Tag Archive 'being human'

Oct 27 2017

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The Roots of Humanity

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For quite some time now I have been pondering what it means to be human, and what exactly our relationship to wild nature is. Recently I read books by E. O. Wilson, Joseph Campbell, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker and other thinkers on the subject, and I’m still going strong. But it’s a book called The Cave Painters that really got me going. In it I learned that the Chauvet cave of southern France has figurative drawings on the walls that date back over 30,000 years. That rocks my world.

When we think about Cro-Magnons, or other cave-dwelling people living during the Ice Age, we naturally assume that they were inferior to us moderns in every way. But the art they left behind tells a different story.

The more I look into cave art, the more I question the word “civilization” and everything that we associate with it. Did we suddenly become more human when we settled down into towns, domesticated plants and animals? I think not.

There are distinct advantages to being civilized, no doubt. Food security is at the top of the list. Still I can’t help but wonder what was lost in the process. “Progress” is the byword of those who always want things new and improved. But experience teaches us that there’s usually a trade off whenever one way of doing things is exchanged for another.

Civilization – the first agriculturally based towns – came into existence about 10,000 years ago. Before that the lives of human beings were inextricably entwined with the natural world. The cave art left behind is proof of that. The big question is: how far back in time does our humanity go?

Some say Homo sapiens took a great leap forward 50,000 years ago. That’s when we started seriously outpacing our more thickheaded cousins, the Neanderthals. Others say that we have been anatomically human well beyond that, putting the roots of our species back over 100,000 years. Our distant ancestors, not even human by our standards, captured fire and used it half a million years ago.

Where should we draw the line between what is human and what is wild?  Does such a difference exist apart from our preconceptions about ourselves? Whenever I go for a long walk alone into deep woods, I begin to wonder. Cave art makes me wonder even more.

 

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Apr 12 2016

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Gaining Perspective

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burning wordsToday was a perfect day for it: cool, damp and overcast, after a good rain. I coughed a little as I slipped into the woods, promising myself that I wouldn’t linger. I’ve only been back on my feet for a few days after a nasty bout of the flu. Get this task done then head home.

I carried with me a copy of my most recently published book, along with a pack of matches. Once I was deep enough in the woods, I knelt down and pulled back a patch of forest duff. Then I made a teepee out of pages that I tore from the book. It only took one match to set them aflame. I fed the rest of the book into the fire until it was gone. The pages burned fast.

Once the flame had died away, all that remained of my most recent literary triumph was a pile of ash. Some of the words were still visible. I mixed the ash into the soil – first with a stick, then with my hands – until nothing remained but damp earth. Then I replaced the patch of forest duff and hiked out.

Anthropologists and others who study the evolution of humankind tell us that language is a vital part of what makes us human. Our words are more powerful than our tools, or so they say. With them we have created culture and everything that separates us from the animals. As a writer, I am acutely aware of this. I take great pride in my words, in the printed ones that I launch into the world. So it is important, I think, to burn those words every once in a while, and work them into the soil.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Someday humankind and all of its words will be gone. Yet Nature will persist.

 

 

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Dec 09 2014

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Lighting the Darkness

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xmas lightsI used to be one of those people who complained about the crass commercialization of Christmas. Then I spent decades being annoyed by the cheap sentimentality and unrealistic expectations of it all. Interspersed through the years, of course, were occasional moments of true joy in the company of family and friends, but I chose to downplay that. Or simply take those moments for granted. I focused instead on the Winter Solstice, the interplay of darkness and light, which is what the ancients celebrated this time of year, long before there was any talk of a coming Messiah.

When I was a child, I basked in the wonder and mystery of Christmas. That evolved into the wonder and mystery of nature when I became an adult. Not quite the same thing, really, but closer than one might think. There is something about the world that defies reason, that goes beyond words – something rooted in unknowing, that is. Something mysterious. And it has been with us since the dawn of human consciousness.

