Here is a video available online, Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Roger Payne Historic First Meeting, that is worth taking the time to watch, although that time is 2 hours and it is in both English and Spanish, so it takes a bit of a commitment. Roger Payne and Jane Goodall are among the best known wildlife biologists alive today. Both now in their eighties, they have accumulated a wealth of experience and wisdom regarding the wild world. Here they meet for the first time and talk about their work and the human-induced crises facing the planet.
The introduction begins at about 30 minutes into the video, and the conversation begins about 45 minutes in. I do not know why they did not trim the first 30 minutes, it is nothing but crowd noise. The introduction includes clips from two films, one about Jane and one about Roger. Jane's movie, called Jane's Journey, is readily available, including on Netflix. My only disappointment with Jane's Journey is that it emphasizes how busy she is and underemphasizes her great wisdom. This is a woman who is not only a keen observer of both chimpanzee and human behavior and a tenacious and spirited activist, but also one who has been formed and deepened by all she has experienced.
Roger's film, A Life Among Whales, is not so easy to find. It was available on Netflix at one time but currently it is not. The film has a website where it can be purchased, or downloaded as a pay-per-view for $1.99. Be aware that A Life Among Whales is more about Roger and the history of his work than about whales as such, although about half of the movie is about current whaling by Japan, and includes some very gruesome images. It is also fairly short, just under an hour. Most of what I know about whales, I learned from Roger.
I think the following four paragraphs summarize most of what I have tried to communicate in this weblog and in my essays. I have arrived at this perspective by living among homeless people, being in a war zone, hanging out with whales and seals and birds and trees and rivers, and living a contemplative, listening life.
The whole world is sacred:
The plants and animals, rivers and seas and mountains and forests, the stars and planets, are sacred, of value in and of and for themselves. For humans to use them, manipulate them, harvest them, harm them, abuse them, without any regard for their own value for themselves leads to grievous harm for us all. I seek the sanctification of the whole universe and all of its members. I resist commodification and exploitation in all its forms. Nothing, absolutely nothing, exists only for anotherâs use.
Beliefs distort reality:
No matter what we believe (about the world, or about ourselves), no matter what we think we know, if we prefer our beliefs to reality, our relationship with reality gets distorted. To stay in touch with reality, we must be active listeners, open to the whole range of experience, inward and outward, comfortable and uncomfortable. To be attentive to reality is to be here and now, listening deeply, observing sensitively; acting as necessary, taking into our awareness our limited experience and our vast ignorance.
When I see that I am no thing, I see that I am everything:
To be attentive to reality is to encounter our limits, to see that we do not really know anything at all. Reality is essentially hidden from us, even though we live it and breathe it and it is right at hand. From this awareness of our ignorance comes the love of everything that is. How is that? Our sense of self is created by the stories we tell about the world and our relationship to it. When we realize that we do not really know who we are, and we do not really know what the world is, our ability to derive an enduring sense of self from these stories evaporates, and what is left is the whole of everything, its dynamic interrelatedness, and this organism as part of that whole movement of life. The stories donât necessarily stop, but they are no longer definitive. The living âselfâ is not in the stories I tell, but in the whole movement of life. This is a powerful shift of perspective.
We tend to have this backward. We elevate the stories we tell to the status of Self, and we denigrate the reality in which we move to the status of âother;â not important, inherently evil, of value only if useful to me, an illusion, to be feared, to be hated, to be escaped, to be conquered, to be manipulated, used, abused, destroyed. We create a âme,â and then the ânot-meâ is either useful to me, or it is a threat to me and treated accordingly. The love of everything is not the love of one separate thing for another separate thing, but the inherent love of the wholeness of life reveling in its wholeness, in which there is no division, no âme,â no ânot-me,â no conflict, no distortion, no exploitation.
A Book Review The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places By Bernie Krause
Little, Brown and Company
Bernie Krause is one of the preeminent recorders and collectors of natural sound and one of the pioneers of the field of soundscape ecology. His most recent book, The Great Animal Orchestra, is indispensable reading and listening for anyone interested in natural soundscapes and soundscape recording, but it is even more essential for everyone else, providing an engaging introduction to the vital role that sound plays in our lives and the lives of all animals, and the rapid deterioration of natural soundscapes around the world due to the impacts of resource extraction and ever-present human noise. We might think that the degradation of natural soundscapes is merely an aesthetic loss for those few humans who prefer quiet to noise, but Krause demonstrates very clearly that increasing noise is unravelling the very fabric of natural communities. The creatures that live in those communities depend heavily on sound for communication, navigation, and locating sources of food. Understanding soundscapes is therefore essential for fully appreciating what is happening in natural communities, and recording natural soundscapes is a unique and powerful way of monitoring and assessing overall ecosystem health and integrity.
The Great Animal Orchestra was published in a somewhat confusing variety of formats, all with slightly different content. The hardcover print edition, for instance, does not come with a CD, nor are there any links to online sound files, but it does contain all of the sonograms, visual representations of audio recordings, which illustrate many of Krause's points. It is a shame that the print edition does not include the sounds, because
Krause has one of the largest and most diverse private collections of
natural sound recordings in the world, and the book is, after all, about
(Note: after writing this review I learned that the paperback print edition will be released March 12, 2013 and will include icons in the text that point to relevant online audio examples.)
