Archive for the ‘mystery’ Tag

Encounters: An Introduction, Concerning Hubris   14 comments

An entry in Encounters

It strikes me that one of the great challenges we face at the moment is getting a grip on our own hubris. We need, first of all, to recognize its existence, which we too often do not recognize. We need also to understand the danger its existence bestows upon us. I believe it’s due to our hubris that we think we can control the world. More to the point, it’s due to our hubris that we think we can understand the world. I suspect the tendency toward that belief is one of the greater dangers we face and divesting ourselves of such beliefs would go a long way toward helping us to deal with a future that’s likely going to be very much out of our control.

One of the better ways of ridding ourselves of such hubris is to embrace this world of ours in all its mystery, messiness, confusion and contradiction. Every day we find ourselves a part of a planet so brimming with life and magic that an honest appraisal of its reality would make it clear to us that we have very little understanding of it. It is, after all, a trickster, and seems always ready to prove our folly—to place into sharp relief our arrogance. We approach this world as though its mechanics are simple and straightforward, as though they can be understood and modeled and thus predicted, and as though we can therefore control the world, shaping and molding it to our liking, creating a preferred reality rather than working to live well within our actual reality. Time and time again, this approach has proved misguided at best, and often times deadly.

We build nuclear power plants, for instance, thinking that we can set in motion incredibly powerful natural reactions, create massive amounts of insanely deadly wastes that will exist on a time frame essentially outside the bounds of human comprehension, and control and manage this process and these wastes. Time and again, we’ve been proven wrong. The fail safe designs fail, the earth provides unforeseen circumstances, the impossible events become possible. Earthquakes and tsunamis occur, human error and fallibility takes its toll.

We think we can dump massive, incomprehensible amounts of pollution into the biosphere and it will simply absorb it, dispose of it for us, protect us from ourselves. We are proven right to a degree, but wrong to a more important degree. The earth rebels, we are forced to suffer the consequences of our own waste, and our assumptions are proven false. Cancer rates rise, asthma increases, rivers burst into flames.

We proclaim that money will bring forth oil, but it doesn’t. We proclaim that war will bring about peace, but it doesn’t. We proclaim that we can abuse and neglect our soils and still they will feed us. But our soils die, and turn to dust, and they blow away in the wind. The oil we dump on them only lasts so long before it destroys that which we claim is being nourished. Eventually, if we can’t get past our own blindness, we will starve.

We believe that we can run every aspect of the natural world through the scientific, reductionist wringer, break it down into pieces small enough to understand, change each piece, put it back together and then expect it to function based on those reductionist changes. It doesn’t work, because the world doesn’t work so simply. The natural world functions as a whole, and the pieces put together begin to take on mysterious tendencies—the sort of tendencies that don’t always show themselves until the complexity and interactions of the whole takes hold. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, after all, and the whole tends to have a spirit that we can’t find so easily in the parts.

Dismember a human body and you may, through study, gain a great understanding of the individual pieces: this leg, this hand, this finger, this foot, this stomach, and so on. But you won’t understand the person you’ve dismembered. You’ll get no sense of their spirit or personality, of the impossible complexity of their personality and consciousness, of their unique traits and experiences. And, perhaps more importantly, you’ll kill that person by dismantling them, by breaking them down into separate pieces. You can only break down the whole a bit before it dies.

What’s ironic is that this sort of scientific reductionism—upon which so much of our hubris is based—has also provided many accountings of the world’s mystery and magic. I remember, years ago, reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos and being enchanted by his recounting of certain scientific experiments involving quantum mechanics. These experiments documented physical activities at the smallest scales of matter that behaved counter-intuitively to how we understand the world. Reading about quantum entanglement and the quantum eraser experiment brought me a sort of giddy joy. Here, in the midst of scientific reductionism, was an assertion of mystery. While, yes, these experiments and their results were based in mathematical and scientific theory, their counter-intuitive and, frankly, bizarre results when compared to our normal, every day experience with the world was a reminder of how much mystery surrounds us.

We are in great need of a recognition of that mystery. We’ve fallen into the habit of daily going out into the world and working to destroy it. We have given up the idea of learning to live well on this earth, given up spending our lives in the never ending effort of doing good work, and instead have turned our lives into the never ending pursuit of arbitrary wealth and luxury. We seek out comfort and gratification without regard for what it means for the rest of the world, our fellow creatures, or even our own health and well-being. We do this with the backing of vast amounts of energy, resources and money—far beyond what our forebears ever had available to them. With this historically unique backing, we have engaged in historically unique destruction. We have damaged the world on a scale previously unknown, previously incomprehensible. And we do it most of the time without even a recognition or realization of the consequences of our actions. We are children—grossly immature, horrifically arrogant, and clueless on both counts.

But, as children mature, so can we. Much of that maturity can be derived from a connection to the broader world and the other creatures who live in it. As we grow older, we tend to better understand others as unique individuals, with their own internal lives and realities. While we may not fully know those internal lives as we do our own, we can still recognize that they exist and that, therefore, this other person is prone to the same emotional realities, the same human failings, the same sort of hopes and desires, the same complexities that we are. In other words, we begin to realize that they are wholes, rather than mechanistic collections of fingers and toes, hands and feet, arms and legs, torso and head. We therefore bear responsibility for treating them as such and dealing with them in a kind and caring manner. We may not always succeed in this responsibility, but our understanding of it and our attempts to fulfill it is the measure of our maturity.

