Tag Archive 'human nature'

Jun 18 2018

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What Makes Us Human?

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For the past year and a half, I have been pondering human nature and its relationship to wildness. I have read dozens of books on the subject, and have approached the matter from various angles: philosophical, anthropological, biological, historical and naturalistic. The more I look into the matter, though, the more befuddled I become, often getting bogged down in the morass of morality where the vast majority of people plant their flags then forget about the matter. It has been a daunting undertaking to say the least.

Wildness, I am certain, is the key to understanding who/what we are, for we are creatures as natural as any other. But there’s a fundamental problem here, and that is the rise of civilization a little over 5,000 years ago. What happened to us then?

To some people being civilized is what makes us fully human. That has been a convenient excuse, anyhow, for the subjugation of more primitive peoples through the millennia – those with less sophisticated means of conducting war that is to say. But I don’t abide by that prejudice. In fact, I suspect that more primitive peoples, living closer to the earth, are much more in touch with their humanity than those of us living indoor, urban lives, staring at our electronic devices, largely removed from nature.

It is now widely accepted in scientific circles that anatomically modern humans have been around over 100,000 years. That is, people who look pretty much like humans living today. About 50,000 years ago, our species underwent a great cultural transformation that resulted in behaviorally modern humans. That is, people who think, behave and interact with each other much the same way we do. Up until 10,000 years ago, we were all hunter/gatherers with an intimate understanding of the flora and fauna around us. In that regard, our being agriculturalists and urbanites – the two pillars of civilization – is a relatively new development with little bearing upon our basic humanity, if any at all.

I don’t believe for a second that pre-civilized life was some kind of Eden where human beings lived in peace with each other, always prosperous, healthy and happy, and in complete harmony with nature. The human bone and skull fragments our archeologists have dug up pretty much rule out all that. But there is something about those living closer to the earth that undercuts the arrogant and grossly misleading presumptions that we highly civilized folk have about ourselves and the world.

Soon I will try to write about this subject, if I can muster the humility, honesty and courage to do so. But I don’t think the resulting book will be very popular, even by the modest standards of my somewhat dubious literary career. Generally speaking, those of us firmly ensconced in today’s complex, industrialized and digital world do not respect our distant ancestors, or the remnant bands of hunter/gatherers who still live as they did. Our collective arrogance in that regard is profound. We civilized folk think we have it all going on.

 

 

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May 04 2018

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A Necessary Walk

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My dark rant came way too early this morning. Judy fled the room before breakfast was over to escape it. And that’s when I knew how badly I needed a walk in the woods. So I squeezed one in, right between a trip to the post office and a round of book promotion. Some things just can’t wait.

All winter long I have been pondering the human condition, trying to figure out what exactly it means to be human, how wildness and civilization factor into that, and how we’ve become the highly cognizant yet deeply flawed creatures that we are today. This isn’t a matter for the faint of heart, and I’ve found myself bogged down in the morass of morality more than once. Yeah, everyone’s got an opinion when it comes to human nature, how good and/or bad we are, but the irrefutable facts are few and far between. So my quest has put me in a surly mood, even as spring unfolds.

To walk in the woods and blow the stink off my thoughts I didn’t have go far. A quick jaunt up Aldis Hill did the trick. I knew there would be early spring wildflowers in bloom, and that would improve my outlook on things if anything could. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Bloodroot appeared amid the boulders, purple trilliums and trout lilies lined the muddy trail, and Dutchman’s breeches strutted its stuff near the top of the hill. I stopped to admire the wildflowers almost as much as my dog Matika stopped to sniff around. It’s like that sometimes. My primary task as Homo sapiens, it seems, is to simply admire God’s handiwork. That’s when I feel the most like myself and at peace with the world, anyhow.

I haven’t figured it out yet. My query into human nature is unfinished business, to say the least. But I’m already convinced that our relation to nature is critical to understanding who/what we are. So these walks of mine are necessary in more ways than one. We go into the wild not so much to escape the trappings of civilized society as to find ourselves, to make a primal connection and remember, on some level of awareness, where we came from… and thereby figure out where we are going.

When I get a good bead on human nature, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on wandering and wondering and scribbling down these little absurdities that I call philosophy. If nothing else, it keeps me from being one of those self-righteous fools who engage in unrestrained violence. Yeah, a walk in the woods is absolutely necessary.

 

 

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Sep 08 2017

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Forces of Nature

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Well, it’s that time of year again. Hurricanes are brewing in the Atlantic and making their way towards the Americas. One recently devastated Texas. Another is wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and headed for Florida. More are on the way. Six years ago Hurricane Irene reached as far north as Vermont and did a lot of damage here, blowing out streams and rivers with ridiculous amounts of rainfall. Seems like there are more of great storms now, and they’re bigger and more powerful than ever before. But our climatological records only go back 150 year so it’s hard to say.

