Saturday, May 6, 2017

Navigation

One morning during the holiday season last year, I saw an item in a gift catalog called “The World’s Smartest Food Scale.” Able to weigh up to four different food items at once, a close-up color photo showed several luscious-looking raspberries on one weighing area, some pineapple chunks (for color contrast, presumably) on another, and so on. The description went on to detail how, after weighing the food items, the scale will then transmit the data wirelessly to a computer or mobile device, which can then access an online database and provide nutritional analysis. My first thought was: Seriously? If people were eating more raspberries and pineapple than pizza or McEngineered food, they probably wouldn’t need to weigh them.

After reading the catalog description, I happened to look out the window, where I saw some sparrows hopping around and occasionally pecking.

This led me to wonder: Apparently, the sparrows are able to find their ways and feed themselves through a challenging Michigan winter, selecting bits of food that will keep them alive and pretty healthy from whatever is available. Can we? I know I’ve opened a big can of worms in the way I formulated this question, but it can’t be helped— and I’m sure quite a few bird species will probably approve.

As I pondered this question, I recalled a television documentary I’d seen on PBS in the early 90s called The Last Navigator. I later learned the show was a follow-up to a book of the same title by Steve Thomas, and I took the time recently to read it. Its subject was traditional oceangoing navigation as practiced by the seafaring peoples of Micronesia.  The author, who had a longtime interest in sailing, had arranged an apprenticeship with Mau Piailug, a traditional master navigator from the Micronesian island of Satawal.

The islanders in the region migrated across the vast Pacific without compass, charts, or other instrumentation. With unwavering focus Piailug was able to guide an outrigger canoe and crew to reach destinations across hundreds or even thousands of miles of open ocean using only celestial bearings and a body of traditional seafaring wisdom. Doing so requires complete immersion in the dynamic complexities of ocean swell systems, animal cues, changing currents and weather conditions. To miss one’s target on an ocean voyage in these scantily provisioned vessels is to risk death. Nonetheless, the inhabitants of these far-flung scraps of land regularly journeyed back and forth to hunt, fish, trade, and refresh their local gene pools.

Given that within living memory the earth has been home to people who were capable of traversing the Pacific in small watercraft by their wits alone, could it really be that we now need an internet-linked device to navigate our dinner plates? I think I hear the sparrows laughing. But I feel it’s worth considering, because navigation – whether to the next island or the next bite to eat – is a central biological process.

To avoid becoming someone else’s lunch is also part of the equation. I was recently amazed as I watched an online video showing staph bacteria attempting to evade a prowling white blood cell.  Odd to think that’s going on inside us all the time. Further, the process of navigation can be seen to scale up to higher-order biological systems such as individual deer, ducks and people, and then further to herds, flocks, and groups of the same species. Even ecosystems, nations and cultures can be said to navigate. As individuals, we have a hardwired “rooting reflex” that helps us with our very first navigational task: finding the nipple. It’s critical, and it’s important to note that the first task of an individual is to seek connection.

Consider the sequence of nautical navigation that has furnished such a ready metaphor here for the many kinds of navigation we engage in. We begin with ancient seafaring skills like those of Mau Piailug, who journeyed through ocean waves well beyond sight of land completely unaided by instrumentation. We see explorers up through the 19th century relying on stars and landmarks, then compasses, charts and observation logs. Finally we come to modern GPS-guided ships with full instrumentation, including satellite communications and information systems. 

But what happens to the voyage as layer upon layer of instrumentation are added?  What happens to the awareness of the voyager?  Finally, what becomes of the ocean? What exactly is this stuff we’re floating on – you can interpret this as broadly as you like – and does the ocean really even matter anymore if we barely have to look at it and it's merely something to churn through? Do we even bother to taste our food after we weigh it with the World’s Smartest Scale? What becomes of life when we withdraw from immediate connection by stages and degrees? 

