A Young Boy

The young boy looked the old man straight in the eye and said with a most intense gesture, “Isn’t it a wonder that you will die before me and that all that will remain of you are the things I choose to remember? Do not just talk old man, talk wisely. You should have figured that out by now.”

On Competition

When we look out at nature we choose to see competition. But we also competition as an ends. We assume that passing on one’s genes is the goal of everything going on out there, as opposed to something that just happens. We never stop to ask whether the goal of all these beings life is to just live well. I believe our understanding of the pattern competition is extremely limited and actually horribly destructive in many ways. You see, if all beings are just trying to live well it might make sense in some contexts to be in competition, but this does not mean that competition itself is the underlying driver of nature. It is merely one type of relationship which manifests in a variety of ecological contexts. But, to think that competition itself is the driver of change, of purpose, of goal, of meaning, is hugely mistaken. This is not understanding, it is monological belief. Life’s purpose is to have fun and live in wonder.

Little Cancers

The trees of her body failed a day in September to keep in line with the norm of things - the cancers spaced in between with their awful architectures, economic soundness, idiotic arguments, the most fuckers of nature, "such fuckers" she thought during her last breaths.

In life she was a poet, painter, published a paper in Science, studied the world she loved and some she didn’t and now, the little cancers were scattered like chalk on a chalkboard inside her body. "The little fuckers" she thought, "all of you." Then she thought: "The trees know best, follow the trees. Make them Gods in your world of future, or else."

Koyaanisqatsi and Nothing

Among the many films I attended at the Nelson Institute’s Tales from Planet Earth film festival there was one that still weighs heavily on me. Luckily, the director and producer, Godfrey Reggio, was there to guide us all through his masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi, for if he were not I may still be lost back among the entrancing images captured by Ron Fricke or the rolling score of Philip Glass. All said, I made it out alive. But something was left unsettled, namely, an apparent contradiction between a statement made by Reggio prior to the film and then one response during the Q & A after.

Before the film Reggio encouraged everybody in the theater to, and I am paraphrasing, ‘sit back and experience what we were about to see.’ He explained that if we were too bent on deriving meaning from the film, we wouldn’t experience the film at all. And continued by indicating that what we were about to see was not about some underlying narrative that could be ‘derived’ from the images or sounds, but about the images and sounds themselves. Okay Godfrey, got it. I was a bit hungover, so the premise of just sitting and soaking in light and sound was about as far as I intended on getting anyway.

The film rolled. It was a journey that began with an image of a rocketship taking off, bound for space, quickly transitioned into over an hour of other images, but then concluded with the same ship, this time, making its way through Troposphere, Stratosphere, Mesosphere and then BOOM! exploding in Challenger fashion amongst a blue sky. During the Q & A someone asked the question, why the bookending? What caused the conscious decision to wrap the film in this image? Godfrey’s answer was simple. He said that without bookending in a film like this, without a frame on an image, or general sense of ‘full circle-ness’ in a song, its much more difficult for humans to make a commitment to derive meaning from that art. And, to be honest, I’m still working through both the film and the comment myself, but this seems important.

Initially, I thought this idea contradictory to Godfrey’s initial asking of us to ‘not try and derive meaning’ from Koyaanisqatsi. I’ve since realized what he meant, and you would understand this entirely if the film was familiar, is that the film itself does not move in time like narrative requires. It is just image and sound. That’s it. And thus, the image requires a frame. The frame in this case is an image itself. Okay, so how is this all related to our class? The bridge is in this idea of meaning.

    This is the problem: A sense of nothing and a sense of meaning are one in the same, but only one of them, from a rationalistic or objective perspective, is ‘provable’. There is, truly, no evidence for nothing, there is no clear reason why the zero should be a number, yet this sense of nothingness seems intimately related to meaning, to narrative, to religion, and even science. Reggio knew that he must define his work’s start point and end point in much like religious texts must define an origin story in order for resonance with humans. Yet, I left the film alive, and there is evidence to suggest existence prior to the birth of the Universe suggested in Genesis. And so what seems to be a more accurate rationalistic notion of the nature of things is the idea that everything has always been and always will be. The powerful play will go on. Verses will come in and out, each thinking, and needing, to convince their constituents, for some human reason, that their verse is it, is everything, is all that ever was and ever will be.

    Now, regarding the class material, how does the idea of awesome coolness fit into this equation? And here I can only speak from my personal experience, but awesomeness and great mystery resonates with me hugely. It always has. Einstein has been a hero of mine since a very young age, and I have for a while now been extremely interested in Native philosophies, so much so that I almost entered a graduate program at Montana State right out of undergraduate to study just that. But, when that feeling of euphoria precipitates inside me on particulate-ly awesome facts, I often realize that I find the awesomeness tied so clearly into a terror of nothingness. I worry that without a sense of nothingness, a sense of awesomeness may not be such a powerful experience. It seems to me that we humans ultimately need this sense of nothingness to find meaning in whatever narrative we follow, whether it a traditional religion or modern scientific endeavor. Nothingness, or Elseness, is necessary to define a narrative, whether its Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi or the Bible. And, here we go, since nothingness is unprovable in the most basic sense, no human endeavor will ever be purely rational. It can’t be.

