are results that are not predicted by those whose vision of  natural  life starts and stops in the barn or the laboratory—or the pocketbook.

There is mad cow disease that results from feeding these captured cows rendered brain and spinal cords from other mammals.  There is the spontaneous migration of genes between plants over unforeseeable distances in a process we have no idea how to accurately predict, much less control.

Natural life may shrug us off its back as easily as it slips houses down the hill below a clear cut—as has happened throughout the lower Umpqua River drainage.

The genetics of plants is better observed by those who,  like Barbara McClintock, derive their insight from speaking with the corn. Though her findings eventually won her the Nobel Prize, she could not find funding or professional placement for decades.  As both a woman and a scientist with this novel approach, she struggled to do her work in isolation until her colleagues finally recognized the importance of her finding.

Such scientists have much in common with traditional farmers all over the world– like the Czech farmer (her grandfather)  my student Iveta Habartova eloquently describes:

“My grandpa knew every branch and every tree so intimately; he spoke to the trees. He always told me that he had to talk to the trees to give them love so that they would grow well. Every time I entered my grandpa’s orchard, it was like entering a church. It was where all the wisdom, love and years of experience that my grandpa collected were kept. It was where he shared all those things with me. “

This is a profound expression of Wendell Berry‘s “agrarian mind” and its intimacy with the land–and contrast with industrial farming.

Domestication in its root means to bring something into our home with us:  to make it a part of our family.  As opposed to Monsanto’s battle for secrecy to prevent its agricultural products from being labeled for their consumers, caring for a Palestinian olive tree is a public affair, whose care is inherited by particular family members, and whose harvest is undertaken by a whole community.

During the year I lived and taught under Israeli Occupation, I once had dinner with a Palestinian family who used traditional methods of grafting to turn less than an acre into a garden overflowing with abundance.  As I sat in the shade of the trees this family cared for with such tenderness, I was for the moment sheltered from the winds of violence that blew all about us on this land.

This is certainly a profound lesson of appropriate domestication:  if we tend the land, it will shelter us.

And it will teach us about the vital processes  of natural life.

If we learn to “domesticate” with integrity as we bring other natural life into our homes and hearts, we might also learn to treat other  natural life—including humans—with respect, tenderness and generosity.

It is certainly past time to turn our technological nightmares into these better dreams.


I have received many wonderful comments since this essay was recently published, but I wanted to call reader’s attention to this one in particular from my student Susan Riley:

“Like Iveta’s grandfather, my grandmother treated her plants and livestock as reverently as she did her family. I distinctly remember her talking to her pansies, cupping them in her old weathered hand and telling them how beautiful their ‘faces’ were. Of course we laughed and thought she was being eccentric (heading toward senile) but no one could deny, that woman could charm a stick into growing into a beautiful, productive tree. Grandma’s chickens and her one old cow also got the best of care and attention and gave her eggs and milk long after what might be considered ‘normal’. Mostly I remember her wonderful vegetable garden. She had to share with the deer that wandered freely through her property but always managed a bumper crop of peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. Nothing has or ever will, I think, tasted as good as grandma’s fresh spring peas creamed with Betsy’s fresh whole milk. While I’m sure Grandma felt she owned her property and animals, I’m also sure she considered that ownership more of a caretaker position than one of domination over the land and livestock. From her we learned to appreciate and respect even the smallest of creatures and we learned to talk to the pansies.”

Lessons from Yellowjackets: Speaking with the Natural World

By Madronna Holden

Some years back, my then three year old daughter and I were sitting in our front yard when a decidedly threatening man appeared and insisted I hire him.

For what, he never said.

In fact, without listening to my answer–which was an instinctive “no”– he let himself through our side gate and went around to the back of the house.

I barely had time to register my alarm at the fact he didn’t leave when I asked him to than he came out of our yard again, shouting that he was being attacked.

He was indeed. He had a swarm of yellowjackets in hot pursuit.

We never saw him again.

We ourselves came into daily contact with the yellowjackets who had a nest in our yard, but they never bothered us. I felt no qualms about sharing our garden with insects that had the capacity to be a nuisance, but also assisted us with pollination in the spring and consumption of other insects to feed their young later in the year.

