THE RESHAPING OF MYTH AND LANGUAGE - REMEMBERING WHEREWE HAVE COME FROM - Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum

Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum (2008)


Hinged to far beginnings
pulled by a distant sun
we are linked to the scars
on the moon.

Astonishing! Everything is intelligent!




THERE IS NOT A CULTURE IN THE WORLD THAT DOES NOT HAVE MYTHS, legends, or fairytales—explanations, no matter how fantastic, of the origins of the world and of life, of heroes and villains, of how we ought to behave and how not to. While many of them are based on elements of fact, they nevertheless acquire a peculiar potency. Embellished by the human imagination, they often represent a highly invested truth for a group or an individual. This means that they must never be negated as being mere figments of the imagination.

Any story that begins “Once upon a time…” is magnetically charged with this potency. It draws us into the narrative that follows and the reason for this is that we inevitably discover within them our own life narratives. The hero and the heroine is in all of us. So is the victim, and, believe it or not, the villain too. Myths and legends are the carriers of meaning and the quest for meaning is one of the most defining characteristics of the human animal. Myths have a profound psychological significance. We are shaped and guided by them. However, we sculpt them also. We give them new clothes and new voices. We not only derive meaning from myths, but we add meaning to them too. As hard as we try to dismiss them, they refuse to go away. “They are insidious,” says Canadian psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff, “great secret dragons which may appear to be slain and discredited, but which mysteriously reappear as powerful as ever to press their perennial claim to a territory of belief and understanding.”

Nearly all of our scientific theories have a subjective core, and they almost all originate from intuition and myth, said the great twentieth-century philosopher of science Karl Popper. For example, the bushmen hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari knew nothing of the shared genes between humans and animals, but their thirty-thousand-year mythology tells us that all living things are connected. They have been proven right. And what about Empedocles, whose intuition thousands of years before Darwin was one of evolution by trial and error? Imagine how much more there is that remains unproven but nevertheless valid and vital to our sense of meaning. The poetry, the myths, and the legends of our past not only stir our imagination but it would also appear that we cannot live without them.

To rediscover ourselves in Nature, we are going to need a new myth, or perhaps the redressing of an old one to help us. We need to reshape the way we think and speak about ourselves, about our history, and about our relationship with the Earth. But where to look? I would like to recommend that we look in two directions, one to Africa itself and to the image and legend of one of her great trees, the Ziziphus mucronata, and the other to ancient Greece and to the great mythological oracle at Delphi—Apollo. Choose which one you prefer. I will show that they share the same message, that they are urgent, and that their admonitions are the script for an intelligence that is ecological.

Central to the folklore of the Nguni people of southern Africa is the Ziziphus mucronata. They call it the tree of life. At any time in the year you will find on this tree a combination of green, yellow, and brown leaves—the phases of youth, adulthood, and old age. It is a hardy tree.In times of drought, when grazing and browsing is scarce, the leaves on this tree remain resiliently intact. Its nutritionally rich foliage becomes the emergency food for antelopes and elephants, as well as for humans, who mix the leaf pulp with water as a thirst quencher. In hard times, even lions have been seen browsing upon its leaves.

A striking feature of the ziziphus is its thorns. Appearing as a double row, they are spaced along the length of every branch in pairs, each thorn directly opposite the other. But it is the shape of the paired thorns that is intriguing. One of the pair points robustly outward and forward while the other curves back and inward in the opposite direction. The Nguni legend says the thorns tell us something about ourselves—that we must look ahead, to the future…but we must never forget where we have come from.

In the image of the backward-hooking thorn of the ziziphus is the explanation of the Human-Nature split—we have forgotten our animal past. It is therefore the direction of our healing. By all means look ahead, keep moving, follow your dreams, but never forget your roots. Together the thorns say yes and no. They are poetic. One row points toward the future and to what we might become, the other toward the Earth and our origins. They represent the push of the human spirit on the one hand, the pull of soul on the other; the wings of psychology in one direction, the roots of our biology in the other. They are complementary opposites. They hold the tension between science and non-science, between subject and object, and it is crucial that we hold that tension, for within it is the definition of an ecological intelligence.

And then there is Apollo, the great mythological oracle of ancient Greece. Apollo was the Homeric god of prophecy, medicine, and culture—the embodiment of the poet, the naturalist, and the scientist in all of us. His twin sister was the fabulous goddess of the wild, Artemis. Separate, yet inseparable, they anticipated each other. Apollo proposed three fundamental requirements for rediscovering our place in Nature:

Know thyself.