We cannot reserve that sort of maturity only for other human beings, though. We must also provide it to the uncountable other creatures that live with us in this world: animal, plant, fungi, soil—hell, even the stones, the solid ground we walk upon. This is harder, and it’s easier to stray from this ideal, and more understandable when we do. Yet it’s important that we afford all creatures this respect, and take upon us the responsibility of treating them with care and kindness, because otherwise we too easily will find ourselves destroying them for our own easy comfort and casual desires. And in their destruction, so we begin our own.

Also, though, in connecting with these other creatures, we connect to the mystery of the world. We begin to see our own limitations and understand the full breadth of consciousness and individuality these other creatures hold. Animals are no more machines than we are. In the last few days, I’ve worked around, interacted with or seen cows, sheep, baby lambs, calves, dogs, cats, wild turkeys, elk, chickens, ducks, pigs, donkeys, goats and raccoons. You can’t tell me that the cow that kept approaching me and licking my rain pants had no different a personality (or no personality at all) than the one who kept her distance, or the one who would come cautiously close and then back up when I reached out to her, or the cow whom would go running and kicking in a fit of activity, seemingly unprovoked but almost certainly provoked in some manner or another. You can’t tell me that the hundred or so baby lambs running around Meadow Harvest right now aren’t unique and individual creatures, that they don’t experience this new world with joy and confusion and the occasional bit of fear or caution, that they don’t love the cold air and the intermittent sunshine, bounding through the wet grass and drinking milk from their mothers. I’ve watched them. I’ve held them and fed them. They’re every bit a living, conscious creature as I am.

Interacting with them serves me on two levels. First of all, it helps to remind me that the world is full of creatures that deserve the chance to live well, and that my desires for comfort and gratification don’t supercede their right to the possibility of such a life. That helps ratchet down my arrogance by reminding me that I share this world with billions, trillions of other creatures and that I have a responsibility to all of them, that I can’t willfully damage our world or live my life without concern for what kind of work I’m doing, how I live, and what damage or good I do. Second, it helps connect me to the mystery of this world. Seeing all these other creatures, living, engaging this earth in much the same way I engage it, very much conscious in the way I am conscious, is a reminder of just how magical a place this is. Often times, as well, these creatures engage in unexpected behavior, or take me by surprise in some way or another, much as in the way I wrote about last summer, in what I now am considering the first Encounters post. This, too, is a reminder of the world’s magic. It’s a reminder of my place in this existence, and how small it is, and how it stands as just one amongst billions of places, occupied by billions of creatures.

I suppose, then, that this is a third level of benefit from these sorts of interactions. This is the benefit in being reminded that, while I am unique, I am not Unique. I am not, as a human being, better than the other creatures in this world. I am not more highly evolved. I am not morally superior, or closer to god, or more deserving of good, or endowed with some sort of right to dominate the earth. I am not above reproach. I am one of many, sharing this planet, and at my best I’m engaging its mystery in the same way that all these other creatures engage it. At my best, I’m able to lose myself in the brilliance of this existence, to step for a moment outside the convoluted and exhausting machinations of my turbulent mind and find myself, for one transcendent moment, immersed in this incredible and beautiful, heartening world—and in awe of it.

The Encounters series of posts will be about this awe. It will be a cataloguing of such moments when I found myself connected to another creature in this world, engaged or surprised or in conversation, snapped out of myself and my self-absorption and reminded of the larger world around me. It will be about mystery and magic and beauty, and the intention of this series is to help shed us of our arrogance and hubris, and to remind us of our incredible world and bring us back into it. We are a species on this planet, much as any other species, and in many ways we are a profoundly immature one. We have much to learn from our fellow creatures. I hope to discover some of those lessons in future entries.

Posted February 18, 2012 by Joel Caris in Encounters

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The Magic in Small Places   3 comments

An entry in Encounters

I already wrote about the abundance of life here on the farm. It’s evident everywhere you look: the plants tall, bushy and vigorous, the crops yielding fruit and leaves, flowers and roots, the earth crawling with tiny creatures, winged friends singing and flying all over the place and the sun presiding over it all. Yet, while the macro is impressive, the micro yields still more to see. In fact, it presents the details–a face that in some ways is perhaps more true than the broad view of the beautiful fields and towering trees. That broad expanse is a picturesque one, fitting into a societal standard of beauty, suitable for framing and for the common oohs and ahhs. On the small scale, though, amongst the cracks and crevices, the more intriguing realities come to the forefront and the reality of just how rich and diverse the life is here becomes apparent.

A moment ago, I heard a commotion in the seedling house attached to the western wall of the main house. Inside this small greenhouse we have seed trays of fall starts sitting on shelves and raised beds on the ground, currently filled with our eggplant. There are three raised beds, one in the middle and then one on each side, with a few inches of space between the raised bed and the greenhouse’s wall. The motion that attracted my attention came from the bed to the left of the entrance and I could immediately tell it was a bird flying amongst the eggplant.