I liked to imagine they refrained from stinging us since we tended the place where they found their sustenance—and they sensed this in whatever way yellowjackets might sense such things.

I liked to imagine that our daily rounds had become an accepted element of their world like rain and grass.

I know there are less poetic explanations for the yellowjacket attack on the stranger when they were so peaceable with us.  But I am reminded of the response Albert Einstein gave when asked if humans might one day reduce everything in nature to scientific explanation. His answer was yes, but that would be like explaining Beethoven through the measurement of sound waves. We could do it, but it would tell us nothing about the music.

Reportedly the anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski once grew impatient with the Trobriand Islanders as they related the reverent actions that made their yam gardens grow. Attempting to elicit a more pragmatic basis for their methods, he asked them whether they didn’t notice cause and effect.

They told him that was the simple explanation. The one reserved for things that didn’t have any meaning.  And growing the garden that gave them life did not fall into that category.

Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel once observed that it is an ” arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

I agree.  I prefer the story of natural creatures who express themselves in their own ways—and sometimes, if we are lucky, do so on our behalf.

I like to think that such creatures—even those we may be least apt to recognize as brethren—might choose to accept us into their communities and form alliances with us.

If we take a different view of the natural world– that of a “mere puzzle to be solved”, we lose considerable capacity for both wonder and vision.

The following Plains Indians story of a vision quest is illustrative.

A man who is seeking a vision fasts for several days.  He cries for his vision, humbling himself before the spirits of the world.

When he has done this for many long days and still no vision comes to him, he becomes desperate.  He climbs to the top of a great waterfall, determined he will live with a vision or die without one.

He jumps, abandoning himself to the roiling water.  And at that moment a magnificent white buffalo appears and swims him safely to shore.

From that day forward, the white buffalo becomes his spirit guide.

For the Indian audience that is the end of the story.

Still, the storyteller knows non-Indians will have questions:  “Was that really a white buffalo that pulled him out of the water?  What would someone standing on the shore see?”

So the storyteller adds something for their sakes:  “Something pulled him out of that water,” he asserts, “And whatever that was, belongs to him.”

It is only because the observer is a mere watcher on the banks of the river of life that he questions the life-saving vision another has found for himself.  Such an observer, with his self-proclaimed “objectivity”, is all too ready to declare his view of reality superior to that of the one who has chosen to dive in.

When I worked among the Chehalis Indians several decades back, elders were indignant that members of non-Indian culture might deem their traditions as “just stories”.   In such stories, passed down through thousands of years, was the collected wisdom of a people.

For their part, the elders who kept this knowledge on behalf of their people expressed considerable epistemological sophistication.  They understood that their individual views of the world were not reality.  To make such an assumption would be to insult those who shared their world. They honored all their unique voices as they asserted, “No one speaks for anyone else”.

By contrast, “even the best scientists” in Western tradition have made the profound mistake of believing, as Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute, put it, “that the world operates by the same method they use to study it.”

With parallel arrogance, colonizers regularly deemed the beliefs of those whose lands they usurped as “superstition”.  Anthropologist Ruth Benedict had a response to that:  an analytic response that makes the way modern industrial society uses technology the real superstitious behavior.

According to her, superstitious behavior is based on adhering to simple stimulus and response. (This is the view of cause and effect without deeper understanding that the Trobrianders decried).  We do something—wear a black sock– and something happens—our team wins.  And so we continue to wear that sock every time our team plays in hopes of controlling the outcome.

Superstitious behavior attempts to control the world through magical thinking.  And thus we cast our lot not only with the black sock but with science’s magic bullets.

Incidentally, the story of the yellowjackets with which I began this essay could  also become an instance of such superstitious thinking  if I interpreted it to mean that I might blithely trounce through the natural world without ever worrying about yellowjackets.

Like all stories, this one belongs to a particular time and place.  I have been elsewhere–out in the woods–in the front of a line of other humans on a hike when I inadvertently stepped too close to a yellowjacket nest and was stung.

And I can tell you a yellowjacket sting is no fun.  But the appropriate response seems to me not to try to get them because they got me– but to pay attention.  I have not learned to magically control all yellowjackets but to live with some of them for our mutual benefit.  They still are very much creatures of their own.

