The world is made of patterns which have been discovered by the close observations of people living and working daily with those patterns and which today can help us to find our place, our work, and meaning within, rather than in relationship to nature. – mg
The Stories We Tell
Working as I do in the ecological realm I am surrounded by various statements of impending doom and of peoples protective reactions. It all makes me fear that we will find some technical solution to climate change and go on as before, thinking about the world as if it were some complex machine and treating her that way. Seeing and behaving in the same ways cannot help but bring us again to the same place, as retelling the same story cannot help but end in the same way.
This is like our lives. Unless we change the underlying patterns we always end up in the same places—and still, we are usually surprised. We are not the only ones who are creatures of habit. We all are. Rivers become more and more entrenched in their courses until a flood comes along and liberates them into sloughs and backwaters long abandoned, recreating new channels. Deer follow the same daily circuits, but every month or so, break out to explore new avenues. Forests become more and more stable until they become brittle and fire, flood, or insects open them up, letting in light for new growth.
A friend recently said, “We need to be careful with the stories we tell. If we keep putting the past in front of us, it becomes our future.” If the only story we tell about human beings is how we destroy everything and need to control ourselves better, we are making this our destiny. We repeat these sorts of stories over and over as if they show that we are brave enough to face the ugly truth. I find in myself a kind of perverse pleasure in it, both in admitting guilt and in righteous indignation. But these are the two faces of domination, colonization. And this repetition of these stories is the telltale track of the Colonized Mind, of our self-hatred.
Every time we repeat a thought or an action it becomes more deeply engrained in our nervous system. These neural paths are wrapped in a fat, myelin, which enables neural impulses to travel much faster and more easily. This is how we develop our abilities to do anything. It is also how a comfortable groove becomes an inescapable rut. This is how grief, anger, and pain can become inescapable. Our stories turn into litanies that deepen and prolong our pain rather than releasing us from them. What we need is a cleansing fire, a flood of emotions, or an insect plague to eat through the rigid shells we have built from the broken fragments of our earlier selves, that both protect and limit us.
“The map is not the territory” is a warning to distinguish between reality and simplified versions of it. We often take maps for the reality. Just look at the stories we tell and retell ourselves about the world, and about one another. Repeating them reassures us.
They help us to feel certain. They help us to feel secure and comfortable in a complex and changing world. And they help us to sleep. What are the stories that help us to change, grow, and transform? How do we hear them on the wind or read them in the stars, or in the tracks all around us? How do we learn to see behind our convenient reassuring waymarks to the territory of life?
Standing on the edge of a deep canyon, looking out over the forest below me, I thought about how much we miss. I knew that beneath the green canopy, birds nested, insects crawled and flew. Many lives filled the space below, unseen by me. Underneath all this activity I knew roots nibbled at stones and wove their dark ways through the soil. As an ecologist I knew that what was most important was invisible to my eyes.
I was not only missing the forest for the trees, seeing individuals instead of the whole. I was not seeing the forest’s life, just her body. Distractingly beautiful as that body is, it is the life that matters, it is in the give and take of all of the breathing, eating, being eaten, being born, all of the relationships that are the growth and life of the forest.
The trees and everything else I could see with my daylight eyes were just the tracks of that living. Just as the hills and valleys and rocks at my feet told the story of the passing of oceans, earthquakes, and glaciers, these trees told the life story of the forest.
To think and see with nature’s mind it is essential to see the patterns of life with our mind’s eye. You are doing that right now. Reading the marks on the page you can see the movements of my mind through the tracks they left in passing. And as in every moment, seeing where we’ve come from helps us to see the choices before us.
Although we’ve been taught to navigate using boxes, of longitude and latitude, right and wrong, diagnoses, classifications of what we know, there are other ways to know and to find our way.
When Captain Cook sailed through Polynesia, he traveled with a Tahitian navigator and shaman named Tupaia. Wherever they went across the thousands of miles of the South Pacific, Tupaia could point directly to his home island. One day, when asked, he laid out an accurate map of all of Polynesia with pebbles in the sand—with the exception of Rapanui (Easter Island) and Hawai’i where he had never been. Though master navigators themselves, neither Cook, nor his navigator, could match these feats. Europeans had only recently developed the technology that had allowed this voyage—the invention of the chronometer that enabled them to determine longitude and to know where they were on the open ocean. Cook realized that the Pacific Islanders had learned long ago how to navigate these vast seas in an entirely different way, a way he did not understand and could not see.
