Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum (2008)
Part I. REMEMBERING WHEREWE HAVE COME FROM
Chapter 5. REMEMBERING OUR WILD SIDE
IN A WORLD THAT GENERALLY REGARDS REFINEMENT AND DOMESTICATION of everything from sugar to human instincts to be the hallmarks of civilization and progress, we need to be mindful that invariably something significant has been lost in the process. Civilization, for all its socalled advances and advantages, has cost many of us, perhaps too many, our sense of wildness. Sometimes we are not even sure what this wildness means, but it does not take much analysis to realize that deep down we really miss it.
To be wild is to be alert to the needs of the flesh and the warning calls of distress. It is to be spontaneous—to live one’s Earthiness and one’s notions of God independent of outside approval. It is to dance, to work and to play with passion, and, when called upon, to act dispassionately, swiftly, and without personal feeling or bias. It is to be as patient as a heron—to be able to wait for hours at the edge of hunger. It is to understand the double meaning of the word outrageous—to act without rage, to do something out of character, to cross-dress, to stilt walk to a disciplinary hearing, to use a shoe as a basketball, and to make a fool of yourself without being stupid. Its other meaning is to act out of rage. It is to be aware of the fury at the edge of an inner hurricane and to know your way back to the calmness at its eye. It is to conform every now and then, to be streetwise, and to be unafraid of entering those inner and outer territories where shit happens. It is the man-child, woman-child in us that admires this kind of wildness in others, especially in our fathers and mothers. It is that same child who loves the wildness of nudity, who longs for a larynx that is free to sing and shout, and who loves to go down to the river and to watch it as if she was watching the flow of her own blood.
Poet Robert Bly reminds us that the wildness of the wild man is neither criminal nor psychotic. Rather, as Yeats puts it, it is to be “mad as the mist and snow.” And we do miss that madness. How many of us remember, sometimes with nostalgia, sometimes with envy, the wild, benign mischief makers of our youth so aptly described by Rumi in this poem, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne, “Has any-one seen the boy?”
Has anyone seen the boy who used to come here?
Round-faced troublemaker, quick to find a joke,
slow to be serious, red shirt,
perfect co-ordination, sly, strong muscled,
with things always in his pocket: reed flute,
worn pick, polished and ready for his Talent
you know that one.
Have you heard stories about him?
Pharaoh and the whole Egyptian world
collapsed for such a Joseph.
I’d gladly spend years getting word
of him, even third or fourth hand.
Children love the wild anecdotes of their parents. Porous to the psychic conditions that surround them, they love the hidden stories of the soul, often demanding to hear them again and again. It is a strange fact that children often grow up to become the champions of the unlived wildness of their parents. These children are sometimes known as the black sheep of our families.
And then there is Rilke who, in this masterful poem, writes of the caged wildness of the panther in all of us:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary, that it cannot hold anything else.
It seems to him that there are a thousand bars,
and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful, soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a centre
in which a mighty will stands…paralyzed.
Only at times,
only at times…the curtain of the pupil lifts…
quietly an image enters in,
rushes down through the tense, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart
and is gone.
I think we can all, in some small way, relate to the stuckness of that elegant yet pathetic animal in the poem. We are the only animal who can turn our back on our animal nature and it is then, and precisely then, that the bars come down on our world. To be caged is another way of describing a loss of creativity. Watch out for it. It is a well-known condition among all men and women who “go to work.” It is called burnout—a condition in which the sensing of the dream of what one always wanted to do or to be enters one’s thoughts, plunges into the heart, and disappears. It is about a career that began as a passion, then became a duty and, finally, a burden. Be aware of the process, for in its early stages, the signs are subtle. You will hear it in the sharpened cynicism of your speech when you talk about your work. You will feel it in the growing heaviness of your body when the subject of work is raised. Because our identity is so intimately linked with our work, and with it “the complex, volatile chemistry of approval, self-worth and the instinct to provide,” says the poet David Whyte, it is vital that you keep asking yourself, “What has become of me in my work?”
