Dancing with Nature

I was reading through some old North Carolina Wildlife magazines this past weekend and came across a personal story that resonated with me.  In it the author, who is severely allergic to wasps, tells of a summer watching bald-faced hornets build a nest from his kitchen window. He was unwilling initially to kill the fascinating life building it or later to destroy the nest itself.  Unfortunately the nest gets rather large and the author was stung, resulting in a hospital visit.  One could hardly begrudge him the act of murder he commits next, spraying the nest with a pyrethrin under the trademark name of the Enforcer.

He did not however experience a sweet revenge, but rather, “an unease that soon wore like a hollow victory.”  Eloquently he goes on . . .

“Each day from the kitchen window I looked upon the empty gray nest, silent and lifeless like a forgotten horn that no child ever blew.  I felt a certain sadness for all my established dominion.  After all, I was the intruder; in a scheme of things          grander than that which says a man must keep a tidy lawn, it was the bald-faced hornets that existed in the natural order.  They were only doing what a million years of instinct bid them.

So now a sense of loss replaced the fear I had when I stared out the kitchen window.  Having claimed such chemical sovereignty over my Raleigh abode, I felt a strange sort of detachment from the natural environment, a kink in a lifeline I had treasured and a relationship nurtured on a daily basis.  Was I so much high on the evolutionary ladder that I’d lost sight of the bottom rungs my own ancestors had climbed? “

I sense this very loss often when I read about loss of species habitat, endangered species, overfishing, and poisons in our air, water, and soil.  I wrestle with it emotionally when I flush a stinkbug down the toilet one minute and catch and release a spider to the outdoors in another.  It is why I write this blog.  It is my naïve hope that I will say something different than all the other ‘nature loss lamenters’ before me, and in doing so will change someone’s perspective from nature as separate, to nature as integral and essential.  It saddens me that many people who so quickly and easily destroy other life have no remorse and often feel that sweet revenge.

I had an epiphany reading Nickens’ words, mingling with all the articles I was clipping on natural diversity.  It struck me that life is a dance between all participants.  It occurs at the species level and at the individual level.  This is explained when we learn about food chains and food webs.  We exist because of a foundation of plant producers that supply most of the rest of life with food and oxygen.  Imbalances in food webs can screw up other species intricately tied to each other.  There is loss and renewal all the time.  It is a dance.  Or at least it was.  Humans have so altered natural systems and increasingly spend so much time separate from natural systems that I think we are losing something very important.  We are losing ourselves.  We are losing humility, compassion, and awe.

If we chose to merely watch from our window or destroy and isolate ourselves from the life around us, we are like spectators at the dance show.  We clap and admire perhaps.  Snap photos from afar.  This seems harmless, but we are outsiders.  We don’t know the dance.  We don’t feel the dance in our flesh as our muscles ebb and flow with those of another dancer’s.  We don’t understand that the dance is vital to our survival – much like I sense dancing is vital to the dancer’s wholeness.  Even worse, I sometimes feel as outsiders we expect more and more of the dancer: more energy, more acrobatics, and more stimulation for ‘me’ the outsider.  Why?  Because we’ve lost something.  Because we’re not participating.  For some of us, it may be something we don’t even understand we’ve lost.

How do we find it?  Start participating.  Start dancing.  Take walks outside.  Sit still and observe nature.  Lie on your stomach and watch what moves through the grass.  Plant a garden.  Spend time outside with children.  Let children show you the awesomeness of nature.  Don’t spray the hornets’ nest.

There is loss and renewal all the time.  Life is a dance.  Our time will come when we leave the scene, the web of life.  Perhaps we should dance while we are here instead of sitting on the inside looking out.

 

Nickens, T. Edward.  The Empty Nest.  Wildlife in North Carolina Magazine.  2007.

Scattered Thoughts on Gratitude

During the transition from an old year to a new year I like to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past year and plan for the next year. Doing so brings out gratitude for all I have, a gratefulness that I sometimes must drag out of myself other times of the year.  Sure, I know I have everything I need when pressed to think about it, but I do not think daily about it as evidenced in grumpy comments such as, “Ugh, look at all the dishes in the sink.”  Instead I should be happy to have a sink and water running from a tap – both of which I have lived without.  It is hard to wash dishes in a bathtub.  And then, of course, I need to be grateful for the bathtub, which also was lacking at Halcyon for a good four years, and which millions of people in the world do not have.

There are times when I feel my kitchen is too small; I have to move things to work.  On gratitude-filled days I am thankful for my beautiful soapstone countertop, which is, not surprisingly, much more beautiful and easier to clean than the plywood countertop we had for several years while renovating the kitchen.  On days when I am filled with experiential wisdom, I also know that a larger kitchen can suffer from the same problem of seeming too small.

