Reflection 165: Being There

December 17, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

At a meeting last Saturday, I divided so-called environ-mentalists into two classes: experiential and conceptual. Conceptual environmentalists know about the environment second-hand through symbolic communications (slogans, articles, e-mails, books, pictures, films, etc.), while experiential environmentalists know the environment up-close and personally through first-hand engagement. Members of the first class are environmentalists of the mind; those of the second are environmentalists of the body and its senses.

To illustrate the difference, I mentioned a presentation I once attended at a gathering of Native American environmental leaders, the show consisting largely of videos featuring talking heads speaking about the environment (with a lit candle off to the side symbolizing an attitude of reverence), the audience being Native Americans from around the U.S. who, as one woman put it, “learned all that by being outdoors on the reservation with my grandparents when I was five.”

After I had drawn the distinction between two kinds of environmentalists, the chair of the meeting glossed my remarks by saying I was talking about the issue of environmental justice, and moved on. Leaving me thinking to myself that injustice might be part of what I meant, but there was a more positive side of learning about nature through personal immersion in it—a kind of baptism or dedication to the natural world through direct exploration—leading to environmental involvement springing from the inside not the outside, driven by intuition not intellection. I was thinking particularly of the Penobscot Indians living on what we now call Indian Island in the middle of their namesake river. Penobscots are born environmentalists because their food, baskets, drumheads and drumsticks, for example, all come from nature. A Navajo greeting the dawn by sprinkling pollen into the air is celebrating solar energy in an experiential manner.

Recently, before a different audience, I had a chance to clarify what I meant. In receiving from the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment an award for “individual commitment to volunteer programs dedicated to environmental protection and sustainability of natural resources within . . . the Gulf of Maine,” I said I was moved by a very simple philosophy, “to put my body where my values are.” I held up a recent copy of the Christian Science Monitor showing cityscapes of four American cities—Houston, Seattle, San Diego, and Boston—under the banner, “The Next Boomtowns.” “Stacked in those skyscrapers,” I said, “are rows of cubicles lit by fluorescent lights with people sitting before computer screens, learning about the world second-hand through ideas relayed by people they have never met.”

That scares the pants off me because all those people in those towers believe they live in an economy, not the natural world, and can solve problems by throwing money at them—as our government has thrown money at Wall Street to get it running again. Money may be the currency we think we run on, but it is of no value to the native ecosystems that truly support us.

Conceptual environmentalists think money and techno-fixes are sufficient to solve the problem of global warming; experiential environmentalists know it will take far more than that—a radical change in human sensitivity and behavior to bring us in line with the biological processes that sustain us.

I developed my environmental philosophy by living for two-and-a-half years on a 30-acre island on the Maine coast, keeping my eyes and ears open and mouth shut. Living in the middle of an estuary as I did, it was a total immersion experi-ence. Late in life, perhaps (I was 53), but I was suffocating in the workaday world and needed a large dose of fresh air. Without inhaling nature as I did, I doubt I would be here today writing this blog. I never expected to live past Y2K.

But here I am 24 years later, a living, breathing environmental-ist because I put my body where my values were in 1986, and have made myself happen naturally, inside-out, ever since. My secret is to embrace life directly with as few intermediaries as possible standing between me and the natural world. I buy no packaged foods but cook every meal from scratch using fresh, wholesome ingredients. I drink water, but no alcohol, coffee, cocoa, tea, or soda; take no drugs; walk instead of drive when I can; and dedicate my life to living with nature instead of on top of it. My favorite recreation is rowing my boat, a peapod made by Eric Dow in 1986. I forsook television when I lived on the island, and haven’t missed it since. Which makes it easier to resist temptations others wave in front of me in trying to shift whatever wealth I might have to their pockets. I am incapable of serving as just another cog in the workings of the American economy, refusing to be categorized as a consumer as if I were anything less than fully human, a child of planet Earth.

And being human, I am intrigued by the biological workings of my own mind—the only mind I know inside-out in intimate detail. Finding it hard to get to know or speak with others whose minds are lodged in different heads and live different lives from my own, I began searching for ways to bridge the seeming gulf between us. Which is right down my alley in wanting to get to know them as I know myself—creatures of two long and distinguished heritages, both evolutionary and cultural. Which is why I am carrying on at such length about the successes and failures of consciousness.

I see now that we live in different worlds, all focused on ourselves, surrounded by those who share values similar to ours and speak languages we can more-or-less understand in relating our experiences, so to some extent reaffirming our inner lives. It is bridging between those personal subcultures that now excites me, reaching across the chasm from both directions at once, from opposite shores—much as the Penobscot Narrows Bridge was built between Prospect and Verona Island—making it possible for us to connect midway between our respective inner worlds, to mutually reach out and engage without danger of plunging into the interpersonal chasm that separates us.

My most recent post (Reflection 163: No Middle Ground) was about the dangers of oversimplifying experience in order to be clearheaded in taking decisive action. Clarity, that is, comes at the high cost of minimizing rival alternatives. Which is the greatest danger in getting to know one another—that we reduce the other to a caricature of the complex and dynamic being she knows herself to be. Or, to be safe, we expose only a morsel of our full humanity. Relationships based on simplistic thinking can endure (think of your many casual acquaintances), but they are more serviceable than satisfying. You don’t need to befriend the checkout clerk to buy a jar of mayonnaise; being mildly pleasant or neutral will get the job done. It is in going deeper than “pleasant” that takes insight, sympathy, skill, and determination.

So here I am, the ardent environmentalist looking to connect with others who are ardent in their own lives, yet inhabit social circles emphasizing other ways of relating. Object: 1) greater understanding of what it means to be human, 2) expanded consciousness, and 3) more effective action in a world that includes us both. If we are ever going to cope effectively with overpopulation, global warming, cultural strife, human cruelty, and an economy that degrades the Earth, we need to build a network of such bridges, allowing us to fully mobilize and synchronize our personal resources toward common ends such as these.

The first step is to put our bodies where our survival values are—on planet Earth, not in some standardized cubicle deep within the economy. That is, we have to put ourselves where we truly live, not where we are told to live. Being in a place where we are fully conscious enables us to reach out to others who are as firmly grounded as we are, and to others beyond them. Contacting those others in mutual engagement, we then form a network of humanity—a new kind of tribe—worthy of meeting the challenges facing us all such as those I mentioned earlier. Apart and alone—as consumers, say, or members of different cultural tribes—we have absolutely no chance of saving either Earth or ourselves.

Being there is the secret of survival, being there where we live—no place else than on our host and irreplaceable satellite as it rounds the sun, the one inhabited planet we know of anywhere in the universe.

Next Boomtowns

 

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