Creativity, passion, and vision invariably go together, which is why Rilke’s poem of the panther is so significant. Try not to forget the vision, the energy, and the wild archetype—that great inner artist that drew you into your work in the first place. Try to remember who, or what, put you behind those bars, if not you? After all, said Camus, “a man’s work is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
To lose touch with one’s wildness is to mistake it for brutality—the shadow, or the dark side of wildness. As Bly confirms, “some boys are so afraid of becoming domesticated that they become savage.” They become defiant, aggressive, coarse, and self-destructive—the very opposite of the wildness that we miss. And as many of us know, there is sometimes a fine line between what is savage and what is wild. Poet Theodore Roethke captures the knife-edged fineness of the line—as well as the fear of what could be unleashed when it is crossed. In his poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” it can be found in his description of the face of a mother watching her husband, lost in a drunken dance with their young son.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
HUMAN SURVIVAL—WILD STRATEGIES
From bacteria to buffalo and brain surgeons, the history of everything organic can be described by British science educator Michael Poole’s acronym MR. GREE N, which stands for movement, respiration, growth, reproduction, excitability, excretion, and nutrition. It is at the same time a history of self-preservation and protection, involving competition, challenge, cooperation, collaboration, opportunism, deception, risk taking, and even altruism. It does not matter who or where we are, our lives at all times will involve subtle and sometimes obvious combinations of these survival strategies. Whether we are lions, hyenas, or humans, we engage in these activities for the same reasons—for food, turf or territory, security, approval, sexual partners, rank, status, attachment, and belonging. And our emotions and residual feelings come along with them—anticipatory pleasure, anxiety, fear, joy, disappointment, envy, hate, frustration, panic, distress, contentment, and love. In the interest of self-preservation, we employ these strategies not only to establish ourselves, but also to promote and to protect ourselves. This is nothing to be ashamed of. For example, cooperation, that essential social endeavor to share one’s life with another, is, at its roots, an endeavor to enhance one’s own protection and survival.
It is difficult to find a creature that is not equipped with some form of self-protection. From the exoskeletons of beetles, tortoises, and lobsters, from stingers, thorns, and claws, to the burglar bars, jagged, written warnings, and barbed words of human speech, every organism has a way of dealing with external threats to its existence. Every creature is, in some way, geared to being sensitive to and escaping from danger. Some organisms rely on speed or brute strength to protect themselves, others on electrochemical defenses such as toxic juices and repellent sprays. And that includes the human animal. How many of us live in homes surrounded by electric fences or have been on the stinging end of an accusation designed to shock? Attacking language is a part of the evolution of the human tongue and so is the socially expedient ability to say “I’m sorry.”
When they are balanced, our survival strategies are healthy—they hold families, units, teams, societies, and civilizations together. On the other hand, any excessive or underuse of any one of them is a guarantee for individual or group disharmony often presenting as frustration, withdrawal, isolation, anger, passive aggression, and depression—some of the reasons why people seek psychological help.
Because it is such an integral part of our shadow, the strategy that we are least likely to own up to is deception. Deception is an ancient game in which the human animal is an expert. Its roots are biological and wild. Take, for instance, the red-winged pratincole, Glareola pratincola, which pretends to have a broken wing in order to divert the attention of an egg-seeking predator away from its nest and toward itself. Do we do that? Absolutely. We are the great pretenders. We pretend not so much with broken wings but with broken words—we mislead, mimic, and misinform, which is why it is almost impossible for us to be transparent. To be accountable, yes…but to be transparent, no. And it is not about being dishonest. We all have skeletons in our cupboards and sometimes that’s exactly where they should remain. We all have dreams and schemes and to make them known prematurely is sometimes to put an end to them altogether. If it directly affects me, I might not want to know your secrets, and you, for the same reason, might not want to know mine. In other words, it is one thing to have all of one’s cards on the table—to be accountable—but it is another to have them all turned up at the same time. We might not be ready for what we want to find out, for, as Russian writer and Soviet dissident Varlam Shalamov, wrote after seventeen years in a Siberian prison, “There is much that a man should not know, should not see, and if he does see it, it is better to die.” And then there is poet Czeslaw Milosz who writes:
Impunity gives himself the eyes of a god.