Do no thing in excess.

Honor the gods.

“Remember where you have come from,” says the Nguni legend; “Know thyself,” said Apollo.

“The thorns are paired…keep the balance,” says the African legend; “Do no thing in excess,” said Apollo.

“Honor the ancestors,” say the Nguni; “Honor the gods,” said Apollo.

When examined carefully, it will become evident that these admonitions are not as easy to follow as they might look. For a start, there is a definite order to them. To know thyself comes first. It anticipates the other two. It is a prerequisite for a greater awareness of the dynamics of balance and excess and of the nature of the “gods” within oneself.

The first admonition, to know thyself, is the big one. It is to remember where we have come from. It is to deepen our awareness of human origins, of species interdependence, and of the transient nature of all things. To live this admonition is not going to be easy, and the reason for this is that we will have to confront our own nature first. “To confront human nature is to confront the absurd,” says French writer and philosopher Albert Camus. “It is to confirm that there is no sun without shadow, and that it is essential to know the night.” In other words, to know ourselves will include owning up to the dark side of our nature—our mostly unexplored, mostly undesirable qualities of personal greed, jealousy, aggression, our propensity to kill, and our power play.

To know thyself is an ongoing task. Like the curved thorn of the ziziphus it continually turns us around, bringing us face-to-face with ourselves in the world. To know thyself is to understand our wild nature. The psychological instincts of the predator, the parasite, and the scavenger are in our history and in our blood. They will not go away, which means there is no point in turning a blind eye to them.To know thyself implies a willingness to review our prejudices and our sometimes inappropriate belief systems. It is to discover that one’s identity is not restricted to a personal ego but includes a sense of self that is both ancient and evolutionary. But first, we must understand what we mean by the ego. We must understand its strengths and its limitations.

Adapted by Sigmund Freud to describe that part of our personality that corresponds most nearly to the perceived self, ego is another name for one’s autobiographical self—our conscious sense of “me.” The big problem with the ego, because it is our most relied upon model of the self, is that it is heavily biased in favor of seeing ourselves as separate and distinct from the rest of the world. In other words, the rest of the world is “out there,” or, as the theologian Alan Watts puts it in his critique of the “skin-encapsulated ego,” what is in here is “me” and what is out there is “not me.” This of course has led to the widespread belief that our ego reality is the only one there is. As we shall find in what follows, this is not the case at all.

It is important, however, that we do not underestimate the significance of the human ego. It is mostly portrayed in a negative light, but without it we cannot make sense of our world. Like the conductor of an orchestra, it has an orientating function, coordinating skills such as memory, perception, and intellect, as well as acting as a point of reference to who we are and what we might become. Not as strong and as encompassing of the world as we sometimes like to think it is, it is just as well that it has its denial-oriented defenses, which we will consider later. The ego, then, is a fairly recently evolved and tenuous attribute of the human mind and to witness its disintegration—as I have done as a psychiatrist—is to witness the frightening process of psychosis, a condition in which the boundaries between thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and intuitions begin to blur until they become indistinguishable from each other.

Without an ego, without that sense of “me,” we lose our gifts of insight and reflection. This is why analytical psychotherapy can be so meaningful. Ultimately, it is geared to strengthening the ego, not by bolstering its defenses but by making it less defensive. It is about helping the patient to become less resistant to self-examination. To know thyself, then, is a lifelong process of learning to see ourselves in the other, of seeing the world as a mirror, and of being accountable for our personal contributions toward our own suffering.

The second admonition, to do no thing in excess…to keep the balance, is not merely a caution against addictions to foods, beverages, and drugs. It is a caution against being obsessive about any one thing—a dream, a memory, a doctrine, or a cause. It is to remember the other row of thorns on the branch of the ziziphus. Keep the focus but learn to scan as well. Importantly, this does not imply that sometimes boring notion of doing everything in moderation. Apollo did not say “Do nothing in excess.” The first admonition will already have alerted us to the fact that we are naturally immoderate, self-concerned, and, given half a chance, pleasure seeking. We want it all and we want it now. Have your excesses, Apollo implied, but do not find yourself addicted or obsessed by them. In other words, we must learn how and when to say yes and no to our preoccupations and to our extremes.

