I was working one day alongside a wily old engineer, at a farm on Vancouver Island. We were harvesting some garlic, and he gave me this aphorism:
When you lose your way in the forest, you re-trace your steps until you find the last place where you're sure you knew where you were going. You gather up what you've learned from your mistaken direction, and you try again.
We were talking about humans. And human nature. And the human experience on this planet, and how it looks, quite practically speaking, like it's on track to come rather soon to an end.
Not that long ago, we thought we had it figured out. Science, you know. And technology. An upward trajectory toward the total mastery of life. And then, some things happened. Faith in the inherent goodness of technology -- that exploded over Hiroshima. Belief in the beneficence of scientific government -- that was buried in Auschwitz. And now, well, it's basically beyond dispute that the way we've fueled the modern era is making this planet unlivable for humans and sundry others. It's plain to see that some pretty basic planks of our culture are faulty. But here's the question: how deep does the rot go? How far back must we re-trace our steps before we find a solid platform to stand on? That is, before we recover a sound basis for human existence?
I mean, we must have had it at some point, no? Evolution is the great arbiter of who's doing a thing that works here, and we humans have thrived. The earliest hominids lived about 7 million years ago. Homo sapiens sapiens has been around for 200,000. In that time, we've risen entirely above the food chain, spread to inhabit every continent, and developed consciousness. It's only a couple hundred years that we've been doing the specific things that lead toward extinction: industrial-scale destruction of the earth's resources and of one another.
So how far back do we retrace our steps until we find the last point at which we know we were headed in the right direction? And even before that -- what would constitute the right direction? What exactly is it that we're doing wrong? Will everything be okay if we just stop using oil? Do we blame 'science,' or 'progress?' Capitalism? Were the Renaissance masters the problem? The Greeks? Agriculture? The Bible?
What I'm suggesting is this: we don't know how to live on earth anymore. We need to retrace our steps a little to figure out what we were doing when we first diverged from a sane and sustainable path. But in order to have a hope at that, we'll need to figure out how we might even recognize that point when we see it. We are going to need to remember what it feels like, what it felt like, to feel at home here.
If you want to find out how a car works, you can crack open the hood of the car. If you want to find out if there's water pollution, you take a look in the water. If we want to find out how we're supposed to live -- how living on this planet can work -- I reckon we ought to inquire into how life works. (I don't mean into how we're living. I mean into where life is working.)
So let's do that.
I've stumbled across three ways I like. I'll be spending some years of my life asking after them, and then using this space to cross-reference, wrestle and play with them, and weave them slowly into a single strand. Who knows what we might find? There may not be much time left. Might as well give it a try. Come explore with me:
- There is a broad system for living that has been functioning exquisitely for millions of years. So maybe we can learn something from watching how it works. That system is called Nature. We've probably got to figure out how to become a harmonious part of that system again, instead of trying to control it or avoid it, which seems not to be working. The study of how Nature functions as a biological system is called ecology. I'm often going to relate ecology to something that may seem of a different universe, but which I think is fundamentally the same: economy. How are they the same? They share the prefix eco-, from the Greek word for home. Ecology is the study of home, and economy is the management of that home. Translation: an economy is the way we make a home for ourselves in the environment. Like any home, it can enhance its surroundings, or kind of disregard them. I want to know how we go about the former. So -- ecology/economy -- let's do some of that.
- There is an exciting new-ish field of study seeking to discover what works and what doesn't work in human society. Its theory is that big social successes and failures show up in our bodies, as health and disease. If you look at large groups of people, and across long stretches of time, you can gather some pretty good evidence to hold up against our cultural ego-concepts of how we think we're supposed to live. Or our admitted total lack of understanding. This study of what works and doesn't work in human society is called eco-social epidemiology. Or, more simply, radical public health. It can be mashed up nicely with the old practice of anthropology, of inquiring into what works for others and how others work. For those of us living as settlers in North America (Turtle Island), that might begin as simply as sitting ourselves down and listening to the people who were here first. So let's do that too.
- There is an age-old method of looking inside our own bodies in order to learn what does and doesn't work for us. That method is called medicine. Lately, our medicine has become inflected with the same kind of will-to-mastery that characterizes our broader relationship with Nature. It's enabled us to make some tremendous technological gains. But in the process, we have jettisoned an age-old mystical-medical way of listening to what is wrong and looking inward. We have space-age machines that help us to see, but we have forgotten, each of us, how to be seers. These two ways are not mutually exclusive. Each of them can offer us something useful. But it's time we learn how to sit them down in a room together, so they can start talking. It is the same body, after all, that they are studying. This third method of inquiry -- the recovery of an ancient way of inward-looking -- is holistic medicine. I'll refer sometimes to concepts of medical holism in general; increasingly, my specifics will emerge from the two branches of it that I'm studying in depth: Ayurveda and Western herbalism.
These three systems of inquiry -- ecology, eco-social epidemiology, and holistic medicine -- one at the level of the planet as a single system, one at the level of human culture, one at the level of the individual body -- we'll layer them atop each other to form a single lens, as we ask questions about how to live on earth. How to live with each other, here on earth. How to return to the place in the forest where we last knew where we were going. How to bring along with us all the magical things we've learned. How to chart a new path forward in allegiance with, and not trying to dominate, this earth we are composed of. We're not going to Mars. That's ridiculous.
We are from here. Written deep into our ancient bodies is the knowledge we need to live well here. And somewhere inside, we all know what home feels like. Holistic medicine sparks an inward journey to recall and regain that feeling. Eco-social epidemiology guides a cultural journey to re-create daily living systems that enlarge and inspire it. Ecology invites us to renew our sense of home in the living world, and then calls up an economic journey to re-synchronize the ways we sustain ourselves with the ways the living world sustains us always.
Each of these is possible. Each is exhilarating. And each, at whatever level we can muster, is probably necessary. Because as we face our impending collective crises, as much as a journey forward, we will walk a journey home.