Juvenile Robin – Perfectly Still After Becoming Aware That I Was Watching
Notes from field:
“Approached from NE. Savanna Sparrow on usual perch at SE corner ofService Berry rows. Male and female Cedar Waxwings
feeding on service berries infected with fungal rust disease. These infected berries are enlarged in a similar way to a gall. The asymptomatic berries are still very small and immature. The male plucks berries while perched or hovering in flight, brings a berry to female, and places it in her beak. She either eats it or gives it back. He then gives it back to her — eventually she eats it. They do not seem to mind the rust disease. At 10-15′ away, they are unconcerned with me.
Crows to S respond to alarms of crows 200 yards to the E where Bald Eagle flies low over canopy of tall Cottonwoods. Yesterday, I watched Eagle fly low over the Spruce across the street from my house where there is a crow’s nest with chicks. Eagle was mobbed by about 10 crows.
Robins ditch W. into mid-canopy. One remains on ground under service berries. Flattens itself to ground with beak tilted up to W. Makes persistent, high pitched, “seep” alarm, indicating an accipiter. Alarm grows quieter and quieter, then stops. Occasionally resumes or brief time. Robin holds perfectly still for 15 minutes, even as a loud group, which scared them before, walks by. Eagle briefly soared very high overhead, but I’m not sure this was the cause of the alarm.
Raccoon moving quietly into cattails & Vole Tunnel Entrance
At Sit Spot: Robin alarms, tut tut, at my approach. Sparrow comes out to investigate. There are loud splashes in the water and I suspect otters since I discovered an otter latrine forming on the bank last week. I lay still for nearly an hour, waiting for one to come ashore near me. Eventually I move forward and climb a thick willow downed by Beaver sticking high out over the water. I realize that what I thought were otters were actually massive carp… At this moment, Raccoon walks right below me, feeling through the world with sensitive hands. Raccoon moves into cattails, up to chest in the water and is feeling with hands. Seems to be grabbing at something. Completely unaware I am right above.
Exploring trail, I hear a begging call and shortly discover two juvenile Robins and two perturbed parents. The one juvenile remains perfectly still and has its portrait taken.
I learned later that the berry exchange of the Cedar Waxwings is a courting behavior. Last week I observed a different courting behavior where the male and female face away from each other and make a few hops. Then turn toward each other, hop together, and often touch beaks. I am altogether charmed by Cedar Waxwing.
“The tradition of the scout gets at the heart of what makes it possible for all of us to cooperate — accountability through observation. It is the same foundation referred to in Foundations for Ecological Literacy.”
Perceiver, Protector, Provider, Preserver. These are four roles of the ancient scout, a tradition I was immersed in this past week (and to some extent in the past year). The scout is the epitome of ecological literacy. The source of that ecological literacy is the same source for the accountability and reliability of the scout as a community member and person.
Joanna and me shortly after returning from a week of little sleep immersed completely in our senses. Photo by Kristian Boose
Alderleaf Wilderness College describes the scout like this:
“Wilderness scouts played a vital role in hunter-gatherer cultures by traveling afar to locate food and resources, while gathering information on potential dangers. They were considered the “eyes & ears” and protectors of the tribe.”
The scout was vital to the well-being of whole communities and required total accountability. We can conjure the scout out of slippery traces from the past and discover a role model for how to live well together and how to show our true faces.
We learn the responsibilities of the scout with four P’s: Perceiver, Protector, Provider, Preserver. We learn the skills involved: deep naturalist knowledge; bird language, tracking; awareness and observation; and more.
In theory this all sounds noble, but how it is relevant to a busy life in an urban apartment is lost upon many. The tradition of the scout gets at the heart of what makes it possible for all of us to cooperate — accountability through observation. It is the same foundation referred to in Foundations for Ecological Literacy.
Our over-professionalized culture is so fragmented that there are few roles that require complete solidity of character. We generally draw sharp distinctions between personal and professional life and that is evidence of our lack of community accountability. There is implicit permission to wear several masks, but never show one’s actual face to any one group of people.
