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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14 responses to “Encounters: An Introduction, Concerning Hubris

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  1. Hi Joel,

    Nice post and glad you have come to terms with acceptance. Not always an easy thing to arrive at for sure. Isn’t it the final stage of the grief process? Anyway it is worth it’s weight in gold as they say and you can see that most people are fighting it which is why I reckon the rhetoric is so noisy and vitriolic.

    I really enjoyed the descriptions of your encounters with animals. This is one of the primary motivators as to why I live where I do, so I fully get where you are coming from.

    You are so right about personalities in animals. Every animal has it’s own unique personality. You only need to spend some regular time with them to see that this is the case. Some people say that chickens are stupid, but they each have their own personality. Some are aggressive, some curious, some timid, others don’t care about the activities of the chook pack etc.

    I went off to the Seymour Alternative Farming Expo yesterday and picked up 8 new chooks – 3 Australorp, 2 Plymouth Rock and 3 Silky x Auracana cross (bitsa’s really) so I’m off to check on the chooks soon before it gets dark to ensure they all end up sleeping in the hen house. I found the two Plymouth Rock hens trying to sleep outside last night. Bad chook habits are easily learned! Still, I could no longer imagine living anywhere without chooks.



    • Thanks, Chris. I used to claim that chickens were stupid, back in my younger days. I based this idea on some of my interactions with the backyard chickens we had, and also said it as a mimic of what I’d heard others say. I sort of groan now at the thought of what I once believed. Chickens are in no way stupid. They’re pretty incredible critters and I find them a real joy to be around. They also can be completely ridiculous, which helps feed that joy.

      Congratulations on the new chooks. I need to get my breed recognition down better, but I believe we have some Australorps and Rocks here. Our rooster’s a Plymouth Rock, actually—I’m pretty sure, anyway. I can hardly imagine living without chickens myself, and hope to add a few over at the farm I’ll be moving to soon. I’ve also fallen a bit in love with ducks. They work quite well in our climate (100 inches of rain a year) and are ridiculous and amusing in their own way. I also have become quite fond of their eggs and they lay steady through the winter, without concern of the short days. They make a nice addition in that way, to cover the seasonal egg gap.

      How many chooks do you have these days?

  2. Beautifully beautifully written. The happiest and most contented days of my life have been spent milking goats twice a day, sweeping the barn clean of goat berries, letting cows on and off the rye grass, gathering eggs, feeding chickens and pigs, and gathering vegetables. I hope I’m able to soon return to that life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thank you, Jordana! That sounds like the work of contented days, indeed. I attempted to milk a goat once, to mixed success. I wouldn’t mind giving it another whirl at some point in the near future. The thought of having a good stock of goat milk for drinking and cheese-making sounds quite nice.

      There’s something very satisfying about feeding animals. Putting the cows out on grass or giving them hay, dumping some food scraps into the pig trough and watching them snort their way at it, dumping new feed into the chicken feeder and witnessing the chaos—I don’t know, I just really love it. It’s nice having that place amongst the animals, knowing that you’re a part of this little community and you play an important role. Very satisfying.

      I hope you get back to that life soon, as well.

  3. Lovely piece! I want to add that just being out in the natural world and interacting with the plants, trees, weather, is also like being with animals. I used to watch my grandson while my daughter worked, and I would put him in his stroller and we would just takeoff and walk for several miles. This was in a town halfway between Denver and Boulder. We would be out on the trails of the Open Space, and quite often I would feel so at one with all that surrounded me that I would be moved to tears, and to song. I would sing to James as I pushed him along, and point out the animals, plants, water, bugs, birds, clouds, mountains off in the West. It is important to share our happiness and contentment with others, especially children, so they can learn different lessons about the Earth and life than what they learn from the culture at large.
    Blessing to you, Joel!

    Heather E. Caparoso
    • Thank you, Heather. And yes, all other creatures count in this series, not just animal. I did steer more in the animal direction in this introduction as it ended up being where the writing took me, but I plan to be writing about a wide variety of our fellow beings. I’ve had a few good experiences with trees that will be written about and I think the next entry will actually be about a recent experience with weather.

      And thank you for singing to your grandson and showing him this world of ours. We really need more children being raised with a good amount of wonder and awe if we’re going to figure out better ways to live.