A few years ago I read a book by Jean Liedloff called The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost that might shed some light on these questions.  Liedloff spent two and a half years living with the Yequana and other indigenous people of the upper Orinoco River basin in Venezuela. In one passage (p. 19) she describes her astonishment upon seeing groups of very slightly built Tauripan people joking and laughing while carrying 75lb packs for miles through equatorial jungle heat – a physical task that would buckle grumbling Europeans twice their size.  How did they do it?  Her answer was by no means simple – I recommend reading the book – but what it came down to is that, like the Micronesian navigators, these people were in continuous communication with their environment.  Because they were not in a state of internal or external disconnection with their surroundings, the jungle supported them just as surely as the sea supported Piailug as he guided his outrigger canoe through the night toward distant horizons. It’s complete connection, a continuum.

I see some profound implications in Liedloff’s observations, and have seen parallels in other stories I’ve read.  For example, my wife Mary and I were married at Camp Ohiyesa in Holly, Michigan, where, it turns out, the noted Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk spent time during the early 20th century.  Seeking to know more, I read the famous account of his life and views, Black Elk Speaks, and somewhere along the way (maybe from the Ohiyesa camp director at the time) I picked up a story about how Black Elk, by then an elder, was observed standing by the lake without a shirt one freezing cold morning. Concerned for his safety and health, a member of the camp staff hurried over and suggested he get a coat on so not to catch cold.  Black Elk replied that on the contrary, this was his way of staying healthy, but acknowledging that these “old ways” were not understood.

In considering that scenario, again we see contrary cultural postures, with the indigenous perspective focused on living through environmental connection and integration while the Western view encourages limiting that exposure. As I recounted the Black Elk story to Mary, she replied by quoting some passages from a book she in her hands at that moment called Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich. The author includes a brief account of the life of John Tanner, a settler who was kidnapped by the Shawnee in 1789 at the age of nine and later sold into the Ojibwe tribe to be raised as the son of a woman whose own son had died. From that point forward, Tanner grew up socialized completely as an Ojibwe. The account cited a description of an astonishing feat of endurance in which Tanner and a companion took turns riding and running beside a horse to cover a distance of 70 miles in a single day, which recalled some of Liedloff’s descriptions of people in the remote Venezuelan jungles. But the part of Erdrich’s narrative that motivated Mary’s sharing was another passage: “Visiting his family in Kentucky after having lived all his life in the north woods, John Tanner fell ill. He grew claustrophobic when nursed inside of a house, and had to sleep outside in his brother’s yard to regain his strength.” (p. 46)

Though it may seem counterintuitive in our culture, it’s possible to seek one’s well being through exposure to the world and to find security through deeper connection with it. It’s very different than having one’s experience mediated by a screen as most of my readers are presumably doing at this moment. Along the same lines, when comparing traditional Micronesian navigators with modern sailing captains and pilots, I am struck by the contrast between Piailug, with his hand on the rudder in continuous engagement with his rigorous and unpredictable environment, versus the relative isolation we see among modern navigators as they retreat to the techno-wombs in the cabins of their ships. 

I speak as a refugee from a culture that either despite or because of its technological wizardry appears to have fundamentally lost its bearings. Among my people these days, it is not uncommon to seek satellite navigational support to find one’s way to a Friday night party, and judging by the catalog item that inspired this writing, apparently some people think that just to be on the safe side it’s a good idea to employ a wireless Internet hookup to negotiate the hazardous and uncertain terrain of their daily meals. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate technology, from the gas-fired furnace in my home currently pushing the chill of this May morning back a step to the electronic medium through which I now communicate with you. However, with these examples and many others, there’s a price to be paid in the way these reconfigure our connections and distances, and not all of the costs involved in these tradeoffs are easy to quantify. One thing that does seem clear is that on a fundamental level, as we put increasing amounts of technology between us and our environment, we are also, in effect, backing away from it.

As we do so, I find myself wondering what we might be backing ourselves into.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

How Many Standing Rocks Do You See?