True deception, writes primatologist Frans De Waal,
is one of those capacities that we employ all the time without taking too much pride in it. It can be defined as the deliberate projection, to one’s own advantage, of a false image of past behavior, knowledge, or intention. In its most complete sense, it requires awareness of how one’s actions come across and what the outside world is likely to read into them.
We are indeed the great pretenders, masters at disguising our emotions and our intentions. We are also the masters of self-deception. We pretend to be what we are not, deluding ourselves into believing that we are the apex of creation, intrinsically different to other animals, the inheritors of the Earth, the masters of our fate. And when things go wrong with our stewardship we pretend that we did not know, or we twist the truth. Struggling to distance ourselves from our animal nature, we tend to believe that the virtues of courage, patience, fair play, and moderation are the sole property of Homo sapiens, and if we do happen to recognize these qualities in wolves, elephants, baboons, cats, and dogs, then we are accused of anthropomorphism. Deception can be expedient and therefore necessary, but it can also be sinister. The philosopher Nietzsche, for instance, believed that some of the virtues we most admire in others such as prudence, sympathy, and delayed gratification are sublimations of motives that we readily condemn, such as cruelty, cunning, resentment, and revenge.
In social settings, especially if it involves the harmony of an in-group, it is often inexpedient to be brutally honest. Discretion is the better part of valor, we are told, and so in order to keep the peace we learn to remain silent, to tell white lies and half-truths. We all know how to cry wolf and the monkeys are our genetic mentors. Watch a vervet monkey, Cercopithecus aethiops, harassed by its companions and it won’t take long before it utters a false cry of warning that there is a leopard, a raptor, or a snake nearby. This, of course, sends the harassing monkeys scattering for safety. As it is with humans, these false calls of alarm are not taken lightly by the troop and they are effective, provided they are not continually misused. Young vervets, not unlike young children, spend a lot of time practicing the different alarm calls—with minimal response from the adults.
Like the vervets, we, too, have learned the art of distraction. We all have our hard-luck stories and we all fall for them. We have all been conned and we all have something of the con man in us. When will we ever learn? The likely answer, especially if it involves the possibility of some form of reward, is never. And we are not shy to maximize our strong points either, to exaggerate or to put ourselves in a positive light. And as for minimizing our negative aspects, who of us is genuinely enthusiastic about displaying the photographs in our passports or on our driving licenses?
Am I being too hard or too cynical about the human animal? Perhaps I am, but I don’t want to be too soft either. If it makes us feel a little better about ourselves, let’s try to understand deception as a strategy that is often not only individually and socially expedient, but also necessary. On the other hand, let’s not confuse deception with a disregard for accountability. What is important is that we learn to become conscious of our survival strategies—why and when we are employing them. We have to put them to the test from time to time.Are they appropriate, are they acceptable, are they meaningful, and, finally, are they flexible?
Evolved to communicate information and purpose, one of the most important of the survival skills of all living creatures is language. In other words, it includes, but is not confined to, the syntax and symbols of human speech. Broadly defined, language is a system whereby different species through the communication and receiving of information coordinate their activities. When looked at a little more closely, almost everything, from mathematics, music, and landscape to dreams and spider webs, is a carrier of information. This information has to be perceived, interpreted, and, if necessary, acted upon.