Accountability grows out of genuine awareness and observation. Observation requires continuously asking oneself, “what am I actually observing?” Sounds simple, but we are rarely called upon to be accountable to our senses. If you doubt this, begin documenting all the cases in which you or those around you offer up concepts instead of observations as the basis for a belief, action, statement, or opinion. OR, think back to childhood and ask yourself whether you were ever mentored in the challenging art of observation -- how to move the body while attuning the eyes, ears, nose, and skin to pick up different kinds of information accurately and how to use the art of questioning to confirm observations.
In the park a few weeks ago, I was looking up at the sky. A man walked by and said, “Oh, you’re watching the crow harass that eagle.” He walked on by quickly. I was watching one bird harass another, Cooper’s Hawk harassing Red Tailed Hawk. Cooper’s Hawk is smaller than Red Tailed and possesses a long, narrow tail, has stiff wing beats, and can be easily confused with Sharp Shinned Hawk, but not easily with Crow if one is seeing clearly. Among other features, Red Tailed Hawk’s beautiful cinnamon-colored fan of a tail was displayed fully in the bright sun. This man did not report what he was actually seeing, but a story that served some alternative purpose. I have to wonder if this attitude applies only to birds, or whether he carries it into all realms of life.
David Abram wonders:
Is it possible to grow a worthy cosmology by attending closely to our encounters with other creatures, and with the elemental textures and contours of our locale? We are by now so accustomed to the cult of expertise that the very notion of honoring and paying heed to our directly felt experience of things — of insects and wooden floors, of broken down cars and bird pecked apples and the scents rising from the soil seems odd and somewhat misguided as a way to find out what’s worth knowing. According to assumptions long held by the civilization in which I’ve been raised, the deepest truth of things is concealed behind appearances, in dimensions inaccessible to our senses.” ~ David Abram, “Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology”
In the first many years of every human life, a child relies exclusively on direct experience or on the reliability of the observations made by caregivers. Mathematics, microscopes, theories are secondary structures built upon the ability to use one’s primary senses. This remains true throughout life — the primary senses, “what are we actually observing,” is the only thing that holds us accountable. If they go undeveloped or become atrophied, so does accountability in society, science, religion, community, family…
I am grateful for my time learning the way of the scout. While the scout no longer exists as a discrete role in our society, we are each called upon to model the fundamental roles and skills of the scout if we truly wish to achieve goals likes democracy, equality, cooperation, and accountability. Reliability of observation is the foundation for children and adults alike, a tradition worthy of renewal.
Douglas Squirral (Tamiasciurius douglasii)
As our track and sign evaluator, Casey McFarland, said to us at ourCyberTracker evaluation, “Watching animals is how we [humans] learned who we are.” The art of track and sign (including bird language) is our most accessible window into the lives of the myriad web of intelligent animals bustling around us all the time. A relationship with those others forms the emotional foundation for an ecological theory of mind. Without that foundation, the meaning of ecological data as communicated in magazines, nature specials, news reports, etc., seems less than real and fails to be fully relevant to our lives.
From Birth: Although there are many ways to access and empathize with life on earth, tracking is the only one that can begin at
birth. I know of 3 and 4-year-olds who easily recognize various plants, birds, and animal sign. Think about this: For the first 18 months or so of a children’s lives, their attention is directed by primary caregivers, usually parents, but also elders and the wider family in complete communities. The ability to name or gesture toward are the primary tools for orienting children’s attention and is the foundation of children’s ability to learn. These tools of naming and gesture are made articulate and complete by the caregiver’s “naturalist knowledge” and tracking is at the heart of naturalist knowledge. If, for example, a parent walks around saying, “Look at the tree. Look at the car. Vroom vroom,” a child’s awareness will lack context and be limited to an object called “tree” that is devoid or life and relationship.
The distinct sign of Douglas Squirrel harvesting bark for nest material
Awareness: In the Pacific Northwest,Douglas Squirrel (Tamiascurius douglasii) harvests nesting material primarily from Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). This sign is distinct and abundant. Caregivers will open a world of interconnected relationships to children with the ability to orient attention to Western Red Cedar and then, more specifically, to the soft, fibrous feel, the sweet smell, and the rich brown-red color of the squirrel de-barking, and then from the de-barking to the likely Douglas Squirrel perched on a nearby branch fussing with a fir cone. Repeating this practice of orienting attention lays the foundation for a child’s awareness in the next phase of life when the child is directing his own exploration and learning to a greater extent.