According to Krause, the audio book edition includes the largest selection of audio recordings of any of the editions, but of course it lacks the sonograms. Read by the author, the audio book includes many recordings that illustrate the text, but most of these are played under the narration, which means one does not always hear the depth and detail of the recordings. On those few occasions when the recordings stand alone without narration, we get a glimpse into the richness of what Bernie Krause has collected over the past four and a half decades. The audio book would have been rather long if all the recordings had been separated from the narration, but I still would have preferred that.
The other two options are a standard eBook, which like the print version is text without any sound, and an Enhanced eBook which includes the natural sound recordings. Because I do not own a device that will play the Enhanced eBook, I do not know how the text and audio are integrated, nor how the Enhanced eBook audio compares to the audio book, but it appears that the Enhanced eBook is the only way to get both the audio and the sonograms in one format. The other alternative is to purchase both the print edition and the audio book. This was the route I took, and I am glad I did. I like having the print edition for reference, and I really appreciate hearing Bernie read his own words. His passion and his deep concern come through more forcefully in his voice than they can on the page.
Chapter One, Sound as My Mentor, is largely autobiographical, detailing how his career moved almost by accident from studio musician to nature sound recordist and soundscape ecologist. In this chapter Krause also introduces and explains some of the essential parameters of sound waves, such as amplitude and the often misunderstood decibel that measures it; frequency, wavelength and pitch; harmonics; and acoustic envelopes. Every chapter, including this one, is peppered with Krause's personal experiences recording in diverse environments around the world, and these experiences enliven even the most technical explanations of acoustic theory.
Chapter Two, Voices from the Land, opens with one of the most important stories in the book, the moment that Krause discovered viscerally the origins of human music in the voice of the Earth. He learned this through the guidance of a Nez Perce elder named Angus Wilson on the shores of Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon. He goes on in this chapter to describe this most fundamental aspect of natural sound: geophony, literally "speech of the Earth," the sounds produced by wind, water, ice, ocean and land.
Chapter Three, The Organized Sound of Life Itself, moves from geophony to biophony, the sounds made by all living organisms from viruses to whales. This chapter introduces an important and intriguing concept: soundscape recording as a means of monitoring ecosystem health and integrity. Krause describes his experience performing before and after recordings in an area that was selectively logged at Lincoln Meadow, Yuba Pass, CA. Although visually similar before and after the logging operation, the soundscape recordings demonstrated a deep loss of species diversity and density. It looked much the same, but the animals were gone. There is a very important point here. We humans are very visually oriented and sometimes quite oblivious to the soundscape. But most animals are deeply dependent on sound for their survival. In many situations, recording the soundscape is a better indicator of ecosystem health than taking pictures or other measures. Sound reveals so much that is hidden from the eye.
Chapter Three also introduces another fascinating and important concept, which is explored more fully in Chapter Four; Biophony, The Proto-Orchestra. This is Krause's niche hypothesis. Briefly, the niche hypothesis states that in "in older, healthy habitats" animal vocalizations partition into separate frequency and/or temporal bands. Furthermore, in these healthy habitats, most acoustic niches tend to be filed, with few gaps. In disturbed habitats, those sounds are more likely to overlap in competing frequency or temporal space, and to show large gaps of unoccupied acoustic territory. In other words, in healthy, undisturbed habitats, the animals are not vocalizing over each, they are organized like an orchestra where "some sing low and some sing higher," in order to leave a clear channel of communication for every organism. This is not just a fascinating concept, it ushers in an entirely new way (at least for us urbanized, industrialized humans) to listen to the natural world, not as separate organisms in sonic competition, but as a whole system, an orchestra, vocalizing in harmony. Listening to the whole, and recording the whole, yields insights into the functioning of ecosystems, and our own role in those systems, that simply do not occur when we are trying to listen to this or that organism in isolation from its context.
In recent years the highly controversial "Gaia Hypothesis" - the notion that the Earth functions like a single, self-regulating organisim - has found some mainstream credibility as the more prosaic "earth systems science." Krause's niche hypothesis is also controversial, but he makes a strong case for it. It should not be hard to confirm, except that it is getting increasingly difficult to find undisturbed habitat. My own recordings made here in rural Vermont show this acoustic partitioning most clearly in my recordings of late summer insects. Until I looked at the sonograms and could see the distinct frequency bands for each different type of grasshopper or cricket, I never realized how much insect diversity we had living in our back yard.
Chapter Five, First Notes, moves from biophony to anthrophony. It describes how humans learned our music from the combination of geophony and biophony. Although we have strayed rather far from our origins, our music is not something that arrived fully formed in modern humans. We learned it from the Earth, and many of our fellow creatures are great musicians. This perhaps explains why music is so deeply moving for us. It speaks to our origins and our connection to the Earth like nothing else. In my experience, that is most clearly obvious from listening to humpback whales and gray seals and of course the song birds. My own discovery of the deep similarity between human vocalization and bird song came thirty years ago when I wrote a college term paper comparing the development of speech in humans and the development of song in songbirds. The similarities were so striking that it changed how I viewed human origins and human exceptionalism. What once seemed a unique human achievement found its place in the larger symphony (literally "sounding or speaking together") of life on Earth. That is Krause's aim here, to point the way to the origins of human music in the geo-biophony. I would have loved more detail in this chapter. The range of melodic voices of the Earth goes well beyond what is described here, as do the musics of cultures that have not lost their connection to the land. Here we find a tantalizing glimpse that perhaps will lead us to explore further the fascinating world of animal vocalization and human music that is closely tied to the geo-biosphere.