Compared with other animals, the human sensory equipment is nothing to boast about. For example, when it comes to auditory perception, one very quickly discovers just how limited our range of hearing actually is. The human auditory system is receptive to sounds between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz where one hertz (Hz) is equivalent to one wave or vibration of sound in one second. Dogs can hear up to about 45,000 Hz. Cats, including the big ones, go even higher—85,000 Hz. Bats and dolphins are the likely high-frequency champions among mammals, detecting sounds as high as 100,000 Hz. But even they cannot compare with insects such as moths, which can hear sounds at 240,000 Hz. Then there is infrasound. Way below the human limit, elephants can vocalize at 8 Hz. The significance of this low-frequency communication in elephants is that these great animals can keep in touch with each other over distances up to 186 miles! No wonder these animals are scarce when the hunters are around.
For every creature capable of vocalization, the sounds they utter are likely to be one or more of the following: contact, alarm, territorial, separation, sexual, comfort, or safety calls. It is what linguist Derek Bickerton refers to as protolanguage rather than full language, where the former is primarily a communication system, with the latter having a mapping function—a means of representing the world internally. If protolanguage is primarily a system of communicating the emotions of fear, desire, anger, triumph, and so forth, then it is a language that is still very much with us. It is in the tone of our voices, the timing of our speech and our outbursts, and in that subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) phenomenon called body language. The human face, for instance, is capable of seven thousand different expressions, each a different way of communicating with others. Facial and body language accounts for an astonishing 75 percent of the information we communicate—and that’s without having said a word.
The contact calls of birds, wild dogs, and lions, for example, are as unmistakable as ours. “Here I am…where are you?” is Konrad Lorenz’s classical interpretation of the contact calls of animals. Their whoops, grunts, and twitters are no less significant than our “Hello,” “Good morning,” “It’s good to see you,” and “How are you?” “Watch out!” is the message of an alarm call in any language, and until recently it was believed that humans were the only creatures who could differentiate what it is that one needs to watch out for. Birds, for instance, were believed to have nonspecific alarm calls, but Dr. Chris Evans of MacQuarie University in Sydney challenged this perception. Querying our notions of these so-called birdbrains, his work has shown that our domestic chickens, through separate utterances, squawk the difference between raptors and ground predators. The squirrel-like suricates, Suricata suricatta, on the other hand, mimic the calls of eagles, jackals, and snakes to warn their companions of these particular enemies. Then there are Africa’s green monkeys, the vervets, who are known to have at least sixty different information calls, which include, as already mentioned, specific alarm calls for leopards, raptors, and snakes. The same goes for elephants. Joyce Poole, who has spent more than twenty-five years in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya studying these great animals, believes they employ up to seventy different vocalizations, many of which are subsonic and used in different con-texts. Not only that, it is believed, in the same way that we are called by our personal names, they have specific calls for specific members within their groups. Then there is the lion whose alarm calls vary from a short cough to a “huh” or a hiss. We don’t know yet, but it is likely that these separate calls could also be specific.
When it comes to the language of territory and turf, the human animal compares well with our evolutionary brothers and sisters. To have one’s piece of land, territory, is an instinct, as the great novelist John Steinbeck wrote, and don’t we know it? Signs such as Trespassers will be prosecuted, Beware of dog, and This property is patrolled by armed response are not merely human inventions. We might as well be talking about lions whose territorial sprays and roars say the same thing…“This land is mine, mine, mine.” And then there are the hoops and sprays of the spotted hyena, who cries back at the lion, “Oh no…it isn’t.” Our signatures of ownership and territory are found not only on title deeds, but in the tracks we leave in and around our own households. They are the wet towels we leave lying on the bed and the scattered clothing on the floor. Is this adolescent laziness or do we unconsciously do it as a signal to show we have been there or that this room is mine, mine, mine?