Nowadays, when this season rolls around, I see things a little differently. I pick through the rituals, choosing those that mean something to me, while trying to show a little compassion towards those doing what they can to muddle through the dark season. It isn’t an easy time of year for anyone except children, who haven’t had time enough to accumulate all the emotional baggage that we adults carry around.

A couple days ago, I nailed lights to my house. Then my wife Judy and I put up a tree in our living room and decorated it. Yessir, we’re doing our part to light up the darkness despite the apparent frivolity of it all. And why not? The darkness is real. The sun is close to being as low on the horizon as it can get. The nights are long indeed. And the memories of Christmases past haunt us whether we like it or not. After all, we are only human.

 

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Oct 08 2011

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Boreal

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Walking the boreal forest, I feel the tug of wildness stronger than anywhere else. It’s the starkness of the landscape that brings this urge out of me, I think.  I grow fangs when I’m in it.  The forest itself makes me want to drop down on all fours.

This isn’t a forgiving landscape. You don’t come here to groove with benign nature. You come here to howl.

Mostly bogs and conifers, it’s easy to get turned around in the boreal forest. And hypothermia is an ongoing concern. Even in the summer, it’s often cool and damp. Because the landscape in Vermont turns boreal at higher elevations, it’s often shrouded in mist as well. That only adds to its mystery.

The closer one gets to the equator, the greater the diversity. But in the lean, cold northern latitudes, only the heartiest life forms survive. Even then by a dangerously thin margin. Think spruce and fir. Think pitcher plants, club moss, and the ghostly white Indian pipe. Think moose, wolf, bear.

There are only patches of boreal forest in Vermont’s Green Mountains. There’s a bit more in the mythical Northeast Kingdom. But northern Maine is mostly boreal, as is a good part of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Alaska is utterly boreal. In other words, the places I like the most are boreal. Clearly I’m a creature of the north.

More than once I’ve been chilled, wet and almost lost in the boreal forest. “Almost,” I say, because the disorientation is intentional. I have my ways of getting out of the woods in a pinch, but I’d rather go deeper and get just a little bit more turned around. The dread of not knowing exactly where I am is a tonic that I imbibe on a regular basis. It keeps me from being too civilized. It keeps me from taking my lofty, philosophical notions too seriously. It keeps me in touch.

Go ahead and tell yourself how great humanity is – what we’ve done both individually and collectively, and what we are still capable of doing. Then go spend a week or two alone in the boreal forest and feel yourself whittled down to size. Granted, it’s not for everyone. But I can’t think of a better place to gain perspective on computers, cars and everything else. When the forest itself howls, you either run for cover or howl with it.

 

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Jun 20 2011

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Natural versus Artificial

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While I was out walking the other day, I came upon a curious phenomenon.  A well-worn, earthen trail cutting through the woods suddenly came to a set of stairs that someone had painstakingly carved from rock.  My first thought: Why go to so much trouble?  Once I got beyond that, though, I marveled at the result.  Moss and lichen had crept from uncut stone to cut, making me wonder what difference there is really between the natural and the man-made.

Homo faber – we are the creatures who make things.  We manipulate the material world with such profound consequences that the word “artificial” had to be invented.  In the strictest sense, we are as much a part of nature as the wild animals whose paths we follow through the woods, the plants that grow all around us, the birds overhead or the insects below our feet.  And yet we stand apart from it.  What separates us?  Our inventions and contrivances, of course.

There is beauty in integration with nature, certainly.  The architectural wonders of Frank Lloyd Wright come to mind, as do the many stone monuments left behind by our ancestors.  But these are the exceptions to the rule.  Generally speaking, most man-made structures – buildings, roads or whatever – are striking in their radical break from the landscape.  Rare indeed is the developer who gives any thought at all to wild aesthetics.  Architectural renderings of would-be structures are usually accented with neat rows of trees and strategically placed green space, but the beauty the builder sees is all in the artifice – the perfectly straight or intentionally curved line – not wild anarchy.  And so it is with most things human, from the automobile to the ipod.

