Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Border Between “Us” and “It”

1453518_757356380990689_3779475446442056049_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally published at http://www.readingsforthewild.com/the-border-between-us-and-it/

“There is no distinction between ourselves and the so-called environment. What we live in and from and with doesn’t surround us—it’s part of us. We’re of it and it’s of us, and the relationship is unspeakably intimate.” –Wendell Berry

What’s the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to nature? Us versus it? Clean lines, demarcated territories, occasional encroachments punctuating a relatively stable détente? The newspapers would make us think this way. “Flood ravages farming community”; “wildfires consume housing development”; “shark attacks surfer.” Shots fired across the bow, reminding us that The Wild is lurking just beyond the walls we have built against it. Nature: ever-ready to rain strife upon our ordered existence.

Stories, as it turn out, are important. They shape the way we see the world and define ourselves in it. The narrative that pits us against nature’s directives — or positions us beyond nature’s reach— evolved from a collective reality in which nature’s stock of armaments far outstripped our own. Yet over time, with an exponential increase in resource utilization, engineering sophistication, and exploratory ambition, the balance shifted in humankind’s favor. In America, we settled the West on the shoulders of massive dams whose scale staggered even the brashest visionaries of Manifest Destiny. Our crops flourished in the desert. We engineered buildings against earthquakes, floods, wind, and rain. We erected barriers. We conquered the land.

On a smaller scale, we advanced our defenses against predators, pests, and pestilence. If a living thing harmed our crops, our livestock, or our bodies, we contrived a way to eradicate it. Any creature outside of our perceived corpus fell into one of four categories: threat, food, pet, or afterthought.

We strove to make the fight fair. And then we were winning.

The victory, taken as an amalgamation of successes on multiple fronts, was stunning in its rapidity and scope. We gained unprecedented control over our terrestrial fate. Lifespans were extended, needless deaths averted, painful existences palliated. To all but the cynics, these changes were unequivocally good.

But our newfangled freedom from the Natural Order brought a host of fresh complications. Food webs were pitched into imbalance, and lynchpin species began to die. Resources once thought to be infinite were emptied in the space of a generation. Pollution eddied and pooled. Our entire planet warmed. And we got sick.

At some point, our story started to change along with the shifting relationship between the characters. In our own awareness, we were no longer just another of nature’s playground dupes: we became the schoolyard bully. Tales of our luxuriant slaughter (the passenger pigeon) and images of our prodigal imprudence (the Exxon Valdez spill) proved haunting. Our social ombudsmen hinted that in our quest to evade a life that was nasty, brutish, and short, we had become nasty, brutish, and shortsighted. This was an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.

We got creative with ways to assuage our guilt. Instead of killing polar bears before they killed us, we featured them in soda commercials and fashioned them as doe-eyed cuties so we could raise money to…save them? We created non-profits, trusts, Whale Wars, and high-minded legislation.

Now, a contemporary class of thinkers whisks up a story that melds the Victim and Bully narratives into something entirely different. Nature and humankind are not distinct, but threads of the same fabric. Our relationship is one of inextricable symbiosis that, if not thoughtfully stewarded, can veer towards parasitism. Our dominance of the Natural Order is, at best, a short-lived tipping of the scales that will, in time, (over)correct. Our myopia cannot serve us well in the historical arc of an ancient world that was born long before us and will long outlive us.

The deeper we dig, the more we find that we are in nature and nature is in us. We see our most noble tenderness in the social loyalty of Humpback whales; our most aspirational ingenuity in the labyrinthine tunnels of ant colonies; and our most unyielding alliances in the microbial confederates that fertilize our soil, produce our food, and protect our bodies.

Indeed, one of modern science’s most exciting exploratory frontiers — the human microbiome — must give us the pause in defining where the border between “us and it” begins and ends. Every human being plays host to ten trillion microbes, which play a more important collective role in our survival than some of our own organs. If 99% of the DNA present in our body belongs to other creatures, did it ever make sense to speak of dividing lines in the first place? Turns out that “us” is “it.”

The new (old) reality is one of ecosystems that blend together and interdependence as a form of freedom. This insight leads us to extend our technological tendrils into the global ecosystem and its microcosms to become better observers, partners, patrons, and saints. We cannot ignore our mandate: cultivate instead of extirpate. We acknowledge that our soil must be fertile for us to be fertile; top predators must remain fed for us to have food; and our newest information systems must be used to preserve the oldest living orders that birthed us.

So, what to think, and how to live? One of the most elemental virtues and curses of human existence is that we are able to entertain contradictions. It is coincidentally true that, at turns, we are part of nature, a sufferer of it, and a persecutor of it. We must, on an individual level, perpetually re-evaluate what we stand for and how our actions support our identity narratives.