Chapter Six, Different Croaks for Different Folks, explores the ways in which human music has become divorced from the larger matrix of natural sound that gave birth to it. Of most interest to me here is the portrayal of early Christian attitudes toward all things "natural." Krause argues that "those who wished to live in harmony with the natural world were considered primitive, unenlightened, wicked, pagan, or all of the above... Different types of music were banned outright." Those bans extended to indigenous people being "converted" by Christian missionaries. We almost lost many of the clearest examples of human music that is deeply embedded in the natural sonic world. And now we are losing the soundscapes.
Chapter Seven, The Fog of Noise, is about what you would expect: a detailed discussion of all the ways that humans create noise, which is sound without meaning. Chapter Eight, Noise and Biophony/ Oil and Water, extends that discussion into the many ways that human noise is diminishing and destroying natural soundscapes. Krause concludes this chapter by writing, "biophonies contain the acoustic compass we need to guide us along the route of an ever-challeneged planet." We drown out these sensitive biophonies every day with our airplanes, our internal combustion engines, and our ubiquitous presence in nearly every corner of the Earth. We do so to our own peril, and the even greater peril of the natural world we can now barely hear.
The final chapter, The Coda of Hope, is somewhat strangely named. There is hope, but it is muted at best. The hope springs from the fact that, with plenty of time, severely disturbed habitats can recover, if we leave them utterly alone. Human noise is destructive to the fabric of life in ways most of us have never imagined. The only good thing about noise pollution is that, in most cases, once it stops, there is no lingering effect, unlike, for instance, pumping carbon into the atmosphere or toxic substances into the ocean. In those cases, even if we stop today, the effects will linger for centuries at least. But as soon as we stop the noise, the damage can start to repair itself. Krause tells the story of how wildlife, and a vibrant soundscape, returned to the Chernobyl exclusion zone within three years of that catastrophic accident. The Earth can heal. It is amazingly resilient. But it needs a break from us in order to do its healing work. He concludes the book with these words:
"I am invariably asked what we can do to help preserve our remaining natural environments. It's easy: leave them alone and stop the inveterate consumption of useless products that none of us need."
"Inveterate" means "habit that is long established and unlikely to change." Another word for that might be "addiction," and nobody ever said that breaking an addiction is easy. It's possible, it's necessary, but it's never easy.
This is a rich and intricate book. The themes, the sounds, the information and the personal reflections weave in and out of each other throughout, not unlike the natural symphony that is the book's subject. There were many points where I felt that there were layers to the story I was comprehending only because I have been exploring these themes in my own life for more than thirty years. And there were layers I definitely missed on first reading, and more that I probably still missed on listening to the audio book. I shall return for more.
There is a kind of magic to listening in the natural world. There are feelings and sensations in that act that are impossible to describe. They reach back deep into our animal origins. They reach even deeper into the mystery of our conscious present as members of a living, singing planet. Past and present; human, animal and Earth weave a symphony that is the truth of our life together. Bernie Krause weaves his own symphony into that larger one and communicates much more than the words convey, at least to this reader/listener.
For me the coda of hope is that even as we drown out the Earth's symphony with our own meaningless noise, and begin to unravel the integrity of the life system, we are, after all, voices in that same orchestra. The discord can't go on forever. Somehow, somewhen, the natural harmony of the great animal orchestra will reassert itself, probably without us, but possibly with us, if, and only if, we take the time to listen.
Just some thoughts, summing up the things I have been thinking and writing about recently.
The natural world, the plants and animals, rivers and seas and mountains and forests, are sacred, of value in and of and for themselves. For humans to use them, manipulate them, harvest them, harm them, abuse them, without any regard for their own value for themselves leads to grievous harm for us all.
Along with the other animals and the plants, the human is a product of Earth, and therefore part of a complex system of lives and feedback loops and relationships. The whole is more real than the part. Nothing can be understood, nor does anything exist, including the human person, outside of the system of relationships that constitutes the whole universe. There is no "self" or "soul" that is somehow separate from the intertwining of the whole. "Self" or "soul" or "spirit" is the dynamic intertwining of the whole.
Because we and all the plants and animals are aspects of the same life system, we should expect to find the qualities we most revere in ourselves also in the rest of the natural world. Intelligence, ability to communicate, self-awareness, deep feeling, awareness of others as others, and basic consciousness, the ability to have experiences, are present in us because they are aspects of the universe as a whole. It is not that humans are uniquely conscious and intelligent, it is the universe that is conscious and intelligent, through us but also through other life forms and quite possibly through inanimate forms such as mountains and streams and forests.
We are least ourselves when we perceive ourselves as separate from everything else, and therefore give ourselves license to destroy, to manipulate, to use according to our desires. We come most into ourselves when we perceive that we belong to a larger whole, not only belong to it, but are expressions of it, in no way separate from it. Thus we most fully honor our own lives, and the other lives that share this life with us.