Polynesian Wayfinder’s Map
Wade Davis, anthropologist and voice for the ethnosphere, tells this story as a way of explaining how various human societies bring different minds to understanding and finding their way in the world. Europeans and Polynesians brought entirely different approaches to navigation. Europeans laid a grid upon the shifting seas to provide a solid framework to locate themselves within. This is a structural approach. The Polynesians brought a pattern approach: they understood the ocean as a landscape full of intersecting, patterned tracks that told them where they were. Where Europeans located themselves in a static structure, Polynesians located themselves within patterns of processes. They were at home in the ever-changing ocean, comfortable in a net of relationships.
Polynesian navigation is built upon a complex understanding of the interrelationship of the patterns of currents, stars, animal behavior, and weather. Knowing how far each will travel from shore, the birds and sea mammals tell the navigator how far the canoe is from land. The tracks of stars help them set course. Cloudbanks and ocean currents reveal the islands that created these turbulences in the flow. This approach to navigation is so different, that only recently have Westerners come to accept that Polynesians purposely sailed and settled their island homes rather than stumbling upon them blown by storms.
Given their structural minds, European sailors plotted a course through the instability of the ever-flowing sea by placing themselves in the boxes of longitude and latitude. They could not even conceive how the Polynesians navigated as they did. To the European mind, this technology was literally unseeable. There were no obvious charts, compass, sextant, or chronometer. These were all in the mind of the navigators, the boat itself, the sea and the sky. They sailed using their understanding of the breath of the world and its patterns of movement.
In my brief understanding of martial arts I have learned that preparing to take a blow is the first level. Yet this is our response to almost everything from emotional distress or climate change whether we call it hardening or resilience. Next is learning to deflect the blow as in cutting out carbon and creating alternatives. Deeper still is to look to the roots of the problem and redirecting the energy from the source into healing, life, and growth.
In the story of the Great Peacemaker of the Haudenosaune (Iroquois) his message is of Peace, the Good Mind, and Power. Even when fighting has ceased, the violence that people had done or experienced still clouds their minds. They learn condolences to cleanse this sadness and grief from their minds and pick them up off of the ground. In order to keep this inner and outer peace he tells them to not only bury their weapons, but to bury all of the stories of how they were wronged, lest they be like embers that smolder for years only to burst back into consuming flames again. They are buried beneath the Tree of Peace to nourish her roots. Their grief turned again into the rich airy life of green branches, waving in the breeze, shading and sheltering the people’s lives.
These changes are always a choice. The river can return to her old bed as we can return to our bed of sorrows. The protagonist of the story Iyonwatta has his entire family taken from him, yet he heals and condoles the very man who took them from him. He knows that he never wants the story that he has lived to be repeated in any one else’s life. And he knows that he can stay there no longer. Not that the past should be denied, but lovingly buried where it can nourish a different story, one of belonging, one where we are needed by the entire living world.
Forgetting to love ourselves, believing the stories we have been told, we have neglected to love the living world as we came here to do. Listening to so many distracting stories, we have forgotten what so many call our original instructions; to be a conscious portion of this living earth that loves each place into beauty and song. This is the story the Peacemaker tells and the one we should be repeating. It is not the only possibility, but the only one that will guide us where we really long to be.
If we are to navigate our lives as individuals or a society we need to get out of the boxes and categories that imprison us and learn to find our place within the relationships that enfold us. We can see the invisible with our mind’s eye, learning to read the tracks of our own lives, and find our way. Seeing ourselves within the whole is the only way to make sense of our lives, just as each letter or word in this sentence only has meaning through its context. Like learning to read or navigate, our abilities only develop through practice. There are opportunities for that every day.
Wade Davis, The Wayfinders https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWp5MiiVR1k
Deva Sobel, Longitude
Real Words, Real Men