There are huge wildfires out West. Mexico was just hit by a big earthquake. Iceland is expecting one soon. Here in the North Country, we get our share of nature’s wrath in the form of winter blizzards. Tornados are common in the Midwest where I grew up. Nature flexes its muscles everywhere.

I was living in Oregon when the volcano Mount St. Helens blew. I heard it that day, even though I was hiking in the woods 200 miles away. The next day everything was covered with a blanket of light grey ash. In the 1800s the much bigger volcano Krakatoa erupted in Indonesia, creating a tsunami far worse than the one that ravaged that part of the world a few years ago. The planet is a dynamic system. Not nearly as intense as it was 4 billion years ago, but active all the same.

Some of the big natural events happening today are the same ones we’ve been dealing with for thousands of years. Others have more teeth. We all know why. It’s getting harder and harder to deny climate change, even though some folks believe they have a vested interest in keeping their heads in the sand. Then again, Homo sapiens isn’t quite as sapient as advertised. Not collectively, anyhow. Even as individuals, some of us do some really stupid things. I can’t help but wonder why anyone would buy oceanfront property in this day and age. As arctic ice sheets melt, sea level rise, making storm surge much more devastating. Can our engineers build any kind of barrier that can adequately deal with what lies ahead?

A hurricane is just a swirl of wind, but it’s big enough to be seen from the moon. And in the near future, they’re likely to get bigger. I’d take that bet, anyhow, if I could find anyone willing to bet otherwise.

Maybe someday we’ll get it – we’ll finally figure out that despite our cerebral prowess and very busy hands, we aren’t in the driver’s seat. The mind-blowing, dynamic system that we call Nature was here long before we came along, and will be here long after we’re gone. Yeah, maybe someday we’ll finally find our place in that system. But I’m not holding my breath. Human nature hasn’t changed noticeably during my lifetime.

 

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Dec 07 2015

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Reflections on Climate Change

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images-4I stepped outdoors a few minutes ago to clear my head after working all morning. I marveled at the unseasonable weather. Temps are well above freezing today, and there’s no snow in my back yard. Here in northern New England, this kind of warmth in December is rare indeed.

Weather fluctuates, of course, so what changes from one year to the next is no big deal. But when long term patterns develop, it’s time to pay attention.

Scientists tell us that 40% of the ice covering the Arctic Sea has melted away since the 1970s. Northern nations are scrambling to lay claim to oil deposits there, which are fast becoming accessible. What’s that tell you?

Skeptics insist that we don’t know enough about climate science to say for certain that the planet is warming up due to human activity. That may be true. But certainty in science takes an awful long time to establish.

Prophets of doom say we’d better do something before it’s too late. Two degrees Celsius is the magic number. Once the overall temperature of the planet rises that much, all hell will break loose. We are now halfway there.

Some people see the ongoing climate change as the end of nature as we know it. The key phrase here is “as we know it.” Nature will persist long after humankind is gone, even if we take millions of other species with us into extinction. The age and scale of the cosmos assures us of that.

So the real question is this: What happens to us in the interim, as the climate changes? More importantly, should I as an individual give a damn about anyone else living or not yet born?

Representatives from most of the nations in the world are currently meeting in Paris to draft a universal and binding agreement on climate change. Is that even possible?

What can we do? More to the point: What are we willing to do? Is it fair for rich nations to dictate policy to populous industrializing nations just now starting to obtain the kind of material well being that Westerners have enjoyed for well over a century?

These matters are too much for a woods wanderer like myself to wrap my brain around. I know my own nature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I know human nature. And all rhetoric aside, that’s what our talk of addressing climate change is really about. What we can do will be determined by what we are.

 

 

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Mar 26 2012

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Resilience

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Here in northern Vermont, we awoke to a dusting of snow today. It is ever so slight and will burn off by mid-morning, no doubt. Yet it comes as something of a shock to us after a week of summerlike temperatures.

I go out and check the bright green shoots of my day lilies to see how they are doing. The warmth from the plants has already melted the snow clinging to their leaves, so my lilies take it as a watering. Had the temperature dropped a little lower overnight, there might have been a little browning along the edges and tips of them. All the same, they would have survived – if not this wave of green shoots then certainly the next one. Lilies, as delicate as they may seem, are hard to kill.

I marvel at the resilience of early spring flora and fauna. If a little misfortune comes their way after the promise of an easy start to the season, they bounce right back. Oh sure, they take a hit, and some individual plants and animals are hit hard, but collectively they survive. In fact, setbacks are expected. They are built to withstand them. I admire that.

