Thursday, October 30, 2008

Spit Out Your Mouthguard and Bow

Here's a short essay I wrote five or six years ago that was never published. I hope you enjoy it.

Spit Out Your Mouthguard and Bow

"Layd-ees and gentlemen, on my right, please welcome, fresh from championship bouts with DDT and lead pollution, red in tooth and claw, your favourite and mine, Mother Nature. On my left, pumped from recent victories over outer space and oceans deep, our challenger this evening, cold of eye and stern of jaw, Modern Man."

Entertaining? Possibly. A disaster? Undoubtedly. In the context of a winner-takes-all wrestling smackdown, victory would be brief and Pyrrhic. Humankind can't exist without nature. We are nature, blood and bone and breath.

What do we really mean by human, and whose nature are we talking about, anyway? Neither is a constant.

I was born in Leeds (UK) and now live in Seattle (USA). Leeds is in West Yorkshire, a regional industrial and finance centre surrounded by dales and heathered moorland, bounded in the east by the North Sea and in the west by the Pennine hills. I grew up with a sense of nature as mannered and managed: rolling hillside dotted with sheep, an oak growing in the bend of a broad river, and the occasional plover calling on the moor. The hand of humankind was stamped on every horizon: a drystone wall, an iron-age fort, a neolithic menhir. Even the horizon itself sometimes proved to be the brow of a barrow.

In my twenties, I moved to Duluth, Georgia, where I lived in a brand new apartment complex scooped out of the forest. Northwoods Lake Court was built around a small lake that seemed magical to me. There were bluebirds and cardinals in the white oak, bullfrogs the size of dinner plates in the cattails. There were salamanders and blue-bellied lizards, cottonmice and voles, turtles and snakes.

My guess is that they aren't there anymore. White oak stands filled with singing bluebirds, you see, aren't Nature; to Georgians they're just trees. Every time I drove to Atlanta, I passed yet another acre or two of naked red clay where those trees had been ripped out and replaced by a For Lease notice. During thunderstorms, the red dirt washing onto the road looked like blood.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, nature means wild and untamed landscape: ice-capped volcanoes, grizzlies, and raw rock gorges running with dangerous (and, to an English person, rather alarming) rivers. A wilderness, nothing mannered about it. In Seattle, it's more like nature has invaded our turf: peregrines nest on the Columbia Tower downtown, bald eagles fly over my city neighbourhood, and a coyote recently took a ride in the elevator of the Federal Building.

If we look back a thousand years, we find a Britain that is largely forested, and teeming with boars, bears, wolves and lynx. There are herons and oysters, more badgers and bustards and hedgehogs and snakes. More song birds. More flowers. More disease, starvation, and tooth decay. Go back another thousand, to Roman Britain, and there is less forest and fewer predators, lower child mortality, less malnutrition. (But lots of heavy-metal pollution: the Romans loved lead and brass, and their ore-processing tainted great swaths of the world for generations.) Even farther back, the North America of 10,000 years ago is a recently ravaged ecosystem, its megafauna extinct and its human inhabitants, like other large predators, in the midst of having to change their ways or die. Reach as far back as 50,000 years and both Britain and North America are ice sheets.

Nature, therefore, is contextual. There is no Platonic ideal, no ur-landscape to which all would revert if humans died en masse tomorrow. 250 years might erase all trace of our buildings and roads, but there would still be plutonium decaying underground, kudzu choking the American south, and no wolves in the UK.

Humankind is also contextual. As individuals and societies, we adapt to our environment, of which technology is very much a part. I wear contact lenses. I'm extremely short-sighted. Over the last few hundred years, the use of eyeglasses has led to the gene for myopia, a dominant trait, being carried by a huge percentage of the western world's population. Those who are horribly short-sighted no longer get eaten by predators, fall into stairwells, or walk in front of a train before we breed. We changed the world, and it changed us. It is still changing us, and always has.

We can't stop these changes. We can stop trying to win, stop trying to control nature without acknowledging that it also controls us. We can admit that we don't really know very much about how things fit together, and that we have a lot to learn.

So rather than a winner-takes-all smackdown, a better conceptual framework for understanding our place in the world might be to view humankind and nature as aikido partners, taking turns as attacker and defender, the only goal mutual improvement through continual and incremental feedback.

In aikido practice there is no competition, because the art is so purely defensive that no direct contest between players is possible. One person acts as nage, or defender, while another is the uke, or attacker. And then they swap. It is a true partnership; the goal of both is to learn and to improve their technique. It is the uke's responsibility to give their best, to not attack by rote but to be aware of holes in the nage's technique. It is the nage's responsibility to adjust the force of their response to the uke's falling ability, to guide her or him to the mat safely in a throw or joint lock. It is a feedback system. Each must be constantly aware of the other. Each must adjust their stance, speed, and force to the other's abilities. The key to aikido is not meeting force with force. There are no forearm smashes or full body drops. Instead, you have to understand, through experience and observation, what your partner's body might do. You have to accept it, go with it, then turn and direct, very slightly, its momentum. The best aikido practitioners barely seem to touch their ukes.

The same could be said for technology and its consequences. Take, for example, nuclear power, initially hailed as a clean solution to the industrialised nations' increasing power consumption. Now we have the frightening problem of waste with half-lives of tens of thousands of years, and our only response so far is a sophisticated version of bury-the-bone-in-someone-else's-backyard. On the other hand, here in the Northwest, the Hanford Nuclear Reserve has turned out to be the saviour of an ecosystem that has disappeared elsewhere in the region. The fear of sabotage and of possible fallout from the plutonium production site dictated that a huge swath of countryside be left uninhabited and undeveloped. These twenty-six square miles of shrub-steppe and delicate wetland have sheltered more than a hundred populations of 31 different rare plant taxa, 1,000 species of insects, 3 species of reptiles and amphibians, 44 species of fish, 214 species of birds, and 39 species of mammals, many of which have disappeared elsewhere in the region and are candidates for formal listing under the Endangered Species Act. We are trying to learn from this unexpected result. Uke and nage.

When we dam rivers for hydroelectric projects, wild salmon start dying. Producing salmon in hatcheries was supposed to save wild salmon. Sometimes, though, the hatchery fish crowd out the wild fish and spread disease. To sustain native populations, we will have to take down dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. If we do that, though, much of the adapted ecosystem along those rivers will be swept away. But by listening, and learning, and adjusting to the power and speed and force of the problem, constantly compensating, we are learning ways around these obstacles: fish ladders, periodic water release, the cautious removal of a few dams.

A permaculture is an interrelationship of people, plants, animals, and environment where each provides for and sustains the other. It is an ecologically integrated system of permanent agriculture that offers a sustainable food base. It is possible. We have done it before. In inhospitable (to modern eyes) environments, Aboriginal Australians lived in the same territories and in the same way for thousands of years. The Hopi managed it for several hundred. This is not because the Hopi or the first Australians are inherently better than Europeans, but because it was do or die.

For us to initiate a permaculture--and we would need many different ones--would require a willingness to give up trying to win, to embrace the model of uke and nage, to give as well as take. It would require us to use our technology to incrementally improve and help crops and livestock and other flora and fauna adapt to their surroundings, whether by direct genetic modification or by carefully blending cultivars or domesticated strains with wild breeds the old fashioned way. It would require us to both teach and learn from nature, and be willing to forgive it and ourselves for mistakes.

If we insist upon a wrestling match, someone will lose. For a better world, we must spit out our mouthguards, and bow.

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