By contrast, our characteristic pesticide use is an instance of superstitious behavior by Benedict’s criteria.  We spray pesticides and insects die—until they no longer do because they have grown immune. But our behavior has becomes a reflex action.  So we spray more, still hoping to control the world for our convenience–not noticing the effects on the environment and our own health that a deeper assessment would bring us.

According to Benedict, the contrasting attitude is based on dialogue. It is about reverent communication with the world.  Thomas Berry eloquently expressed the same view when he stated that the world is not a “collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”

The first kind of behavior—the manipulation of our world—has left us with climate change and cancer epidemics and skyrocketing autism rates. The other one left us with sustainable models by which humans lived in harmony with their natural environments for thousands of years.

Wonder cannot be commanded, but if we view the world with humility and respect, there is just a chance it will respond to us with marvelous rather than deadly surprises—as happened in the modern community of Gaviotas in Colombia.

The consequence of their careful partnership with place was the serendipitous restoration of the rainforest in all its biodiversity on once ravaged aluminum-laced llanos.

We should all be so graced.

Confusing Discovery and Conquest: A Recipe for Destruction

By Madronna Holden

The worldview that links discovery with conquest has caused considerable social and environmental harm.   This attitude has deep roots in Western history.  Julius Caesar’s famous motto Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), featured on some  modern t-shirts, couldn’t be more clear on this point.  Discovery is a prelude to conquest.

Caesar himself didn’t invent this approach.  It was the guiding principle of the Athenian colonial empire, as illustrated in the tragedy of Melos. The people of Melos sent the Athenians a missive indicating they wished to live in their own way rather than join the empire.  The Athenian response was to massacre them.  In their proposal of neutrality the people of Melos violated the first rule of colonial empire, which is that whatever lands or peoples the conqueror casts his gaze upon, he owns.  In this context, the only alternative to assimilation of the Melos was their obliteration.

The worldview which mingles discovery with conquest persisted in the history of the Pacific Northwest—and it still persists today in our modern technology.  It is signed by the failure to see what we discover for what it is rather than for what we would make of it.  Indeed, an essential part of this discovering/conquering gaze is what it doesn’t see. Rather than Caesar’s I came, I saw, I conquered, the slogan of the conquering discoverer would more accurately be, “I came, I didn’t see, and I conquered”.  Or alternately, “I came, and I destroyed what I didn’t see.”

Take some examples from Pacific Northwest history.  Several decades after explorer Alexander Henry declared the Willamette Valley Kalapuya a wretched and homeless lot who lived out under the trees, those same Kalapuya began saving Oregon Trail pioneers from wholesale starvation—and it was the pioneers themselves that took shelter in the trunks of trees when they first arrived here. As for the traditional Kalapuya, one of their houses on Marys River (near Corvallis) was sixty feet long, and the ones near Tualatin might be twice that big.

But the denigration of the Kalapuya in the pioneer worldview led to the Senate’s refusal to sign treaties with them on the logic of those like Senator Sam Houston, whose Senate speech declared them “insignificant”.

The reduction of native villages to “huts” on lands that were “wastes”, as early  missionary Father Francis Blanchet wrote of the Chehalis, licensed their destruction. In fact, the Chehalis houses where Blanchet traveled, constructued by whole communities working together, included a potlatch house nearly two hundred feet long, to accommodate intertribal horse races inside in the wintertime.  But if one saw native houses as huts, that licensed their obliteration and replacement by a shipping port on the Chehalis River, as Blanchet proposed.

The blindness of those who crowded into a tiny cabin roofed with sail canvas and the camping mats of native people–and declared their abode the first house on Puget Sound– might simply have been humorous from the perspective of those at Port Madison whose cedar longhouse covered an acre of ground. In describing this contrast, historian and novelist Archie Binns stated that many pioneers foolishly assumed that, “a house is not a house unless built by whites”. This blindness  provided a license for destroying that which the pioneer worldview rendered invisible.

Throughout the Northwest, the cleared land upon which Native villages stood was favored by pioneers—and they seized it as they destroyed native homes, usually by burning. This is the mortal danger in the discoverer/conqueror’s blindness:  that which he renders invisible, his actions work to banish in fact.In the claims case pressed by several Puget Sound tribes in the early 1900s, indigenous peoples testified how the houses in village after village were burned by pioneers, who sought the land on which they stood–and ignored the fact that this land had been cleared by native people.

