The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap. - Novalis

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Of Ants and Humans

Part of the job for anyone who really wants to understand the place of human beings in the world, to know our place, is to become really familiar with at least some of the other creatures with whom we share the planet. It has long seemed to me that one of the best  ways to do that is to learn about insects. They have lots of advantages over leopards or elephants for instance. They are small, they are everywhere, they are abundant beyond imagining, and their diversity  and complexity are unparalleled. This used to be a hard sell, but no longer. I've been out of the world of entomology for long enough that I did not know about Mark Moffett, who has clearly made a terrific profession out of a line of work that has long been considered the province of nerds and oddballs by the uninformed general public. He is a student of E.O.Wilson at Harvard, one of the truly great biologists of our time (much as I disagree with his theoretical work - on which, see Wendell Berry's book Life Is a Miracle here]. Moffett's website Dr. Bugs is wonderful and not to be missed. Both Wilson and Moffett are primarily students of the ants. Anyone who thinks this a bit odd really must listen to the Fresh Air interview with Moffett: Tracking a Sisterhood of Ants - Fresh Air.  I am completely delighted that my former profession is getting such great press. I might add that beyond my delight in the creatures themselves, the book that initially hooked me was Evans's Life on a Little Known Planet, which is still a fascinating piece of writing. And I was extraordinarily lucky to have some great teachers in my first courses in biology. Pre-eminent among them was Carl Schaefer, a wonderful man and a terrific teacher whose joy in his subject, and in Dickens and Brahms, helped to pull me entirely into his world. I owe him a debt of gratitude for revealing some of the wonders of biology.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Going Bugs

One way to trace the deep connections between our inner ecologies and the outer world is simply to notice what aspects of the natural world most hold our attention, most excite our passions. In the world of natural science for example, it is not by chance that some people become geologists, others physicists, and others biologists. And among biologists it is not by chance that some are attracted by lions and tigers and bears, others by insects, and some by plants, or worms or mushrooms. In my own case I can remember the moment when I was first suddenly and powerfully struck by the wonder of insects.  I was in the early stages of studying to be a physicist and helping my soon-to-be-wife collect insects for a course in applied entomology. It was probably a small chrysomelid beetle - something iridescent and utterly stunning. And even under the hand lens it opened up a world, and opened me to a world, that I had never really seen. Though I held to the idea of  becoming a theoretical physicist for some time it wasn't really my strength, and the biologists seemed to be having so much more fun. The beauty and overwhelming diversity of insects had wakened some deep wonder in me. As it turned out, historical circumstance and practical necessity dictated that the group of insects I was to study was not entirely freely chosen. And even among the insects, there are distinctions that resonate with something deep inside. Some people like lice, some people like flies... I would have been happy as a dipterist, or perhaps working on one of the aquatic insects. As it was I spent several years fairly happily studying the morphological complexities of the male flea [proof here]. In the end I do still wish it had been some other group.

Many years later I was surprised to find that I had suddenly and inexplicably become completely fascinated by geology - particularly, igneous petrology.  It is fairly clear to me now what this signaled, though it was wholly unconscious at the time. There is no doubt whatever that as your inner landscapes and inner ecologies change so do the aspects of the world to which you are drawn. The inner and the outer are profoundly connected and the exploration of those connections and resonances can be a life's work. Alchemists knew this, some scientists surely do, and so of course do poets.

One approach to all this can be found in the work of James Hillman. Here are some excerpts from his 1988 essay "Going Bugs." (Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, 1988. 40-72.) (borrowed from here):

"If the dream world is the return of the repressed (Freud), turning the face to us that we unconsciously turn to it (Jung), then it appears so stinging, buzzing and persecutory when our cultural consciousness treats our symptoms as vermin, our complexes as parasites. Yes, we want to rid ourselves of the underworld, using the nice white powder of destructive abstraction available from any pharmacy and/or physician, and in any session of ego-psychology. The source of the pharmacology fantasy and industry lies in the fear of going bugs. That we need an ecology movement, animal rights advocacy, and a world wildlife fund begins in our dreams.

Dreams show bugs have something to teach. They demonstrate the intentions of the natural mind, the undeviating faith of desire, and the urge to survive.

They bring the community consciousness of a swarm and hive, a Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, a cosmic sympathy, deeper than a social contract. They conjoin and enjoy the contrary elements of earth and air, show amazing capacities to conform and transform, and are resolute in their persistence to draw a dreamer out of the shelters of human habitation, the sheltering limits of human habits.

Our dreams recover what the world forgets. Forgotten pagan polytheism breeds in animal forms. In those animals are the ancient Gods: the Celtic horns and salmon, the Viking bears, the Egyptian pigs and river horses, crocodiles and cats, the Roman wolves and eagles, and Navaho be'gotcidi. The old Gods are still there in our dreams--those zoological cathedrals, where there is a mansion for the insects of Beelzebub and Mephistopheles. The animals may go on like Gods, alive and well and unforgotten, in the ikons of our dreams and in the vital obsessions of complexes and symptoms, the little bugs indestructible. Sing praise. Gaudeamus."