  4. Pingback: Encounters: An Introduction, Concerning Hubris | evolve+sustain

  5. I had an encounter the other day. After feeding the cows I took my two goats, my two dogs and my dads dog on a walk. Half way across the pasture all the cows abandonment eating to join in the walk. So we had a strange herd. Upon heading home I decided to run. It might not have been the smartest of moves, but being in the middle of a stampede sure was exhilarating!

  6. Hi Joel,

    Apart from those chooks there is also: 1 x Rhode Island Red Rooster; 2 x silkies; 2 x Isa Brown (frizzles); 2 x Auracana; and 1 x Light Sussex.

    Yeah, I dunno why people think chickens are stupid. The light sussex is particularly switched on and always checking out what is going on. The Auracana’s are the boss chooks and they lord it over the rest of the chook collective – but not in a bad way – and sleep on the highest perch. The frizzles are mildly aggressive and if I don’t feed them enough protein (dried fish cat food), they steal feathers off the backs of the other chooks to supplement (the feathers have a small amount of blood in them on the backs of chooks and around the tail area) – but never the rooster or the light sussex.

    Egg production slows down a bit over winter but never quite stops. The silkies produce about 80 eggs each per year – the majority of which are over winter so they are good to have around.

    The eggs are my main source of protein. You’d think I’d be drowning in eggs, but no, they all get eaten or gifted to friends. However, someone complained to me that the eggs were a bit strong tasting as they’d only ever eaten commercial battery farm eggs (which have little to no flavour). I’d fed them pineapple skins a couple of days before and the eggs were a bit sweet. Oh well – they don’t get any eggs now.

    What kind of ducks do you have or are thinking of getting?



    • We have a Swedish Blue, though it’s black rather than blue, one Cayuga, and five Orpingtons. At the farm I’ll be moving to, they have some Indian Runners and I’m pretty sure Swedish Blues, as well, but those ones actually having blue coloring.

      I eat eggs almost every day for breakfast and they find their way into my belly in other ways, too—breads, frittatas, and so on. Like you, I have no problem finding uses for them. After eating real eggs for many years, now, I couldn’t go back to battery eggs. During the road trip down to Arizona, I found myself eating diner eggs a few times and it’s not a pretty sight. Or a good taste, for that matter.

      I can’t imagine complaining about the taste of a well-raised egg. But then, some people aren’t keen on duck eggs, which I find to have a bit stronger a taste than chicken. I love them, myself.

  7. Ah yes, encounters – and immersion.

    When I was quite young I lived with my parents and siblings next to a large field that at that time had been left fallow for years so that the grasses, weeds and forbs therein grew abundantly and tall – much taller than I was at my young age.

    The times being what they were (this was in the very early 1940’s), I was pretty much allowed to wander at will and wander I did, most often into the field where I would hunker down or lie on my stomach to explore with my eyes and hands the wonder of the tiny world that existed below the seed heads of the tall grasses and other plants that grew there. I often spent hours just watching the tiny critters moving to and fro on their multiple legs, crawling up and down stems and along leaves, crawling and munching – sometimes each other – and the occasional garter snake or small bird that entered into the perspective allowed by the density of the stems surrounding the space I occupied.

    This immersion, these encounters, began my education. Thus too began the notion in my mind and soul that all things are connected and are, therefore, of equal importance in the world, if not in the entirety of Universe.

    • That sounds like the makings of many fine afternoons. I haven’t laid down in overgrown fields nearly as often in my life as I wish I had. It really is a wonderful experience. I remember doing it once a few years back while I was in AmeriCorps. I was out in a field where we were planting Oregon White Oaks in an effort to recreate an oak savannah and during lunch I laid down in the tall grass of that field, looked up toward the sky and into the branches of a nearby tree, at the clouds beyond it. Stared up there for awhile and then explored in the grass, much as you did as a child. It was really a great experience and I still, obviously, remember it. I need to make an effort to do that more often.

      Your reminds me of Thomas Berry, as well, writing about the field across the way from his house as a child, and how that helped bring him a connection to the natural world. It’s amazing what a simple field can provide, and how decidedly not simple a field is.

      • I like to believe that those early experience(s) provided the roots of a worldview that has carried me softly through many harsh complexities I have encountered in my life – a sense of Nature is always a soothing balm….

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