with words the world is won // let me be at a loss
It is tempting to view history as we do a text: unspooling behind us in a comprehensible narrative flow, with one sequence following another, tones and tenors shifting but all according to some fundamental strictures of logic and tongue. The future, within this rational schema, will proceed in much the same way, yet unwritten but composing a coda to the stories currently unfolding and giving birth to new ones in obeisance to one in a number of intimately familiar archetypes. History begins in myth, and ends in prophecy. In between are the factotums of battle and scourge, discovery and intrigue, interwoven tales of human virtue and vice. There is character, motive, setting, and plot.
The natural sciences instruct us in a very different way. They tell us of a world of probability and simultaneity, of chance occurrence and mutation. Theirs is a distinctly non-linear model of history—one composed of dynamics and flows that supplant narrative history’s traditional borders and roles. Ecology, the burgeoning discipline which aims to make a holistic study of natural environment (and forms the foundation of the Earth Institute’s work), takes the dynamical analysis to another level: all inputs bleed together, combining to form a complex and self-reflexive relational web. The story of a logger, an anthill, a stream and a storm, all inform the composition of an ever-fluctuating forest mosaic. Some structures occupy more space than others; some spread their thin tendrils through time. Each of them engages in the larger creative landscape, and their individual trajectories inevitably effect the larger scope of life in which they exist.
This recognition betrays the dichotomy that has at once triumphed and marred the course of scientific thought in recent centuries: it demands an experience of things-in-themselves, and denies the ideal of objectivity that both empirical science and monotheistic religion imply. Yes, of course, we can take apart a frog and piece-by-piece analyze the powers and functions of its bodily systems; but it is not until we hear its croaking at dusk, see its bright yellow spots differentiating themselves from the dark water of a shallow marsh, brush our fingers against its moist, osmotic skin, that we come to know a frog at all. Vivisection, and the factual fruits such methods bear, is predicated upon murder of the individual organism and disruption of processes that would otherwise reintegrate the deceased back to its natural landscape. Objectivity is objectively absent from natural life; to invent it demands a profound violence and estrangement on the part of the observer.
When Nicolaus Copernicus gave voice to the truth that our Earth was in orbit around the Sun, and not the solid rock at the bottom of the cosmos it had so long been imagined to be, he was freeing humanity from the shackles of mass, proclaiming that ours was a world amongst worlds, not a base and brutal anchor still beneath the stars. Descartes’ maxim of cogito ergo sum refined this freedom, locating the prime creative and energetic capaciousness not in mystic woods or sanctified chapel, but in each and every human mind. Our modernity is built upon these suppositions, and they have taken our minds quite far, to the point where my fingers tapping a keyboard in an old hall in New York will in mere minutes be before you, wherever on this planet you might be—words on an orbit all their own. But they have also led to a culture and a people alienated from their surround: invested as we are with great power and great knowledge, we have collectively torn the sensuous web from which we were born and in which we remain. We have fallen under different spells: of money, of fact, of anxiety, of epicurean delight, and cast aspersions towards the living Earth which bears forth all of our bounty.
To engage in ecology is to harmonize the wisdoms of nature and of science. All we can do, today, is remember what has been forgotten; and all we must do is re-member—put together what has been taken apart. The arc of humanity’s empirical detachment, with its countless innovations and its endless atrocities towards Earth’s dynamic life has played its part well. It is time now to tell another tale.
(Written for the Columbia University Earth Institute, March 2012)