In fact, lands pioneers favored throughout the northwest were those specifically modified by native labor:  as was the broad Willamette Valley early fur trappers nicknamed the “gourmand’s paradise” for its profusion of natural foods. But Lyman Abbot, major spokesmen for the ironically named “Friends of the Indians” who lobbied Congress to assimilate Indian peoples to white ways in the nineteenth century (and take their land in the process) argued that the Indians did not even “occupy” the land.  Real occupation, he argued, would consist of things like mining operations.

Or the beaver trade.  The destruction of beaver homes along with human ones was something Chehalis elder Mary Heck remarked in the claims trial above.  This gets to the heart of the discovering conqueror’s blindness—the conqueror destroys that which creates the very things he favors. Pioneers throughout the continental US coveted beaver meadows as choice farmland, as Carolyn Merchant details in her analysis of ecological changes in New England with the coming of pioneers.

But at the same time, Euroamericans brought the beaver to the brink of extinction.

Val Plumwood outlines the blindness of the “dominator” logic—or more properly, illogic—expressed here.  The conquering mindset divides the world into dualistic sets such as progress/backward, civilized/savage, human/nature, civilization/wilderness, man/woman, master/slave, boss/worker, insider/outsider, friend/enemy– with the idea that one is higher and one is lower.

From the perspective of the ones above, those below become “objects” for their use—and invisible in their own right.  And also invisible in terms of the ways in which those at the top rely on them.  As Carolyn Merchant also observed, seeing nature as an active process means recognizing the contributions of natural life in creating the landscape upon which we make our own lives. But today we are still laboring under the induced blindness of the discover/conqueror in this respect, which sets humans above nature and renders natural systems as there for our use–and invisible in their own right.

Thus  globalization and industrialization are systematically destroying seventeen ecosystem services priced at $33 trillion a year, treating these aspects of ecosystems as it they were merely objects for our use–and thus invisible both in  their own right and in their contributions to our survival.

It is a matter of logic and of justice that we recognize and honor the living communities that charge water tables, contain and filter storm water, hold hillsides together with their roots—and provide us with the air we breathe and the soil on which to grow our food.   But we are hampered in doing this by the mentality that mixes discovery with conquest.

The mentality does not ask the “discoverer” to assess the consequences to natural lives (including human ones) in the use of his newly discovered technology. Modern industrial society simply gives the rights of usage to the “discoverer” as a patent.  The dangers involved in this approach have led the European Union to institute the precautionary principle in its REACH program.  According to this principle, a new chemical must be proved safe before it can be distributed.

There is the further question of who owns something derived from an ecosystem– something created and sustained by other life. The notion that if we “discover” something it is ours to do with as we will brings to mind a quip comedian Dick Gregory made about the discovery of the American continent by Europeans. Following this historical precedent, he declared that he would like to discover himself a car.

To address this issue in modern globalization, Vandana Shiva has instituted a “no patents on life” campaign. According to its guidelines, discoverers can neither own nor lock up from others the use of what they “discover” if it is part of a living ecosystem.  This pertains especially to the patenting of food and medicinal products traditionally used by third world peoples.  In the case of Shiva’s India, corporations patented both basmati rice and neem—and attempted to use those patents to keep these products out of the hands of those who used them for generations.  Shiva’s idea has been picked up in a European Union proposal.

All in all, it is time to clear up our inherited confusion between discovery and conquest—and the near-sightedness that goes with it.

Let us re-imagine discovery as a matter of meeting and mutual learning—rather than overrunning and obliterating the others who share our earth.

After all, blindness to the natural sources of our lives is not a survival tactic.

The Dandelion Wars: The Costs of Lawn Cosmetics

By Madronna Holden

“The earth wants peace.  The birds who eat the corn do not want poison…The wind does not want to carry the stories of death.”

–Linda Hogan, Dwellings

In many home improvement stores this spring, the first thing you will come upon is a display indicating that humans are engaged in a war against weeds and insects—a war that we can only win with the help of the featured chemical weapons.

