“The eyes of the world are looking at you”: earthly trancendence

By Madronna Holden

I could swear that this honeybee above looked up from her busy work on the oregano this morning to look back at me.

It might be anthropomorphic to assume that there is something such as curiosity among the bees, but I have seen them investigate a novel situation in their hive with the same level of enthusiastic activity as any mammal might express.

When I lift the lid to peer into the hive out of my own curiosity, a number of the bees look back at me– just watching.

At the same time that I don’t want to pretend that I can read their motives from my human perspective, I also don’t want to mechanize these bees.  Likely they are attracted by my movement, but I would prefer not to see their watching me as nothing but a reflex action.

During our rainy spring I twice saw different bees pause on their trips into the hive to help another bee into an upright position after she had slid on the wet surface and landed struggling and beached on her back.   I don’t know how to explain this in mechanical terms– nor do I want to.

Mythologist James Hillman once remarked that we humans (at least in contemporary Western society) are prone to fear what we can’t control– and since the insects seem the least controllable of all species to us, we declare war on them with pesticides– so obsessed in our self-appointed task of destroying them we overlook the ways we are harming our own children in the process.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee had a different view of things in his tradition.  He used to tell me his people emphasized that if we wanted to live long on the earth–as both individuals and cultures, we should live mindfully of the fact that the “eyes of the world are looking at us”– all the eyes of the earth. And it was what they saw of our actions that  led to our long or short survival on this earth.

Many of us in contemporary industrial society don’t look for natural life to be overseeing and judging us– certainly we don’t live accordingly.  But it is not a bad thing to aim for. Those who lived sustainably for ten thousand years on this land  felt the necessity of upholding a standard of behavior of which more than human life approved.

And the way they treated this valley certainly did better for it than we have done in the last 200 years.

The Chewong of Malaysia traditionally saw it this way:  each species has its own way of seeing the world– its own worldview.  Many human cultures have used their sense of such diversity as they observed it in other species to teach them how to live full human lives.

In the quest for spirit powers in adolescent initiation rites throughout the world, a human youth sought an alliance with a more than human life whose power and insight would guide their adult life.

Such alliances between the human and more than human world are mysterious– since the lives of these others have more to them than we can explain in human terms alone.

Who am I to say why a white bird came to light in the top of the cedar my mother loved during the last year of her life?  That bird followed her movements, sitting by turn in the tree facing her bed and the one looking down at her from the kitchen skylight.

I do know that she cherished and defended those cedars in which that bird alighted. She watched the sun touch their tips each day, signaling the morning she hailed with joy.

She and my father had refused to move into this house unless its builders found a way to construct  it without taking down those trees. The builders resisted, wanting the easiest way.

My parents moved into temporary quarters after they sold their old house, waiting out the developers for months until they found a way way to build  that house and protect those trees at the same time.

There was substantial history behind my mother’s words,”When I’m gone, don’t let them take the trees.”

Though she was often bedridden during the last years of her life, pulling herself into a wheelchair with great effort to move through the house, I don’t– nor do I know anyone who did– think of her as diminished.

Instead, all those who knew her experienced her the uprightness and power.  Her spirit had a comparable rootedness, generosity and wisdom to those ancient trees that she had guarded–and now watched over her.

Our usual idea of transcendence is moving to a world beyond this one.  But there is also transcendence of a different kind– transcendence that my mother achieved through the trees that held her spirit upright as her body folded in on itself with crippling arthritis.

My mother also loved butterflies.  I have a pin that belonged to her of an enameled red butterfly.  I never saw such a butterfly in real life until this past week, when a red butterfly of the same hue appeared at my house twice– once pausing a few inches from me so that I could inspect it at leisure.

I have not seen the like of it in the 35 years I have lived in this house– nor have I so far been able to find anyone who can identify it.  (If anyone out there has any ideas, let me know).

I could say that after 35 years of allowing this small patch of ground defined as “my” yard to  flourish without poisons, some special things have moved in. That is certainly a gift.

But it takes no explanation at all to enjoy the fact that the color of the butterfly– however it arrived in my yard– matches the color of the butterfly on my mother’s pin.

I want the stories that I  know of this world to be , like this one, stories that strengthen our reciprocal place in the circle of life. I want to tell stories of a living world that looks back at me even as I look at it– in which there are lessons to be learned from both kinds of reflection.

This is my kind of science. The science that tenderly observes a world that is also looking back at us:  the science that tells us how to express our human potential through intimacy with the more than human world.