Philosophically, I have struggled with this for decades.  At the very heart of the matter are the very qualities that make us human.  More than any other creature, we manipulate our environment, making a rough and ready world more user-friendly, better suited to our wants and needs.  And yet we do so at our great peril – one that first became apparent to us in the 19th century, when the industrial world suddenly sprung to life and the idea of wilderness transformed from something threatening to something idyllic.  Now it is quite possible that we may lose ourselves in our grand designs, reaching a point where stairways cut from stone will seem ridiculously quaint.  Then the word “wild” will lose all meaning, and the entire planet will have our mark on it.  What’s to stop us?

 

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Apr 21 2011

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Budding Trees

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The slightest flurry of snow blows into my yard this morning.  Here in the North Country, winter is not quite finished with us yet, or so it seems.  But the budding trees tell a different story.

The other day I noticed catkins drooping down from poplars along the Rail Trail, then admired the intricate, reddish flowers of the silver maple in my backyard.  The latter, illuminated by sunlight, were too beautiful for words – a true wonder of nature upon close inspection.

I was well into my twenties before it dawned on me that all broad leaf trees are flowering plants.  How could I not know this in my teens?  I marvel at my inattention back then – how little I noticed the world around me.  Oh sure, I saw apple blossoms and the like, yet somehow the smaller, more subtle tree flowers escaped my attention.  I saw only barren branches and longed for the leafy, green explosion that was imminent.

Most people become cranky and impatient in early spring.  They pretty much stay that way until the trees leaf out, the lilacs bloom ostentatiously, and the first sunny, 75-degree day arrives.  All the groundwork for the growing season is done by then.  The songbirds and wild animals know this but somehow it escapes the vast majority of us humans.  Why is that?

These disproportionately large brains of ours separate us from the rest of Creation.  That’s both our defining attribute and our greatest curse.  Being human, we live inside our heads much of the time, preoccupied with abstractions, not seeing the obvious.  I suspect that this is more the case now than it ever was – our infatuation with all things digital knowing no bounds.  I like to think that I’m an exception to this rule, but springtime in all its glorious unfolding usually proves me wrong.  No matter how hard I try, I always miss at least half of it.

“Pay attention!” the cardinal sings from the treetop.  The woodpecker knocks out the same refrain.  All flowering plants, both herbaceous and woody, underscore it.  Yet all I see on a chilly, gray morning like this is the ephemeral snow flurry.  And all I can think about is summertime fun.  It’s a crime against nature to be sure.

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Feb 02 2010

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An Antiquated Humanism

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Last week I finished reading a book called The History of Nature and drew surprising insight from it.  I found the obscure tome in the science section of a used bookstore a few years ago.  The book was published in 1949 so you can imagine how out of date the science in it is.  But the last few chapters – “The Soul,” “Man: Outer History” and “Man: Inner History” – looked interesting.  I bought the book and read it despite its age.

The book was written by C. F. von Weizsacker, a German nuclear physicist.  Von Weizsacker was the first to identify nuclear reactions as the energy source for the sun and stars, so he was no slouch when it came to science.  The first three-quarters of The History of Nature is a good review of what humankind had learned about Earth and the cosmos by 1949.  But this heavyweight scientist wasn’t much of a philosopher, as the last quarter of the book clearly illustrates.

This comes as no surprise.  Few heavyweight scientists are heavyweight philosophers, as well.  In this age of specialization, we don’t even expect it.  As C. P. Snow pointed out a half century ago, science and the humanities have developed into two separate cultures.  Therein lies the problem.  The more we compartmentalize knowledge, the harder it is for any of us to see the big picture.  I give von Weizsacker credit for attempting, at least, to bring all knowledge together in a synoptic view of things.  Most thinkers don’t even try.

That said, what struck me about von Weizsacker’s worldview was the inconsistency of it.  “Body and soul are not two substances but one,” he states outright, suggesting a worldview one that would expect from a Platonic thinker, a Rationalist from the Enlightenment, or a Buddhist.  Then he blathered on about the rise of free thought over instinct, good and evil, and the virtues of the Christian love, as if this kind of dualism wasn’t at odds with his original body/soul statement.  Fuzzy thinking at best.

