Here’s the second segment of the series. I can’t say that I am getting more comfortable in front of a camera, so I am grateful to my patient husband Jim. Much of this content exists in an earlier post, so you can consider this the CliffNotes version.
I am increasingly fascinated by the field of biomimicry, a concept new enough to have escaped various versions of Merriam Webster. The content boxed below comes from The Biomimicry Institute.
Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is an example. I think of it as “innovation inspired by nature.”
The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. This is the real news of biomimicry: After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.
Like the viceroy butterfly imitating the monarch, we humans are imitating the best adapted organisms in our habitat. We are learning, for instance, how to harness energy like a leaf, grow food like a prairie, build ceramics like an abalone, self-medicate like a chimp, create color like a peacock, compute like a cell, and run a business like a hickory forest.
The conscious emulation of life’s genius is a survival strategy for the human race, a path to a sustainable future. The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.
Looking at Nature as Model, Measure, and Mentor
If we want to consciously emulate nature’s genius, we need to look at nature differently. In biomimicry, we look at nature as model, measure, and mentor.
Nature as model: Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then emulates these forms, process, systems, and strategies to solve human problems – sustainably. The Biomimicry Guild and its collaborators have developed a practical design tool, called the Biomimicry Design Spiral, for using nature as model.
Nature as measure: Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the sustainability of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned what works and what lasts. Nature as measure is captured in Life’s Principles and is embedded in the evalute step of the Biomimicry Design Spiral.
Nature as mentor: Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but what we can learn from it.
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.
It’s more difficult than I would have thought to make a YouTube video. Still, I think there were only ten takes involved, and not more than four or five late night editing sessions. sierra leone . Oh, and the computer crashes. . . I’ve decided to make a series of them for several reasons, figuring that it’s easier for a skeptic to watch a ten minute clip before s/he decides it’s worth buying my book. More important, the concepts carried in my book are dense, I’ve been told, and I believe it. And so the intent of this series is to lay groundwork for the conversation I am hoping to generate. Here’s the first of a series of five or six, and I’m hoping that others will add their comments to Judy’s response below (offered with her permission) and my comment which follows.
How do we even wrap our minds around the unlikely task of healing the earth?
I imagine the people reading this blog post are like me – little, seeming powerless, often paralyzed, and wondering what it is we’re trying to make right. So, I believe in little steps, in building community, in changing hearts.
Not long ago a video was posted by one of my Facebook friends. (This has a happy ending.) A dog, attempting to cross a very busy eight lane highway was struck and left lying in the middle of the lanes during a heavily trafficked time of day.
No one stopped, no one could. Another dog, undaunted (although I wonder . . . ) made his way to the wounded animal, and, with his own paws, dragged the injured dog across several lanes of traffic, to safety. What I wonder is this: what would it be like if humans understood our connection to the earth community with this kind of unquestioning – even innate – understanding that we are to help one another, no matter which form a life takes? As you go about your day and the days to come, think on this – “I am deeply connected to everything I see, hear, touch, and equally connected to what I am not seeing or hearing.”
What difference will it make in your life to know that the mouse, hiding in your woodpile, shares your life, your chemistry, your insistence on life. Write me about this; it’s very important.
This is what I love to do. I love to borrow back words the Church has claimed for its own and re-introduce them into a more universal context. Anamnesis is such a word, a wonderful word. In the Church, it’s associated by the act of remembrance, with the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The word comes to us from the Greek, and it can mean as well, the remembering of things from a previous existence. Literally, it means a loss of forgetfulness, and it’s that silken nuance of the phrase that intrigues me. We can easily say that to lose forgetfulness is simply to remember, that it’s nothing more than a question of semantics. This is what fascinates me, though. Remembering becomes a two-step process. First, we have to lose, or release, our forgetfulness. Only then, in step two, will we be able to remember.
This is a good time for an art project. I am thinking of a collage in particular, something not too threatening. Finger painting would do as well. As you’re settling in with the materials, hold in mind this question: What have you forgotten? Color? Shapes? Making messes? The art of play? Have you forgotten what it’s like to engage in something and not worry about outcome? Have you forgotten to listen to your own inner knowing, your inner teacher? Take this project outside, if you can, and ask the same questions of the wind as it breathes through your hair, the songs of the early robins or the peepers, the rustle of grass, the smell of the season. What of your forgetfulness do you need to lose in order to know your place within the earth community?
Apophatic refers to the art of stripping away, the art of letting go. I used to teach freshman Writing at St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland. Each year in September, I would explain to the incoming students that if they wanted to learn to write, then they needed to let go of pretty much all they had learned about writing in High School. Apophatic is the art of unbuilding, a far less common experience than building up, but no less essential.
The way into the space between . . . is the way of release, the apophatic way. In order to enter the space between . . . we have to release the things that have precluded the possibilities of true engagement with one another, human to human and human to non-human. I am referring to such things as doctrines, ideologies, opinions, self-interest, biases, attitudes, practices and habits. The writer David James Duncan refers to it as the art of “unsaying.” In his book God Laughs & Plays, he writes, “one of my aims as a writer of faith is apophatic. It is necessary to define words. It is also at times necessary to undefine them. Of all the words I have heard in my time, ‘God’ is the one most grievously abused by humans; the one most deserving of a careful unsaying.”
Think of apophatic as the art of unsaying. The art of un-doing. The art of release. We might think of it as the negative of a photograph or the experience of an ocean wave crashing over you even as it’s pulling the sand out from under your feet.
I think of it more as an art form, and the analogy that comes to mind is the carving of marble or granite. In my early twenties I had a tremendous urge to carve – chisels, knives, rasps – all of it. I found my way instead to ceramics and poured all my kinesthetic energy into hand-built sculpture. Now, years and years later, I am finding the opportunity to carve marble, and it’s a challenge! I experience a resistance in my brain wiring (I make no claim as to the neuro-science that might support such a statement). My brain simply doesn’t want to – or maybe can’t – rewire itself to the art and practice of taking away material. My brain wants to keep building up.
Western culture is similar, I think. We build up. We layer teachings upon teachings. We build more and more programming into our personal lives. We measure our GNP in terms of economic growth as corporately defined. We protect ourselves with words and ideologies, spinning them around ourselves like cocoons so that we need not consider anything other than what we already have opinions about. It’s my experience that we build and build so insistently, that the building up allows us to lose sight of what we long for. We have lost sight of what is real, and of what is of real value.
I think of apophatic as the process of unbuilding, unteaching. I think of it as the art of unsaying, the art of undoing, the art of release. To enter the space between . . . requires that we embrace the apophatic way, and one essential piece of the letting go process is that of deep listening. In fact, I would suggest that deep listening is not possible until we engage the apophatic process. Perhaps the most familiar experience is an interaction with a partner, or child, or parent, who uses a certain phrase or gesture or tone of voice which you interpret against the tapestry of your own experience. This is common enough, and often a very good idea. The question is, what does it cost us to interpret the behavior of another through our particular lens? Can we be certain we’ve interpreted correctly? On the basis of our interpretation, do we tend to stop listening for what lies underneath? The common description of this dynamic is that we tend to see what we expect to see, and hear what we expect to hear. What might we experience if we were able, in the moment, to release our expectation, for the sake of deep listening?
I suggest you take a walk through the woods, or along a stream, or through a meadow, even a city park. Find a tree, with leaves. What do you see? Maybe you can identify it. Maybe it’s just a tree like any other tree, and you walk on. But what if you take these words of the poet Mary Oliver into the woods with you? What is required of you to hear the song held within a single leaf? What must you release?
The leaf has a song in it. Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it and it will never end until all ends.