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, an author identified as one of Utne Reader’s “hundred visionaries who are changing the world.”  I admit I’ve felt a little self-conscious while reading it in auto repair waiting rooms and other public places because the title is suggestive of pulp romance or erotic fiction.  How sensuality ended up being conflated with sexuality in this culture is clearer once you read the book, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s revealing, however, that sex is one of the places in life where the loss of felt connection that Abram does explore is revealed as dysfunctional and ultimately self-defeating. The habit of objectification that reduces breathing trees to so much lumber and a living landscape to an engineering problem doesn’t play out very well when applied to the intimate partners who show up in our beds as mother nature’s representatives, asking for connection.

Abram doesn’t write about this at all, but I’m starting here because it’s personal. We’ve all felt objectified at times, and it registers as anything from rudeness to dehumanizing violation. Most people understand, on some level, that treating others as objects is inappropriate. Often missing from our understanding is that it’s a pervasive feature of Western consciousness, one that efficiently produces destructive results across a broad range of human activities. 

These destructive results are all around us and dominate the news. Abram starts with questions about the origins of the ecological crisis in particular and Western culture’s apparent disregard for the needs of non-human nature. The answer he brings us to is surprisingly simple: we do not experience, as most indigenous peoples do, an immediate and felt connection with the mood of our local river, nor feel in ourselves the place in the general order of things of the redwing blackbird perched on a swaying reed.  Instead of this felt connection, which helped keep the world’s indigenous peoples in fair balance with their environments for thousands of years, there is objectification, separation, distance, and disregard. Western culture, argues Abram, treats rivers and redwing blackbirds as “things,” and often enough the culture treats its own members as “things,” too, which allows for astonishingly callous disregard. If we were feeling ourselves dancing with the living features of our world, we wouldn’t treat our dance partners that way. But we don’t feel it. We’re not dancing. So what are we doing?

Says Abram:

“To define nature as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.” (page 56)

There’s a lot in those two sentences. Consider the many ways this basic dynamic has been playing out between the Standing Rock Sioux and the companies involved in constructing an oil pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota. I’ve spoken with a couple people who have been there, and I’ve followed media accounts that included personal interviews, reporting, and video documentation of what’s happening. Events are often reported as a clash between members of a tribe seeking to prevent a pipeline from endangering its water, and business interests and their law enforcement and private security proxies. The images of uniformed, helmeted, armed and armored police arrayed against a colorful collection of eclectically dressed people carrying feathers and sage have captured attention around the world.

Underneath that confrontation, often framed in terms of legal rights and political objectives, is a basic difference in consciousness. On the one hand we have the bankers and businesspeople operating in faraway towers and their on-the-ground machine operators and police forces. These people have demonstrated no felt connection with the land and see it and the local rivers as merely impediments to getting oil to world markets to realize “profits” in terms of dollars. On the other hand, we have a people who directly feel this land, for whom its tearing open by machines is experienced as a violation not only of the land and their ancestral connection to it, but of their own bodies. Those digging machines are tearing the people up, and once constructed the pipeline will endanger the river that flows through their veins. 

Further, I see a pattern of evidence suggesting that one of the project’s objectives is the destruction of the indigenous sensibilities and felt connection with the land that have informed the opposition. In this, it’s much like the witch burnings and inquisitions of Europe, when hierarchical structures within those cultures began attacking anything that remained of their own indigenous roots (as Abrams goes on to note on page 199), even, as I recently learned elsewhere, publicly burning the harps and murdering the harpers of Ireland. Likewise, it looks to me like Standing Rock has devolved into an attempt on the part of big business to exterminate a particular kind of consciousness, demoralize it, demonstrate its weakness, and win recruits to a less feeling way of existing in the service of these business entities and the governmental agencies they have co-opted.  

The developing story at Standing Rock was suppressed for a very long time. From what I can see, it spread via nonmainstream news and social media, and opposition gathered momentum. Why? Is it an important story?  Evidently quite a few people thought so. But the images, reports and information concerning events at Standing Rock did not spread because of events in Standing Rock alone. The information disseminated because of events happening in individual people’s bodies. Feeling shock, revulsion, anger, grief, and even horror, millions passed the story along using whatever harps we could find in this post-bardic culture. The story passed from feeling/sensing/intelligent body to feeling/sensing/intelligent body. I think it’s amazing how it grew, given the competition for people’s attention bandwidth by Candy Crush, instant Gene Wilder memes, the antic 2016 US general election, and the ongoing deluge of cute animal videos.

