The Bones of the Matter
I was, I believe, ecologically bored. We evolved in … a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws… (1) … And bones …
George Monbiot draws attention to fertile deposits of mega fauna bones as echoes of a lost and verdant past and encourages the rewilding of our world for ecological, psychological, and even political reasons. (2)
Violence in the Middle East bled into Canada in recent days and we are saddened and outraged. The feeling is visceral as if punched in the stomach without warning; the thought of bereaved families overwhelming. Being human, with a skeletal knowledge of past and future, I try to rationalize … try to make sense of things and find solutions. But each time I follow a helpful thread, it becomes hopelessly tangled in the feet, roots, and bones of previous events and actions.
My 80-year-old neighbor sites the brutality of the crusades as a seed. Maps harshly drawn after the First World War on the skin of nomad lands swim into consciousness. Afghanistan ripped apart in post-cold war heat; the shape of conquest; fear and misunderstanding flow like quicksilver. Added to this Guernica-like collage is our natural environment - slashed, burned, denuded and sterilized. My sense of outrage both deepens and crumbles into the cracked mirror of being human. Are we merely complex molecules in a standing wave pattern of fight, flight, blight, and insight? Several insightful minds have expressed a belief that consciousness is a field – an evolving field composed of a perplexity of conundrums and conflicts as necessary catalysts. And the field is not only a human, but also a life matter (3). Is the axiom of consciousness as discrete to, and between, humans becoming obsolete?
There were a series of terrible experiments in the fifties and sixties in which baby primates were deprived of their mothers and raised by wire-covered automatons. The results were disastrous and produced psychopathic behavior - the babies seemingly being incapable of love (4). If the natural world continues to collapse into commercial grids of chemicals, steel, and glass what will be the future of her human children?
The World Wildlife Fund’s recent survey reveals that 52% of the earth’s wild animals have disappeared in the last 40 years (5). Although these results have been contested, biologists agree that planetary biodiversity is declining drastically. The culprits are habitat loss, unsustainable hunting and fishing practices, and climate change. But perhaps the reasons reach deeper. Are we losing nuances of humanity as the world diminishes? Does ecological boredom perpetuate itself, especially when many children in contemporary society suffer from what Richard Louv has dubbed ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’? (6)
Improvisation has been something of a survival technique for individuals and species throughout millennia. However, as civilization ‘progresses,’ our species has a habit of limiting opportunities for improvising through processes of standardization, prescription, and monoculture in government, environment and in education. Perhaps entropy is an evolutionary inevitability that leads to the fecundity of decay and subsequent rebirth. But with fewer life forms in the global panoply, we may be losing our nutritional base - physically, emotionally, and imaginatively.
As a teacher, teacher-educator, and ecologist, I see disturbing parallels between industrial model education and industrial farming practices. Through standardization and coercion, we limit opportunities for the intelligent, improvised, engagement that is a factor of transformative or holistic learning – learning that nourishes the collective consciousness. In diminishing the wild, we become vulnerable to a biological lethargy, leaving species and spaces at risk. George Monbiot, quoted above, suggests a process that involves the reintroduction of mega-fauna to induce a synaptic reawakening of biotic response.
John Gray in The Silence of Animals (7) suggests a radical shift is needed at the epicenter of being. William Wordsworth, in his fatalistic sonnet The World is Too Much With Us (1802) would rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn so he might feel the wild wind in his soul. Ecological boredom in not a new phenomenon – it is an old malady that is spreading.
As the mega fauna in our classes what can a teacher’s role in rewilding be? What promotes the fluency of improvisation? A prepared environment rich with corridors to and from thematic, environmental, and political ecosystems; a spiral curriculum that expands in complexity from a simple core; auto-didactic material that engages the hand, heart, and intellect in collaborative, reality-based relationships with environment; freedom to choose with whom, where and how we learn; nature as active participant and vivid nurturer. (8)
We build collective identity on the skeletons of culture … in places of stillness and quietude where the forest meets the sky – the self becomes other. Transformation is the process of improvising with the self-beyond-self – to engage, to expand and to reflect. It is creating liminal space … a place for poetry, for dreaming, a refuge from electricity, from noise; a place of time, elements, tools, maps, creatures, soil, stone, books, doorways, portals, scarves, insects, promises …
There is a venerable theory, generated by psychiatrist Ross Ashby in 1956, called the ‘Law of Requisite Variety’ (9). It suggests that complex systems can only be engaged and enlivened by other complex systems, which puts paid to prevalent habits of concentrating ‘extraordinary power in a central entity’ (10). Predictably, this theory was never popular, as it threatened the status quo. But in this time of declining diversities, recent arguments for more poetic structures of mind and matter deserve focus, despite and because of possible surprises and inconveniences.
_________________________Wild Spirits Masked and Mustered (middle school)
It is November, the time of bone fires when the ashes of the past invoke the flesh of the future. My students and I found a skeleton in the damp, mushroomed woods and brought it back to our school. We washed it, held it, imagined it, reassembled it, named it … him … A mega fauna of sorts, his elegant bones guiding us into the mineral of our selves, his perfect claws nestling between our fingernails. We do not plan what we do but troll for the silver-sided slick of experience. When we do plan – it is together – as in a hunt. And when we are successful – we scratch our tribute with charcoal and rock on the bones of our becoming.
- By Wendy Agnew
(1) Monbiot, George. Rewilding to Cure Ecological Boredom. TED Talks. (March 4, 2014) https://gordoneaglesham.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/rewilding-to-cure-ecological-boredom/
(2) Monbiot, George. (2013). Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, London: Allen Lane.
(3) Sheldrake, Rupert. (1988). Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. New York: Vintage, 198-209.
(4) Harlow, Harry F. (1962). ‘Development of affection in primates’. in: Roots of Behavior (E.L. Bliss, ed.). New York: Harper, 157-166.
(5) Living Planet Report 2014, http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2014
(6) Louv, Richard. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. New York: Algonquin Books, 135-137, 304-308.
(7) Gray. John. (2013). The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. London: Allen Lane, 174.
(8) Montessori, Maria. (1965). Spontaneous Activity in Education. New York: Shocken Books.
(9) Asaro, Peter (2008). ‘From Mechanisms of Adaptation to Intelligence Amplifiers: The Philosophy of W. Ross Ashby.’ In Michael Wheeler, Philip Husbands and Owen Holland (eds.) The Mechanical Mind in History, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
(10) Ashby, W. Ross. (1956). ‘Cybernetics and Requisite Variety’ from An Introduction to Cybernetics. http://www.panarchy.org/ashby/variety.1956.html