Spoken language is far more than just words or sounds. It is the way that sounds and words are used that makes this form of communication the powerful survival tool that it is. Tone, rhythm, and pitch all play a vital part when it comes to the accurate communication of attitudes, needs, and circumstance. As with the human animal, lions, too, are sensitive to the significance of the graded roars, meows, growls, snarls, and grunting calls of their colleagues. Changing the volume, intensity, tempo, and tone of the call, writes Richard Estes in his informative Behaviour Guide to African Mammals, allows lions to express a wide range of emotions. Closer to home, the relaxed chatter of baboons and birds is not unlike the banter of the human animal, a profoundly important contact strategy of social animals, significant not only for its soothing effect but for that moment when everything suddenly goes quiet.
The language of the wild is not limited to cries and calls either. It includes a sophisticated “body” language in the form of long-lasting pheromones in pastes, excretions, secretions, and sprays—activities designed to communicate territory, rank, hormonal status, sexual readiness, and general intraspecies information. It is also a way of asking, “Where are the neighbors?” Brown hyenas, Hyaena brunnea, for example, exude two types of paste: a long-lasting one used for territorial marking, and a short-lasting one for passing on information to other members of the resident clan. Brown hyenas are social creatures but they forage alone, covering vast distances each night in search of carrion, pasting scent marks three to four times in every mile. This has led Dr. Gus Mills, a renowned expert on the hyenas of the Kalahari, to suspect that the short-acting paste is to inform other members of the clan that the area has already been searched for food.
Connected to the nasal passages but situated behind the front incisors is an active gland, common to most animals, that acts as a receptor for picking up airborne chemicals or pheromones. Through the use of this gland, they can interpret the sexual status and readiness of potential breeders. The male greater kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros, for instance, can scent the sexual pheromones of in-season females up to six miles away. Known as Jacobson’s organ, it is nonfunctioning in humans, but it has left its evolutionary imprint—it occasionally flares up in children, presenting as an inflamed cyst behind the upper two incisors. We, too, have our pheromones naturally, and in deodorants and perfumes. Backed up by evocative labels and brand names, the sexual signals are unmistakable. Human scenting and scent marking cannot be divorced from our animal origins. And as for the marking of one’s territory, what self-respecting male, not without a sigh of satisfaction, does not enjoy the occasional marking of his own garden in the old-fashioned way? Our territorial signatures are everywhere, from our homes and gardens to the graffiti on subway walls and in the passive aggression of litter.
Plants, too, have their language—their way of saying yes and no, and they do it in a measurable way. An example of this is the chemical communication between Africa’s great thorn trees, the acacias, and the animals that feed on them. In response to the mealtime assault, the acacias, by pushing tannic acid from the stems into the leaves, quickly elevate the tannin levels in the foliage to unpalatable proportions. This gives animals such as giraffes and kudu about ten to twenty minutes to make the most of their leafy meal, after which they have to move on. But there is more. The tannin warning is not limited to the animal browsers alone. The same tannins have a pheromone component that is carried downwind, informing other acacias of the impending assault, thus stimulating tannin secretions into the leaves of the unbrowsed trees.
The acacias, like the animals that feed on them, also keep in touch with each other and the reason is the same—survival. But what about the survival of the giraffes and the kudu? It should not be surprising to know that these animals have learned not only to spread themselves out while they are foraging but also to browse upwind.
Then there is speech, the gift or talent we would surely regard as that which most distinguishes us not only from the rest of the animal kingdom but also from our hominid forefathers. Our spoken language deserves a rethink, for it involves a lot more than the development of an athletic tongue. The evolution of two asymmetrical hemispheres, with one of them, usually the left hemisphere (in 80 to 90 percent of us), housing the all-important integrating and executive centers for human speech. It has been a major milestone in our evolution. It has been as crucial for our survival as a species as was the harnessing of fire. Our earliest words, sentences, and then our stories, became the kindling that kept the early fires of human consciousness alive. Bickerton might agree with this, for he goes as far as to say that it is language, because it dominates all aspects of human cerebral function, rather than intelligence, that defines Homo sapiens.
