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“there are paths that can be followed, and there is a path that cannot – it is not a path, it is the wilderness”

(Gary Snyder [1990], The Practice of the Wild)

Female grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park, US

Taken by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Oh, where to start. Exploring the writings of deep ecologist Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild was a soulful journey. His words were laced with such deep meaning and resonated with so much tenor that I found myself poring over his book at length.

Why did I react this way? Perhaps it is Snyder’s love of storytelling. Maybe it is the way he skillfully meanders though history. Or possibly it is his enticingly poetic way of writing about matters of great, but often ignored, importance.

A Story for Illustration

For whatever reason why Snyder so captured my attention, his message was definitely not lost. As to how it can perhaps best be conveyed, it may be worth considering a short tale. It is a story he retells of a girl who fell in love with a grizzly bear.

In the story, a girl runs off with a grizzly bear, gradually becoming wilder and wilder, to the point where she even starts growing fur-like hair. While she becomes bear-like, he becomes shamanistic, shifting shapes and chanting songs. Eventually she becomes pregnant and gives birth to their offspring.

The story ends in tragedy, with the girl’s family killing the bear. She in vengeance wipes out almost all of her family. In the end, she entirely transforms into a bear like her belated husband and disappears with her offspring into the woods.

For this reason, the natives of North America do not eat grizzly. But now, we are told, that the Europeans have come, “The bears are being killed, [and] the humans are everywhere…”

The Moral

The moral of this story? The line between the “wild” and “humans” is a thin one. To explain further, I will paraphrase Snyder’s thoughts somewhat by saying that nature brings forth form.

Consequently, he says, “Huckleberries and salmon call for bears, the clouds of plankton of the North Pacific call for salmon, and salmon call for seals and thus orcas.” As for what brings our lineage into form, “It is surely the ‘mountains and rivers without end’-the whole of this earth on which we find ourselves more or less competently at home.”

What I take away from his thoughts on “form” is that we are just one of the many expressions of life on this planet. While we are unique, we must recognize and respect the environment that called us into being, just as it brought the many other species into existence.

However, as indicated by today’s destruction of the grizzly and other bears, we are in danger of destroying the very earth that gave rise to us. For illustration, Snyder comments on how deforestation is causing life-destroying flooding, extinction of millions of species, and global warming.

Regaining a Balance

If we are ravaging the earth so much, a logical question would be what is the alternative? According to Snyder, a balance needs to be restored between humankind and nature. We need, he says, “a civilization that wildness can endure.”

The benefits of such action are both practical and profound. For by doing this, we could 1) save the precious creatures that inhabit this earth with us, an important endeavor given that “[h]undreds of millions of years might elapse before the equivalent of a whale or an elephant is seen again, if ever”, and 2) perhaps surprisingly for many, enrich our societies in countless ways. The occurrence of the latter is possible because creating a civilization/wildness balance  requires reestablishing a sense of place. And, as Snyder intriguingly claims, culture, language, and a sense of the sacred all emerge from having a grounding in one’s locale.

Wishing to make absolutely clear the point of how we can achieve such a balance, he writes, “It is not enough just to ‘love nature’ or to want to ‘be in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.”

A healthy dose of humility to our predecessors is provided along with this advice. For he later goes on to say, if we are to reconnect, we have much to learn from the ‘primitives’ that came before us. Their knowledge enabled them to use their natural surroundings as a “rich supply of fibers, poisons, medicines, intoxicants, detoxicants, containers, waterproofing, food, dyes, glues, incense, amusement, companionship, inspiration.”

Looking Beyond the Physical Realm

Reestablishing a sense of place has more than simply practical purposes, however. It can help us recapture our sense of the sacred. And so when reiterating the words of Geoffrey Blainey, Snyder recalls, “The land itself was their chapel and their shrines were hills and creeks and their religious relics were animals, plants, and birds. Thus the migrations of aboriginals, though spurred by economic need, were always pilgrimages.”

For this reason, Snyder says, “Human beings themselves are at risk  – not just on some survival-of-civilization level, but more basically on the level of heart and soul. We are in danger of losing our souls.”

One cannot help but wish, when reading Synder, that we will one day reconnect with the land just like our ancestors. On this matter, Snyder appears to be eternally hopeful, but warns: “For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island.” In other words, he asserts, “we must consciously fully accept and recognize that this is where we live and grasp the fact that our descendants will be here for millennia to come.”

Can We Succeed?