Which is where “I Am Coyote” enters the equation. The book is a symphonic stockpile of prose, dedicated to exploring our reverence for, fear of, and integration with nature. In its stories, we delve into hallowed venerations and wretched torments. We revisit these stories so that we are better equipped to live and record our own. They are the music we listen to as we dance. Without them, we are left with scattershot notes and no chords.

“I Am Coyote” is a composition of the highest order. By virtue of its thoughtful curation, it stirs the itinerant soul. Even after the pages have all been turned and dog-eared, they inspire new chapters. When we mark our own experiences in nature by delving into the consciousness of our forebears, we sustain the ecosystem. The integrative bonds deepen. The dance continues.

Photo Credit: David Hanson, www.davidhanson3.com

Some thoughts on losing the big game…and why we care about sports

Peyton loss

“It’s just a game. It doesn’t really matter.”

The Super Bowl just ended, and my team was prodigiously routed.  The Denver Broncos were subdued, embarrassed, drubbed. The game started with a botched snap that resulted in a safety – the football equivalent of the shuttle blowing up on the launchpad. A room full of friends assured me that things would turn around, but the bottom had dropped out of my stomach. I felt nauseated. From there, things only got worse. You saw it.

I went through 12 emotional stages, or seven, or four. I don’t know. I was definitely angry. Then sad. Then numb. Numb for a long while. I had a moment of separation in the second quarter where I was able to float above my emotions and revel in the statistical improbability of such a one-sided game when the stakes were so high. It’s remarkable that one elite team could have so many things go right while the other elite team had as many go so wrong. (At least I learned that Jack Bauer is coming back.)

Even now, hours after the game was decided, I feel hollow. But why? Of course, the outcome really doesn’t matter. Aside from the players and their families, and the people who work for the respective franchises, fate won’t notably turn on the outcome of this game. Sport is sport, right? It’s just another avenue of entertainment for the overstuffed gladiator wanna-be’s. Rationally, it’s easy to process that.

But what I don’t think many people understand is that sport spills over into our lives in a real way. There is something magical about growing up and going to games to root for our hometown teams. (Particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, which were probably the last decades in which heroes could thrive in the public spotlight, untouched and untarnished by the modern 24-hour news cycle.) I still remember the throttled rush of walking into Mile High Stadium or McNichols Arena in Denver, as an excited kid brimming with optimism and curiosity about the absurd boundaries of human athletic performance. I watched men run around and do incredible things that made me wonder what I might achieve or become. Those early experiences with sport filled me with a sense of possibility that imbued the plodding routine of school days and sports practices with enchantment. “Did you see the shot I just hit? That was just like Jordan!” You worked hard, because one day, you might be able to wear that jersey. You might step on that court.

DikembeIn the gauzy stupefaction of this early fandom, my team affiliations were stitched into the fabric of my identity. My friends and I dreamt on the shoulders of our giants. I remember feeling unbridled elation when the eighth-seeded Nuggets beat the first-seeded Sonics in the 1994 NBA playoffs. As the game ended, I high-fived and hugged my mom, dad, and brother. I turned back to the TV in time to see Dikembe Mutombo laying on the court and crying, holding the game ball above his outstretched 7’2” frame. I spent the next week with a Nuggets jersey on, periodically falling to the ground (at home; at school; at grandma’s house) with my mini Nuggets ball held up at arm’s length, releasing guttural cries and pretending to ignore the flashing cameras and inquisitive microphones that weren’t in my face.

The Nuggets – MY basketball team – lost dutifully in the next round of the playoffs that year. But it didn’t matter. I had tasted proximate glory. I was a 5’3” white kid, but I was Dikembe. My gradeschool friend Ben Curtiss-Lusher was Mahmoud Abdul Rauf. Mike Saslow was Bryant Stith. Dave Miller was Rodney Rogers. We shared those experiences. Those fantasies. We grew up with that. The stakes got higher when my brother and I would play vicious games of one-on-one basketball in our driveway. The first advantage was to quickly claim the identity of a key Nuggets player as we sprinted onto the court, all jutting limbs, gangly youth, and incipient bravado. “I’m LaPhonso Ellis!” “NO! You’re Mark Randall!” (That was a grave insult. Mark Randall averaged 2.6 points per game over his career. You didn’t want to be Mark Randall.)

I eventually graduated to one-on-one games against my dad, who was a fine athlete and a fierce competitor. Sometimes I beat him, but most of the time I didn’t. His fadeaway jumpshot was undefendable. But the recurring meme of those games was my adoption of the persona of whatever Nuggets player had hit the buzzer-beater the night before. I was a boy among men, but I felt like a colossus.