The humblest creatures have essential things to teach us not only about our connections with them, but about ourselves.

I like to think how much we can learn by assuming a comparable humility of our own.

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

“Going on the Side of Life”: Managing Humans to Foster Nature’s Resilience

By Madronna Holden

Given the extensive impact of human actions on the natural world, it is improbable that we can restore our environment to a previously undisturbed state-in terms of climate change, for instance.  Even if it weren’t for the current environmental crises, it is problematic to decide what our “restore” point would be.  In the dualistic framework of the modern industrial worldview,  “wilderness” is that which has no human impact.  However, some lands pioneers in the Pacific Northwest considered “wilderness” since they were not altered by western-style development were in fact the result of thousands of years of a human-nature partnership which fostered the resilience of the local landscape.

More than ever, in the modern age, we need such models to honor and support natural resilience: which I define here as the ability of natural systems to sustain, heal, and regenerate themselves. This is in line with a native grandmother’s words. At a meeting in which her Muckleshoot people detailed the ways in which their sacred sites had been ravaged by developed, she said, “I guess we just have to go on the side of life.” Life has a sacred meaning among many indigenous Northwesterners as it should for all of us: as the animating principle of the earth we share. I cannot think of a more powerful sense of nature’s resilience.

I want to suggest four guiding principles for managing human behavior toward this goal.

One key element in an environmental philosophy that supports the resilience of natural systems is reciprocity. Reciprocity casts human and natural interactions in terms of balanced and mutual exchanges: As such, it enjoins humans to take (food, energy, shelter, medicine) from the natural world only what they return. Though some institutionalized religions link reciprocity with a mentality of accounting, earth-centered societies link it with gratitude, moderation, generosity, and sharing-in which giving back to the circle of life is done without knowledge of how and when a gift will be returned. Enacting reciprocity with respect to natural systems inhibits human actions that undermine the essential vitality of these systems by drawing too much from them. notably, those mid-Columbia River peoples who saw life as a sacred animating principle of our world also saw reciprocity as a key ethical standard.

The precautionary principle or “forecaring” is a second element of a standard of human behavior that supports the resilience of natural systems. Its main tenet is that human actions (especially new technologies) must prove themselves harmless before being enacted. This principle compensates for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. As instituted in modern law, this principle protects natural systems from harm in a way that echoes traditional stories stressing the importance of care in human choices-care that extends to future generations. The precautionary principle is linked to environmental justice in the ethical prohibition against inflicting harm on those who share our world both today and in the future.

Honoring the flexibility and diversity of natural systems is another way of supporting their resiliency. Flexibility is essential to the ability of any system to respond to and recover from stress. “Edges” and interstices between ecosystems as fostered by indigenous practices in the Willamette Valley are the most diverse and thus resilient parts of ecosystems. The value of diversity to the resiliency of ecosystems weighs in against practices that create “blank slates” for human use — such as clear cutting, non-contoured plowing for mono-cropping, and wholesale bulldozing for construction projects. Today wilderness set asides might be used to balance some of the diversity lost through human use of the land.

It is important to note that indigenous peoples throughout the world traditionally managed their landscapes for biodiversity and this is one reason that they now steward some eighty per cent of global biodiversity. Another reason consists of the tragic homogenization of nature and culture that results from industrialized development.  In creating such homogenization, we are undermining the options for both ourselves and the natural systems we depend upon to respond to stress such as global warming.

A fourth essential element supporting natural resilience is partnership. Traditional societies enact their partnership with the natural world through ceremonial or diplomatic relationships with other natural beings: animals, plants, and spirits of place. Such personalization (as opposed to commoditization) of others has the pragmatic result of fostering the protection of these natural beings and the habitats upon which both they and humans depend. We might take a first step toward enacting the partnership ethic today by assuming a stance of humility in our dealings with the natural world-and respect for those others that show us how to expand our own humanity. We might also work to learn the “language” of our natural partners, as did contemporary Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock. Importantly, the partnership ethic shifts the social Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest” from competition to cooperation. In terms of the partnership ethic, those most “fit” for survival are those who support the lives of the most “others”-and thus the diversity and resiliency of natural systems upon which they depend for survival.

From a somewhat different perspective, the Resilience Alliance works with natural resource managers to  foster natural resilience.

For a more detailed discussion of my sense of the relationship between partnership and resilience, see my “perspectives” piece in response to Brian Walker’s essay at Ecotrust’s online journal:

http://www.peopleandplace.net/perspectives/51

You are always welcome to link to this post.  Note it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to cite it rather than link here. Thank you.