The full realization of this non-separation is impossible to talk about because our language is inherently divisive. Language creates meaning by creating distinction. The experience of wholeness (which is slightly but significantly different from the realization of wholeness) is inevitably lost when we try to describe it.
The realization of wholeness or non-separation is simply recognizing that wholeness is the essential state of reality, regardless of whether it is being experienced that way. The experience of wholeness is temporary and fleeting, as is all experience. But wholeness remains even though the experience passes. One retains awareness of the truth of it even when it is not being experienced.
After several millennia of devotion to the thought world, and debasement of the real world, it is very hard for the individual human to break free of the grip that the mind world has on our sense of reality. There are ways, but there is no formula. Formulas are products of a mind that insists on reducing reality to that which it can predict and control.
The whole world is more alive and more conscious and more intentional and more communicative and more interesting and more integrated than humans have believed for a long, long time. Reawakening our sense of belonging to that rich world, which we must do if we are to survive the coming few decades and stop the slide into unrestrained destruction which is the current human trajectory, at some point requires an encounter with our essential no-thingness, what I variously have called our essential emptiness, stillness, or silence.
Emptiness, stillness and silence are words I have used to suggest this central realization, that our sense of existing as a separate entity is illusory. The only reality is the whole of everything together, and therefore any idea or image we have of ourselves is essentially "empty." When this is seen fully, what follows is often a sudden, unexpected, unsought quieting of the mind. Silence. Stillness. Acute listening. I speak of silence and stillness, but emptiness and no-thingness and wholeness are probably more appropriate words.
The encounter with emptiness, with no-thingness, with wholeness, never comes predictably. But it does come when we are open to it. To be open to it, we must prefer reality to anything our minds can conceive. And since we are quite deeply devoted to the mind's version of reality, we resist and resist and resist the arrival of the real, and we resist accepting our place within that reality. We insist on carrying on the sham of self-serving control and manipulation, and thus we ensure the destruction of the world.
The discovery of non-separation is life altering. One's life can fall apart after its discovery, because one's life and identity have been built on a shaky foundation of separation. One of the ways it alters life, or at least has altered my life, is that I feel an immense responsibility in the world. Every thought and action is shaping the world even as we are shaped by the world. My inner violence is the violence of the world. The violence of the world is made of our inner violence. The rapacious machine that is modern society is the manifestation of our inner state. It is a mirror held up to us. God help us.
There is no "them." There is only us. All of us. Everything together. It is therefore no small thing for any one of us to clean up our own house, to find a way, any way, to stop judging and criticizing and hating and marginalizing and destroying. Everything we do in our own lives to be examples of wholeness, to live out the implications of non-separation, however imperfectly we do it, however badly we fail to do it; every little thing we can do to manifest wholeness in thought, word and deed, which requires deeply acknowledging our inner fragmentation, our stubborn belief in separateness; whatever we can do on behalf of wholeness robs the destructive machine of some of its fuel. For it is fueled by the division in each and every one of us. It is fueled by everything in us that has split off from wholeness and believes itself to be separate, superior, the master, the controller, the victim, the sufferer.
Death is part of life, natural, inevitable and not to be feared. Annihilation is something else, the death of life itself. We are bent on annihilation. Most of the lives we destroy do not sustain life. Most of it is not necessary for biological survival. Much of it is wanton, cruel destruction; self destruction. Most of the destruction only serves the phantom self, the self image, while it destroys the real. If we could get to a point where the only lives we take are for food, warmth and biological survival, that in itself would be an improvement. But I think we are beyond that now. We need a psychological revolution, the realization of emptiness.
It would be a worthy goal of natural science, and of all of our human cleverness, to find all of the ways that we can give back to life, to enhance and encourage life in all its diversity. Our reason for being could be to increase diversity, to increase vitality, to support and affirm the beauty and the value of all of life, animal, vegetable, mineral, water and sunlight. We could serve the whole, which includes us, rather than serving ourselves, which excludes everything else.
Words and ideas are inadequate. We have run out of time. The Kingdom of God is right at hand, but we refuse to be embraced by it. What will it take? What will it take for us to allow ourselves to be embraced by reality? Not tomorrow. Not next year. Now. What will it take?
I've been thinking about the end of the world. The world that had a stable climate, vast intact terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, silent places, and an abundance of complex life forms is ending. A new world of climate chaos, disintegrating ecosystems and mass extinctions is taking its place.
And then there is the world that needs to end because it is so destructive and is making every one and everything so miserable: the world of buying and burning and drilling and fracking and blowing up and otherwise destroying and exploiting and acquiring and hoarding without any consideration of consequences. That world needs to end, in which we believe we are separate from Earth and are therefore immune from whatever we do to it.
Reverend Billy (Billy Talen) put it like this in his new book The End of the World (2012, OR Books):
"To save our own life we have to save the tree's life. That means: we must remember that this tree is a life. Then we might get back on track saving our own lives."
We must remember that this tree is a life. It is a life and it has a life. It has a reason for being. It feels the air moving through its leaves or needles. It communicates continuously with the other trees around it. And, if we feel a need to justify it in human terms, it is another part of our lungs. It is just as much a part of our body as the tissue in our chests. And we are part of it.