On Nothing

I was hesitant to write about this. Its a bit...philosophical, heady, seemingly irrelevant to this week’s discussion. More than anything, its intuition, but one that dances in my mind very frequently. And it regards the concept of zero, and the idea of nothing. I believe that the integration of the object “nothing” into our viewing the world has been insidious and ultimately is a problematic way of perceiving the world.

    The ontological game we play today generally operates to explain why there is anything at all as opposed to nothing at all. Whether we are talking about “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) or George Lemaitre’s first noting that an expanding Universe might be traced back to an original point, Christianity and science endeavor to explain this same question. And, in fact, all creation myths attempt to answer that same question, which to me is curious. It would sound silly, for instance, for one to make the claim, “perhaps all of this has always been here and always will be.” That type of thinking falls distinctly outside of our deeply held notion of an origin in nothingness and meaningful timely progression. But, what should be noted is that this claim of alwaysness is much more tangible and observable than the other. Although not perfectly congruent, the number zero has much to do with our concept of nothing and, interestingly, is a fairly new concept.

In Egypt something like zero is used as a placeholder in their base 10 number system, but the number zero does not make itself known. The Greeks were hugely skeptical of the number zero, and asked themselves, “How can nothing be something?” while there is no Roman numeral for the number zero (Aczel 2015); yet, today we take the concept of zero for granted. Its real to us, however its only use is to make a mess of fitting it into mathematics, to insight confusion in logic problems, or to just be useless.

    In math, the basic sets of numbers we have are the Integers {...-2,-1,0,1,2…}, the Whole Numbers {0,1,2,3…}, and the, and I highlight, Natural Numbers {1,2,3,4…}. There are of course hundreds of other sets, but these are the three big ones that are learned very early on in American education. Just after learning that numbers exist, we then learn how to manipulate them. We learn addition, with the ever-useless additive identity property (i.e. 5 + 0 = 5), multiplication, that anything times zero is just zero, and division, wherein anything divided by zero is “undefined”, which, when you think about it, is hugely problematic in a field that prides itself on intellectual purity. There is then the question of whether zero is an even or odd number. For what its worth, its even, but the logic to get there is messy and has more to do with semantics than mathematics. And interestingly, the proof of the theory of The Big Bang is purely mathematical, and those mathematics surely incorporated the number zero. I’d stress, that within the set of Natural Numbers, none of these conundrums exist. In a mathematics of Natural Numbers, does the theory of The Big Bang still work?

    Today, when we talk about creationism, like we did in class, we are referring to “the belief that God created all things out of nothing” (Merriam-Webster). What I mean to say is that today, whether we are a rationalist that believes in naturalistic evolution, or a fundamentalist that believes in theistic evolution, we are actually all operating on the same assumption that all of this, at some point, came from nothing. Our acceptance of the number zero, a number that is so useless it is infuriating, is indicative of just that.

Like I said at the onset, a basic rule of the philosophical game we play today is this idea of nothingness, even though another rule, be objective, renders nothingness invalid, because there has never been and never will be objective proof of nothing! From a rationalist perspective, this conundrum means that one of these two rules is false, and I contend it is the former. But, to make this argument from a purely rationalist perspective would be, I think, selling it short in regards to how deeply I feel the problematic nature of this concept of nothing. I’m going to continue to think about this...I get the sense that it goes way deeper than we think.

Anyway, I’ve rambled...what I meant here was to recognize the reality that, whether creationist, rationalist, whatever, today we all have this innate sense of everything originating in nothing. That is a narrative we tell ourselves, and it is a narrative that is, not only problematic in many ways, but a purely theoretical notion with no basis in observation. For me, it is a curious assumption to make that all of this has always been here. I think we would do well to take that as a new rule in a new game of discourse and see where it leads.

Toward an Ecological Me

The social stupidity observed in the readings from this week was insane by any modern Western northern liberal standard. Whether it was Smuts’ hypothesis that, “earlier civilisations have largely failed because...civilising races [have been] rapidly submerged in the quicksands of African blood”, or Hitler’s perception of a “higher race” that should dominate the “inferior peoples”, today most of us perceive all of these genre of allegations as complete horseshit. We today have proof that these horseshitteries are in fact horseshitteries, as the president of the most powerful country on Earth is the male offspring of an English-German-Swiss-Scott-Irish-Welsh American and Luo-Kenyan. If genetic purity is a certain proxy for evolutionary success then must we discount either all of Darwin’s premises or the premise that said proxy is wrong?

