Joining the Chorus

Who needs concrete, billboards, and Homeland  Security? Sometimes it helps to get out of the manufactured world and sit in nature a while — find a wild spot, just sit down, and observe. It helps if it’s a rich native habitat, full of the well-rehearsed chorus of that place. It helps if you stay put. Maybe you don’t need to go four days without food and water, sitting on a blanket, holding a sacred pipe full of red willow bark according to traditional Sioux practice. But the Native Americans said it would help — and it did. It was easier to stay still. And that’s how you see things. Only on the third evening, after making that hollow drumming sound somewhere out of view, did the pileated woodpecker finally come around, eyeing me from a branch. I barely moved. By then, I couldn’t have, really. And that was the point.
It takes time to know a piece of wild land, to know the sun’s angle on the boulder moss each evening. Sometimes it takes a four-day vision quest — so be it. Three days passed before I could remember what it feels like to sit on the ground beneath trees. I realized I was an animal, a primate among the other relatives, the human note in the song of stones, jays, orchids, leaves, and detritus eaten by tiny industrious beings.
We don’t know our earth. Even the human whose 10-million-year-old skull was found in July probably had enough sense to know the local territory, to quietly wait for plants and animals to reveal themselves. According to the Ohlone myth, the bear had enough sense to find medicine, and the man to patiently observe the bear.
If anything, we know only part of it. We are terrestrial creatures. Even the word “environment” is usually understood in land terms. Yet 95% of the earth’s living space lies in the sea.
In the depths of Monterey Canyon, the oceanographers in their ROVs have a fascinating chance to meet bizarre creatures who live in extreme conditions. But they — and we — see only a fraction of the life there. Everything flees from the ROV’s light and sound. The ocean is part of us. We came from it. But it is a difficult family reunion, which we need elaborate equipment to attend.
But we can’t forget to unite with our family. We spend fortunes trying to figure out when we separated from the apes, but we forget that we are still animals. From Mesa Verde, California, to the depths to the San Francisco Bay, we’re just behaving as if our relations — including our non-human ones — don’t matter, are not our community, as if everything out there is not us, can only hurt us, get in the way, or enrich us.
Out of the seed of separateness grows more separateness. We also spend fortunes trying to clean up Superfund sites, store radioactive waste, and heal the effects of industrial food —  all of which requires more of our own technological intervention.
Yes, we know more things. In the history of the planet, we have never known more, or been able to do more things. And yet we’ve never been closer to the precipice, never had a less certain future to offer our progeny. What is the point of using our learning to make genetically engineered wheat? So a patentholder can profit, and a factory farmer can ride computer-driven machinery all the way to the bank?
Of course, the answer is not to stop learning. People need to think for themselves. Science itself is not the solution, nor is it the problem. You can learn how to culvert a creek — or how to break it up and plant willows. You can learn how to build a power plant, or to protect an aquifer from it. You can set up a study to find no impacts from bay-filled runways — or you can set up one to find devastating impacts.
In most major environmental issues, we find the illusion that “science” can provide conclusive proof of something’s harm — and that until it does, we can keep using, say, organophosphates instead of looking for alternative pest controls. The corollary is that any level of damage can be made acceptable by mitigation. Destroy wetlands to build runways? Build “new ones.” Destroy the livelihood and life source of a 2,300-person farmworking town? Promise to provide power, jobs, and deeper wells.
Ha! There’s a reason the Clean Water Act prohibits the degradation of wetlands, and why aquifers must recharge. I’d rather mitigate the loss of an airport, or a power company.
Why do we need alternatives? Why not just make the choice to go along with the destruction, go about our business as if it all will fall into place? I don’t know. I suppose we need to leave a gift for our progeny, if not for ourselves. After all, we’ve been given the same gift.
And by the end of the fourth morning, you feel the gift, that of being an animal on this earth — you feel what it’s like to be one more voice in the chorus — if not a creature of our ocean birthplace, at least of the land.

Comments are closed.