____________________________________________

Sports are a center of gravity that pulls disparate identities together. In Denver, we felt that gravity in 1996 when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup. Then in 1998 and 1999 during back-to-back Broncos Super Bowl victories. In those years, John Elway, a perennial big-game loser, utterly redeemed his legacy and injected orange and blue into the veins of every Coloradoan. We reveled in it. The wins were a total absolution of past heartbreak and disappointment. I still remember the distinct feeling of pride that washed over me when my brother showed up on the front page of the Denver Post newspaper – carrying his girlfriend on his shoulders – as the lead photo in a story about post-game Super Bowl celebrations in downtown Denver. Shortly after the photo was taken, he was tear-gassed, and I was very proud of that too. It was part and parcel of being a winner.  I remember excitedly showing the paper to my parents and grandparents. Their feelings were more…mixed. But we all shared something in that experience. A sense of besting the odds. Appreciation of perseverance and grit. A knowledge that our mid-sized city was “on the map” nationally, if for a short while. And more than anything, an assurance that, during certain fortuitous windows in life, the scales of fortune could unequivocally tip our way. The gods could smile on our guys, on our town, on our friends. On us. Even though we hadn’t been on the field, it was our win. And nobody could take that feeling away from us.

In the years that followed, the connection between fan and team stuck. In bad years, we stayed quiet. But we knew that things would pick up at some point. Most importantly, the affiliation bound us up with others who shared it. We could be halfway across the world and meet a fellow Broncos fan, and immediately we were friends. In that total stranger we saw our schoolyard pal, our brother, our uncle. That person, whoever they were, had ridden the same rollercoaster. We had lived some life together. The bond was profound. And more than anything, the anticipation of the next breakthrough year was what mattered. The future was ripe with possibility and hope. It didn’t matter if the economy was collapsing; if government was broken; if our jobs weren’t secure. We felt the warmth of a fatalistic optimism. Next year would be IT.

____________________________________________

So, in this way, the game might not matter, but sports do. They embody the vicissitudes of life and the people we participate in our existences with. They are a rare currency that gives us connective footing with folks we know nothing else about. They can be the common denominator between a dewy-eyed nine-year-old and his World War II-veteran grandfather. Who we root for becomes a part of us, and of those who root alongside us. Sports allow lives to run parallel to one another, if only for a short while.

I watched much of this Broncos season with friends from childhood. We hadn’t kept in touch very well since we graduated eighth grade together, but it felt like no years had been lost as we traded high fives after every Peyton Manning touchdown. Our bond over the Broncos superseded the erosive march of time. Each win reached back deep into our childhoods and our most cherished memories. Watching these heroes succeed, despite their imperfections, wrenched us into reminiscence of those pickup games, those recesses, those little league seasons. Even as we turned 30 and navigated a tricky transitional year in our lives, we could escape for a while. “Hey, this is Peyton’s year! This is OUR year!” In those hours in front of the TV, not much else mattered.

____________________________________________

So why does it suck to lose? In a way, it reminds you of the impermanence of it all. Even if your team plays a remarkable season, even if your hero sets mind-boggling records after coming back from surgery…a big loss guts you. The magic loses its luster as another Monday routine looms. Another year has passed, a whiff of glory come and gone. All of our heady anticipation, all of the giddy “what-if’s”…gone.

But isn’t that just part of life?

I’ll be back to root again next year. And so will my friends, my family, my hometown. In reality, our fandom reflects the noblest stubbornness in our human nature. Our proclivity to hang on to the best of the past. To irrationally promote professional athletes we don’t know and who don’t care about us, because that team is who we ARE. And we do it because our teams allow us to coalesce across boundaries in a world that is often too serious, complicated, and divisive.  Few shared passions afford us that.

Today, my guys lost. The Seahawks played dominant football (poetic justice in retaliation for the 1994 defeat of the Sonics?) and deserved to win. Many of my friends who grew up with the Seahawks are enjoying this victory. I’m happy for you. As much as the game didn’t matter, it will still be something you tell your kids about. And they’ll wonder, in awe, at how a group of guys completely shut down one of the best athletes in history. Hopefully, they’ll feel inspired as they throw the ball in the backyard with mom; as they watch that year’s season opener with dad; and as they sprint down the field at recess, imaginary Jumbotron boasting their happy little face and manic steps, ready to take on the coming year. I hope you foster that anticipation and hopefulness. Because down the block, my kids will have it too.

Max Broncos

 

 

 

 

 

 

(My nephew Max, earlier in the season.)