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Savannahs and Polar Bears

Posted on Saturday, June 24, 2006 at 08:05AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments4 Comments | References1 Reference

It could be Lewis Carroll was right. It may indeed be a matter of who you’ve been introduced to.

Two weeks ago, the press carried a report from the Arctic: because of the shrinking of the polar ice pack, the polar bears are rapidly losing habitat. Too many bears are now competing for too little remaining room to hunt. Their solution? They’re stalking, killing and devouring one another to reduce the competition.

News of this sort gets fair coverage in the media, and this particular bit of reportage is horrifying. There’s more than a little reason to believe it’s connected with global warming, since global warming is heavily implicated in the shrinking of the polar ice cap.

Have we talked about it in any of the called meetings for discernment along my route so far? No. We have had discussions of not wasting energy, and not wasting gasoline, which are certainly relevant. (The less energy and gasoline we waste, the less we personally add to global warming.) But we haven’t spoken a word about interventions to preserve such species as the polar bears, who will not be saved merely by our personal efforts as gasoline conservation.

Why aren’t we speaking about endangered species? I’ll guess that one part of the reason is that most of us Friends are not “introduced” to them — that is, we do not interact with them, and so we do not think of them. But we are very close to our gasoline. Intimately close. We interact with our gasoline all the time, and we think about it, not only when we interact with it, but also every time we hear that the price has gone up.

And therefore we look after our gasoline. As is quite reasonable! But we don’t think to look after the species, even when the subject of discussion is our environmental testimonies.

In my walks over the country from Omaha to here, because I’ve felt that part of my leading is to really experience the countryside I’m passing through, I’ve struggled to see past the human-made things occupying the landscape, and see the natural world beneath and to see how the natural world was faring. It came to me, though, a week and a half ago, that this was really too narrow an understanding of what I was supposed to do.

I was passing through Iowa at the time, looking at the time at a farmstead perched on the top of a hill near the highway. To see the natural world and how it was faring meant to look past the home, the barn, the landscaped yard and the artfully laid out highway, and see the soil exposed by the roadside and the tire ruts and the sparse grass of the yard, and the eroding of that soil in the drive to the barn; it meant to listen past the highway noises and the noise of the farmer’s equipment in order to hear the remnant bird population in the few trees thereabouts; it meant to notice the native plant species — not the corn, not the lawn grass, not the flowers in the flowerbeds, but the weeds growing by the roadside (some of them, anyway) and the trees growing at the pasture’s edge. These things told me a story of the shaping of the landforms, the spreading of species after the last ice age, the natural world forced to retreat into edges and margins by the interventions of humanity.

But then my eye and mind slipped abruptly from that to the conventional way of seeing: Hmm, corn’s coming up nicely at last; home’s got a fresh coat of paint, so the folks here must not be doing too badly; I like how the house is positioned to catch the breeze and the best view of the valley; I wonder how much that spread would go for —?

It struck me how little these two visions had in common, even though both were taking in the self-same landscape. And it struck me how much more easily my mind slipped into the latter way of seeing, the conventional way, than the former way, the nature-focused way.

It seemed to me to be a little bit like George Fox’s vision of the infinite ocean of darkness, and over and above it the infinite ocean of light, and the freedom of the human being to choose which ocean to dwell in. Here were two realities spread out upon the earth, and I could choose which one to place my awareness in, and there really was a palpably different moral quality to the one than there was to the other.

Fast-forward a bit. I was passing the bluffs of East Peoria; a narrow two-lane blacktop, compromise between a highway and a residential street, snaked between older homes and undercapitalized home businesses (Lou’s Antiques! Stella’s Hair Styling!), with tree-dense hills forty feet tall looming right behind the homes on either side. The road surged up toward the tops of the hills, and then swung into a turn with the last bit of hill straight ahead not yet climbed. Atop that last bit of hill was a home.

For a flickering moment, I saw the hill as it would have looked a thousand years ago: crest of an amazing landform rising from the valley. And immediately after, I saw it with the conventional eye: nice how that home looms over the car approaching it; good for snob appeal.

Something in me cried out to me. It said, commandingly: Keep seeing the world with this doubled vision! Learn what this doubled vision has to teach you!

Well, that got my attention. But I didn’t know what to make of it at the time.