But beyond this week’s eugenic arguments lies a notable elephant. I mention “male” above because a conversation that was entirely missing from all of the eugenic discussion of this past week was: what about the women! Incredibly, at this point the consideration of gender equality had yet to even enter the collective conscience, as indicated by its complete absence from any of these documents. In our country it was fifty years after black males acquired the right to vote (1870) that women of any race were given the same opportunity (1920). Prior to 1920 there were absolutely strong women figures, at least in this country (i.e. Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, etc.), but the consideration of their political equality was yet to be discussed seriously by the nation. And, just like with the racial conversations prior, we think back now and consider those opposed to giving women the right to vote as complete bigots, misogynist, notable idiots. This pattern of decategorization - or rather changing certain assumptions about, or values placed on observed social categories - begs the perennial question: In another century, what categorization will our descendents find hugely appalling of us today? And, yes, I intend to explore one possible answer: our devaluation of other species.

Idealist, yes. Insane, maybe. Preached to minor applause already by deep ecologists and Pulitzer Prize winning poets alike, definitely, and perhaps another century will not get us there, but I think even so its worth revisiting for two reasons.

First, I deeply believe in its truth. I have personal buy-in here because it is ultimately how I see the world and thus would like to build vocabulary to defend its premises and value. But also, to explore many alternative ways of knowing we must first practice envisioning the world from this point of view. For instance, from a Potawatomi perspective, plant species are not plants, but distinct peoples. In a TED talk Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi woman and graduate of UW-Madison’s Botany Ph.D program, mentions that wild strawberries are not berries, but the leaders of the berry people, autonomous beings with their own wills and desires. It is thus customary to ask permission to harvest strawberries or any wild plant (Kimmerer, 2012). I believe we must begin to broaden our ethics to incorporate other species as autonomous beings, while not losing perspective of our connection and interdependence with those autonomous peoples. We must begin to again realize that other species here on Earth have expectations of us too. We need to reimagine what could be discussed as an “ecological other”, in other words, the set of expectations we feel from other species here on Earth. Only then can we rediscover an “ecological me” of sorts. That is the good life. A long ways from eugenics perhaps, and maybe not the direction I ultimately intended on venturing, but we’re here.

Origins of Western Fear: The Epic of Gilgamesh

In The Way of the Human Being Calvin Luther Martin introduces two discrete ontologies: an “ontology of trust” and an “ontology of fear” (Martin, 205). In the former, exchange is perceived as gift, while the latter, as theft (Martin, 62). For context, in the above noted portion of The Way of the Human Being, Martin is observing tensions between what may be discussed as “indigenous” and “western” ontologies during early colonization of this continent. What I mean to observe here is a similar tension in Gilgamesh, that of Enkidu’s transition from an ontology of trust and gift to one of fear and theft unintentionally engineered by Gilgamesh himself.

Among other early observations of Enkidu lies what is the most important thought here, that:

Enkidu was ignorant of oldness,

He ran with the animals,

Drank at their springs,

Not knowing fear or wisdom. (Mason, 16)

    Immediately after what could be described as Enkidu’s fall to humanness - his departure from his animal ways, his sleeping with the prostitute, and his subsequent stalemate battling with Gilgamesh - when it is suggested that they go kill Humbaba the first reaction from Enkidu is “Enkidu was afraid of the forest of Humbaba/And urged [Gilgamesh] not to go” (Mason, 27). This is a stark and an immediate contrast with how he was described pre-fall, again, “Not knowing fear or wisdom.” In fact, fear is a recurring talking point between the two throughout the epic.

In the same discussion, Gilgamesh commands Enkidu to, “[Not] be afraid...We are together. There is nothing/We should fear” and later, “What men do is nothing, so fear is never/Justified.” Gilgamesh then questions Enkidu, “What happened to your power/That once could challenge and equal mine?” implying some transition or loss of a former source of strength. Once in the forest, a notable arc is illustrated when Mason writes, “Of the forest where Humbaba’s watchmen stood. Suddenly it was Gilgamesh who was afraid, Enkidu who reminded him to be fearless.” It is clear that fear is a major theme throughout the epic, but although it may be exhilarating to explore each and every exchange during which it is discussed, what I mean to say is that, beyond fear’s importance to this epic, fear is an emotion apparently innate in Gilgamesh but learned by Enkidu.

Interestingly, in Gilgamesh’s mind, and perhaps in Gilgamesh’s culture, it seems that fear is nearly synonymous with a fear of death. Again, at one point Gilgamesh asks of Enkidu, “Why are you worried about death...What men do is nothing, so fear is never/Justified” linking the two specifically. This of course is Gilgamesh’s theoretical posturings, because, as we know, Gilgamesh spends a large majority of the epic either in fear, alone, or in fear of being alone.

On his deathbed, upon recollecting on his life before his fall, Enkidu exclaims that:

 

Everything had life to me, he heard Enkidu murmur

The sky, the storm, the earth, water, wandering,

The moon and its three children, salt, even my hand

Had life. Its gone. Its gone. I have seen death

As a total stranger sees another person’s world,

Or as a freak sees whom the gods created

When they were drunk on too much wine

And had a contest to show off” (Mason, 48).


