A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Ecotone (Sometimes ecotome)
The ecological work we need to be doing isn’t really coming from people of churches or from those outside churches, at least not with the urgency it requires. Take churches, for example, especially Mainline churches. This is from a 2008 article in the Boston Globe. “(yet) Protestant denominations are leaving many of their small churches open, allowing for a sizable number of struggling, even moribund, congregations with minimal programming and part-time clergy.”
Mainline churches are pretty much about the business of trying to keep their clergy from bolting and trying to prop up their buildings. What’s left might go to outreach, but even so, the environment falls pretty much to the bottom of the list as though the environment were some distinct category, which, of course, it isn’t. Church outreach tends to be more about food banks and soup kitchens and clothing drives. Patchwork, and charitable, yes, but not systemmic.
The ecological work – for the most part – happens outside churches, through environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife or Oceana or Biogems, Sierra Club – there are many. The work they do is essential, yet they are not likely to turn around the planet’s destruction. And here’s why. All they (we) can do is react. The insults and assaults to the earth community, including its subset of humans – particularly humans who fall outside the mainstream – come so fast, and so furiously, one on top of another on top of another, that all we can do is react, try to put out fires, try desperately to bandage up one wound then another would.
Environmental groups are working reactively. And they do it by pulling on our heartstrings. Pictures of aerial gunning of wolves, polar bears unable to swim to the next ice cap, sea turtles slick with oil.
What we don’t have is room to breathe. The space between . . . is breathing room, room to shed ourselves of all that puts us on one side of the aisle or the other. The space between . . . is where our collective imagination can do its work. The space between . . . is where education can happen, where education must happen.
For example. Take the Greater Yellowstone area. Here’s why you don’t want to kill all the wolves. If there are no wolves, the elk overpopulate. Too many elk, the aspen and willow seedlings have no chance to mature. No willows, the beaver go, leaving their dams untended. No dams, the wetlands disappear. Wetlands disappear, the land dries up.. The land dries up, the riverbanks erode. This is not just about wolves on one side of the aisle and sheep on the other. We can’t get to the problem this way. It’s not possible.
Carl Safina – in his book The View From Lazy Point – makes reference to “the whole enterprise” and I am grateful to him for this language. The space between . . . makes room for the whole enterprise. Systems. Systems at work.
My friend Paul Michalec reminds me that the space between . . . has its physical counterpart in the natural world. The word is ecotone. I wish I had had this word in my vocabulary when I was writing this book. But I didn’t. Picture a forest as it moves down the mountainside and abuts a vast wildflower meadow. It’s not like one moment you’re in trees, the next, in tall grasses. An ecotone is the area between different habitats, and it contains elements of both. It’s – literally – the space between . . .
In fact, not only does the ecotone contain elements of both forest and meadow, neither forest nor meadow could survive without the ecotone. In fact – this is where it gets even more exciting, found in the ecotone are life forms that aren’t of the forest and aren’t of the meadow. The ecotone – the space between . . . is the ground for something altogether new. What I am calling the space between . . . is basically a form of bio-mimicry. Isn’t there something we can learn from this?
One would hope! Think of the space between. . . as an ecotone, a safe space in which people of churches and people not of churches can meet to consider in a proactive, not reactive way, the many urgent crises that demand our attention, and in particular – the one from which all other ills emerge – the deteriorating health of our planet.
The question is, “how do we get there?”
From an earlier vocabulary lesson comes the word apophatic. We have to learn all this vocabulary, by the way. It’s essential to learn it for the urgent conversations we need to be having.
Literally it translates as knowledge learned through negation, but that doesn’t put it in any recognizeable context. To enter the space between . . . to live in the ecotome, is first and foremost to lose our sense of human entitlement, to release our anthropocentric insistence that the world exists to serve us. To live in the ecotome is also to release or let go of the things that we all have such righteous opinions about. In the context of the space between . . . , apophatic is all about unlearning. Not only a challenge to our assumptions – which is a given – but an actual releasing or unlearning of them.
For people of churches, the apophatic journey has to do with the release of doctrine and exclusive forms of ritual practice. For people not in churches, maybe it requires a release of antipathy, and indifference, even anger. Maybe an unlearning of the notion that churches have laid claim to the sacramental and ritual life. The apophatic journey – the way of release and unlearning – is a spiritual practice and discipline, by the way, and it doesn’t necessarily come easily.
But, if you think about the polarity of our conversations these days, if you think about the vitriol, the uncivil discourse, the discounting and dismissing of one another, the distortions, even outright lies, it ought to be fairly clear that we’re lost. We’re stuck. We need to find ourselves, and what I’m suggesting is that we need to find ourselves in the space between . . . a space which is neither one thing or another, but of both – a new thing. A new thing we haven’t yet seen. As with any ecotone, this is where the growth and transformation is going to happen.