Because the car is my greatest contribution to the destruction of Earth, I am trying to leave it parked at home as much as possible. Which means there is a lot of entertainment that I do not take part in. There are a lot of experiences I am missing that require travel.
Instead I lie on the bench I have placed in the back yard under a huge old pine tree. I love gazing into the upper branches of the tree and listening to the whisper of the thousands of needles in the wind, and feeling the slow swaying of the trunk, and maybe even the subtle lifting and relaxing of the ground beneath me, or am I just imagining that? It's a magnificent tree. I lie there exchanging the gifts of oxygen and carbon dioxide with it. I could not live without something like it and it could not live without something like me. Does it know this? Does it feel my presence like I feel its presence? Does it feel the additional weight on its roots? Can it acknowledge the gift of CO2 and be grateful for it? I think it can. Tree consciousness is not like animal consciousness, but it must have its own ways of experiencing the world.
The realization of non-separation re-enchants the world. Earth is full of ways of seeing and hearing and smelling and feeling and touching. The human is but one of the many ways Earth knows itself. What could be more delightful?
Earth has been doing interesting things for a lot longer than humans have been adding to the repertoire, and Earth will go on doing interesting things long after we humans have disappeared into the deep night. So for me the delights of the non-human world, the dancing of trees for instance, are more deeply satisfying than anything humans can create. Earth experience is everywhere, in everything. One need not go anywhere to find it.
But one must be willing to lose something. One must be willing to die at least a little before physical death comes to force the issue. Every one of us will face physical death. All of our plans and hopes and dreams and projects and relationships, all the ways we have defined ourselves, will come to an end, ready or not. We will be called upon to leave the projects unfinished, say goodbye to all the possessions and all the loved ones, lose everything, let the world carry on without us, transition into emptiness.
One must be willing to give up some of those projects, give up a sense of finding fulfillment in doing more, or having more or being more, in order to slow down enough to listen, to look, to experience what we already are, without need for improvement or amendment. To discover what Earth is now, without need for augmentation. To discover the magic that life is now, already, without anything being added to it, without even adding a thought.
Earth is alive. It's a miracle. Our most clever invention is not any more amazing than Earthâs invention of the plant-animal-atmosphere-ocean-soil respiration system. Nothing we can do can make it more miraculous than it already is.
But we can make it less. I'm afraid that many of our plans and projects reduce its possibilities, can even annihilate the whole gorgeous thing. We must be willing to die at least a little to the mind-made sense of self, die to separation, to prevent annihilation.
It seems to me that this is the reality of our situation: we must come to terms with death before we die, which means we are required to do and to be less than what we had hoped and dreamed. We must accept the physical limits to our Earthly existence. Mother Earth is telling us "No!" and we are throwing several tantrums because we do not like to be told "No." We think our freedom and our essence is to be found in satisfaction of infinite desires. Our sense of self is bound up with "more." Getting comfortable with "No!" requires a more mature sense of self, one that does not require constant expansion and gratification. One that is content with what is.
Can a species like ours grow up fast enough? I doubt it. But there is this tantalizing possibility: stopping takes no time at all. Doing takes time. Progress takes time. If there is much more we have to do, we are doomed, because we have run out of time.
Lacking time, all that is left to us is to stop everything. Just stop, inwardly and outwardly, mentally and physically. Not forever, but long enough to be unmade. Then to rediscover the abundance of Earth, the beauty and wonder of the non-human, the unfathomable depths of silence.
The crazy rush to the cliff can stop in an instant. It is possible. Just stop.
I wrote the following essay a year ago, but I never published it. The news is so grim, the goal seemingly so impossible, that I thought it was probably not helpful to talk about it because it would discourage people rather than motivate them. Certainly that is the effect it has had on me. I've been living with this for over a year now, and I have been sick and depressed. But I think we have to face the reality of our situation. The truth is our only hope even if at first we do not see any way forward. If we are not honest about the situation, we can not even begin to address it rightly and completely.
I think this helps explain my previous post on metanoia. Our situation is urgent, and we are not doing what we need to do, and we are not stopping all that we need to stop (e.g. burning fossil fuels). The whole system must change. For me, "the system" exists both as external social, economic and political circumstances; and as an internal mindset -- beliefs and unconscious thought patterns that govern our behavior. The inner and the outer aspects of "the system" or what I sometimes call "the exploitation system" are intertwined, mutually reinforcing, and extremely difficult to unravel. For "the system" to change we have to be absolutely honest with ourselves about both the internal and the external aspects, or else it continues unabated. That's what metanoia means to me: stepping aside absolutely from the exploitation system, both internally and externally. Stepping aside to where? That's what is so hard to describe, because for most of us, what I am calling "the system" is simply "reality" or "life as we know it." Stepping aside from that ends up sounding like moving into a fourth spatial dimension. Where the heck is it?
I'll have more to say about this if I can find some clarity myself beyond what I have already described in this blog and in my essays. This is what I have been writing about for more than twenty-five years, and I still don't think I have quite succeeded in explaining what metanoia means to me.
"... the world's ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history."