    I argue that, on his deathbed, Enkidu becomes aware of his transformation from an ontology of trust to one of fear. He notes that before his encounters in the world of man, he saw everything in the world as having life, and after, from the perspective of man, or rather the perspective of  “a total stranger”, he sees only death. And on his deathbed, the biggest frustration Enkidu has, he blames it on Gilgamesh.
    Fear as a taught emotion, as an experience that is not a definite throughout cultures was also discussed by Mary Jane Zimmerman in her 2006 essay Being Nature’s Mind. She mentions that there is evidence that during early encounters between European and Native cultures, “in which a worldview of fear [was] taught” (Zimmerman, 12). I argue that this exchange between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is paramount to their relationship and to Enkidu’s disdain for Gilgamesh during his last moments. Throughout the epic Enkidu went from seeing a world in which “Everything had life to [him]” to a world characterized best by death and theft.

 

Our False Vision

For the past two years I’ve been living in what some people refer to as “the last of the real West”. That is, within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: a 22 million acre area encompassing nine rarely traveled National Forests and two highly attended National Parks. The GYE supports just under one thousand grizzly bears, more than a thousand black bears, an ever-changing number of wolf packs, an incalculable quantity of mountain lions, and the largest remaining herd of American bison. The takeaway here is that in this last vision of the American landscape there are things out there that can actually kill you!

In his 2012 essay False Idyll J.B. MacKinnon notices that “there is a serious problem with our idea of sacred nature, and that is that the idol is a false one. If we experience the natural world as a place of succor and comfort, it is in large part because we have made it so.” (MacKinnon, 2012). What MacKinnon means here is that our modern sense of a nature sanctity, while surely a loving reaction to the destruction of our Earth, is also a product of us designing nature to fit our every desire and avoid our every fear. In MacKinnon’s words, we have “rendered nature an easy God to worship.”

Only twenty percent of the Earth’s land is home to the same large mammals that inhabited it five hundred years ago. In the United States we have literally decimated every large carnivore from our vicinity, not to mention the plethora of large, scary herbivores we’ve annihilated as well. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Great Plains played host to 30 million American bison. Today, the largest intact herd, the Jackson Herd, is held by hunters to a mere 600 individuals. The wolves and elk whose ranges used to cover the entire Lower 48 have been reduced to obscure populations high in Rocky Mountains.

Like the Romans of times passed, we Americans today are experiencing rapid urbanization and like us, the Romans too had essentially conquered their landscape and beaten back all the sharped toothed beings of their world. Interestingly, they too illustrate their nature as an idyllic place of “succor and comfort”. In his poem to Fuscus, Epistle 10, Horace paints his nature as, “The country.../...my lovely rural/Rivers, and trees, and moss-grown rocks.” Where are the bears and mountain lions in Horace’s countryside? Where have the megafauna gone?

Disappointingly, Horace then states, “I live here, I rule here” and then quickly follows it up with the claim that “life in harmony with Nature is a primal law” (Horace, 1966). This seems contradictory. How can one both rule and be in harmony with Nature? Countless times in The Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu makes a contrast between ruling and leading. Notably, here in Techniques, he outlines that:

 

 

To give birth, to nourish,

to bear and not to own,

to act and not lay claim,

to lead and not to rule:

this is mysterious power. (Laozi, 1997)

 

I feel that Lao Tzu would take issue with Horace’s claim that in the countryside he rules. For although the Tao Te Ching is a valuable work within the context of human ecologies, I believe it is equally, if not more valuable in relearning how to lead in the context of our natural ecologies.

    MacKinnon’s observation of our modern carnivore-denuded ecosystems and our subsequent vision of capital-N “Nature”, what the Chicago Manual of Style editors have defined it as, “a goddess dressed in a flowering garment and flinging fruit and flowers everywhere” is a man-made creation. Our modern “Nature” is a force of nomos, not physis. If we humans are to lay claim to sensing holiness in physis, in natura, in nature, if we are to again truly be leaders in this complex informal congress of species we need to be able to recognize the incredible holiness in a Grizzly bear killing and eating a backcountry hiker.

    I can speak from experience in saying that walking alone at night in the woods in an intact carnivore-rich ecosystem is notably different than a stroll through The UW Arboretum. It is notably more intense and is more comfortable asking the hard questions. Questions like: Who are you? Why do you matter? and Why are you afraid of death? Questions that are hard to answer from the perspective of a modern Western individual, but questions that if we continue to ignore we will continue to drive our planet to ruins. We humans need real “Nature”, the one that is sometimes from certain perspectives ugly and sometimes unbelievably beautiful. The one that has wolves and snakes, butterflies and rabbits. Without it, I fear the dao will continue to seem obscure, nirvana elusive, and our ultimate reservoir of creativity, the living world, incomplete.

Fear, Progress, and Wild Foods: A Final Paper

“When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge passed down through generations is broken, and the land becomes wilderness.”  