These chemical weapons– such as the herbicides Weed and Feed, Round Up, and Week B Gon are poisons, pure and simple.  Thus the EPA states that it impermissible to claim any of them are safe.

But they are poisons on our side, the names are carefully geared to get us to think.  Who wouldn’t want to weed and feed their lawn with a helpful sprinkling of granules? For those who still like the image of the frontier quest of the unruly wilderness, there is Round Up. And for those who would like to banish dandelions as easily as pressing the nozzle button on a sprayer, there is Weed B Gon.

What good gardener would take up their work without getting the weeds and insects under control by enlisting these weapons? One that cares about the quality of our rivers and the salmon that swim there, for one. Certain of these pesticides have been directly linked to destruction of endangered salmon.  All pesticides work their way into groundwater, which works its way into rivers and streams. As a result of a court ruling in 2003, pesticide sales displays in Oregon, Washington and California  are required by law to display a warning stating that these chemicals are harmful to salmon.

Someone who wants their garden to set fruit might also avoid these, since usage of pesticides is linked to “colony collapse disorder” that is currently causing wholesale destruction of honey bees. The links are strong enough for some European countries to outlaw the nicotine-related pesticides that are most directly implicated. In the US, the state of California, whose almond crops have been hit especially hard by the death of bees, is re-evaluating the registration of particular pesticides as a result.

And one who cares about children should opt out of this war.  We can now trace in profound detail the chemical steps by which the most commonly used household insecticide in the US, chlorpyrifos  or CPF, disrupts the brain development of the human fetus and growing child.There are verified “cancer clusters” among the families of agricultural workers who apply pesticides as well.

As a result of its health risks, herbicides with 2,4-D in them–along with many other agricultural chemicals–  have been banned  in Sweden since 1977.  More and more European countries have joined Sweden’s ranks.  Quebec also joined their ranks this spring and is currently standing firm in the face of Dow Chemical’s legal suit in response.

When is enough proof enough? Sweden’s cancer rate has fallen since it banned a number of agricultural chemicals.  By contrast, the breast cancer rate of Israeli women during the period when large numbers of agricultural chemicals were used to remake the land was double that of other industrial nations.  Ten years after they developed stricter controls on these chemicals, their breast cancer rate fell into line with that of other industrial nations (which is already  rising alarmingly). In one study, biopsied breast material of women with cancer had twice the concentration of a class of pesticides  (chlorinated hydrocarbons) as did the breast cells of their peers without cancer. It was this same class of chemicals (organophosphates) which was confirmed as the cause of the death of four children in India on June 1.

Study after study associates commonly used pesticides with numerous cancers, autism and other neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, thyroid abnormalities, asthma and other respiratory diseases, early puberty of girls and sperm decline in boys and other general endocrine disruption, and bone and skin disorders.

All three herbicides above mimic plant hormones that cause plants to overgrow and die.  These plant hormones are chemically similar to human ones:  which is why 2 4-5 T (a key ingredient in the infamous Agent Orange along with the 2,4- D in Weed and Feed and Weed B Gon) is off the market after its byproducts caused abortions in humans.  The combination of the prevalence of 2, 4-D in the environment (including in amniotic fluid and in breast milk) and the clear indication of harm to developing humans has caused the EU nations and Quebec to pull it off the market.

But in the US, chemical companies have lobbied for a standard of proof of harm that is hard to reach in humans. For one thing, as we know from tobacco/lung cancer data and data from soldiers subjected to radiation in early A-bomb tests, cancers may only be detectable twenty years after exposure to their precipitating cause.

I venture that if one found cancer the day after spraying these chemicals, they would be off the market immediately.

There is also the fact that these hazards hit only a certain percentage of those subjected to them. But to use this as an excuse not to limit their use is tantamount to saying it is fine to give a serial killer a rifle and permission to shoot it—as long as some of his bullets are blanks.

The very reason that it is difficult to absolutely prove harm in humans to the current US chemical industry standard (we don’t want to subject humans to experimentation) is the reason why we should invoke the precautionary principle as the European Union has done with respect to man-made chemicals in its REACH program. To prevent making humans into experimental subjects for toxic chemical effects, we should require proof that these chemicals are safe before they are released.