Do we have it in us to do what Snyder calls for? I believe so, and think he would agree. Given that for him, the natural world is only temporarily in hiding. “Nature is ultimately in no way endangered…The wild is indestructible,” he claims. But before it is too late for us humans, we must look within ourselves, and go off the beaten path both figuratively and literally, to find the wildness within ourselves.

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It may seem like overkill, but I can’t help but comment some more on the BP oil spill. I suppose what really got me going was an article I read this past week in The Globe and Mail (surprise, surprise). The article in question was entitled, “Damage from spill turning Gulf into ‘biological black hole” (Tuesday, June 8), with an interview of Joe MacInnis, a Canadian undersea explorer.

When asked how long the spill will be a key environmental issue, he is reported to have stated for the next five years.

Now possibly I am missing something in the translation. It is possible that what he is referring to is how long the issue will remain a key issue to the media. If that is what he is saying, then fine. I will agree as much as the next person that the media is fickle. It only takes one relatively small accident or scandal to turn attention away from a devastating environmental or social disaster.

However, I don’t think that that is what is actually intended here. I think what is being suggested is that the impacts will last only as long as five years. Now I’m no marine biologist, but I feel pretty confident in assuming the effects of the spill are going to last a lot longer than that.

As a Canadian, I need only look to the collapse of cod stocks off the coast of Newfoundland to realize that ecosystems can take a whole lot longer than that to rejuvenate (In 1992, bans were placed on the Newfoundland and Labrador cod fishery, but so far Atlantic cod populations have shown virtually no signs of recovery).

Looking to an example in the United States, one need only consider the effects of the Exxon oil spill. This is well documented by a report, “Legacy Of An Oil Spill – 20 Years After The Exxon Valdez” by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The report asserts that the effects are still being felt on the Alaska ecosystem for species like otters and sea birds.

It has taken scientists twenty years and counting to assess the effects of the Exxon oil spill. Why would anyone make the claim that the effects of the BP oil spill will be felt only for five more years?

Then there is the stance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take into consideration. In their listing of questions and answers about the oil spill, they state, “EPA is currently collecting and analyzing water and sediment samples to help states and other federal agencies understand the immediate and long-term impacts of oil contamination along the Gulf coast…” There. Finally. Something that makes sense.

One last point can be made to drive a final nail into the coffin, so to speak, in MacInnis’ claim. We are only now starting to get an understanding of how much oil will be leaked. This is because yesterday, the U.S. government revised their estimates about the extent of the spill. According to their findings, the leak is at least triple what was originally predicted (last week it was double, which has lead some to speculate when they will release the real numbers).

Now, all of this wouldn’t matter if the BP oil spill wasn’t such a travesty. I say this both with respect to its environmental and economic implications.

On the one hand, it almost goes without saying that the spill is having and will continue to have impacts up and down the Gulf’s food chain. This includes effects on creatures ranging from crab, to sea birds, to whales and dolphins. On the other hand, there is the devastation of the fishing industries in the Gulf in places like Mississippi (which has already had its fair share of tragedy with Katrina) and the ripple effects it will have through all the dependent businesses.

So please. The BP oil spill is enough of a tragedy. Let’s start by being honest with people about the impacts it will actually have. Armed with such information, we should be able to respond more appropriately.

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Creatures who have traveled with us through the ages are now apparently doomed, as their habitat – and the old, old habitat of humans – falls before the slow-motion explosion of expanding world economics. If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down

(Gary Snyder [1990], The Practice of the Wild)

Looking around our world, it is difficult not to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong. Thousands of species are either threatened or have become extinct. Millions of people are starving or undernourished. Wars and civil unrest continue, or are in the process of breaking out. Closer to home, we are losing beautiful and valuable greenspace of agricultural fields and natural areas as cities and towns continuously expand.

What exactly is going on? What is driving this incessant “Growth Monster”, to use the words of Gary Snyder, that causes us to continue to expand and destroy at the expense of other creatures and ourselves? Most importantly, perhaps, how can we change things for the better?

These are not small questions. As a student on, as they say, the path of life, I will not claim to have all the answers. However, I would like to relate to you some of what I have learned on these matters. For assistance, I will draw upon the writings of Eckhart Tolle (2005) in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.

May “I” Introduce the “Ego”?