To honor the gods…and the ancestors is to honor the multiple expressions of the Earth, of the Universe, of Creation. It is more than an acknowledgment of respect for the human forefathers and mothers. It is an honoring of the unique intelligence in everything—the trees, the land, the sea, the animals, as well as people. It is to know what it means when the bushmen hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari say that together all the creatures of the land say one thing—we are connected. It is to have a deep respect for life in all its forms and expressions and to know that even the land, when we are prepared to listen, knows how to say yes and no to us.

To honor the gods is to think molecular. It is to appreciate the chemistry of survival at its simplest level, to be grateful for our genetically primed drives to seek or explore, to find food and water, to socialize, to protect, to provide, and to procreate. It is to be unashamed of our needs to compete, to confront, to play, and, when necessary, to run away. It is to take the experience of spirit and soul seriously. Listen to what D. H. Lawrence had to say about honoring the gods:

That I am I.

That my soul is a dark forest.

That strange gods come forth

From the forest into the clearing of

My known self, and then go back.

That I must have the courage to let

Them come and go.

That I will never let mankind put
anything over me, but that I will
try always to recognize and to
honor the gods in me and the gods
in other men and women.

It is going to take a peculiar intelligence and a peculiar language to understand the consequences of what it means to live the admonitions of the ziziphus and of Apollo, including the consequences of not living them. It is what this book is about. It is an invitation to say yes to an intelligence that can reshape the myths of humanity; that can reshape our language of dissonance in favor of one that is at home at the Human-Nature interface; that continually reminds us that there are sometimes more important, yet less familiar ways of thinking about ourselves and of our relationship to the world. It is a language which, in the words of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “because of its profound representation of the process of discovering things in the world would be bound to be poetry.”

The word poetry has its roots in the Latin and Greek words poeme and poema, meaning “to create or make.” It can be seen as the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, or as a way of exacting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts. However, it is important that we do not confine poetry to that which is refined and sentimental. Poetry does not always exact pleasure or beauty in the way we expect it to, for it can be both bloody and bloodless. It sees the wild face of beauty too—the violent beauty of a wild-dog kill, for instance, or the stark sight of a grove of fallen trees pushed over by elephants. And we all have something of the poet in us. Absurd? Not at all, for we all know, even in a small way, what it means to say yes to the world and then no…and then yes again. It is our first language.

To be sensitive to the cadence of yes and no is to remember that between you and me, between you and an elephant, a heron, a river, or a tree, there is a space that has to be respected and that, at times, we ignore at our peril. Poetry is the only language I know capable of effectively describing that space, and as we shall see, it is part of the necessary task of asking permission to enter that space. Sometimes you are permitted to enter into it and sometimes you are not. Poetry is therefore more than a language. It is an attitude and if we’ve forgotten it, it is our task to remember it again. We urgently need tongues that can speak with care, anger, protest—not the scattered or whinging prose of the fanatic, but the voice of those who can speak of anger and beauty in the same breath. Only poetry can do this. It is a language of protest but it is also a language of hope.

Poetry, then, because it is unafraid of what is raw, because it is rooted, because it reaches out and hooks back at the same time, because it outlives us, and because all other art forms are a form of poetry, is the obvious language for an ecological intelligence. Put another way, it is difficult to find another language that can better describe the way a lion walks or how a fish eagle swoops to scoop its prey. How else can we describe the sound of the wind through the reeds or the changing colors of the clouds in a western sky if not poetically? How can we better communicate the first breath of a child, the dying breath of an elephant, or the sloppy death of thirty or more roan antelope in transit to a foreign country if not through the rawness of poetry?

When we no longer shudder at the ecological warning calls of science, it would seem that the only voice left that can awaken us belongs to the poets. Poetry comes at us from both sides, from inside and from out. It will not let us off the hook, and if we listen to the language carefully, it should not take long to understand that it is the language of soul. We have to be able to shudder.

If you are with me, you will understand that the poetry I am interested in is not necessarily that of verse and rhyme. I am interested in the lines and images that are felt in the bones of the reader that make children ask for a second reading and that stir the exhausted mindsets of civil servants who can’t wait until they retire. I am interested in the poems that unite the scientist and the artist in us—the poems that can hold the tension and the wisdom between the words yes and no. Let’s welcome the poetry that says “No!” to what we are doing to the land and the sea; “Yes!” to those that speak for our healing. Let’s welcome the poetry that reminds us of our creatureliness, as Heaney puts it—the ones that rhyme with our history. Through the guidance of poetry, let’s take that clumsy yet essential first step toward rediscovering ourselves in Nature. The choice is ours, says the poet Rilke:

Wherever you are:
tonight I want you
to take one step
out of your house…

Read this poem by Antonio Machado aloud. And then, please, read it again. Its title is its first five words:

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left. And I wept. And my soul said to me:

“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

When Machado asks “what have you done with the garden…?” we know exactly who he is addressing. He is speaking to you and me. When Rilke says “tonight I want you to step out of your house,” we know exactly what he means. Tonight I want you to think and to speak about the world and the wild, differently.