The oceans will undergo a major extinction event that will cause ecosystem reorganization never seen within human history, on a level with past major extinction events (which have occurred a few times over the past 600 million years). All the known problems are accelerating much faster than anyone predicted, and the reason is that the problems are interacting to amplify their effects. So, for instance, acidification is having a greater impact than expected because the oceans are already stressed by the presence of toxic chemicals. Because of the way science is done, the effect of all of these stressors on each other has not been studied.
The interlocking problems are climate change (warming, acidification and oxygen deficiency), pollution (heavy metals, plastics, nitrogen from agriculture, and a variety of toxic compounds from industry and agriculture), overfishing, and habitat loss (which they list separately but which is often a result of the others, although seafloor trawling, which is destroying habitat directly is a stressor in itself, not just a consequence of overfishing). They don't mention sound pollution. That might fall under habitat loss, but I think it should have been listed as a factor in its own right (note: as was clearly demonstrated for the North Atlantic right whale in 2012).
It's a very grim picture. The solutions these scientists offer amount to this: everything must change. The whole structure of human society must change. They don't come out and say that directly, but they come close. For instance, one of their solutions is to
"avoid, reduce or at minimum, universally and stringently regulate oil, gas, aggregate and mineral extraction."
Wow. That one alone requires a complete transformation of our politics, our economy and our way of life. And so do all the other solutions they offer.
They make it clear that this is not a hundred-year project. We are perilously close to not being able to stop this thing. We may have already crossed that line and made total collapse and mass extinction unavoidable. In the summary conclusion they state,
"Technical means to achieve the solutions to many of the problems the workshop identified already exist, but current societal values prevent humankind from addressing them effectively. Overcoming these barriers is core to the fundamental changes needed to achieve a sustainable and equitable future."
That's as close as they come to stating outright that everything must change. These changes are not adjustments within the system. They require a total transformation of the system. Current societal values must change. We must change. And fast. Not over several generations, which is the normal timeframe for deep changes in societal values.
I have been following and occasionally commenting on an article in Orion magazine by Derrick Jensen called "Self Evident Truths."
The other commentators frequently refer to a book that Derrick co-authored called Deep Green Resistance (2011), which advocates a resistance movement that includes the use of violence to bring down industrial civilization. What follows is a slightly modified version of a comment I made on the Orion site earlier today.
I've been operating under the assumption, which was common twenty years ago (cf. How Much is Enough (1992) by Alan Durning), that a more modest, European style life is sustainable. That using 90% less electricity than the American average (which we do, and which is perfectly comfortable) is sufficient. That driving less, and eating more local food and no grain-fed animals, and drinking fewer bottled drinks, and not flying, and mending clothes rather than buying new, and fixing things rather than replacing them, and keeping a computer for a decade rather than a couple of years, and eschewing the whole smartphone/cell phone thing, etc etc is enough. That converting to solar for heat and electricity is good enough. I thought it was sufficient to live with less of this stuff. That the American (now mostly global) "way of life" is so obscenely obese, that trimming the fat is enough. That giving it all up entirely is not necessary. And that may still be true, although we are not even close to doing any of that trimming!
But now I am not certain. I am not entirely convinced, but I am at least unsettled by Derrick's position, which is that the entire package of civilization as we know it is unsustainable. That any importation of materials from outside your immediate region is unsustainable. That any use of fossil fuels is unsustainable (this is unequivocally true - no finite resource can be used indefinitely). That any mining of minerals is unsustainable. That any exploitation of labor is unsustainable (this one seems more a moral stand than a physical one - unfortunately, exploitation of labor can probably go on indefinitely in a strictly biological sense). I reject absolutely the use of violence and destruction to bring down the system because I feel they are part of the system that needs to be transformed, but the advocacy of a strict definition of sustainability is compelling.
What kind of life would we be living without any export or import of materials, without any fossil fuels, without any mining of minerals, without any exploitation of labor? What if we include animals in that? How would we live without any exploitation of human or animal labor? Now we are back to being hunter/gatherers with perhaps a bit of permaculture thrown in. Or if we compromise a wee bit on the animal part, we can include being pastoralists (shepherds, goatherds, nomadic reindeer herders etc). What else is there that is completely harmonious with the processes of life? How else can we be human animals, where absolutely everything we take from the Earth is given back in a form that is useful to Life? What else can it possibly mean to live sustainably?
I ask these questions in all seriousness. From this strict definition of sustainability (which is the only definition that the Earth cares about) nearly everything we do now is unsustainable. It all has to stop one way or another.
I agree with Derrick that to participate in the current industrial economy is de facto to live a life of violence and exploitation. That is part of the structure of civilization. Theologian John Dominic Crossan calls it the "exploitative normalcy" of civilization and argues that Jesus was calling his followers to reject that system absolutely, both in the external circumstances of their lives and even more potently in the internalization of that system in their own behavior and thinking (cf. The Birth of Christianity (1998)). I have been making that argument for a couple of decades. But I still reject the intentional use of violence to combat what is for most of us the unintended violence of a system we were born into and are trying to find a way out of. Violence can not end violence. There has to be a better way.