In me and I expect many others, the stories triggered a sick sense of eerie dread, a clamoring for justice, a desire to offer material support, and grief for what the people at the Standing Rock encampment have been enduring at the hands of militarized police forces. However, I felt something, and by connecting with these feelings within myself, I connected with these people. From there, seemingly chance encounters led to one-on-one conversations with people who had spent time in the camp, thus breaking through the mental habits of compartmentalizing and objectifying so typical of Western consciousness. First, I opened up to it emotionally. Next thing I knew, without doing anything more than opening to that connection, I was looking into living eyes and hearing living voices in which I could see and feel the events reflected.

And please, I am not comparing my “armchair protesting” with the on-the-ground struggles, hardships, injuries and indignities suffered by the Water Protectors in North Dakota. Emphatically: No. I am suggesting that for the water protectors to ultimately prevail, and not just in North Dakota but globally, we must move into the same kind of felt sense of connection that is motivating and empowering them in their actions. We have to start recovering this kind of awareness, beginning wherever we are. We cannot count on the Water Protectors to feel the devastation for us; we have to bravely feel it for ourselves. And, with utmost respect for the wisdom traditions of the earth’s remaining indigenous peoples, that wisdom won’t make any sense, or be of any use to us, unless we get in touch with our own indigenous wisdom, the kind that arises from the inside.

Making this connection may not be easy for many of us. This is no accident. We are socialized in countless ways out of our indigenous wisdom and the felt connection with ourselves, our surroundings and our fellow beings that informs it. We are conditioned instead to accept received ideas, often and especially in ways that run counter to that felt sense. For example, consider that in the United States, generations of mothers whose every instinct told them to pick up their crying infants were advised by authoritative doctors that “crying is good for a developing baby’s lungs” or that newborns wailing in terror at what they can only assume is abandonment will “teach the baby to self-soothe,” despite the fact that separation from caregivers has proven universally fatal for helpless young mammals since the age of the dinosaurs. Or consider young children who are told to sit still for seven hours a day when every cell in their bodies is telling them to move around a lot and explore the outdoors to develop their growing, sensing bodies in accord with the last million years of human evolution. By following such social programs – and perhaps worse, emulating the models of other people who have preceded us as initiates in these dark arts – eventually we lose connection with our own feeling bodies, and after that happens, it’s but a short step toward running a bulldozer of sullen self-righteousness through ancient burial grounds, or committing any number of crimes against the earth and its inhabitants.

How do we know if we are moving in the direction of our indigenous wisdom? Here’s a handy chart below. If we’re moving in the direction of our indigenous wisdom, we’re probably going to be moving toward the column on the right. The dominant cultural mindset is outlined on the left.

Experience mediated by text, screens, tech            Immediate experience
Symbolizing                                                            Feeling
Abstract thoughts                                                    Perception as conversation
Programming                                                           Spontaneous response
Objectifying                                                             Connecting
Machines, engineered systems & processes            Organic systems
Logical, calculating, detached                                 Holistic reasoning
Unrooted, metastasizing                                          Connected to place
Head-centered experience                                       Whole body experience
Clock-driven                                                            Biological/planetary rhythms
                                   
So here’s a question: Looking at these two columns, which kind of consciousness fills your working days? From what I can see, for most people, our education and employment tend to move us toward the column on the left. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many of us would seek to find balance in recreational activities that move us toward the column on the right. This is fairly hopeful. It’s a good sign when people still know somehow that walking along the beach can be a helpful antidote to 50 weeks spent under fluorescent lights staring at a computer screen in an office cubicle. This is what I mean by indigenous wisdom, and given the forces arrayed against it, it has proven remarkably resilient.