- Kat Anderson from Tending the Wild

 

 

It was only day two of 30...About forty hours ago we had been dropped off in lightning near Roaring Fork Mountain on the East side of the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and now we had finally caught a break. The first taunt of sun was finally piercing the dull clouds as we fired up our stoves, the Upper Popo Agie’s turbulence in the background. It was a pleasant moment. We were all drying off for the first time in a couple days. Water was boiling, smiles abounded, and then Teddy started vomiting. It was absolutely classic.

He’d been weak all day during the hike and over-compensated by walking faster, not drinking water, being tough, but toughness has nothing to do with altitude sickness. You see, Teddy, like all the students on the expedition, had come from sea-level three days before, and was now hiking with a 50-pound pack at nine-thousand feet. That transition is not something the human body knows. Teddy’s body surely didn’t.

I watched briefly from a distance, let my mind catch up, check, check, check, yes, he’s dehydrated, altitude, nothing I can really do except encourage him to get everything out and then put everything back in again. So, I walked over and sat next to him, talked slowly, handed him a water bottle, and told him to drink as much as he felt comfortable. Predictably, he threw up all the water again; and as I watched him yell material off of the rock we were sitting on, I looked down at the brilliant color popping from the granite. It was Stonecrop, an innocuous, slightly bitter, and juicy plant that loves rocky substrates. A few months prior a friend of mine told me that she loved chewing on Stonecrop to pass time on the trail. I had an idea. I picked a small cluster of the plant, and after Teddy had finished another cacophonous verse of semi-fluidity, I looked at him and introduced the plant.
“This is Stonecrop. It is going to taste bitter. You might not like it, but it will settle your stomach.”
“Are you sure its not poisonous?” Teddy worried.
“Yeah, it’s completely fine. I actually like it it a lot.”
    Teddy looked at me and then took the little florette and, with a bit of reaction, chewed and swallowed the plant. He washed it down with some water, but this time none came back up. It felt a bit like defusing a bomb at the last minute, waiting. I was on edge for a moment, but an hour later Teddy was finally getting some calories back in the form of rice. That night I heard him from his tent tell a fellow student, “Yo, that Stonecrop stuff is legit!” And every couple days for the rest of the trip I would see a student or two pick and munch on some Stonecrop, presumably instructed by Teddy to do so if they ever felt a bit queasy.

Stonecrop is just one of the many consumable plants in the Wind River Range, and, it should be noted, there are no direct mechanistic explanations for it having any remedial effect on acute mountain sickness. But the important point here is not that Stonecrop placeboed Teddy back to health, rather, that for the rest of the trip Teddy knew that plant. There was a relationship and a narrative built that linked Teddy to Stonecrop.

On trips I like to encourage students to try to eat as many different plants as they can, not for calories, but for familiarity. For most students, the Wind River Range can feel more similar to Mars than to Home. Through this process of becoming chemically entangled with the local flora, it’s incredible how quickly the mountains can become a second home to students. When it comes down to it, intimate entanglement with plants can enrich anybody’s sense of place, wherever that place is, home or not. So, why is it then that these days the majority of us have no relationship with the species that surround us? What aspects of our society led us astray from our local ecological partners, and what are some vectors toward repairing this fallen relationship? To begin, we must first understand a difficult reality, that is, that the West was founded on fear.

In his The Way of the Human Being, Calvin Martin Luther articulates the West’s fearful tendencies by defining two conflicting belief systems. The first he calls an ontology of trust, which he associates with many non-Western cultures worldwide. This ontology believes Earth to be a place of plenty, and the purpose of one’s life is then to align oneself with the ways of nature. In contrast, Martin also illustrates an ontology of fear, which he argues underlies all Western belief systems, irrespective of politics. He argues that, especially in this country, we all tacitly believe Earth to be a dangerous, resource-denuded place. And truly, it isn’t difficult to find support for his claim. Our economics are based on the basic assumption of scarcity, as is Darwinism. Further, the artificial systems of interaction we create are built to reflect that which we see out there, in nature. For instance, even the idea of money adheres to an assumption of scarcity.

Charles Eisenstein explains in his Sacred Economics, that scarcity exists, “because of the way money is created as interest bearing debt...the debt, because there is interest on it, is always greater than the amount of money. So, it essentially throws people into competition with one another for never enough money.” Here, we should understand that it is not because nature inherently works in a purely Darwinian fashion that we have naturally built scarcity into our economic system, but rather, because of our basic ontology of fear we have chosen what we wish to see in nature, and thus, built a system that confirms this most basic beliefs. In the case of money, it confirms both our belief in scarcity and in competition as overwhelmingly important natural patterns. We must come to recognize that our economic system however is merely one of infinite systems by which we may interact as humans, and that this one which we have ultimately chosen is born from our basic ontology of fear and subsequent belief in the truth of scarcity. But scarcity is only one of the many manifestations of this most basic ontological orientation.