Curious, I stepped inside and knelt down to peer into the plants in search of the bird. I couldn’t see it at first and thought it had found its way out of the eggplants and into a corner, but then it revealed itself within the plants, clamoring away from me, back toward the front of the greenhouse, its movements erratic as if the bird’s body was broken. As I found its position and was able to focus on the small creature, I could tell that this was indeed the case. It lay on the ground, close to the edge of the raised bed and near the greenhouse’s western glass wall, breathing fast, faced away from me but its head turned so that it could keep an eye on me. Its legs spread out flat behind it, seemingly broken. I spoke to the bird for a moment and then–and I don’t know if this is defensible–took my camera out of my pocket and took a picture of the bird. It continued to watch me, wary. I spoke again and thought about the cats, that one of them likely had done this to the bird.

Unsure what to do, I stood and moved toward the bird. I would have to pass it to exit the greenhouse anyway, and I thought perhaps I could pick it up and take it outside. Upon my movement, though, the bird attempted to fly forward again and fell into the couple inch space between the raised bed and glass wall. It was now out of my reach. The bird’s fate was its own–which seemed appropriate, anyway.

Still curious, however, I moved up to the front entrance and peered into the space between the raised bed and the southern wall, to see if the bird had moved far enough forward in its space to be seen from that angle. For a split second, I thought it had, but then I realized it was not a bird I was seeing, but a chipmunk. It crouched silently in that space, facing forward, about a foot in from where I stood, staring at me while very still. I watched it for a few moments, meeting its eyes through the tangle of cobwebs dotted with dirt and small bits of plant debris, the emptied husks of caught insects. The dry body of a familiar caterpillar dangled right at the edge of the space. A few inches further in, a spider waited, curled up into a ball and pressed against its egg sac. In this small space, the chipmunk–normally such a small animal when seen in our more familiar open spaces–was a hulk, a strangely-large beast hunkered down but still filling an inordinate amount of its limited area. From this perspective, as well, I could feel myself as a giant. I ceased to be the below-average, five foot five inch human being and became instead something massive. Peering into that space, I actually entered it and became–for a moment–that chipmunk, peering back out at me through the crisscrossing cobwebs, this strangely-thin insulation. I became a mass, giant and threatening, my head alone far bigger than the chipmunk. I lost myself in that moment. My change in perspective–with the orientation of my view so much closer to the ground than normal and my up-close view of the cobwebs growing them to a size far greater than I would normally perceive them–and my discovery of a new place far more complicated and full of mystery than I had anticipated transported me into the body of another creature, into a view of the world not my own.

There was a magic in that moment spoken of by David Abram in an interview I had just read earlier this morning. In the interview, conducted by Derrick Jensen and published in How Shall I Live My Life?, Abram spoke of the importance of using magic to alter our perspective and jolt us into a renewed awareness of our interplay and interconnectedness with the living world. A sleight-of-hand magician, Abram said that “magic is an experience. It’s the experience of finding oneself alive inside a world that is itself alive. It is the experience of contact and communication between oneself and something that is profoundly different from oneself: a swallow, a frog, a spider weaving its web. . . . Magic is that astonishing experience of contact and conviviality between myself and another shape of existence, whether that be a person or a gust of wind. It’s that sense of wonderment that arises from the encounter with that which I cannot fathom, with something that I cannot ever fully exhaust with my thoughts or understanding.”

The surprise of seeing that chipmunk–what is she doing there?–shocked me as a sleight-of-hand trick might, causing me to question the world around me and my knowledge and awareness of it. I went looking for a bird and found, instead, a chipmunk–and a spider, and cobwebs, dirt and debris, drained insects, and more. I discovered an entire other world and–left unbalanced by the surprise of an unsuspected presence, my perception altered so that small things seemed bigger and a tiny space that could not fit me filled the entirety of my vision–I entered that world. Through a co-authored magic born of contact, I fell into the chipmunk, the primary focus of my attention, and entered into an otherworldly alteration, discovering my place anew and seeing myself as the other, as something astonishing.

It was not only an experience of wonder, but a subversive moment, as well. As humans, we spend so much time in a human-centered world. We tend to live in human-built buildings, exist in human-built environment, transport ourselves in human-built devices. We speak with other humans but rarely speak with nonhumans. We see, constantly, as humans, and rarely take the time to attempt to see as nonhumans. But this is not an impossibility. An alteration of perspective, a sudden surprise, the magic of the unexpected–these experiences can transport us better than any car, subverting our human experience, opening a door into the nonhuman world and reminding us that not only does that world exist, but that it is the world and we are simply of it, within it, not separated from or above it.

Today I was transported in just such a manner. I discovered a bird and ended up becoming a chipmunk. It was an astonishing trip, brought about by a special kind of magic and grounded within the sudden contact between human and nonhuman, between myself and the other, between two manifestations of life–both of them unique, authentic and valuable, both of them with their own perspectives of the world. I’m grateful that today I was able to experience both those perspectives, rather than just my own. I’m grateful that today I peered into a small, forgotten space and discovered magic.

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