Relationships: As a child begins its self-mobilized, exploratory phase of life, attention to Douglas Squirrel will draw attention to the ground where Douglas Squirrel leaves large middens of cone scales. Digging through these scales, the child may find that underneath the pile are intact, uneaten cones. Later in life, the child may learn that the midden piles create a cool, preservative micro-environment that keeps their cones from opening and either reseeding or being gobbled up by mice, birds, or other critters. They will also become familiar with sight, smell, and feel or the surrounding plants and trees, like fir, hemlock, and spruce. From there, children will discoverPileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at home on dead snags and the wood-boring insects that Woodpecker feeds on. Relationship-based orientation opens a child’s capacity for self-learning. The principle of self-learning carries out of the forest and into all realms of life.
Story, Science, and Imagination: Louis Liebenberg writes in his book “The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science:”
“To interpret tracks and signs trackers must project themselves into the position of the animal in order to create a hypothetical explanation of what the animal was doing. Tracking is not strictly empirical, since it also involves the tracker’s imagination. Generally speaking, one may argue that science is not only a product of objective observation of the world through sense perception. It is also a product of the human imagination. A creative hypothesis is not found or discovered in the outside world, it comes from within the human mind.”
Each child’s life is like the dawn of humanity. That child depends on the recapitulation of over 100,000 years of collective cultural knowledge in order to become a participant in culture. Liebenberg beautifully articulates how tracking is at the foundation of both our scientific mind and our imagination.
We like to say that “tracking is seeing through time.” Humans may be the animal most adept at this and it makes us unique. This ability is at the route of storytelling, the fundamental mode of our communication. Awareness of track and sign, opens up something that most people in our culture are blind to — aside from the squirrel or chirping bird and the landscape bush, there is a world of owls, weasels, cougars, raccoons, bears, rats, voles, moles, chipmunks, bats, and an endless list of others bustling around us just beyond the realm of our awareness. With all our technology and specialized knowledge, we are still developmentally bound to tracking as the only way to lay the emotional foundation for the rest of life.
Empathy: Tracking, the act of imagining oneself as an animal or plant results in an Ecological Theory of Mind. Just as theory of mind is critical in basic cooperation and love between humans, ecological theory of mind is critical for the cooperation of humans with the wider world that we ultimately depend upon and for love of that world. Largely because most of us were not raised with a foundation in tracking, few understand or acknowledge that this art is the only way to raise a child with an ecological theory of mind. For the same reason, few understand that basic tracking, enough tracking to do wonders for a child, is readily accessible to adults and can make all the difference for the world. It can be as simple as knowing how to name Douglas Squirrel, to see the stripped bark on Western Red Cedar, and to tell the story to an infant who may not yet understand the words, but who will look, feel, smell and begin to develop a vital connection with the world.
Colonies of Cyanobacteria (Stromatolites) in Shark Bay, Australia
Open collaboration (aka open source) is nothing new, it is somewhere around 3.5 billion years old. If you know how to look with your designer’s mind, the products of open source design are all around you — you are one of them.
Life itself was built through open collaboration. For life as a whole and for humans as a species, open collaboration is an evolutionary strategy (or learning model) that allows for the flexible adaptation that enables life to persist through the constant bucks and throws of a chaotic cosmos.
Take oxygen in the atmosphere, for example. Somewhere around 3 billion years ago, during the Archean eon, some innovative bacterium shifted from using sunlight to split molecules of hydrogen sulfide gas, releasing sulfur as a byproduct, to splitting H2O and releasing oxygen as a byproduct. This was the first cyanobacterium. Through bacteria’s proclivity for open collaboration (horizontal gene transfer), oxygen-producing bacteria quickly blanketed the earth and formed the evolutionary foundation for respiring animals from which we evolved. Without the open source sharing of the genes for water-based photosynthesis, life might still be like one enormous fart network, a giant sphere of browning methane, rather than the symphony of sparrows, bumblebees, flowers, and blue babbling brooks we call home.
