by Peter Wallack under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

Some years ago, I spent extended time in the National Forests of Colorado and Utah. Between archaeological projects, I would have several weeks at a time for leisure, exploration, solitude. Sometimes I travelled and searched out places that I hadn’t been to before. Other times I practiced “staying”, or “being in place.”

The area I was in was at some elevation, and there were noble stands of Ponderosa pine, enormous trees that smelled of vanilla and created a very open and inviting park-like setting. One particular day I was out on a hike, wandering outwards from my base camp on various forest roads that criss-crossed and meandered. I remember feeling very alive, aware of my own aliveness, and aware of my curiosity about the trees, the geography, the clouds, etc….one of those days when every individual thing seems like a book, completely open for me to read from, if only I am willing to spend the time.

I had brought with me, almost as an afterthought, a Peterson’s bird guide. Somewhere in my mind I had thought that, as long as I had free time on my hands, perhaps I should learn to make some identifications, improve my standing as a “naturalist.” There always seemed something heroic about those intrepid 19th century gents (and a few ladies) who had adventured to parts unknown and had come back with a clear and precise list (if not a whole menagerie of samples) of what “things” are in the big wide world. Well, me with a Peterson guide felt like being Darwin without the hard work, Audubon without needing a paintbrush. Natural historian, lite.

On this day, I hadn’t gone out doggedly determined to “identify.” But as I hiked, the guidebook rubbed against my butt in my back pocket and gave me a little physical reminder that I could add a pinch of productivity to my high-spirited stroll in the woods. So, when I saw in the distance a little grove of aspen trees squeezed into a little spot between two Ponderosa stands, and I furthermore saw and heard some tiny birds flitting about, I pulled the guide book out. Even at this distance, I “recognized” the birds as chickadees though I wasn’t close enough really to see their markings well. It was just that the chickadee was a fairly common bird, one I that knew, and that these little birds were the right size and were behaving in ways that didn’t surprise me. So, my starting ID was “chickadee.”

I approached further, starting to leaf through the book to find the right section, and even as I got to the correct page, I remembered that there is one species commonly named “Black-capped Chickadee” (Poecile atricapillus) and another one, only slightly different in markings, named “Mountain Chickadee” (Poecile gambeli) which was to be found in the Rockies. Now, I’m from Wisconsin, so the black-capped is the one I’ve been familiar with through most of my life. But now, with page held open, reading the information, examining R.T. Peterson’s carefully drawn marking differences in the book, I felt like my original chickadee ID was not good enough! These birds must be identified correctly!

Luckily, chickadees are gregarious birds and generally happy to hang around when human company comes. I approached closer, looking to see if I could spot the color of the feathers around the eye. Mountain chickadees have “a black postocular stripe behind distinctive white eyebrows.” Sitting in the grass, looking up, watcing them, my bad eyesight and eye took enough time to confirm that these were mountain chickadees. A triumph of investigative naturalism, right?

Well, no, not exactly. My eyesight isn’t great, to say the least, so it took me some time and patience to really make sure what I was seeing. I sat there nearly an hour, watching the birds (3 of them) flit, perch, sing, fluff, swoop, hop, etc. And so, even as I was feeling more confident in my eye stripe observation, I was noticing that this one (Chickadee #1) had one of his tail feathers skewed a little to the side and that other one (Chickadee #2) was the one that kept going back to that same perch on that aspen tree, etc. It started to dawn on me that if I sat here long enough, if I had the patience of Darwin and the artistic eye of Audubon, eventually I would see each of these chickadees as a totally unique and individual creature. And then, I pondered philosophically, is Chickadee #3 (let’s call him Ralph) best known as (1) a mountain chickadee, (2) a chickadee, (3) a bird, (4) an animal? (And don’t think the list ends there. If we can stretch ourselves to think ecologically, there are much larger categories as well). Or is “Ralph”, the affectionate label I gave him/her and which encompasses what I experienced about him/her while I spent an hour in his/her company, equally as accurate a description of that wonderful animated life? In other words, was Ralph, the animal-bird-chickadee-mountain chickadee more accurately described as a thing that I can place in a category, or as that with which I had a relationship?

_____________

Wherefore this anecdote? What does this have to do with sustainability? Well, the time spent with Ralph had a profound effect on me. It critically changed how I think about the natural world, what it is and what my relationship is to it.

There is an innate human desire to understand. Understand what?….pretty much anything humans come into contact with. We are the animals that delve, that look into, that want to know what it’s all about. This desire to understand has been turned full force on the natural world since the dawn of the human species. But is the desire to understand the same as understanding? Are there good ways to understand and bad ways? Are knowledge and wisdom the same thing? And once understanding is attained does it require some sort of responsibility on our part?