Through spoken language we can articulate memories, we can announce the signs of the times, we can speak our thoughts, and more—we can conceptualize and talk about things. It is an ego skill that functions not as some kind of neuroanatomical switch that can be turned on and off, but rather it is a widespread, cerebral system involved in the processing, organizing, and imparting of information, both external and internal. According to many psychologists, one’s true sense of individuality would not have developed in the absence of a spoken language. Inherent in the noun-verb structure of our speech comes the inevitable differentiation between the subject and the object and, with it, the reinforcing of “I,” “me,” and “you.” Indeed, says British neuropsychiatrist T. J. Crow, who believes that schizophrenia worldwide is associated with impaired hemispheric dominance for speech, “it is difficult to imagine that an individual could contemplate the world, develop ideas, delusional or otherwise, or the capacity for rational thought, without language.”
The sheer depth of our vocabulary and the capacity to use it has set us apart from our hominid ancestors. Hungry for news and information about our world, speech has sharpened our intellect. Its role in human relationships cannot be underestimated, for we bond, we gossip, and we groom each other with words. To hear one’s language and dialect in a foreign country is to feel a surge of soul. It is a home-coming. And yet, words are a part of our undoing, for they can have a cutting edge. Sometimes we wound each other with words: we talk too much, and we say things we do not mean.
And then there is the poem “Echo” from Wild Gifts that seeks the I and thou of coexistence…
I can only speak for myself
and then, not always so
for how much of you and him and her
do I echo?
And the mountains and the streams
and the sea
do I speak for you
or is it you that speaks
And the eagle, the mantis
and the trees
do you live your lives in the wild
or in the wild
I can only speak for myself
when I hear your echo in me
when I hear my lion call in you
and your eagle cry in me.
When we listen to the wind, the streams, and the calls of the birds and animals, our spoken language with its vowels, consonants, and syllables can easily be appreciated as a deeply rooted harnessing of the clicks, the calls, the cries, the groans, and the breath sounds of the wild. Sadly, we have forgotten the origins of our wild tongue. We have forgotten that every time we speak, our wild history is on show and that the alphabet—the building blocks of written language and with it, the capacity to read and write—is a gift from the forests, the sea, and the animals. Even reading and writing can be seen as a sophisticated form of the ancient “writing” and reading of tracks.
In what way have the themes or topics of modern-day conversation differed from those of our hominid ancestors? The answer, it would seem, is very little. It was Jung who remarked that the origins of directive thinking coincided with the origins of spoken language. He saw our earliest speech as the first stirrings of a cry to our companions that water has been found, or that a bear has killed or been killed, or that a storm is approaching, or that wolves are prowling around the camp. It would appear that the daily information we exchange with our companions today is, in many respects, simple and sophisticated variations of these themes. “We have found water” is a statement charged with excitement, relief, joy, security, triumph, and homecoming. It tells us that we have found what we were looking for. The corporate goal has been reached. For the time being we have struck gold, oil, meat, or material wealth. We can rest a while, we can gossip, and we can reflect. To find water is to have succeeded, to have struck form. Psychologically, it is to find oneself in the flow of things, perhaps to have discovered a wellspring, a place of potential depth or meaning in one’s life, or a space where one can lick one’s psychological wounds.
“The bear has been killed” is a message of multiple meanings. It could be telling us that danger has been averted, that the struggle is over, that a cycle has completed itself, and that we can begin anew. It might come with undertones of excitement, relief, and surprise, but a kill is also a killing. Who did it? What’s in it for us? Will it be shared? Will there be more killings? These are familiar corporate boardroom questions, aren’t they? The bear, then, could be a hero or a villain, the central character in a scandal, or even a scapegoat.
“There is a storm approaching.” Be careful. Be aware. Be vigilant. Make the proper preparations. This might not be a good time to hunt or to take a holiday. Make sure the pantry is stocked. Change is coming. The storms are also the sociopolitical storms on our horizons. Perhaps it is a good time to move to higher ground, or to leave the country. For some, the storm is overdue and it is a good time to stay. Like modern day stockbrokers, our ancestors were interpreting the signs of the times.
