15 September 2014

Right Whales Return and Disappear Again

It was with a great sense of relief that I read in early August that right whales had returned in large numbers to the Bay of Fundy. During the last week in July, whale watch boats out of Grand Manan counted 50 right whales. Comments ran along the lines of "just like the old days." Researchers from the New England Aquarium, who have been studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy for 34 years, documented 45 whales on Thursday of that week and another 30 or so on Friday.

This was good news, because last year, the NEAq team found five whales in the Bay, the lowest in all the years they have been going there. It was very worrying. The Bay of Fundy normally hosts the largest number of right whales of any place we know. I have seen as many as 75 on a single trip. That's quite a large number, about 15% of the entire population.

Right whales come to the Bay of Fundy in search of food. Summer is the time when plankton blooms in northern waters and many species of whale come to the Bay of Fundy looking for food. For many of them, this is the only food they will have all year. They survive winter on the fat they store during the summer. So in general, the whales go where the food is, and last year there was no food in the waters of the Bay of Fundy, at least not the kind of food that right whales eat.

Right whales consume a species of copepod, a very tiny, almost microscopic shrimp-like animal, named Calanus finmarchicus. Calanus is a cold water species. Increases in water temperature affect how early in the year they reproduce, how long they remain at the surface (right whales are surface feeders) and ultimately whether they reproduce at all. It is not much of a leap to speculate that the absence of Calanus in the Bay of Fundy in August of 2013 was due to higher-than-normal surface water temperatures.

Looking at data from NOAA weather buoys in the northern Gulf of Maine, near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, I have found that the surface water temperature has been rising over the past decade, with 2012 and 2013 being the warmest on record. That might account for the absence of food and the absence of right whales.

This year is different. The water temperature is closer to what it was a decade ago. At first I thought that might account for the abundance of right whales, for the comment that it feels "like the old days." Surface water temperature tends to follow air temperature. So with global warming we expect to find warming of ocean surface temperatures as well, with obvious consequences for cold-water species. At first there was reason to celebrate the return of right whales to the Bay of Fundy this year, but there is now reason to remain concerned, because in spite of year-to-year variations that can be quite dramatic, the long-term trend is toward warming. And the right whales have disappeared again. That early optimism has been replaced with concern once again. Surveys in the Bay of Fundy, and in the Roseway Basin off the Coast of Nova Scotia have turned up very few whales. Five or six have been spotted off the coast of Cape Breton, farther north. Given what happened last year, I am not optimistic that the Bay of Fundy will remain a gathering place for right whales.

The question of the moment, at least for me, is what effect two years of poor food resource in the Bay of Fundy is having on the health of the population. It costs a lot of energy to go looking for food, not knowing where it will be found. The energy in the food that is found has to be higher than the energy spent to find it, or it is of no use. If the energy spent looking is higher than the energy in the food found, then right whale health will be decreasing and mortality from starvation could be high.

I have no evidence that right whales are starving to death, but I think it is a concern. What does the second year of absence of whales in the Bay of Fundy mean? Does it mean they got the word and are avoiding the Bay? Or does it mean last year's lack of food significantly diminished the population? A large number of whales appeared in Cape Cod Bay in April, suggesting that the population is okay, but their food is moving. But a lower-than-normal number of calves was born in the winter, suggesting the population is experiencing some difficulties.

Researchers have depended on the predictability of right whales' presence in the Bay of Fundy to monitor and study them and estimate their total numbers. They photograph them, count them, identify individuals, collect DNA and poop, and thus have gathered a very complete picture of the size and structure of the right whale population. If right whales have abandoned the Bay of Fundy, it will take significant human effort to figure out where they are going to find food, in order to continue to monitor their health and well-being.

If they drop off of our radar, we will have little idea how they are faring, except to continue to observe how many females appear off the coast of Florida in the winter to give birth, and perhaps to monitor them more closely in Cape Cod Bay in the winter and spring. Right whales have survived being hunted to near extinction. They have surely survived other changes in their food supply. We can hope and believe they are adaptable enough to survive this one. But it would be nice to know. Whale researchers don't seem to be very good at remaining dispassionate. It's not an easy job. You have to care a lot to go out every day in a tiny boat and spend long days searching for and documenting whales. The blog posts from the New England Aquarium convey real concern and a sense of loss.