To this day, we are dependent on open collaboration in bacteria for our survival. 90% of cells in our bodies are microbes, many of which are bacteria (all are descendant from bacteria). The body of the earth still depends on that foundation of cyanobacteria for an atmosphere habitable for what we know as life.
Cultural exchange resembles the open collaboration of bacteria and is subject to the same malfunctions in learning and adaptation when open collaboration is inhibited. When we mess with open collaboration at the cultural level, we mess with the whole evolutionary structure down to its bacterial foundations. How could it work any other way when microbes make up a substantial portion of what we call the self? Antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and therefore with humans, is a perfect example of cultural ecology affecting bacterial ecology and bacterial ecology feeding back to affect a culture around “superbugs.”
We find the root superbugs, as with most modern products, in the emergence of agriculture. Apprehensions toward agricultural society’s tendency toward control and consolidation of power can be seen in the story of Genesis, the story of Gilgamesh, and in oral traditions long preceding the transcription of stories like these. In history class, this narrative is typically picked up quite a bit later with Enclosure in England followed by the Corn Laws. But we can witness the narrative playing out right now in the result of industrial agriculture’s chemical warfare approach to controlling food production.
Researchers have found that anti-biotic resistant genes pass readily between livestock-associated and human-associated bacteria, linking drug resistance in humans with agricultural populations. Once anti-biotic resistant genes are in the mix, they spread rapidly through global populations through bacterial open collaboration.
Open collaboration is an ecological principle and only narrowly conceived as a computer phenomenon, fad, or business innovation strategy. Open collaboration is an evolutionary imperative as ancient as life itself, one that can be witnessed all around us and in our own bodies.
As an ecological principle, open collaboration is a core aspect of ecological literacy. The ability to perceive open collaboration in process in the world around us and to incorporate it into our lives is a vital part of the development of a designer’s mind and of the foundation for an ecologically conscious citizenry.
During the summer of 2010, I met the first child in my life who grew up gardening, enjoying unstructured play, attending un-standardized school, playing in forests, planting trees, collecting wood, showering with water heated by sun, and defecating into composting systems. This child would have been challenged to come up with a way that he was not connected to the world around him. I wonder if he could differentiate himself from the world at all. This child had something that fewer and fewer children have.
Awhile back I made a post about the necessity for a word in addition tosolastalgia, that describes the inability to feel solastalgia as a result of never having had a sense of place to begin with. Most children today do not have a sense of place.
I was delighted and surprised when I received a response from Glenn Albrecht, the philosopher who coined the term solastalgia through his development of a framework for describing what he calls “pscyhoterratic” (from psycho – mind and terra – earth) health conditions. Albrecht’s work has focused on theoretical and applied approaches to understanding the relationship between ecosystem and human health.
Albrecht called this inability to feel solastaglia, “ecoretrogression.” Here is his description:
“Our children don’t have a form of amnesia about the environment. They have no relevant eco-memory to forget about the way things were. What they have is a form of negativity which deprives them of that which they need to know.
The negativity is like retrogression in evolution where things become less complex and less diverse over time. Some call it the path to extinction.
Therefore, our children are suffering from socially induced ecoretrogression which is the disturbing idea that the current generation is less ecologically literate, less ecologically attuned, less ecologically aware and less ecologically emotional than previous generations. As a consequence, they are unable to respond to the enormous risks posed by ecosystem distress and global warming.”Ecology is often thought of as one more silo’ed off field of science, but the emergence of ecology is really an evolution in the way we think. Ecology does not fit into the silos of decades past and it creeps out of its academic confines in ways that physics and chemistry never have. When we talk about ecology, we are simply talking about how things relate.
The way we perceive is through patterns and those patterns are evidence of relationship, of ecology, of the presence of life. Consider a photograph of mars and another of earth. One is patterned and the other is, relatively unpatterned, or lifeless.
Pattern is life. Perception is the presence of pattern. Without pattern there is undifferentiated void. There is absence of mind.