Martin elaborates upon his articulation of an ontology of fear that the purpose of life when operating from this ontology is then to manipulate, control, and improve upon nature’s ways. The assumption of improvement, or assumption of growth, is so basic to all Western faiths that it is exceedingly hard for anyone raised in modern culture to even begin to picture a life wherein improving is not the goal. The immediate problem with our assumption of growth is that, as Charles Eisenstein later notes, “growth means you have to find something that was once nature and make it into a good...You have to find something that people once got for free...take it away and sell it back to them.” He continues, that, “by turning things into commodities we get cut off from nature in the same way we get cut off from community. We look at nature with eyes that assume it’s just a bunch of stuff, and that leaves us very lonely...and of course now, we are nearing the end of growth. Our planet cannot sustain much more growth.” From our assumption of improvement or growth, there are two side effects of note.

The first, as mentioned above, is that we continually turn what was once nature into an improved commodity, and thus at some point will run out of nature to convert. The other issue is that in believing that natural processes can be improved upon, we inherently begin practicing discrimination between lands. We are forced to put land into two categories: improved (or soon to be improved) or wilderness. In his Changes in the Land, Bill Cronon expertly illustrates the confusion over land and improvement that arose when an ontology of fear first met its reciprocal, ontology of trust, on the shores of this continent.

When early colonists landed on these shores they were immediately appalled by the laziness of the Natives. One of them, William Wood, observed that “[the Natives] might benefit themselves if they were not strong fettered in the chains of idleness; so as that they had rather starve than work.” Here we see Wood, operating from his assumption that the world must be improved upon in order to survive and lacking the basic humility to listen, failing to accurately understand the world in front of him. In reaction to Wood’s baseless claim, Cronon points out that, “Few Indians, of course, had actually starved in precolonial times”. The important point here is, again, that this assumption of improvement is born directly from an ontology of fear that arrived for the first time on this continent in 1492.

Quickly after landing, the colonists actually went so far to use the assumption of improvement to justify their theft and conquest. In advocating for further expansion of the New England colony, John Winthrop logicked that “As for the Natives in New England, they inclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame Cattle to improve the Land by, and soe have noe other but a Naturall Right to those Countries...the rest of the country lay open to any that could and would improve it.” The founding members of this country literally used land discrimination as the primary tool for reconciling the lawfulness of what came of the indigenous peoples here. We all know the story that followed: genocide, Manifest Destiny, the closing of the Frontier, the industrialization of agriculture, environmental degradation, the birth of Pinchot’s Conservation, and its battle with Muir’s Preservation. Today, our culture has largely arrived at a Muirian Preservationist mindset toward what we deem ‘wilderness,’ and a largely developmental mindset toward what we deem ‘not wild.’ Let’s break this down.

In a basic sense, this country views land as either committed toward wilderness or toward improvement. We are very keen on discriminating between the two. On land we deem ‘wilderness,’ we institute laws in order to support the space as “an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” If the land doesn’t fit our arbitrary aesthetic standards for wilderness, we then essentially believe that it is open for improvement or, its more commonly used synonym, development. This mindset, I argue, is a downstream product of a culture which, from its origin, is hell-bent on ‘improving’ and ‘enclosing’ land. We must understand that our ontology of fear and assumption of improvement implicitly conjure a sense of separation between Western man and nature. That is, belief in improvement inherently makes the discriminating point that this is better than that, it assumes we know what is better than what has come to exist. Curiously, even the specific parts of the specific plants we have come to call food, those which scientists and engineers improve upon each year, in many ways do not compare to their wild progenitors. In an interview research Botanist and forager Arthur Haines noted that ‘wild foods’ are generally more nutrient dense, have more favorable phytochemistry, a better fatty acid ratio, and better calorie to fiber ratio than our “improved” foods. One might ask then why are we improving these plants? The answer is of course, yield and calories.

As an aside, our country’s definition of wilderness contrast intensely with cultures that come from an ontology of trust. The tribes studied by Kat Anderson in her Tending the Wild, from whom our epigraph is derived, “believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the Earth...When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge passed down through generations is broken, and the land becomes ‘wilderness.’” This illustrates that cultures which operate under ontologies of trust are much more ecologically entangled with their surroundings than those that do not.

We’ve come to at least a recognition of our ontology of fear, how it informs an assumption of improvement, and how we discriminate amongst lands. It must then be intuitive to us that on the lands we deem open for improvement, “improvement” has been made. In our search for perfect cropping, we have narrowed our global agricultural systems down to a handful of “good crops.” The plants that can feed the world. Over the past 100-or-so years, the plants we eat have been narrowed even further to just a few. In many ways, the industrialization of agriculture and the Green Revolution have provided prosperity to many. But a side effect of this homogenization of our agricultural systems has been our decreasing familiarity with the foods that surround us everyday, largely because we feel we don’t need to know them. And when it comes to sustenance, we don’t. It is this ecological forgetting and how it is tied to our modern sense of isolation here on Earth that will serve as a launching point for the rest of our journey.