The Civil Rights Movement is a fine example of positive, nonviolent, coercive resistance, but my understanding is that Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/social/economic/military system was so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what Jesus called metanoia -- a complete transformation of heart and mind. Resistance tactics were adequate for achieving limited political and social gains within the exploitation system, but not for transforming or unravelling the system itself. Dr. King got into big trouble with his movement colleagues when he started addressing the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us, and we much prefer to project it onto someone else. Like it or not, this is not an us-versus-them problem. It is an all-of-us-together problem. That doesn't mean there aren't a few people who are benefitting from the system at the brutal expense of everyone and everything else (and that "few" now includes most of us in the industrialized world), but it does mean we will get nowhere by projecting all of our fear and anger and blame onto them.
J. Krishnamurti (1895 - 1986) said in his book, Beyond Violence (1970),
"... unless there is a fundamental, radical revolution in the psyche, in the very root of one's being, mere trimming, mere legislation on the periphery, has very little meaning. So what we are concerned with is whether man, as he is, can radically bring about a transformation in himself; not according to a particular theory, a particular philosophy, but by seeing actually what he is. That very perception of what he is, will bring about the radical change. And to see what he is, is of the highest importance - not what he thinks he is, not what he is told that he is."
This still seems to me to be our best and perhaps our only hope. That we see things (ourselves included) as they/we truly are and stop deceiving ourselves. That in itself brings about a radical reorientation without any violence or coercion. I have seen this in action, and I known how powerful it can be.
That still leaves open the question of how much is enough and how much is too much. It still leaves us pondering the meaning of sustainability: we must use only what we truly need, and absolutely everything we use from the Earth must be given back in a form that is beneficial to Life. It still leaves us with the urgent question of whether we can change course quickly enough and soon enough to avert catastrophe. But I am convinced we can not answer those questions adequately and on the scale required, where it actually makes a global difference, without a radical transformation of heart and mind. Without that transformation we inevitably fall back into violence, the endless repetition of that ancient ill.
Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton are leaders in the fields of acoustic ecology and nature recording. They are two of the world's great listeners. Bernie just released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, which is a personal and scientific account of the field of acoustic ecology. Gordon was just interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR show, On Being. Gordon called this interview the largest amount of airtime ever devoted to the subject.
I really enjoyed this interview, both the broadcast version and the unedited one. I especially appreciate the way that Gordon talks about what it means to him to listen. Listening is one of the most essential, elemental things an animal does. Gordon makes the point that throughout the history of life on Earth, seeing is optional, but listening is essential. No animal has ever developed "earlids." Our ears never sleep. But we humans have found other ways to stop listening, perhaps for the first time in evolutionary history. We have become preoccupied with our own thoughts - our internal virtual reality, or if we listen at all, we very selectively attend only to that one element in the total sound field that we think is important to us, and we filter out everything else. And in our modern world with its ubiquitous screens, we overwhelm the auditory channel with visual stimulation.
For Gordon, to listen means to let go of the filtered, focused, selective attention we are taught and return to a more elemental, more natural, open awareness of the whole tapestry of the acoustic world. Bernie Krause describes this in his book as well. Open awareness -- deep listening -- changes us.
These two nature recordists are articulating what I have found in what I call the contemplative life, which basically means a life of listening. And this is what draws me to nature sound recording. It's not mainly about capturing and preserving sounds, although obviously that is part of it. It is really about learning to listen more fully. There is a magic in open awareness that both Bernie and Gordon describe, and so does Roger Payne in his book Among Whales as he relates how it feels to hear a whale singing beneath his sailboat: there is a subtle but utterly reorienting shift of perspective, in which one experiences the integrity of a place, and one's irreducible participation within that place. One experiences oneself as inextricably part of the larger whole. One finds oneself, locates oneself as Here and Now and This. And it is absolutely astonishing to discover how much of our self-identity has been founded on not-Here, not-Now, ANYTHING but THIS!
When I am listening and recording in the Bay of Fundy, I feel as if I am listening not so much to the particular sounds as to the space itself, and to something even deeper than the space, the presence of the whole Bay and the mysterious stillness in which the Bay itself is enfolded. The Bay is well suited to this kind of listening because it is so huge, and actively in motion, and yet it can be as still as a pond. Every little sound is absorbed into this vast stillness and you can hear and feel that presence that is the whole Bay. Especially in the middle of the night when there are no lights and all you can do is hear the presence of the Bay. This is what nature recording is about for me. Listening. Being present and being in the presence of a particular place, and by extension being in the presence of the whole Earth, the whole universe. It is only in those times of deep listening that I know who I really am.
When we do begin to listen unfiltered (or as near to it as we can consciously get), one of the things we inevitably discover is that we humans are generating an awful lot of noise, primarily from the internal combustion engine and the jet engine. Noise has a specific definition in acoustics: random acoustic fluctuations that contain no meaningful information. The bugaboo of nature recording is electronic noise, the hiss created by microphones and amplifiers. The signal is the acoustic wave that contains information. The bird song. The cricket song. The whole soundscape tapestry. The idea is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Increase the signal, reduce the noise.
But the real bugaboo in recording and listening is engine noise. It is noise, because it conveys no information. A song, be it whale, bird, frog, cricket or human, conveys information. Here I am. This is who I am. Most animals who sing have signature songs, songs that identify them as individuals to others. Who knows what other information all these songs convey? Noise conveys no information, and when it becomes dominant it masks or obscures important information, and that is absolutely the situation we are in now. Human noise is obscuring our awareness of who we really are as members of a living planet.