Retrogression refers to a return to an earlier state. For the first billion years of earth’s existence there was no life. Photographed from the outside, earth would have been relatively unpatterned and less complex.
Children and adults today lack environments with pattern. Sure the streets are laid out in a “grid pattern.” But this pattern is static and standard. It does not cycle and pulse, it does not exhibit the variation that is evidence of life in progress. One could say the grid is a dead. The fact that children in car dominated environments cannot make mental maps of their area is evidence of the inability to perceive and to remember that accompanies the absence of pattern. What we cannot perceive, we cannot feel and feeling is the heart of the soul.
Ecological literacy is the ability to perceive patterns. It is foundational to perception itself and its disappearance is only remedied by cultivating the awareness of patterns in our environments and bringing them to life.
Photo by: Mark Byzewski
Just a few days ago while driving in Central, WA, I mistook a white plastic bag hanging from sage brush for the rump of a big horned sheep. I had been searching for big horns for a few days and my heart jumped when I spotted the white rump. After another moment of focusing in, my excitement turned to amusement at the sight of the plastic bag stirring in the breeze. Everybody has this experience of when memory upstages reality by failing to properly complete the fragmented patterns of sensory input.
Despite the fact that our sensory input is fragmented, we all experience a coherent, fluid perception of the world. Memory is what takes that fragmented input and turns it into smooth experience.
The moral of the story is that perception is only as good as the patterns stored in our memories. In practice, we can all improve our ability to recognize patterns, which in turn improves memory, which in turn improves perception.
The Center for Ecological Literacy identifies Networks, Nested Systems, Cycles, Flows, Development, and Dynamic Balance as core principles of living systems. So these are the principles, the dynamic patterns, we must be able to observe in order to achieve ecological perception. None of the principles mention objects, yet objects (street signs, double yellow lines, pages of print, concrete) are what we spend most of our time observing. Object-oriented perception pays a price in the currency of context.
Objected-oriented focus is the norm in Western cultures and can been seen in many everyday behaviors. The research of Richard Nisbett shows that Westerners tend to overlook context as an influence of behavior and show a poor capacity, in relation to many other cultures, to perceive relationships among events. Westerners tend to organize knowledge by category unlike other cultures that focus on how objects and events relate to one another. Western infants tend to learn nouns more quickly than verbs. Westerners often use formal logic when reasoning, even if that logic repeatedly results in error and frequently have difficulty understanding and accepting multiple-causality and seemingly contradictory phenomena.
There are advantages and disadvantages to these tendencies. One advantage is Westerners have a knack for producing revolutionary science. One disadvantage is Westerners have a hard time understanding systems, living and otherwise, which are in constant flux and best described by relationships, not components or categories. In short, Westerners most often do not have the perceptual tools for ecological perception.
Many perceptual shifts that improve pattern recognition, memory, and ultimately ecological perception are easily accessible with practice, even if you did not grow up with them. Two common ones among naturalists are known as Owl Eyes and Fox Walking. In later posts I will talk about both of these and other shifts to open up ecological perception. Together, we will learn to see bags where there be bags, and sheep where there be sheep and maybe all get to know reality a little bit better.
Becoming a naturalist means expanding awareness by learning through a complementary process of observation and research how to ask questions and what questions to ask. Unlike the molecular biologist, for example, the naturalist primarily engages what is perceivable with the senses we come with. She endeavors to perceive relationships, how those relationships have changed over time, and what evidence around her tells that story. The naturalist’s product is a story and her primary tool is questions. The service of those stories is to provide context, the substrate for the moral, ethical, economical, and other decisions that we make.
The very last, and often regrettable, step for the naturalist is to assert conclusions in any other form than story. The reason I think is that the naturalist spends time observing and asking about processes and relationships. But conclusions are most often treated like static objects to be used like a hammer rather than as points in another process that is subject to its relations and to change and can be consulted like a mentor.
The naturalist’s mind welcomes and knows well the manifold set of causes underlying any event, that all are valid, that none are singularly responsible, that we never have the complete picture, and that the causes are always changing form, just as sunlight becomes a leaf becomes a snail becomes escargot becomes human. At the same time, the naturalist knows there are patterns and principles that are shared by every event, that these patterns provide the frame for the story, and ultimately that these patterns may also be subject to change.
