Crossposted from my Neuron Culture blog at Wired.
To start the new year, Andy Revkin, over at Dot Earth at the New York Times, wondered what traits we humans might be able to develop so that we “fall forward rather than down” as we try to deal with resource limits:
The things we don’t know are easily as important as those we do. In such an environment, what qualities can help individuals and communities avoid big missteps? I’d start with literacy, connectedness, empathy, engagement, enterprise and anthropophilia. The result would be an improved ability to both bend (resilience) and stretch (ingenuity). What’s on your list of helpful traits in a turbulent and incredibly promising era?
This brought to mind a passage that I read 23 years ago in Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams; I’m shocked to realize I read it that long ago, and that this luminous, lasting book is 25 years old. It has been on my short shelf of favorites and re-reads ever since. Lopez spent 8 years working on it and produced a deeply researched and considered meditation on humanity’s place on the globe. I read much of it in the Wind Rivers — carried that fat book 70 miles in a pack for 10 days, 2.25 pounds of the 50 I carried, so that I could devour it amid the peaks. Many passages stick with me yet, starting with the epigraph:
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it. — N. Scott Momaday
Lopez does just that. The book is stuffed with history; finely observed scenes and experiences; stories drawn from his own ventures, ventures related over campfires or meals in tents or on shipdecks; ventures read; and, in the first half, wonderful deep life-history studies of artic wildlife — musk ox, narwhal, polar bear. (An Inuit man asked by Knud Rasmussen to define happiness: “To come across fresh bear tracks and be ahead of all the other sledges.”) The chapter on migration is one of the loveliest studies of animal life I’ve ever read. His description of snow geese, observed here at Tule Lake in California, where a quarter million gather during the fall migration:
When they are feeding in the grain fields around Tule Lake, the geese come and go in flocks of five or ten thousand. Sometimes there are forty or fifty thousand in the air at once. They rise from the fields like smoke in great, swirling currents, rising higher and spreading wider in the sky than one’s field of vision can encompass. One fluid, recurved sweep of ten thousand of them passes through the spaces within another, counterflying flock; while beyond them lattice after lattice passes, like sliding Japanese walls, until in the whole sky you lose you depth of field and feel as though you are looking up fro the floor of the ocean through shoals of fish.
Those sliding Japanese walls have been in my head for 23 years. It was soon after reading Dreams that I first started digging around in scientific journals in libraries. Close in its wake I spent three years giving myself up to the particular landscape in which I still live, that of The Northern Forest
The passage that Revkin’s post reminded me of appears earlier in Arctic Dreams than I remembered, on page 38 and 39. Wandering the forbidding, difficult tundra, Lopez has been pondering the collared lemming, which “became prominent in my mind as a creature representative of winter endurance and resiliiency.”He sees in the lemming a keen desire to live. This gets him wondering how such a desire mixes with one’s other traits to create success or failure in a place of sharp limits — which brings him finally to Revkin’s question.
What traits, Lopez asks himself, do humans need to add to their current suite in order to adjust to the limits we now press against? What traits do we need to offset our cognitive, social, and technological capacity to gobble resources so rapidly? Our technology seems to exempt us from certain ecological limits (clothes for cold, to take a simple case). What might we develop in order to offset the resulting consumption? We have developed certain kinds of wisdom, but none strong enough to curb our desires.
Walking across the tundra, meeting the stare of a lemming, or coming on the tracks of a wolverine, it would be the frailty of our wisdom that would confound me. The pattern of our exploitation of the Arctic, our increasing utilization of its natural resources, our very desire to ‘put it to use,” is clear. What is it that is missing, or tentative, in us, I would wonder, to make me so uncomfortable walking out here in a region of chirping birds, distant caribou, and redoubtable lemmings? It is restraint.
Because mankind can circumvent evolutionary law, it is incumbent upon him, say evolutionary biologists, to develop another law if he wishes to survive, to not outstrip his food base. He must learn restraint. He must derive some other, wiser way of behaving toward the land. He must be more attentive to the biological imperatives of the system of sun-driven protoplasm upon which he, too, is still dependent. Not because he must, because he lacks inventiveness, but because herein is the accomplishment of the wisdom that for centuries he as aspired to. Having taken on his own destiny, he must now think with critical intelligence about what to defer.
That I first read this 25 years saddens me in two ways. One is the raw passage of time: How did so many years go by? The other: We don’t seem to have developed much restraint.
Image: Detail of Arctic Dreams 1986 hardback edition jacket; painting by Kinuko Y. Craft