Unlike Shakespeare’s definition of love that alters not as it alteration finds, poetry alters as it alteration finds. Poetry is not unconditional. And yet, like love, it too endures. It has a life of its own, it is elusive. It refuses, like spirit and soul, to be measured. It is random yet ever present. As Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz says, “it slips between yes and no…it is real…And as soon as I say IT IS RE AL, it vanishes. It is not speech. It is an act.”

Ecological intelligence is not speech. It is an act. It is an act of weaving and unweaving our reflections of ourselves on Earth, of scattering eyes upon it, and of scattering the Earth upon our eyes. It comes alive between yes and no, between what is and what is not, between science and nonscience. And as soon as it becomes acquisitive, something egotistic…it vanishes.

Some will say that these are the lamentations of a romantic, and I will answer yes…and no. I am a romantic, as well as an occasional stray idealist, but not in a sentimental sense. I do not believe in utopias. Instead, let me remind you, in the words of South African poet Stephen Watson, what it means to be a romantic in the great traditional sense of the word: “It was and is, rather, one expression of a perennial human tendency to protest against that which would confine and otherwise mutilate what used to be called the human soul.” He tells us that to be a romantic is not only to be someone who expects adventure around every corner, but someone who is capable of “placing oneself in that long Romantic tradition of protest against a mechanized and (sometimes) heartless world.”

Does this mean that the romantic is antimechanization and, in the same vein, antiscience? Far from it. One of the main concerns of this book is to remind the reader of the common ground between the scientist and the poet. It is an attempt to acknowledge, as sociobiologist E. O. Wilson and philosopher Karl Popper affirm, that the poet and the scientist draw from the same unconscious reservoir of myths and images. They share the same boldness of imagination. They both concern themselves with discovering and communicating natural laws in a language marked by elegance—a beautiful word for the right mix of simplicity, clarity, and latent power. Where the two differ, however, as we shall see, is in their methodology. Scientists, says Wilson, aim for a generalizing formula to which special cases are obedient, seeking unifying natural laws, while poets “invent special cases immediately.” To me, the scientist says, “Let’s go out and prove it.” The poet says, “Let’s go out and disprove it.” Where the poet and the scientist stand united, however, is in the essence of their work. Wilson puts it this way: “Their works are lit by a personal flame and above all else, they are committed to the abstract ideal of truth in the midst of clamoring demands of ego and ideology. They pass the acid test of promoting new knowledge even at the expense of losing credit for it. In a sense, science and poetry are not professions—they are vocations.” They are vocations committed to new ways of seeing things and of saying them.

In 1952, French poet Francis Ponge published an essay on poetry called “The Silent World Is Our Only Homeland.” In it, he describes the process and function of poetry:

It is to nourish the spirit of man by giving him the cosmos to suckle. We have only to lower our standard of dominating nature and to raise our standards of participating in it in order to make the reconciliation take place. When man becomes proud to be not just the site where ideas and feelings are produced, but also the crossroad where they divide and mingle, he will be ready to be saved. Hope therefore lies in a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man, that he becomes almost speechless, and later re-invents a language. Poets are the ambassadors of the silent world. As such, they stammer, they murmur, they sink into the darkness of logos—until at last they reach the level of ROOTS , where things and formulae are one.This is why, whatever one says, poetry is much more important than any other art, any other science. This is also why poetry has nothing in common with the poetry anthologies of today. True poetry is what does not pretend to be poetry. It is in the dogged drafts of a few maniacs seeking the new encounter.

If we are to begin to rediscover ourselves in Nature, let’s begin to live the ecological intelligence that we seek…little by little. If a poetic encounter with the world and, in this case, with ourselves, is going to be a dogged one and if it is going to be up to a few maniacs like you and me to undertake it, then let’s do it. Let’s look at the root meaning of the word enthusiasm and live it, literally. It comes from the Greek enthousiasmos, which means “to be filled with the gods.” Let’s remember where we have come from.


Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973)

Ye are the salt of the earth.

Saint Matthew