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.