One side of this picture is the human capacity to understand by rationally knowing, i.e. by identifying, labelling, organizing, measuring, connecting the dots. Data and the computing power of our brains lead us to a world of timing, efficiency, and predicting the future – all very useful things when you want to make a good decision. This talent, developed more highly in humans than in other living things, is undoubtedly one of the factors that has allowed us to survive and prosper on this planet. By knowing things, as “things”, they are easier to manipulate, overcome, defend against, manage, control, etc. It is a remarkable skill which, in conjunction with our ability to share information with other humans, not only contemporarily, but also into suceeding generations, has made us the all-time champion of “clever” animals. It has been critical to our power in the world….originally, the power to survive and then later, and only quite recently in our species’ history, the power to dominate natural environments.

On the other side of the picture is understanding by “having a relationship with.” This is understanding that develops through spending time with, observing (without categorizing), accepting, appreciating beings, things and systems for what they are, having affection, and loving. Think about all of the closest relationships you have with people in your life. Whether you are thinking about your spouse, your parents, your child, your best friend or your long time colleague at work, it is highly likely that you would say that you “know” them. But you didn’t get to know them simply by labelling them or by compiling statistics and facts about them. You didn’t do experiments on them (hopefully!) and, while you might think you can predict some of their behavior, you don’t enjoy their company because of their predictability. You know and understand them because you have spent much time with them. You’ve seen them in different moods and different situations. You’ve seen them change. You’ve had fun with them, been angry at them, laughed with them, forgiven them, apologized to them, touched them, given them space….and much, much more. Your knowing them is not so sharply specific as the genome data gleaned from a blood sample or a soil pH reading. Yet, I doubt anyone who has come to know another within the context of working at and living through relationship would ever trade that fuzzy, flexible, unreliable but ultimately personal understanding for a rationally, scientifically precise list of proven facts about their friend.

I do not want to denigrate the first way of knowing that I outlined above. I am deeply impressed and appreciative of the human mind. My own life and all of our lives have been enriched by the many minds that came before us to a degree that is hard to fathom. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and I thank them. Yet our over-reliance on this side of the picture of understanding has led us to a crisis, one which I believe we will not be able to overcome unless we invigorate the other side of our understanding. It is in relationship that our rational knowledge finds its proper place. Knowing in relationship requires that we begin to know ourselves better as well and this is the starting point of taking true responsibility for how we live.

As I see it used, the concept of sustainability sets up its own conversation in a way such that measurement, categorization, quantification, efficiency and acceptable loss are of prominent importance. The playing field of the debate is already chosen. There are quantifiable “bottom lines,” be they measured in dollars, board feet, number of mouths fed, acreage, species mix ratio, etc. It is my assertion that any question posed this way can only, at best, lead us to be better “managers,” when, in fact, it is not poor or inefficient management that is the problem. While collections of data and analysis can certainly be useful, they are completely silent on a far more crucial question. That question is this: Where do we get the wisdom to decide if, when and how to use the power that our “clever” knowledge has made available to us?

The ultimate decisions that will matter will not come from managers that “manage the world,” whatever that phrase could possibly mean. What is needed is the wisdom to manage ourselves, first as individuals, and subsequently in the context of community and culture. What needs to be “sustainable” is not something outside ourselves but a way of life that starts inside ourselves, that includes gratitude, acceptance, contentment, humility and responsibility.

My encounter with Ralph, the mountain chickadee, now as I think about it these so many years later, was importantly an encounter with myself, with my own biases, a desire for control, a mindset…and then, luckily, a moment when I found the world to be bigger and more unique than my mind could contain. I loved the world then, not because I was able to pin it down, separate from myself, but because I understood that I was part of it.

© 2018, Steve Wiencek

4 thoughts on “Sustain What?

  1. Well said. I do believe that not enough people use your second definition of understanding. I think the key, then, to promoting sustainability and awakening the desire for that kind of relationship understanding, is to show people how much everything is connected. How do we show people, make them curious about the inter-connectivity, and how we fit, not just in our own, small piece of the world, but in the vastly larger picture of humanity, the natural world, Mother Earth? Our human egos hinder us in this endeavor. Thanks for sharing your story about Ralph and how it has changed you. 🙂

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  2. Yes, I agree. Your essay reminds me of what Dorothy Day said about changing our world and our community: “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, or the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.” ~ Dorothy Day

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    1. Thank you for your response and the always inspiring words of Dorothy Day. I want to carefully disagree, though, on a significant point here. I think a central matter in my own pursuit of “sustainability” requires a profound humility, and, within this humility, a sense that there is great wisdom in NOT being too eager to change the world. (In the Mary/Martha dichotomy I’m well to the Mary side). The path from the feeling of compassion to the choosing what to do when we feel it is not always as simple as we might think, especially if we have pre-conceived notions of who or what is more valuable.

      I appreciate your comments and welcome the discussion.

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  3. Humanity, so acutely well observed, Steve. This is such an insightful essay on the human condition that it has given me a new perspective on our place in a world so full of variety and individuality that I wonder at the rationality and irrationality of our technological endeavours. Thank you.

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