Seeing the right whales each year is one sign that this precious Earth is still holding things together, despite all the stress it is experiencing at our hands. Not seeing them is very worrying, and for me feels like a sign that we are pushing the Earth beyond its limits and will be facing many more losses in the years to come.

20 July 2014

The Whole World Is Sacred - Revised

I am re-posting this essay with an addition that I neglected to include in the original. I guess it's there implicitly, but it deserves to be made explicit: Everything Must Change.

___

The following paragraphs summarize most of what I have tried to communicate in this blog 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 another’s 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 don’t necessarily stop, but they are no longer definitive. The living “self” 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 “other;” 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 “me,” and then the “not-me” 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 “me,” no “not-me,” no conflict, no distortion, no exploitation.


Everything Must Change:

The human presence on Earth has become so dysfunctional; our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are so fundamentally out of harmony with natural, life-giving processes, and so destructive to the basis of life, that we must be utterly changed, inwardly and outwardly, in our sense of identity and in the structures of our societies. New technology and a few policy changes are insufficient (though probably necessary).

We need a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of the change is what I have articulated above: look and see that beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing, and therefore everything; see that everything is sacred.

Contrast those with what I think characterize our dominant perspective: my beliefs form the core of my identity - I'll kill to defend them if I have to; I am an individual, autonomous self, and that self reigns supreme; My life and the lives of those related to me or close to me are of great value, but everything else is of value only if it is useful to me and my kin or my nation or wherever I happen to draw the boundary of my "self" (and it is a very flexible boundary, although we fail to recognize that).

A complete reversal of orientation has become a matter of survival. I have tried to describe where I think that reorientation comes from, and to make clear that it is possible, but it remains elusive at best.


One final word: Because beliefs distort reality, I do not ask anyone to believe anything that I am saying. This reorientation goes way beyond a change in beliefs. It is available to anyone and everyone who stops and looks and listens and is willing to be utterly changed in the process.

11 February 2014

Breaking the Frames

When I was a college undergraduate, I studied the theoretical underpinnings of Freudian psychoanalysis with J. Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Brown University. One of the central concepts that I took away from my studies with Dr. Milhaven was the therapeutic necessity of what he called "breaking the frame." His belief was that problems in human relationships come mainly from the way that we frame those relationships; the belief structures that we build around our relationships to make sense out of them and align them with our own needs and desires. Not all of our frames are dysfunctional. But when our framing stories are too far out of alignment with reality, we expend useless energy trying to force the world back into our frame, instead of allowing our frame to adjust to reality. This is the source of much of our distress: our framing of reality is out of step with reality itself yet we remain committed to our frame.

Our frames are intimately intertwined with our sense of who we are.  To dissolve one of our essential frames is to lose our sense of self. We are so committed to our mental frameworks, that we usually fight like hell in defense of the frame, even as it diverges further and further from the truth. In those cases where our commitment to our frame is absolute, the only solution is for something outside of us, some person, some situation, some unexpected force, to break the frame. Something has to happen that exposes the false frame, allows it to be seen at last for what it is. Not reality; merely a way of interpreting reality. Not the self; merely a story about the self. Not the other; merely an image of the other.

This is not an easy thing to go through. We pin our sense of security, our sense of identity, on our mental frameworks. When the frame is broken, we feel truly lost for a time.  This is well known to everyone who has lost anything that helped define our life: losing our health, losing a job around which we organized our life, losing someone we love, discovering that someone we trusted has been deceiving us; discovering that the system that supports us abuses others. The loss is hard enough, but the disorientation that comes with the breaking of the frame can be completely debilitating. We resist this disorientation, so we can carry on for years beyond the point at which we receive the first clues that our framing story is out of alignment with the truth. We resist and resist and resist the loss of the frame, because along with the frame goes a solid sense of identity. The frame is the boundary of the self. Without the familiar frame, who am I?

My work with Giles Milhaven was very influential. A lot of my frames have broken over the years, and it has never been easy. But I also have seen that ultimately it is healthier to stay in touch with reality than it is to carry on in conflict. It is easier to have a fluid and adaptable sense of self, than it is to have a rigid and fixed identity that is in conflict with the living world.