As I finished this book, it suddenly occurred to me that Humanism, preached by religious and secular thinkers alike in the middle of the 20th Century, is now antiquated.  The contradictions of it have simply become too glaring.  That we, Homo sapiens, are qualitatively different from the rest of nature is something any informed person living today must find very hard to swallow.  What basis is there in science for this kind of thinking?  At what point did we abandon our animal selves?  When exactly did we divorce nature and become human – when we turned to agriculture and started building towns, or when we started burying our dead and painting on cave walls?  How about when we fashioned the first tool?  When Lucy walked upright across the savanna, was that the beginning our separation?

No, I don’t see it.  I don’t see human nature apart from Nature.  Nor do I see human progress as the gradual removal of our selves from the physical environment.  Certainly, our ability to think abstractly – to love, hate and reason – is an integral part of our humanity, but so is eating, sleeping, dreaming, bleeding and sex, to name but a few of our more down-to-earth attributes.

If we are serious about being fully human, then we must cultivate our affinity with wild nature instead of alienating ourselves from it.  Besides, the wild is as much within us as it is out there.  Like all things in nature, we are evolving, but the words “progress” and “human” do not go together very well.  For better or worse, a human being will always be an animal to some extent.  And I for one revel in that fact.

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Jan 04 2010

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Guerilla Goodness

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There are plenty of people trying to make the world a better place – philanthropists, activists, idealists, and the occasional self-proclaimed philosopher like me.  Sometimes we actually accomplish good things.  Sometimes our intentions are good but the consequences of our ideas or actions only make things worse.  Usually we attract a great deal of attention to ourselves while we are busy saving the world.  And when the accolades are doled out, most of us accept any praise bestowed upon us as if we really do deserve it.  After all, we’ve been working so tirelessly for so long.  Heaven forbid that our efforts should go unnoticed.

Polly Beebe-Bove passed away Christmas Eve.  You probably don’t know who she was.  I don’t think she ever made the news.  But she definitely left her mark in this world.  She left her mark on my wife, Judy, directing her towards a church-sponsored silent retreat to resolve matters both spiritual and temporal.  She left her mark on me, encouraging me to keep at the difficult task of recounting a life-altering experience in Alaska.  She left her mark on many others, I’m sure.  She made the world a better place in small, quiet, self-effacing ways.  Polly made the world a better place in ways too incidental for anyone to notice, when no one was looking.  Guerilla goodness, I call it, and only now in her absence do we feel the full impact of her labors.

Polly was no saint.  She wasn’t an easy person to live with.  Talk with her children and you soon learn that.  And she had her demons.  Don’t we all.  But to Judy and me she was always encouraging, supportive, kind, and non-judgmental.  Now we are left wondering if we can work in a similar vein.  Judy is more optimistic about this than I am.  To save the world is easy; to selflessly aid others in their moment of need is not, especially if no one is looking.  Try it sometime.  Guerilla goodness.  It takes a great deal more effort than one might think.

There are times when all nature appears cruel and self-interested, and human beings are no exception.  History is filthy with it.  To a non-Christian like me, the teachings of that Nazarene two thousand years ago seem sadly unrealistic.  Then someone like Polly comes along and I begin to wonder what we humans are truly capable of doing.  Even from the grave, Polly’s unsinkable optimism snipes at my longstanding cynicism.  Just knowing someone like her makes me think that maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for humanity.  We haven’t completely defeated ourselves yet.