My protagonist is Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). We see her often, but rarely ask about what she is doing. This lady above is Momma Grey Squirrel and she presently has two kittens who were born last summer. Shortly after they were born Momma moved her kittens, grasping their bellies in her mouth, carrying them from across our street, through our garden, out our back gate, and over the neighbor’s house to the nest where they now live. In the picture above Momma is stripping wet cardboard and bundling it in her mouth. After getting a full mouthful Momma heads for her nest. I can see from the tattered cardboard that she has done this before.
Momma is maintaining her nest. She may have more kittens soon and the kittens I have watched grow will soon start their own careers in the big city of Seattle. This could be the end of the story, but I have a question: How does Momma know how to use cardboard?
Absent cardboard, she uses materials she has an ancient relationship with, like bark. Momma will strip the fibrous inner bark from dead branches and use this soft material for the inside of her nest. Yet somehow she treats cardboard like an old friend. Momma tells me though, that it is, “not bark that I perceive and need, but the quality of bark. Carboard will do fine.” The story of Momma’s evolution would seem not to be between her and bark, but between her and those things in her environment that have the right qualities for lining a nest.
Okay, end of story. But I have another question: How do you perceive the quality of bark and know how to use a material that is not bark if you or your ancestors never encountered it before?
Momma says, “When I see, smell, taste, feel, or hear, I do not see bark, but those qualities that afford the lining of my nest.” Of course. How else would you get by when things change or adapt when new circumstances present themselves? I find it easy to see the same behavior in myself — no screwdriver, use a knife, it has the same flat end and a handle to apply torque. Perception and behavior, it seems, is specific to an organism and to the functions afforded by the quality of the things encountered in their world. I see the principle we share in common with Momma squirrel. But I have to say, when I see wet cardboard, I do not line my nest with it.
Okay, I have one more question: So what?
Well, here is one “so what” that affects all of us. Most municipalities, government departments, even schools and scientists look at plants as either native (harmonizing) or exotic (chaotic/invasive/potentially invasive). Exotics, they say, are organisms that arrived by modern vectors like planes, trains, and automobiles. However, the paleobiological record tells us that ecosystems, regions, and the whole biosphere change and species get around regardless of humans. Moreover, observation tells us that exotic species almost only override existing assemblages of ecological relationships where there has been a major disturbance, much the way an open wound becomes infected, but also in the same way that a healing salve may be applied.
The picture to the right shows japanese knotweed, a notorious “invasive species,” which has been fed on by beavers at Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve. Beavers often feed on aquatic plant, such as the rhizomes of cattail (Typha sp.) and are doing the same with this exotic. We know that the Bob Heirman area was, at one point, disturbed and degraded by the presence of a gravel mine and then by agricultural and livestock uses.
A huge industry links government, chemical companies, and seasonal labor (who monetarily depend on this work) through injecting knotweed with herbicides each year in a projects of mass chemical extermination. Yet not a single municipality asks the question, what is the function of knotweed? What quality does it perceive in this environment that affords the knotweed a niche for life? What effect does herbicide have on the beaver who perceives the knotweed the same way he perceives cattail? What functions is the knotweed affording the land where it is growing? Is it affording more functions than plants there before? Were the plants there before the knotweed struggling to serve the functions they used to? What creatures have found the knotweed to afford them vital behaviors?
If you ask Momma Squirrel, she lives in your backyard, she will tell you some of the questions to ask. Ecosystems are in constant flux, she tells us. Our ecological relationships are not so tightly co-evolved that we cannot adapt to novel patterns in our environments. Our relationships are pattern specific, not species specific. Although, some species may be so specialized to a certain pattern that there is little or nothing that can replace that relationship, ecosystems, overall, are more resilient than that and more tolerant of change. As a whole, our ecosystems have something to tell us about how to respond to change compassionately and empirically, if we just ask a few more questions.