Gordon Hempton has made this his primary cause with an organization called One Square Inch of Silence. He talks about silence as an endangered species. The encouraging fact is that, unlike global warming, unlike all the toxins we have dumped in the ocean, noise pollution is utterly and instantly reversible. Just shut off the engines, and there is the silence waiting. I suppose it is possible that there has been irreversible damage to some species and some places from excessive and prolonged noise, the ecosystem equivalent of loss of hearing, but still, there is something we can do, if only we were willing.
I remember what it was like after 9/11/2001 when air traffic was halted. As I mentioned previously, the right whales in the Bay of Fundy also enjoyed the quiet that was imposed by reductions in shipping traffic after 9/11. Their stress levels dropped when the shipping noise stopped. They could hear each other again without fighting to overcome the noise.
I wonder what it would be like if humanity declared a noise sabbath. One day a week. No air traffic. No internal combustion engines. Except those few absolutely essential to preservation of life. What would happen to our stress levels? What would we hear that we have not been hearing? Could we do it? Just one day a week? One day a month? No chain saws. No lawn mowers. No jet skis. No airplanes. No cars. No trucks. No trains. No ATVs. No snowmobiles. No weed wackers. No generators. Wow. What a day that would be! Many of us would hate it. The withdrawal might be painful for some. Cessation of so much noise also means cessation of most of the activity to which we are accustomed. We might have to experience ourselves as we are, without the cover of noise and frantic activity. That can be painful at first.
But we might find that we love it. That this silence, this deep listening, is what we have been looking for for a long, long time. We might come to wonder how we ever lived without it. We might come to realize that silence is essential to survival.
The Right Whale Research Team at the New England Aquarium have been studying whales in the Bay of Fundy, Canada for more than 30 years. The peak of right whale presence in the Bay is usually in September or October of each year. So it was that in 2001 the team was in the Bay when shipping traffic was halted due to the 9/11 attacks. It also happens that at that time the team was pioneering a new research method, using dogs to track right whale feces. Whale feces are a treasure trove of information, including the presence of stress hormones.
It should come as no surprise, but the NEAQ now has evidence that stress levels in right whales decreased when ships were absent in the days following 9/11/2001.
That was a fin whale, not a right whale. But the encounter was one of the most ecstatic of my life, and it changed the course of my life. I came home so excited that my parents then changed their vacation plans and went whale watching on the same boat out of Nova Scotia and also saw whales. My mother then turned that experience into a children's sermon called Digby the Whale.
I did not know about the story until several years later, after my mother's death. Discovering that story was a revelation to me, because it helped me understand why the whale encounter had been so potent for me. In her genius, she recognized what the whale represents, at least for her and for me: they are messengers of the Deep. For me, this story was the conscious wedding of what until then had been an unconscious understanding: my life is uniquely oriented toward the contemplative life especially as it expresses itself in the natural world. It is really as a result of my mother's insight that The Natural Contemplative came into being.
My mother's story anticipates the NEAQ's research finding: "Whales are probably happiest when they are experiencing deep calling to deep.. and they are not really meant to be in the midst of the hullabaloo of human restlessness and noise."
Back to the Bay of Fundy. I had my first experience of a right whale in 2002, also in the Bay of Fundy. I was on a whale watch boat but I was well aware of the NEAQ research boats and the dogs, although it took a while for me to learn what the dogs were doing.
Although I was a Benedictine novice back in the 1980s, it is really the whales and the Bay of Fundy that made me a contemplative. And my mother's story:
"Like Digby the Whale, I think that we too are meant to live with the deep in us quietly calling [and listening] to the deep which is God, and not always be around the hullabaloo and the noise and the restlessness that is all around us in the world."
That is as good a description of the contemplative life as I know.
If you read my last post you'll know that I, too, find the press of human noise pretty stressful. I can relate to the whales. I want to get away from the hullabaloo, and I don't always know where to go, except for short periods. The cell phone and wireless devices have reached into nearly every corner of our world. The Bay of Fundy used to be one of my quiet places. But, like the right whales, I am finding that even there the noise is increasing, thanks especially to cell phones and iPhones and all the rest of those mobile noise makers.
In addition to the noise, we are now bathed in wireless signals (a "smart" meter was just installed on our house this week. Before now, we had no wireless signals at our house. We are going to try to get rid of this one too). How sure are we that this ocean of electromagnetic energy we are swimming in does not add up to yet another stressor? If we turned off all the signals for a few weeks, like what happened for the whales in 2001, would we discover that our stress levels drop as well?
I well remember what it was like to be outside in the days following 9/11 when all air traffic was grounded. It was lovely. What an interesting experiment it would be, to turn off all the wireless signals for a couple of weeks. What might we hear? What might we rediscover in ourselves and in our world, if we simply turned off all the noise?
But the real question is, where can the whales go? Right whales (of whom there are only about 500 remaining) go to the Bay of Fundy in the summer, because that is where their food is most abundant. They don't have a lot of choice in the matter. Maybe there are technologies that can make ship traffic quieter, but there will be costs involved, and are we willing to pay those costs for the sake of the whales? Maybe we would if we realized that they and we are much the same. We need the quiet. We need the deep in us to call to and hear from the Deep that is the living universe, if we are to know any measure of peace in our time.
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