This essay apears, along with several other pertinent pieces in James Hillman, ANIMAL PRESENCES, Uniform Edition Vol. 9. - This volume includes the major Eranos lecture "The Animal Kingdom in the Human Dream," and Hillman's contributions to the out-of-print "bestiary" Dream Animals (with Margot McLean), as well as the essays "Going Bugs"; "Nature in the Doghouse"; "The Elephant in the Garden of Eden"; "Imagination is Bull"; and shorter interviews and penetrating conversations on the animal theme. From Spring Publications.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dogmas, Idols & the Edge of Chaos

This essay (here as a pdf) published in Human Ecology Review in 2000, received a John Templeton Foundation Exemplary Award in the "Expanding Humanity's Vision of God" essay competition. It was written in part as a response to my studies in theoretical biology under the direction of Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute and experiences at the Institute's first Complex Systems Summer School in 1990. An earlier version was presented at the Xth International Conference of the Society for Human Ecology in Montreal in 1999. It seems a bit dated to me now and I wouldn't write it in anything like the same style today, but it still seems to me to articulate reasonably well my misgivings about the explanatory schemes of modern science. (The illustration is the Lorenz Attractor)

Dogmas, Idols & the Edge of Chaos - Cheetham

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Parasites & Derivatives

One more reminder, as if any more were needed, that we are embedded in a world we do not control:

Nature's Revenge: Goldman Sachs Attacked by Bedbugs

and this: NYC Looking for a Bedbug Czar

I admit to having a certain fondness for hematophagous ectoparasites, having spent (perhaps too many) years in an earlier life studying the evolution and comparative morphology of fleas.

Imagination in Place - Wendell Berry

It's hard to know where to start in a paragraph to "introduce" Wendell Berry. For those who don't know his work, he is a farmer, novelist, poet and essayist whose writings are indispensable for anyone who thinks about the human place in nature. He is also, not incidentally, a Fellow of the Temenos Academy. I first read The Unsettling of American in the early '70's and actually used it as a text in an undergraduate philosophy course I was teaching in one of my early attempts at graduate school. I heard him speak in Iowa in the mid-80's. He has been an inspiration all these years.

Here is a review of a new book of essays Imagination in Place, from High Country News - An Example and an Antidote:

Berry’s life and his books provide an antidote to one of the problems that plague our nation: a haunting sense of exile. He puts it this way: "The modern American version of exile is a rootless and wandering life in foreign lands or (amounting to about the same thing) in American universities." The university system has come to regard students as "customers" and degree programs as "products." Such a system graduates employees, not citizens. And a nation of employees is a corporation, not a nation at all. The one hope for America, Berry has been telling us for most of his life, is to come to know who we are as a people by coming to know where we are. For that, he counsels, we need imagination. You’ll need to read the book to truly understand what Berry means by this, but try this on: "(Imagination) is the power that can save us from the prevailing insinuation that our place, our house, our spouse, and our automobile are not good enough." Read the whole review.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Notes to the Reader

I hope to use these notes to flag things that I want to remember, think through some ideas in an informal way, and generally take note of anything that seems important or interesting to me that relates in any way to what I like to call human ecology, though that term has generally been co-opted by the natural and social sciences. I hope to keep it free for a truly transdisciplinary approach to understanding the place of humans in the natural world. My primary areas of interest include the function of imagination in the world and in human life, the various uses of language, and the relation between the "inner" world of the psyche and the "outer"  worlds of nature and society. I am interested in what Jerome Rothenberg (I think) called the "primary human potential" which gets channeled, restricted and eventually blocked by different cultures in different ways. And, as a biologist and naturalist, and an eater of food, I am a lover of plants an animals for several reasons.

I have in mind a series of notes towards a "natural history of the psyche" - not as a branch of the natural sciences, but as a way of learning to move among all the various ways of experiencing and understanding the world, regardless of their place in any disciplinary scheme. The world does not divide itself so neatly.

The Solid Form of Language

This piece from the BBC, Do Typefaces Really Matter? reminds me that I've wanted to do a series of posts on Robert Bringhurst for a long time. So this can be the inaugural mention. I first came across his poetry about 1990 and shortly thereafter on his masterful and highly influential book The Elements of Typographic Style, which still amazes and teaches every time I open it. It should be required reading for anyone who does anything with written language. Here let me flag a lesser- known work that also deserves a place on the bookshelf of everyone who thinks about language:

The Solid Form of Language.
The publisher's description: With this concise and broadly informative essay, renowned poet, typographer and linguist Robert Bringhurst presents a brief history of writing and a new way of classifying and understanding the relationship between script and meaning. Beginning with the original relationship between a language and its written script, Bringhurst takes us on a history of reading and writing that begins with the interpretation of animal tracks and fast-forwards up to the typographical abundance of more recent times. The first four sections of the essay describe the earliest creation of scripts, their movement across the globe and the typographic developments within and across languages. In the fifth and final section of the essay, Bringhurst introduces his system of classifying scripts. Readers will find this combination of anthropology, typography, literature, mathematics, music and linguistics surprisingly accessible and thought provoking. The cover designed by the author was letterpress printed on St. Armand handmade paper.