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Dec 28 2009

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World Without Wildness

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I found a field mouse in the basement the other day – an uninvited guest.  Its sudden appearance inside my home, the ultimate expression of domestication, is proof positive that the wild cannot be completely eradicated.  I find no small consolation in this.  I absolutely dread the possibility of living in a world without wildness, so I’d like to let that mouse stay.   But I’ll be putting out traps soon.   After all, I have to protect my investment.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between humankind and nature, about the difference between what is wild and what is not.  We use the terms “wild” and “civilized” as if they were opposites, as if one cancels out the other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  Our relationship to the wild is much more complicated than that.  I believe that a part of the wild rests deep within us all, and that the wildness within cannot be completely eradicated any more than the weeds in our yard or the pests creeping into our houses.  All the same, it can be pushed back to the point where any discussion regarding it is moot.

When all that’s left of the wild is the occasional intruder in the basement, we will be living in a world without wildness.  When all nature is under our thumb, one way or other, then the wild won’t be worth thinking about.  When what we call nature is reduced to gardens, woodlots and preserves, and we have the means to genetically alter everything at will, then the wildness within us will be lost as well.  Then wilderness will be a theme park – a mere caricature of what it once was – and we will be only shells of our former selves.

I find it impossible to adequately define concepts like “wild” and “civilization” no matter how much I try.  These are terms fraught with ambiguities.  But this much I do know:  without a place to roam freely, we are merely cogs in a grand, meaningless, self-perpetuating system.  Aldo Leopold got right to the heart of the matter when he said:  “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”   In an era of flying drones, GPS navigation, infrared cameras, and electronic tracking devices, this question is hardly an academic one.  Computer chips are showing up everywhere.  Soon it will be impossible to completely disappear into the wild no matter how hard we try.  Good news for fighting terrorism or finding lost hikers, but bad news for preserving the wildness essential to us all.

I fear the scientist with his radio collar more than the greedy developer with his bulldozer.  It doesn’t require a great deal of creativity to imagine a team of technicians descending upon a woods wanderer and tagging him or her like any other wild animal.  And why not?  The wild cannot be properly managed if there are gaping holes in the database.  So yeah, I’ll trap that mouse in my basement, but not without deep reservation.  Some part of the wild must be cultivated within me.  Some part of the wild must be allowed even in my own home.  Otherwise, civilization is all for nothing.

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Jul 27 2009

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Nature and Irrationality

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From what I can tell, there are two prevailing approaches to nature these days: the holistic and the rationalistic.  Those who take the holistic approach perceive nature as a seamless whole, which holds itself in eternal balance – when undisturbed by humans that is.  Those who take the rationalistic approach assert that there is a logical explanation for everything in nature, even the allegedly erratic behavior of individual plants, animals and people.  This is the fundamental difference between East and West, between the philosophies of the Orient and those that arose from ancient Greece.  Or so we are told.  But I don’t buy it.

In the 21st Century, a third approach is emerging – one that fuses the holistic with the rationalistic, the East with the West, the right brain with the left.  In this approach, Mother Earth is respected even as science is embraced.  Taking this approach, reasonable men and women work as stewards, helping nature restore itself to its proper balance.  But I don’t buy this, either.

There is, of course, that old-time view of nature as a world “red in tooth and claw,” where strong prevail and weak perish, but aside from a handful of libertarian anarchists, I’ve never met anyone who truly believes this.  The problem with this approach is that civilization keeps getting in the way.  What room is there for civility in such a world, for law and order?

The way I see it, the wild has no place in any of these views.  And when I say “wild” here, I mean truly wild – wild in a way that no theologian, scientist, or philosopher could ever fully explain.  The wild as fundamental contradiction, as aberration of nature, as inherent absurdity.  I seem to be one of the few people who believe that wildness of this sort exists.

After several decades of rumination, I have reached the conclusion that nature is predicated by the irrational.  I don’t think there can be any serious discussion about nature without the thorny issue of wildness being addressed, first and foremost.  And yes, I suspect that wildness and irrationality are cut from the same cloth, that all deviations from the norm are, in fact, as much a part of nature as the norm itself.  In other words, nothing stands outside of nature.

So go ahead and call me a Pantheist.  I won’t deny it.  It would be irrational for me to do so.  Then again, it’s hard to say how I’ll react to any box drawn around me.  And this is precisely why wildness, human or otherwise, is so dangerous.

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