For Tolle, the source of all our problems springs from the misperception of the word “I” (and the related words, “me”, “my”, “mine”, and “myself”). What is this misperception called? Tolle asserts that this misperception of self is the “ego”. The ego causes us to identify who we are with:

  1. what we have (e.g. house, car, clothes, furniture), and
  2. who we are and are not (e.g. gender, nationality, race, religion, class, profession, body-image).

Thus, Tolle refers to the maintenance of the ego as the activities of identification (or labeling) and separation.

Oh, the Foolishness of Our Ways

Of course, to a certain degree we need things. We also need to develop a sense of self-identification to help us make sense of the world and thereby mature from childhood to adulthood.

However, Tolle points out the foolishness of continuing such thinking: Objects can be lost (e.g. either through misplacement, thievery, or disrepair) and labels can cease to be appropriate (e.g. through disappearance of one’s beauty or appearance, job, family, friends, and so on). Not to be overly morbid, but there is also the final loss of everything, that comes with death.

More concernedly, Tolle states that this equation of having with being leads to the linking that “…the more I have, the more I am.” This causes an “obsession with things, which in turn creates our consumer society and economic structures where the only measure of progress is always more.”

When considered at a macro scale, this type of thinking leads to the imbalance of resources that has arisen on the planet, so that many do not have their basic needs of food, water, shelter and clothing met.

As for the danger of using labels in determining who we are, Tolle brings this issue up when discussing gender roles. According to him, the problem with this situation is that it “…forces you into a role, into conditioned patterns of behavior that affect all aspects of your life…” From an environmental perspective, I would add that taking on roles can be problematic in that they inhibit us from solving the environmental predicaments that we face (e.g. by learning how to fix things to reduce waste, cooking to reduce the need for energy-intensive and overly packaged processed foods etc.).

Further problems arise when individuals identify with a group such as a nation, political party, or corporation. This is because, as Tolle points out, “A collective ego is usually more unconscious than the individuals that make up that ego.” This situation results in behaviour that would be considered “psychopathic” in an individual. Examples that Tolle provides, either directly or indirectly, are 1) nations stockpiling atom bombs, and 2) corporations make profit their only aim without regard for their impacts (e.g. on nature, people, and even their own employees).

Finding a Way Out

Fortunately, Tolle does not content himself with simply pointing out the problems with the ego. He provides guidance on how to free oneself from it, asserting that it is important to recognize that your life has an inner and outer purpose.

What is your inner purpose? It is to “awaken” by recognizing that thinking (including emotion, which can drive thinking) are separate from consciousness. To better explain what he means, Tolle states, “Instead of being lost in your thinking, when you are awake…recognize yourself as the awareness behind it.” By tapping into the vast expanse of consciousness, you can cease to partake in that “monstrous act of reductionism” whereby “the infinite depth of who you are” is confused with “whatever the ‘I’ has identified with.”

As for your outer purpose, these are the details that fall into place once you recognize your inner purpose. In certain individuals, these changes are sudden and abrupt (e.g. job alteration, change of partner), while others will continue to do exactly whatever they were doing. For this latter group of individuals, Tolle states that “only the how changes, not the what.”

Tolle points out that for people in the early stages of awakening, “What drives the world no longer drives them. Seeing the madness of our civilization so clearly, they may feel somewhat alienated from the culture around them.” This can lead to a period of insecurity and uncertainty, but as the ego and its incessant desires for more ceases to run your life, so does the need for external security. In the process, you begin to embrace uncertainty, allowing for “infinite possibilities” to open up in your life.

Some Final Thoughts

The willingness to embrace uncertainty, I would say, is extremely important, particularly now. I do not think I am making too far-fetched an assertion to claim we will only succeed to address our current environmental (and for that matter social) problems if we cease from doing “more of the same.” Rather, we will need to embrace new ideas and modes of doing things in areas ranging from, but not restricted to, business to government to education.

We do not have much time, however. Tolle claims by failing as a species to as yet “awaken”, we have done insane things like the building of machine guns, poison gas, and bombs, including, as already mentioned, the atom bomb. Tolle refers to this as “intelligent stupidity”, which is something that he claims is threatening our very survival as a species.

Tolle does offer hope though. “The closer we get to the end of our present evolutionary stage, the more dysfunctional the ego becomes, in the same way that a caterpillar becomes dysfunctional just before it transforms into a butterfly.”

Whether we succeed in making this transformation remains to be seen. However, to reiterate what Tolle reminds us, the changes that are required lie closer than one may think. For, he says, without “change on that inner level, no amount of action will make any difference.”

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