Some days later, a further thought hit me. Some of you may remember that, in my posting about my first two days on the road, I referred in passing to “…biologist E. O. Wilson’s comment that humans try to recreate the African savannah where their distant ancestors evolved, with its open grasslands and scattered trees; if the land we’re on doesn’t already look like the savannah, we remake it to look that way, regardless of the stresses this puts on the natural ecosystem.”

Now, actually this observation was not original with E. O. Wilson. The person who published it first was another biologist, Gordon Orians, in a 1986 scientific paper titled “An Ecological and Evolutionary Approach to Landscape Aesthetics”. Orians later expanded the hypothesis, and tested it, in collaboration with a colleague named Judith Heerwagen. Wilson merely repeated Orians’s ideas.

The basic principle is not unique to humans. It is true of all species that (in the words of Orians and Heerwagen) “if a creature gets into the right place, everything else is likely to be easier.” So every creature is always looking for the ideal place to be — the perfect habitat. Polar bears look for sea ice, hedgehogs for hedges, and humans for savannah landscapes like the ones our ancient ancestors lived in.

What is unusual about humans, though, is that, not content simply to find ideal habitat, or to remake already good habitat so that it’s even more ideal, we struggle to remake the entire planet to bring it closer to what our instincts tell us would be ideal. That is why (for example) an area of the United States the size of Ireland is planted with Kentucky bluegrass and other standard lawn grasses, with trees widely spaced in the manner of an African savannah. And why, too, vast areas of the Midwest, including much of the part of Iowa I walked through, and much of the part of Indiana I’m part-walking, part-driving through now, have been systematically drained, replacing what was once biologically rich wetlands with dry-land conditions far less fruitful — but nearer the savannah type.

The thing is that when we do this to the land, precisely because we are bringing the land into accordance with the savannah land-type we’re programmed for, we lose the ability to see what the land itself wants to be — its original and most natural shape. Walking through the residential sections of Crawfordsville and Lebanon, Indiana, it takes education and hard mental work to see past the lawns to what the land would look like if we hadn’t interfered. I can do it, because I’ve had practice — but most people don’t know how.

Ultimately we wind up living in a fantasy world we’ve built for ourselves, ignorant of everything that doesn’t fit into the fantasy. It’s like building Disney World, moving in, and forgetting that anything outside exists. No wonder, then, that we think of the gasoline but not of the polar bears. The more savannah, the less the world is safe for polar bears.

polar bears.jpgPhoto taken by Robert and Carolyn Buchanan 2004-05, copyright © 2006 Polar Bears International. Check them out!)

In this regard, the people who deliberately de-landscape their yards, and the town planners (like those in Urbana) that deliberately de-landscape some of their common areas, re-introducing the natural landforms and the native species, breaking down the barriers between Disney World and what God intended, are performing a very important service: they are opening up our minds to a rediscovery of the world beyond the savannah — and, potentially, opening up our behaviors as well, to a re-integration with the natural world. But what they do accomplishes little unless the rest of the community learns to appreciate it.

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Reader Comments (4)

Marshall, I’m enjoying your discussions of Friends history and early Friends “gospel” regarding discernment, in conjunction with your descriptions of what you notice in the landscape and your interpretations of it. You seem to be listening to the many voices of the Divine in the land community along with listening to the inward voice in a way similar to what is central in my own spiritual practice. This is also a way which I think is very important for Friends in coming into the spiritually-grounded ecological literacy and compassion needed for moving toward living as true “natives” rather than mere occupants of the land community. We’re not going to turn toward Earth-harmonious lives unless we begin to pay direct, heart-felt attention to the natural world, beginning to see ourselves as servants rather than owners.
I’ll call you soon to see about meeting, perhaps in Richmond on Friday. May your journey continue to be safe and revealing for you.

-- comment posted by Bill Cahalan
June 24th, 2006 at 8:12 p.m.
Sep 3, 2006 at 06:25PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Hi Marshall,
This theory, which I have never heard before, is very interesting.
I've figured out I'd better link to this post on our community site, for the rest of the members to see.

Nov 18, 2007 at 04:28AM | Unregistered CommenterDany

Thank you for your interest, Dany.

I now plan to check into your community site from time to time, because I'm really curious to see what your members make of these ideas —!

Nov 18, 2007 at 08:41PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey


May 12, 2008 at 11:01AM | Unregistered CommenterAleeah

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