Whether we are talking about inter or intraspecies interaction, relationship is built from exchange. In our opening vignette, in exchange for buffering Teddy’s altitude sickness, the Stonecrop received Teddy’s recognition of its existence. This might not seem like a reasonable ecological transaction from the perspective of the Stonecrop, but by today’s standards, I assure you it was a small win for the Stonecrop.

Within our own species, we build relationships with others and begin to get to know them. Our getting to know them deepens our relationship as knowledge and relationship operate in a sort of feed-forward cycle that builds intimacy and defines that person as part of our human community. Over time this process plays out with various individuals and comes to define our place amongst our network of “friends,” and it is ultimately this social context that comes to define many aspects of our identity. We may say that what we know is who we are. Because of our fear of the uncontrollable, many of us have lost the intellectual thrust to get to know the other species that surround us everyday. We have forgotten that the same community defining pattern that plays out in building our intraspecies community holds true for relationships between species as well, and in doing so, have disallowed other species from ever truly becoming part of our personal identity. Like land, we too discriminate between ‘food’ and ‘wild food.’ Although we haven’t yet explored the complexities of actually defining improved and unimproved land, we may gain some ground by quickly looking at how we may define ‘wild food’.

Before concessions, Arthur Haines defines “wild foods” as “species that grow on our landscape that we did not actively plant and do not actively participate in their propagation.” These are the species with which we have lost all relationship. They are the uncontrolled ones, and thus, the ones we are fearful of. Haines notes, however, that there are many plants that do not simply fit into one category or the other. Parsnip, for instance, has effectively escaped cultivation and can be found along roadsides throughout our country. There are millions of Apple trees strewn across this country that, although once actively cultivated, have been left to the wind. From the seedless watermelon to the White Pine, plants truly exist on a spectrum which, from our point of view, may be determined by the extent to which they interact with humans. Today, it should be clear that many species with which we formerly relied upon have been left to fend for themselves. One may conclude that our sentiment toward the wild or unimproved species around us is these days not so much guardedness, but rather plain and simple apathy. And although apathy is certainly part of the equation, apathy does not explain fully our relationship with our former ecological partners.

Many have observed that “in our culture we fear what we don’t know and can’t control.” This should make sense in light of everything we’ve explored prior to arriving at this sentence. When we take this recognition in hand with the clear observation that our food systems have become increasingly homogenized, we may correctly infer that we may have become increasingly ignorant, and thus increasingly fearful, of the plants that surround us everyday. Expert forager Sam Thayer notices in his essay Poisonous Plant Fables that “Our culture is spellbound and beguiled by the story of someone mistaking a poisonous plant for an edible one and dying from the error.” He elaborates by ripping to shreds the entire narrative of Chris McCandless’ death from the much loved Into The Wild. According to Jon Krakauer’s narrative, McCandless died from accidentally eating H. alpinum or “wild potato” seeds. Yet, as Thayer points out, in a 2007 article by the world’s leading expert on wild potato, the author himself notes, “I’d eat them myself. “

Because these myths permeate our culture about the existence of poisonous plants, we all feel hugely inflated anxiety about eating them. The reality is there are very few plants that are poisonous in the way we vilify them in our myths. What is difficult for us to understand is that fundamentally all plants are poisonous at a certain volume, but that for many, that volume is unrealistically high. The same plant that at one volume is toxic can at other volumes be completely harmless, even medicinal. But this knowledge takes actually knowing the plant; not just its name, but its patterns, how it interacts with humans. This type of knowledge is, frankly, completely lost on us. We are a culture that loves to know things about people, not people themselves, and this orientation makes us very lonely.

When it comes down to it, this is ultimately a discussion of how the majority of our species’ basic belief in a scarce and dangerous nature have led down a path of ecological isolation. We are afraid of the unimproved, the wild, and this fear prevents us from coming into relationship with those unimproved species that surround us everyday. Because we are no longer reliant on those species, we then feel no anguish in destroying them or simply no rational reason to keep them around. Ultimately, our species’ Western subcategory is more successful in fighting for what we love, not against what we hate. In the words of the ever-wise Wendell Berry, “the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstractions and not against anything.”

Right now most of the human movements that are concerned with the fate of our common home still function to “combat climate change’”. They demonize the fossil fuel industry, Big Ag, and land developers. I argue this conflict-based mindset is, too, born from the same ontology of fear that got us here. If we are to change anything, we must first become again entangled in this mysterious complex web of life here on Earth. We must again become somewhat reliant on the species that surround us, get to know them, their patterns, who they are. Especially for those among us that feel isolation in the modern way of life, getting to know plants may be as enchanting as finding human friends.