And I have seen that the framing of reality is not only something that happens in the individual; it happens to entire cultures, especially now when so much information is channeled through mass media and shared by millions of people almost simultaneously. When a distorted frame is shared, it becomes more and more possible for us to participate in mass delusion. It is hard enough to break the individual frame. It is even harder to break the societal frame, because we seem to be wired to conform to societal norms. We prefer to do what our peers are doing, to think the way our peers are thinking, to care about the things that we perceive our peers to care about, to look like the images that claim to convey what our peers look like. The risk of not conforming is isolation, being ostracized, kicked out of the community. If we rebel at all, we usually rebel within a subcultural to which we continue to conform.

The planetary ecological crisis requires the breaking of frames at many levels: individual, societal, economic and political. A truly daunting prospect. I find myself frustrated with most attempts at change because they end up being the sort of change that tries to massage reality into the existing frame. Very rarely does anyone dare to break the frame. The consequences are too frightening. We react violently when someone tries to break our frame before we are ready. The frame is "me" until it is broken, so I will fight to the death to preserve it.

This is a great conundrum. Fundamental change is required of us at this time but most of us are not ready for the change. We are committed to our worldview, not to the world. We are willing to tweak the system, but not to turn the system on its head. We want our life to go on in its familiar track, not to change everything. We want security, not uncertainty. We want more, not less. We want to keep the frame intact and just change the picture. If someone tries to break the frame, or the Earth breaks the frame, we will resist. But the frame has to break nonetheless. Life depends on it now.

An example of changing the picture without breaking the frame would be our hope that technology will solve all of our ecological problems. The techno-optimists believe that we can solve all of our problems with solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids and electric cars. The only change required is a change of means, not a change of self or society. It won't work. As long as we have a sense of self - or an economic system - that endlessly demands more and more, the technology won't help. We'll keep needing more of it, and the planet is already groaning under the weight of our perceived needs. Emphasis on the word "perceived." These are not real, biological needs. They are needs arising from how we frame reality, including our sense of identity. The frames need to be broken. How do we do that without creating a backlash? How do we get around our resistance to essential change? That is the conundrum.

There is no easy solution to this. We are not yet ready to break the frames that define us in relation to the natural world. All I can say right now is that the longer we postpone the reckoning with reality, the harder the reckoning will be. The farther we push the physical limits of the planet, the harder the crash will be.

Take one example: Imagine a world without fossil fuels. Not 100 years from now when some unlimited fantasy fuel has magically appeared or the beleaguered Earth has somehow supplied us with the raw materials and the land to build millions of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. Now. Imagine your life right now without fossil fuels. The blasting and drilling and fracking and pumping have stopped. Coal and oil and natural gas are gone. How does the limiting of your mobility, your autonomy, your employment options, your material security - all of which are presently tied to the availability of fossil fuels -  affect your sense of who you are, of how your community is structured, of what you can do?

Which of your frames - your fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is and what you expect the world to give you - are dependent on fossil fuels? Are you willing and able to abandon those frames for the sake of life on Earth?

19 November 2013

Jane and Roger


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.

http://alifeamongwhales.blog.indiepixfilms.com/see-the-film/

For my neighbors, I have a copy of A Life Among Whales if you would like to borrow it.

Topics covered in Jane and Roger include global warming, happiness, greed, intelligence, wisdom, square tomatoes, communication, passion, hope, letting go of security, and of course whales and chimps.

Apparently a documentary film called Jane and Payne: The Sea and the Jungle, Water and Earth, Man and Woman is forthcoming.

Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Roger Payne Historic First Meeting

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIbP9QmrBFU&feature=share



20 March 2013

The Whole World is Sacred

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 another’s 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 don’t necessarily stop, but they are no longer definitive. The living “self” 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 “other;” 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 “me,” and then the “not-me” 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 “me,” no “not-me,” no conflict, no distortion, no exploitation.

03 March 2013

The Great Animal Orchestra

A Book Review

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places
By Bernie Krause
2012
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 sound.

(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.

05 February 2013

What Will It Take?

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 non-human world beckons to us, even now as we wrap ourselves in layers of electronic media that feed us only our own thoughts. What we need is not more of ourselves. We need to be free of ourselves. The non-human world offers us this, but we have to take the time to listen, to observe, to learn, to be present. A simple encounter with a non-human life can change us completely.

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. The real can not be known. As long as we remain absolutely devoted to what we can know and experience, we remain out of touch with reality.

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-made 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?