However, there are some caveats in this, and we are in no position for hasty self-congratulations. We’ve been colonized, you see, by a kind of alien intelligence, and it doesn’t give up easily. We might go to the beach, but the alien intelligence will nudge us into thinking we have to consume more than sunshine and salt breezes to get our money’s worth of “fun” while we’re there. We might gingerly feel our ways toward some semblance of embodied consciousness in a yoga studio, but if we’re like most Americans, as we get down on all fours for the first time in ages we very likely will wonder if our hips are too big, if we look sexy in spandex or if we have all our needed equipment. The first thoughts amount to self-objectification; the second reflects the commercial colonization of yogic practice.

I live surrounded on three sides by one of Michigan’s lovely state recreation areas –hundreds of acres studded with lakes, stands of pine, and second-growth oak/hickory forest with trees now reaching maturity in some places. Compared with when I moved here twelve years ago, when I walk the trails today it feels more like a racetrack for bicycles. Although it’s praiseworthy that people are getting outdoors and away from their screens for a while, again I see a very evident infatuation with fashionable biking attire and fancy new high-tech bicycles and gear. Being a man I know how guys tend to be proud of whatever they’ve got going between their legs. In this case (no surprise) it’s a machine, and, as if everyone needs to be reminded that these cyclists are not street cobblers in Calcutta but instead drove here with their bikes atop their cars, their bikes and biking gear have to be super fancy looking. It’s not enough to simply walk in the woods, to amble along or wander off the trail and find a nice place to sit for a while. Instead, it’s more like: “Commuting v.3.0, The Fitness Version.” The sandy, forested hills are not felt as unique entities to get to know, dialog with and explore, but seem instead a mere backdrop for further ego-driven conquering. I step off the footpaths and let them pass at a clip.

Forgive me if this seems harsh. The point is, even within the minimal gestures most people in our culture make toward feeling some kind of connection with the body, the natural world, or with something that isn’t packaged, sold, or pushed at us through a screen, the fragmented bands of indigenous consciousness are colonized and subjected to settlement and exploitation by commercial interests as soon as new territory opens, and this says nothing about the vast swaths of inner landscape already ceded. No wonder so many people seem to be feeling backed up onto a reservation that is being steadily encroached upon and compromised.

I believe this is why the Standing Rock confrontation has gathered so much attention, and why so many of us have felt so deeply what’s really at stake there. Every one of us is a Standing Rock: a piece of the earth where this perennial confrontation is occurring, a place where indigenous wisdom is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with the abstract mandates and fortified self-deceptions of a culture out of touch with the planet. The ongoing conquest and confrontation is happening inside every one of us, and I suspect that becoming aware of this might ultimately decide the outcome of the larger battle.



Thursday, February 9, 2017

Naked Gardening

It’s February, so why am I thinking about naked gardening? Maybe you’ve heard of World Naked Gardening Day, an annual May 1 event whose existence I know about only because it makes the rounds on social media every year, much to the titillation of many who are out for a pleasant spring scroll down their Facebook newsfeeds. The idea of standing naked in the garden, well, let’s just say it’s got mythic dimensions, and while I honor those who buck their cultural programming and get out there to actually do it, my entry today is geared more toward understanding the many people who have yards surrounding their homes, but who as yet have no actual garden in which to even try naked gardening, were they so inclined when the weather warms up. 

Because, let’s be honest: standing naked on a chemically treated lawn in front of geometrically pruned foundation plantings wouldn’t be quite the same. For one thing, there’s little to do out there: no reason to bend to the soil, nothing to pick, plant, taste or smell as it offers itself out of the wet spring earth, and come summertime, no sunflowers or cosmos to strategically reveal and unreveal bodies as they sway to their different tempos in the warm breezes. Instead, there’s nothing. So let’s back it up a notch and get the gardens in place first. It’ll be more fun for everybody.