Then there are the prowling wolves, the troubles close to home, the brewing storms that were once on the horizons and that we thought would go away but are suddenly upon us. These are the storms of the psyche, the ones which we know we have to face, that must not be avoided, says D. H. Lawrence in these lines from the poem “The Song Of A Man Who Has Come Through”:
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.
The capacity for reflective thinking, for analysis, and symbol formation is largely the domain of the human animal, but it is not limited to humans. It is well known that chimpanzees and bonobos have mastered symbolic thought, albeit on a limited level. For example, they have learned to use long, thin sticks as tools to fish termites out of their mounds. Such use of tools is not confined to our primate cousins either, for elephants are tool users as well. I have personally witnessed a Namibian desert elephant picking up a long stick and using it not only to scratch its abdomen but, in the same grooming session, to scratch behind its ear as well, before discarding it.
Our inner world of words appears to be an ongoing silent and some-times not-so-silent dialogue of questions and answers. Do this, don’t do that. What if this, what if that? Ought I, or ought I not? Our speech, a cohesion of syntax, semantics, and symbols, has been crucial for our survival as a species of perennial problem solvers. Our thoughts in the form of silent and not-so-silent words take wings, for we talk to God, whatever our notions of God may be, we talk to absent loved ones, to the landscape, and to animals, and sometimes we could swear that they talk to us too. Even when we are asleep, the dialogue continues, this time in the form of dreams, what Freud and Jung recognized as the language of the unconscious. In our ongoing inner dialogue, who or what are we addressing? To whom are we saying yes and no and no, again, and yes? And who answers us? Could it be one of the three strange angels that D. H. Lawrence has asked us to admit—the reptile in us, that first mammal, or that 2.5-million-year-old hominid survivor in the human psyche? Operating as a trio, the neurological equivalent of the strange angels can be seen as the combined functional aspects of the brain stem, the paleomammalian cortex, and the modern human forebrain.
And then there is literacy, that great gift of the freethinker. The ability to read and write and to have a confidence that takes literacy for granted must never be underestimated. It represents a huge leap in the evolution of culture and consciousness. It allows us to read in private, to make up our own minds about what we are reading, to cross-reference our findings, to discover new words and new worlds. It takes us into the borders of other countries and into the skin of those who live there. Literacy stirs the imagination. It puts clothes on our thoughts. It extends our vocabulary and our horizons, and, because it is economically and politically empowering, it is easy to see why it is the cornerstone of what we broadly refer to as a modern education.
Finally, there is ecological literacy—the ability to read the ecological issues of our time, to interpret the connections in the web of life, and to recognize our evolutionary signatures within it. It is a literacy that is able to read and write with both eyes—an empirical eye that delights in science and classical reasoning, and a poetic eye, the one that interprets the uncharted waters of nonscience, that can read the future in the wind, the rain, and the land. How can we tell the future from that, you might ask? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the same way that the great sculptors, by staring at it, come to know the future of the block of marble in front of them. Ecological literacy is a literacy that is impossible to those who are blind to our animal nature.
When Jung proposed his notion of a collective unconscious, more especially the notion of a more than 2-million-year-old hominid in all of us, I believe he was honoring the wild man, the wild woman, and the wild animal in us also—our primal nature, our wild archetype. “Every individual life is at the same time the external life of the species,” he once said, implying that evolution includes the evolution of consciousness also and that the wild man and the wild woman are not very far from the surface of our domesticated social masks. If this is so, as I believe it is, I think we need to look behind us from time to time, to read the tracks of our evolutionary history, and to remember where we have come from.
is a gift of the wild,
of retracing steps,
from time to time
at our first spoor,
our other signatures.
Even now, I imagine that I can feel all the particles of the universe nourishing my consciousness just as my consciousness informs all the particles of the universe.