I’ve photographed Sickle Brook twice before, once in November 2007 (especially the place where it flows past a tow truck lot), which you can see at this link, and before that on Sept. 7, 2007. On this particular day I followed Mill Brook up to the Arlington Reservoir and photographed the marsh (the culmination of Sickle Brook) that lies between the dam of the Res and the parking lot of Drake Village, an elderly housing complex run by the town of Arlington.
Two days ago I happened to go on a picnic at the Res with Vaughn and her mother. On the way to what seems to be the sole picnic table (luckily unoccupied), we passed that same marsh and of course I had to photograph it again.
This is last September:
and this is now, July:
There was a definite but subtle difference — perhaps the difference between the height of summer and summer’s end, or a difference in rainfall between this year and last. Or a difference without a localizable cause, other than the fact that organic processes never hold still.
So far as I know, no human being is shaping this space. A family of ducks were there when we first walked by, presumably to eat the vegetation. The aesthetic decisions, if that’s what we want to call them, are being made by the ecosystem itself. The autonomy of nature is going on in the gap between the dam of the Res (a uniform slope of same-sized rocks) and the parking lot of Drake Village. I know I’ve said this before, but nearly all we have to do is supply the gap and then more or less leave it alone. Then beauty sometimes results, and the argument of these posts, collectively, seems to be that if you look for it, it will be there.
We are still what evolution has made us, inseparably intertwined with the natural systems of the planet. We can’t float free from them, at least not yet, and my guess is we are not anywhere near as close to casting off our moorings as some people apparently wish. The beauty, the feeling of attraction, that we experience in autonomous natural spaces is a sign that we as creatures remain embedded in this environment. Aliveness surrounds us whether we pay attention to it or not, whether or not we know that we’re part of it.
I believe that in our relationship with nature, which is clearly at a turning point, we are not being asked to choose between mastery and servitude (as if we must be either the environment’s savior, destroyer, or victim). Rather we are being asked to choose between equality and a failed relationship. The possibility of equality between us and the world around us already exists, is present, is not a hypothesis but something we can see happening here and there, close to home, perhaps inadvertently. We don’t have a monopoly on aliveness, and neither does the natural world. Neither of us is more special, more genuine, or for that matter more intelligent than the other.
If we now turn to notice the places where this equality is quietly visible, and keep our attention there for a while when we do notice, then it is my belief we will start to realize that we’re part of a self-organizing system, and that sometimes we have to let the system organize us. For sure, we can have major effects on the ecosystem as a whole, sometimes more major than we would like. Some believe this means it’s our job to engineer the entire planet; I think trying to do that would be a terrible mistake. We don’t know enough, and we would be gambling with our own life support. I’m not suggesting we should abdicate responsibility; we should, definitely, make every effort to stop doing things that cause harm to the environment. What I’m saying is that our knowledge of what not to do comes with far greater certainty than our knowledge of what to do. We now know from experience the effects of asbestos or Agent Orange, and that knowledge is sufficient to create a consensus that these substances must not be used in the ways they once were. It’s an entirely different thing to consider spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to increase the earth’s reflectivity and thus cool the planet. This idea has been suggested by a respected climate scientist, Paul Crutzen (Nobel Prize in chemistry, 1995), but that does not mean anyone can predict all of its consequences.
We’ve gotten this far in industrial civilization through hyper-confidence in our own knowledge, and I strongly suspect that we were able to think we had everything figured out because we had not yet run up against the finite nature of this world. Our interventions “worked” the way we imagined they did, in part because there was always a place where we could throw things away. That meant that a great deal never had to be thought about; out of sight, out of mind. Now, increasingly, we realize there is no “away.” There were still resources we had not tried to exploit, and no doubt there still are, but to circle back to the starting point of all this, the amount of water on planet Earth is finite and unchanging. We cannot make more H2O, and that is becoming one of several limiting factors. As is the realization that exploiting resources is not always an unambiguous good.
Our massive confidence in our explanations has rested for a long time on the fact that we weren’t aware of half of the repercussions of our actions. It’s important to remember that perhaps we still are not. We don’t know how much we don’t know, but we don’t like to admit that. We tend to think that our understanding of the natural world has reached completion, and all that remains is to work out the applications of our insights. The trouble is, we thought that in 1908 and 1808 as well. Looking back, that seems laughable, but how different are we today? Did the past century suddenly make it really true that we have godlike knowledge?
My view, in short, is that we’re not alone here. We’re not transcendent beings who operate in a way that puts us beyond category on this earth. We have astounding abilities, but they tend to blind us to the equally astounding abilities of the world around us. Sometimes we act as though we believe that evolution in and along with this environment gave rise to us only to then eject us from our context. As though we believe that we are the end of earth’s history. That nature completed its task by creating us, and it should now gracefully retire. But no. Assuming we survive as a species, I think we are going to do so in a relation of equality, dialogue and collaboration with the natural world and all its complex agency, which is no less than our own. The question is not whether this relationship will eventually happen, but how we will get there, and whether we will have to get there the hardest way.