Many of us spend the majority of our days inside our skull. Walking or driving from place to place, we ruminate over whatever uncontrollable thoughts find cycle. But a curious thing happens when we begin to know some plants. They wave like a passing friend. A dandelion growing from a crack in the sidewalk, if you know dandelions, begs notice. It pulls you out of the unhealthy cycles of thought and says “Hi!” “What are dandelions all about? They are quite a wild spirit!” you wonder. “They are certainly not a food…” but one day you discover dandelion coffee and begin harvesting here and there, roasting the root, become more intimate with the dandelions, and one day you see your City spraying the “weeds” with pesticide. For you, the dandelion harvester, the anti-spray argument then is no longer a sentimentalist abstraction, but a concrete conversation involving human health. Dandelions are a part of you. You may think, “Have they poisoned me too?” And yes, they have. It is this intimacy that Earth demands of us. Without it, it is too easy to make irresponsibly logical arguments in favor of our modern tendencies.

In her book The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, Katrina Blair outlines the “thirteen plants found growing in every region across the world are: dandelion, mallow, purslane, plantain, thistle, amaranth, dock, mustard, grass, chickweed, clover, lambsquarter, and knotweed.” They are wild plants that grow in all of our backyards, wherever civilization is. I beg you, go meet them. Katrina notes, “if we can become familiar with these thirteen edible survival weeds found all over the world...we will become closer to our own wild human instincts—all the while enjoying the freshest, wildest, and most nutritious food there is. For free!” If you live in civilization, go meet these plants, expand your community. If you’re looking for more intimacy, learn how to consume them. Don’t be afraid. Go!

White Towns

Another one of those burnt-out white towns somewhere on this continent. A town with a mediocre university and a classic coffee spot that’s been in business since before the third-wave coffee scene really started and thus still calls itself “European style”. There are cafe regulars and now kids of the regulars and the regular’s kids run around while the older people drink coffee to try to keep up. The shop hangs some local art that no one buys and annual pictures of the entire cafe staff. The shots from the 80s and early 90s look like the ones from today but the staff from the late 90s and early 2000s look archaic. There is no vestibule and so in the winter months cold air is always pouring inside in waves. The coffee itself is unsurprisingly dark. The lattes are lazy but good enough. In general, the food is better than the coffee is better than the wifi. Never have expectations of streaming video in another one of these burnt-out white towns, as the whitest of white people these days are becoming skeptical of wifi.

In old white towns there are railroad tracks where kids drink alcohol. To the unanimous chagrin of middle schoolers most of these tracks are being pulled up and turned into bike paths making them less safe places for drinking. There are whispers of a new place on a hill down the dirt road. Stop at the downed tree, turn the lights off. Use your cell phone’s light and follow the path left and you’ll eventually run into a big grey cliff. Don’t be loud here because the cliff will echo your voices and blow our cover. Go around to the top of the cliff where there’s a fire pit. Drink there. White sixteen-year-olds are bad drunk drivers and get in a lot of accidents.

The children of the professors at the mediocre university are all friends. They are the ones that sing in musicals and play wooden instruments and take AP classes. They don’t drink yet but will all go off to universities in US New & World Report’s Top 25 and taste alcohol for the first time. They’ll love it and get in trouble with their dorm advisors on and off during Freshman year even though they’re “good kids”. Their universities won’t care and shouldn’t, but when they return home to No-Name-America and go to the top of the cliff for the first time and see that girl from high-school, you know the one, they’ll want so badly to have sex they’d kill for it. Instead, they get sad and think about metaphors or songs about love, which is good enough.

In the mornings of Winter break from college, these sons and daughters of professors wander into mediocre coffee shops to cure hangover and make their world a little more pleasurable, to drink coffee on their parent’s dime, to show their sophisticated nature to the regulars. “I’ll take a triple Americano. For here. An 8oz mug please.” They know the most developed of pallets like dense and black. “No room.”

This genre of young adult looks around and down on everyone from their hometown. And for good reason. Some people are born talented, smart, “genetically endowed” one might say. They are the ones who participate in competitive yoga, crossfit, do pretty well at bar trivia, someday become “consultants”, and regularly binge drink, but lie on surveys when asked about their habits. They buy clothes from Goodwill, but never donate. Life accelerates for these white people around age 25 and around age 45 they generally have a little existential meltdown, regardless of their position. By age 50, depending on their upbringing, they either become more religious or more atheist, eventually “retire”, and volunteer at outdated non-profits.

On their deathbed they wish they had had the courage to live a life true to their self, not the one others expected of them, that they didn’t work so hard, that they had expressed their feelings more, had stayed in touch with more friends, and let themselves be happier. Just before the lights turn off for these people they think back to running around cold coffee shops, to the blur of work that was high school, posting their academic achievements and stats on CollegeConfidential’s forums and asking “chances of Yale?” and the responses “not a chance.” The beer pong in cramped college dorm rooms, the shitty beer on the cliff looking over their hometown, streaming for some reason and then falling drunk and crying under a tree with guilt of the genocide of the indigenous and of misogyny and for the tree itself and just plain loneliness never touching other humans or animals just watching the world as it is displayed by screens and by the smell of coffee. On their deathbed, people from old burnt-out white towns generally just wish they were less bored with life and are excited greatly by the prospect of death.