The other day my sewer line broke. Suddenly the nasty stuff was ankle deep in my basement, my yard had to be dug up, and I had to shell out a hefty sum to have the pipe replaced. A hit, no doubt, but I’m trying to take it like a day lily. Life is full of setbacks, I tell myself. The big question is: how well do we weather them?

Some hits are so hard there is no quick and easy recovery. That’s what we are alluding to when we use words like “crisis” or “disaster.” The word “apocalypse” means there is no recovery at all. Yet Nature with a capital “N” persists even when a meteor hits the planet, taking out the dinosaurs. It’s all just a matter of degree, I suppose, of individual perspective.

I wish I were more resilient. I take my setbacks hard. That said, I watch carefully how everything comes back to life in the spring and am deeply impressed by it. No, not just impressed – I’m inspired. Nature says there is no such thing as a hopeless situation and, even in my darkest moments, I’m inclined to believe it.

 

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Oct 27 2011

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Hard Choices

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Critics here in Vermont say that the huge wind turbines atop our beloved Green Mountains are not just an eyesore, they kill birds and disrupt the forest ecology as well. Solar power is viable as long as the sun is shining, but it’s expensive, isn’t it? Biofuels threaten our food supply. Hydro power screws up our streams. Coal and oil are both dirty, of course. Natural gas is clean, as fossil fuels go, but fracking pollutes the ground water. Nuclear power is both clean and cheap… until the plants leak and it’s time to shut them down. Burning wood is great until you run out of trees. So what does that leave? Tidal power? Hydrogen? Cold fusion?

Have to get our power from somewhere. There are seven billion people on the planet and counting. The demand for power is growing much faster in industrializing countries like India and China than it is in the highly consumptive West. In the near future, humanity will need more power, not less. So where are we going to get it?

Climate change is the sword of Damocles hanging over us. The more we mess with Mother Nature, the more she messes with us. It’s just a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. Can we avoid global catastrophe? Collectively we seem to lack the political will to do so. Besides, denial runs strong and deep among those who immediately benefit from the status quo, and they cast just enough doubt on the subject to keep the rest of us complacent.  More to the point, it’s hard for the average person to think beyond what he or she is paying at the gas pump.

So what are we to do? Gnash our teeth and say we’re all doomed? Protest our least favorite energy source? Blame those whose economies are stronger than ours? Simply ignore the situation?

Clearly we have plenty of choices, there’s just no perfect solution. The big question is this: Do we have moral courage enough to make the best possible choices for our great grandchildren? I’ll leave that for you to ponder, dear reader, and keep my cynicism to myself.

 

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May 06 2011

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The Deluge

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Here in Vermont, the deluge is all over the news.  Lake Champlain has just set a new high at 103 feet above sea level.  That’s three feet higher than it usually is this time of year, flooding shoreline camps, homes and roads.  The Islands are especially hard hit and the main artery to it, Route 2, is down to one lane.  Heavy snowfall this past winter has melted fast during the past couple weeks, adding more water to rivers and streams already swollen with seven inches of April precipitation.  And the rain just keeps on coming.

Last weekend Judy and I went down to the town park on Saint Albans Bay and walked the water’s edge.  It was strewn with driftwood and other debris.  The seawall was under water along with the beach.  The park trees have wet feet now, and the shore road is closed.  We watched some teenage boys use nets to catch the carp swimming about the flooded baseball diamond.  You don’t see something like that every day.  Yessir, this is a flood of historic proportions.

It’s amazing how great a role weather still plays in our lives.  Most of us live and work indoors most of the time, but walls do not insulate us from the impact that the wild has upon our world.  Hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, blizzards, earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods – when Mother Nature is on the rampage, you’d better get out of her way… if that’s at all possible.

Mother Nature is on the rampage a lot.  In fact, that’s pretty much the way she rolls.  Changes that we call cataclysmic are business as usual to her.  Mountain ranges are great seas of rock rising and falling on a geologic timescale.  Wind and water wear down all solid things, given enough years.  And everything burns, as the stars remind us nightly.  In a face-off between civilization and the wild, it’s a safe bet that the wild will prevail on anything other than a human timescale.  We sapient creatures aren’t really very sapient at all if think we can defeat Mother Nature.  At best, all we can do is piss her off and make life miserable for ourselves.  Oh yeah, that and maybe wipe out a million species of plants and animals in the process.  But Mother Nature doesn’t care.  There are plenty more life forms where those came from.

When most people experience Nature’s wrath, they think:  “This is the end of the world!”  But it is only the end of our complacency, of our false belief that we have the world in a box.  I love natural disasters for the way they humiliate humankind.  That said, I dread the prospect of going into my basement to assess the water damage down there.  I’m no dummy.  I know when I’m outclassed.

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