Early Morning in Fog with Grey Fox on Oregon Dunes
In the beginning there was darkness. Then movement. As I moved, I knew my arms, my hands, and fingers as the joints rolled through time, one over another and gripped space. By the rustling wind, I knew my ears and a world beyond my shivering skin. Sand sprayed against sand and was slapped by grasses. By my breath I knew my nose and of the moisture that carries smell.
We moved blindly out until grey moved through the edge of darkness and I knew shape, light, sight. Morning permeated the veil of night.
Patterns took form around me as the world differentiated specter by specter seeking color. Mind arrived with the minds of others.
Wind drifts calmly, perpendicular to the spine of the great, slow being atop of which I ride. Dune it is called. They arrange themselves in shifting striations. They know themselves by the sculpting caress of the wind. She blows from the Northwest, where the waters stretch to the edge of another place.
Dunes speak, always. But they remember only when Wind is silent. She is gentle this morning. From the treeline came scratching and scrambling, ascending and descending, creatures of night and day, and ones whose world is on the edge between the two.
Dune says that Fox is here. Reliefs of delicate paws are strung as dots of darkness into the exhaling shadow. Fox is trotting to where Wind dwells and we follow. Among the grasses Fox stops. He tells us, “Here is another world. You know because I know.” Dune tells us that Mouse has a world here, that she was also here before the grey light. Fox, only briefly dismayed, did not find Mouse this morning. He trotted on toward the place where Wind dwells…
In 2003, an Australian philosopher named Glenn Albrecht coined a term, Solastalgia, to describe what is a familiar feeling for many today:
Solastalgia: noun. From the Latin solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain). “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’.”
Solastalgia could result from a natural disaster, development, or anything that drastically alters a landscape. Much of Albrecht’s research focused on areas in New South Wales, Australia that have been ravaged by many consecutive years of drought associated with changing climate and areas in NSW subjected to large scale open-cut coal mining. Solastalgia emerged from Albrecht’s attempts to describe the specific kind of depression that set in amongst the population there, leaving a person homeless of soul regardless of shelter overhead and perceptually and emotionally adrift with all familiar patterns and personalities stripped away.
But solastalgia is something reserved for those who have had a home. During this time of pervasive, standardized development, the phenomenon I fear most is not solastalgia but the inability to feel solastalgia. Many people now are born homeless, even when sheltered, clothed, and fed. The standard approach to economic development reduces the diversity of observations, learning, cultural transmissions potential in one’s personal developmental context.
During high school I would hike up to a place called The Bald Spot, a bare rocky outcrop along a forested ridge overlooking the valley where I grew up. There was a rough trail about a quarter of the way up to the top and a spot where that trail began to dissolve into forest. The sun came down from a clear blue sky one mid-afternoon, the first time I climbed to The Bald Spot. As I came around the bend the trail widened, the grass reach above my knees, and the forest swallowed the trail.
A fox was standing in the sun square with me in the trail. For a lingering instant, we assessed each other before he bounded off into the grasses. Nearly every time I visited The Bald Spot I would catch a fleeting glimpse of one of their lithe bodies darting into the grass like spirits slipping between worlds. I would wander far off the trail trying to find their home, hoping that just one time we could sit together with no running involved. Of all the places I wandered growing up, few places enchanted me more, few places are sewn as intricately into my memory.
One day in college, I returned with my partner of the time to visit and share this place. We found that the area had been deforested, fenced, and cookie-cutter houses, a development called Mountain Ridge, now spread across the slope. We stood atop a great heap of dirt piled by excavators and I tried to find my way from there to where the foxes had lived until I realized that that place no longer existed. I realized it, but I could not feel it. What I felt was violent anger and then sadness. I felt my memories leaving me already like heat lost to winter cold outside an open door.
I chose the title of this piece because the day I found the red foxes were gone is the closest I have felt to the day that Billy Coleman, in Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, lost the beloved Coonhounds he raised from pups. Billy finds Old Dan mortally wounded and Old Dan’s companion, Little Ann, dies of grief a few days later. As well as companions, Old Dan and Little Ann defined Billy’s experience of discovery of the land around him and through that discovery matures emotionally to another stage of life.