This also leads me to ponder just what is it about the dandelions that incites us chemical warfare?  Is it the fact that they have the audacity to trespass on “our” lawns?  A friend noted that they are so blatant in their yellow flower– they tell the world we are not in control.

One pioneer  story has it is that the dandelion first arrived in Seattle in a doctor’s case, brought along for its medicinal properties.  Dandelion is still grown as a gourmet salad green, and the flower (not the white part, which is bitter), is a sweet addition to salads, as well as the main ingredient in dandelion wine.  Picking off the heads and putting them in salads is a good way to keep them from going to seed so as not to annoy your neighbors.  Of course this is the last thing you want to do with dandelions that have been sprayed.

Check out this site of the University of Maryland medical school for the many medicinal properties and uses of our humble dandelion.  Indeed, we might  see the dandelion as a gift instead of using dangerous chemicals to make war on it. One of the traditional and now research-supported functions of dandelion root is  as a liver cleanser in this modern world in which  our bodies are beset by so many toxins.

Who enforces the aesthetic standard that deems the dandelion so repugnant? Some of the same folks, I daresay, who declare wrinkles and gray hair  disreputable– and urge us to pay to remove them, even if it takes surgery.  As elective plastic surgery rises, so does the death toll from it.

Who decides the standards for which we are willing to make such trade-offs  on  our health?

The European Union and parts of Canada have looked at this issue rationally and decided that flawless lawns are not worth the health risks– especially to those, like children, unable to defend themselves. The ban on lawn chemicals used for “cosmetic” purposes in Quebec joins similar bans in a growing number of Canadian municipalities.  (117 as of 2006) Measuring the potential harm to  human health as evaluated by a professional organization of 6700 physicians, Quebec decided removing a few dandelions was simply not worth  it.

I find it heartening that these Canadians are countering the notion that we must risk our health to achieve an aesthetic that exhibits control of nature: a notion that advertisers are all too ready to have us uphold with respect to our bodies as well as our lawns. Check out the dangerous ingredients in commonly used  personal cosmetics. With eating disorders such as anorexia, adolescents risk death to look good by a standard they can never meet.

There is a dangerous element  in our inherited worldview that tells us we must battle  uncontrolled nature (in the dandelion or the wrinkle in our skin) in order to be an upstanding person.  In accepting the wrinkles on our faces, we must give up the sense that we are at war with the nature that ages us.

In accepting a few dandelions into our lawns, we must give up the sense that gardening is a war over the nature that would go back to its own devices without us. That means giving up on the part of our Western tradition expressed by early fur traders on the Columbia Plateau who wrote in their journals that they put in gardens not to harvest the produce but to illustrate to the Indians how to control nature.

But it is time to end the war on the natural world that sustains us—before we actually win it.


Here are some ways to help end that war with respect to home chemical usage:

  1. Check out the very helpful pamphlet, Natural Gardening, published by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality,which gives info on beneficial insects, as well as detailing least toxic controls for weeds and plant diseases.
  2. Investigate the least toxic alternatives libraries at NCAP.
  3. Inquire about the warning signs about dangers to salmon if they aren’t on display along with pesticides in home and garden stores.
  4. Give your local home and garden store positive feedback for offering least toxic alternatives, as many are now doing as a result of both customer feedback and information coming out on pesticide dangers.
  5. If you see someone applying spray in windy conditions, talk to them. If they are a neighbor, have a neighborly conversation with them.  If they are doing this for money, contact the appropriate agency to file a complaint. In Oregon, call the State Department of Agriculture.
  6. Talk to your neighbors and neighborhood organizations and share information about the dangers of pesticides and options for less toxic alternatives.
  7. Many municipalities have stormwater divisions with programs to help stem pesticide use:  call yours and find out if you can support their effort or help distribute their information.
  8. Avoid buying and using “broad spectrum” pesticides that kill all plants, all broad leaf plants, or all insects.  And if you have any of these around the house, don’t simply throw them away. They are hazardous waste:  call your local solid waste facility to see when they have hazardous waste collections and bring them there to be disposed of properly.
  9. Here are links to information on organic lawn care (site for both professionals and homeowners) and ten reasons to ditch your lawn care chemicals, since they are not only dangerous but unnecessary.

Together we can make peace with the land.