However, as I consider this more basic issue, I see that the problems involved in establishing a garden are much the same as those we would likely encounter in encouraging gardening in the nude: cultural resistance, a sense of being exposed and alone in one’s passions and life path, and quite possibly in many locations, legal ramifications. But ay yi yi! The bleak uniformity of suburban landscaping! Consider what we're really talking about here. Among people in the world, these are the privileged, and among their precious privileges is something truly remarkable: access to a piece of land. And yet out of this we see crafted a strange kind of sterile, anonymous nowhereland. What’s that about, really? Seems to me it’s about conformity, and about the perceived safety of not standing out. It’s also about class identification, as my friend Lois Robbins was kind enough to enlighten a group of us who had assembled on Earth Day some years ago. In my mind, conformity and class identification are connected: “People like us – we normal people – don’t do that.” Right. We don’t have time. We’re on Facebook or playing candy crush or watching professional sports on TV.

But given the possibility of a discontinuity in the food supply, say, or even just more of the same given that food quality has measurably declined as the decades have rolled by, it might be time to reconsider such social preoccupations. Herd thinking and herd behavior do not represent humanity at its finest, nor do they typically tend to be adaptive. Most people don’t even consider the stampede of suburban outgrowth as a herd phenomenon, but there it is, pretty much the same from coast to coast. 

Fortunately, the long tradition of American self-sufficiency has not been completely exterminated, and in fact every spring we see tons of garden centers filled with plants, including many vegetable starts and seeds. By most accounts, gardening remains the most popular hobby in the United States. Nonetheless, when I walked out to my garden a few minutes ago and stood in the snow that had fallen on the duff of leaves amidst the still-standing but stripped-bare kale stalks, I counted ten homes whose windows I could see from where I stood.  Of these, only two I know of have any food growing on the property at any time of year. These do not represent substantial plantings: in one yard I’ve seen a few tomatoes on occasion and in the other, of all things, four large container-grown fig trees, the love of an Armenian immigrant woman named Genna who lives across the road. I know this because gardening is not a private activity. What we do out there is visible, as is our overall success or failure. Regardless of what we’re wearing, we’re basically exposed for all to see out there. It’s no wonder to me that people who are unsupported by history, knowledge, or community have a hard time taking first steps toward growing some of their own food.  

Noticing this, my hope is that those who “always wanted to start a garden” might gain some insight into some of the reasons why they not have done so yet, and find a way to start. I was lucky to have grown up next door to the Wu family, with two US-born boys about my age and parents who immigrated from China and treated the yard behind their ranch house as a place for productivity instead of merely a placeholder for underused lawn furniture. I vividly recall Mrs. Wu showing me how to gently pull the trumpets from her red salvia flowers to taste the nectar, and Mr. Wu showing me how to build a compost pile and check the corn for worms. Next thing you know at age six I had gathered sunflower seeds from the bird feeder to plant in my sandbox and was watching them rocket upwards to a height of 7 feet. Amazingly, I also had the family support in converting that sandbox into a vegetable garden. (It was a bottomless sandbox, and the zucchinis did especially well.) As a seventh grader with a plan and a shovel, I got a affirmative reply when I asked if I could dig up a section of sod out back and build an herb garden. 

In revisiting the chief purpose of this blog – the sharing of gardening knowledge to build a healthier and more shock resistant local food supply – I feel less than successful. Part of it is, I may have underestimated the zone of social resistance and the nakedness of every gardener before the court of neighborhood opinion and their own inner critics.

For this reason, if as the days grow longer this spring you find yourself feeling that this is finally the year when you’ll try growing something edible, I salute you.  If you’re planning on starting a garden but haven’t done so yet, one shortcut is to start by cultivating relationships, people who will be on your side when you go ahead and be the neighborhood weirdo with hops vines flowering on your porch. Then someday maybe you can invite your neighbors in to sample your home brew – who knows what converts you’ll win? Or you can be the person who gives a neighbor girl her very first sun-ripened strawberry; it’s a moment that can change a life. Or just be the one who confidently walks out some quiet August evening some years from now and returns to your kitchen with a fresh bunch of kale to feed your family. You won’t be naked, but you will be noticed, and that’s ok you never know when you might get a visit from a neighbor kid with a lot of questions and an unused sandbox in the back yard.