The difference in Billy’s story is that the land remained and would embrace him through his next stage as well. In my case, I can never return to that spot. In the bottom left of the old satellite photo above, you can see the dirt path where I entered the forest. In the top right you can see The Bald Spot. The forest in this satellite image was replaced by Mountain Ridge.
On the left is the development plan that replaced the forest. On the right is a picture of the kind of houses that were built. The standard development of the kind that replaced the path to the The Bald Spot cannot be differentiated from any other standard development. I could be in California, Minnesota, or New Jersey and there is no distinguishing one place from another. The forest was the place of foxes, the built environment was increasingly a placeless place.
The comedian Lewis Black described this kind of phenomenon of a place that is no place as the “end of the universe:”
“There sits a Starbucks and directly across the street from the exact same building as that Starbucks there is another Starbucks. There is a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks. And ladies and gentleman that, is the end of the universe.”
One feature of this kind of development is that every structure is design around cars, constraining of inhabitants to the car for all needs. Studies by city planner Bruce Appleyard show that children who primarily driven around cannot draw maps of where they live. Worse yet, when they do draw maps, they indicate information such as danger but, unlike children who walk or bike around, do not indicate detailed and emotional relationships or connections with specific places they move through.
I was fortunate to be able to wander freely for miles around my childhood home along streets, yards, and forests. My mental map of this area was keen, and marked not just by static landmarks, but by experiences with personalities like the red fox family. Implicit in those experiences was ecological knowledge of the relationships through which any place comes be a place with all its particular qualities and an emotional connection with those relationships.
We had to drive to anything beyond that realm, the grocery for example. And my memory, to this day, of that driven landscape is poor. I know which turns to make, but if I drew a map of the places a move through, most of it would look a lot like those children’s. As a result, I did not grow up with any ecological sense of connection to food, clothes, or any other product that made my life tick.
When that impaired sense of one’s context and place reaches one’s doorstep,perhaps a new word in addition to solastalgia is required, a word that describes never having had a home and not even knowing it. I feel my childhood occurred just before this tipping point, when towns center had already shifted to vapid strip malls, but at least there were the foxes.
Anyone who has spent time working their own garden knows that their memory of that place is infinitely richer and more evolutionary than of any mall or lawn they have visited 1,000 times. Leaf miner insects prefer dock leaves, dock puts out tawny plumes of seeds that color the late-summer landscape, crackers can be made from the seeds, the smell of crackers baking, the taste of the crackers and what was one them… Memory of the place is supported not by a person’s presence in that place alone, but by the relationships present for the person to experience and interact with and memory of oneself is contained in and supported by those experiences.
Memory being the well of relationships within us is therefore at the root of empathy and compassion. These places like Mountain Ridge are part of a landscape that cannot remember and therefore struggles to love or progress. These places are the emptiness at the core of psychopathy. I say psychopathy because they are vicious cycles in which a sense of relationship is lost. Appleyard’s studies show that in addition to distance, parents restrict child mobility and choose to drive them in part because of traffic. They then contribute to more traffic. This is a runaway positive feedback loop that has been progressing for decades. Pick nearly any aspect of the lives, products, or landscape in non-places like these and you will find a vicious cycle of similar make.
Later in Black’s routine, he reaches this inevitable conclusion:
“What I wonder about is the gentleman who stood in the empty building and looked across the street at the Starbucks and then turned to his wife and kids and said, ‘ You know, I have a vision. I am going to build a Starbucks right here’….I wonder who are the people who would need a Starbucks across from a Starbucks? What demographic could it possibly be? I’ve thought about it long and hard and I mean no harm by this, but it must a community filled with people with Alzheimer’s.”
There are dozens of other syndromes and such, in addition to Solastalgia, used to described the processes or symptoms of memory and knowledge of relationships dissolving: nature deficit disorder; Ecoanxiety; Ecoparalysis, Eco-Nostalgia; Global Dread. But there are also propensities we have to create rather than erode life — e.g., biophilia or solaphilia — and systems of design — e.g., permaculture or open source ecology — that harness this form of intelligence. The only route to embracing these propensities, it would seem, is breaking these vicious cycles of excising relationships and replacing them with virtuous cycles of creating relationships. And that will require, at least, some foxes.