Kitchens, or whatever the little things we grump about, pale in comparison to things that really matter: health, family, shelter, livelihood, and chances to learn and grow every day.  When I set New Year’s goals, I am much more in tune with all these aspects in my life for which I have gratitude.

Believe it or not these thoughts led to my frequent ponderings on similarities and differences between human animals and other animals.  Can animals feel gratitude? I don’t remember when I first heard of or learned about evolution.  What I do remember is suddenly recalling every zoo trip I’d ever taken where I would stare at the gorillas and see humans.  I’d literally be reminded of, if not a particular person, at least the mannerisms and physical attributes that makes up the character of any one person.  It was easy for me to understand Darwin’s continuity theory.  Grossly simplified, continuity means that the differences between humans and other animals is one of degrees, not of kind.  We have since discovered animal intelligences, levels of consciousness, and similarities in the structure and functions of nervous systems in animals and humans – all in support of continuity.  So if we are more similar in structure and function with animals than we used to understand, what about gratitude?

Asking this question of course, begs the more general question of whether animals experience emotion.  There is much anecdotal evidence, but more importantly a growing body of scientific studies that show that some animals do indeed experience emotions.  Elephants and many other mammals show sadness at the loss of another member of their group.  Dogs certainly appear happy, fearful, or content in different situations.  While much of what animals do is instinctual, there are also enough observations of animal behavior to conclude there are emotions regulating some of their behavior.  I’ve included just a sampling of research found on the Internet at the end of this essay.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the generally accepted idea of a hierarchy of animals based on brain size and intelligence – an intelligence defined by human experience.  I’ve always had a gut feeling (which by the way is also not such a whimsical notion given recent studies on the gut being our ‘second brain’) that there may be different ways of reacting to stimuli, of communicating, and of thinking compared to how humans engage with their environment, and that we just don’t yet have the means to observe it.  I’ve always likened my we just can’t see it notion to how Carl Sagan wrote about his belief in the presence of alien life in space in Pale Blue Dot:  He told us to imagine if we were looking at Earth but our technologies only allowed us the precision to see things the size of automobiles.  We might perceive that life existed on the planet and that that life (cars) used wheels instead of legs and lived in large rectangular dwellings (garages).  In other words, our technology is not yet good enough for us to see/know/discover all possibilities in space.

The same is true with our understanding of animal communication and intelligence.  I often recall this metaphor when I am wondering about other life at Halcyon, and when I read studies of animal intelligence and emotion.  I often stare across the garden or a field and wonder what is happening in a sort of parallel universe sense that I cannot perceive with my senses.  I see, but I can’t know it all.  We can’t forget about plants either.  There are people studying the intelligence or sensory abilities of plants.  I thoroughly enjoyed the recent New Yorker article by Michael Pollen, The Intelligent Plant.  I felt a kid-like excitement when I read this parallel to Sagan’s metaphor which a plant researcher claims inspired him as a child: a Star Trek episode called Wink of an Eye which portrayed an alien species from a radically increased time dimension that thought humans were immobile and hence inert, and used them as they saw fit.  Can we loosen our human-centered world-view in order to ‘see’ other ways of being?

If we can accept Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences for humans (http://infed.org/mobi/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-and-education/), is it such a stretch to imagine intelligences in other life?  After all it would be a difference in kind which we are used to understanding in humans – chemical chatter of plants versus vocal chatter of humans versus sonic frequencies of animals – and in degrees when we compare true neuronal signaling behavior between animals.   Intelligence, behavior, reactions, and emotions, they seem interrelated to me and integral to all life.  It is simply a matter of degrees and kinds.  It is all very exciting to me.

There is clearly a lot to learn, a lot to study, and a lot of growing to do on our part, for example, to reconcile different definitions of intelligence and consciousness.  Given the discord in the plant science community about this new idea of plant neurobiology, some of these ideas about intelligence and emotion in other life may take a long time to be accepted as scientific truth – if current studies indicating such intelligence are indeed valid and repeatable.   This journey may be considerably long given the shocking statistic I heard on National Public Radio recently that only 50% of the population knows that there is DNA in a tomato.  Really?  What population was this?

Freezing rain started while I was drafting this post.  Ugh.  I will have to go thaw the chickens’ water because I don’t have their water heater set up yet.  Actually, that’s not what I am thinking or feeling.   What I am feeling is gratitude that I have some chickens to take care of, that I live at Halcyon, and for a husband who supports my endeavors.  I am also feeling gratitude toward all the scientists working to enhance our understanding of the life with which we share the earth.

What I am thinking is:  Will my chickens be grateful?

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-bekoff/humananimal-relationships_b_4439038.html

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/animal_instincts

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/12/23/131223fa_fact_pollan?currentPage=1

Chamovitz, Michael.  What a Plant Knows.  2012.  Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York.

Sagan, Carl.  Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.  1994.  Random House.