Thursday, August 1, 2019

On Change

I find it disconcerting that what we see depends so much on how we are looking--with what mindset, what focus, in what direction.  Even physics has enshrined this truth in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which asserts that "the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known."  Or if you can calculate the momentum, you lose track of the speed.  (And this, of course, gives me a chance to tell my favourite Heisenberg joke.  The story goes like this:  he was screaming down the L.A. expressway in his little red sports car at a terrifying speed when the police pulled him over.  The officer asked "Do you know how fast you were going?"  Heisenberg answered "No.  But I know exactly where I am.") 

I've seen this fact about our attention in my awareness of the light this summer.  Approaching the summer solstice, I pay various kinds of attention to the light.  Mostly I'm chuckling over the minutes of daylight my weather ap tells me we are gaining over the next week.  Or my head is in the soil:  I'm planting my vegetable garden or putting in new perennials where the last two brutal winters have killed their ancestors off.  I'm smelling fragrant compost and studying the crystalline near-transparency of my old roses.  I'm watching for rain or for the seeds in my garden to begin to unfurl, to figure out which is up, and to stretch into the light.

As we move past the solstice, I've been noticing something entirely different:  how the light arrives in my back yard in a different place every week or so, giving me the shadows of branches dancing against my fence one week, sending late-afternoon light into my east-facing kitchen by way of a reflection in my neighbour's windows the next week.  I know I should be watching this process with foreboding:  each change in the light brings us closer to the shorter days of the year.  But while I know this intellectually, the only thing I can feel is wonder:  that the days are sending me these little surprises and little mysteries.  Last night I was out just before dusk, and the apricot light was changed both by the setting sun and by the way the breeze moved the many trees that line the west side of my yard.  It was breath-taking, and in an odd way time-stopping:  I couldn't help pausing in my reading Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows to simply watch the light and the trees.

Often, I don't feel so sanguine about change.  I feel immense foreboding about how we have given over so much of our attention to our cell phones, so that we're ignoring the people we are talking to or the children holding our hands, or not noticing how glorious today's breeze is.  How, my inner eco-terrorist asks, are we going to do all the complicated things, make all the inconvenient sacrifices to save a planet we're not noticing?  And then beyond that, I think of everything Katherine Arbuthnott has taught me about our interdependence with nature--how it makes us kinder, physically and mentally healthier, smarter, less stressed out.  We need nature for our well-being. 

And then, of course, when the answer presents itself with a late afternoon traffic jam or the evening's news, I note the rise of impatient drivers or autocrats who flaunt their racism and their sexism.  In the rudeness and stupidity and stress that we see all around us in politics and grocery store lines, we can see already where this incipient unkind, physically and mentally unwell, stressed out culture is going. In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker argued persuasively that most nations have widened the umbrellas of rights and protections given to their citizens--to include women, people of all races, LGBTQ, the handicapped, for example.  Some places are considering whether nature has rights.  

But something about the world's most recent manifestation--is it the immense pressure of refugees, the loss of well-paying industrial jobs to AI, or our belief in our carefully-curated Facebook personas--has many of us shouting "Me!  Me!  Me!  I'm the king of the castle and you're outta here!"  I should point to Martha Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear, which I've written about elsewhere, for a more cogent, less impressionistic analysis of the current moment, urging you to read it along with Steven Pinker.

But let's go back to change, which is really the subject of my wonder and my anxiety here.  I've noticed that we seldom back-track on change, especially where there are sunk costs.  No one has said "Well, the internal combustion engine was a big mistake.  It's made us unhealthier and more isolated.  It's hard on the planet.  Let's backtrack."  I doubt many of us are going to give up our cellphones, though if you need to remember how to cope without them, you can ask me.   And while you are looking at your screen, remember occasionally to stop and take stock of the effect it's having on your life.  Remember that, for the most part, you only see what you're looking at, and this change has occurred with such seamless rapidity that it's invisible to many of us.

One of the antidotes to my anxiety about change is curiosity; another is magpie (or bower bird) reading--my habit of reading and collecting a lot of information trinkets to take them out of my pocket to study when I'm cutting vegetables for pasta primavera or weeding my garden. Much of my magpie reading makes clear how inventive people are--and indeed, much of that inventiveness has gone into making cell phones helpful.  I'm not a complete Luddite.  But consider this:  in England doctors are now making "social prescriptions" for their patients, many of which involve art.  The doctors send patients to their artists in residence, who know what is going on in the community.  If you are having trouble breathing or if you are isolated, the artist may recommend that you join a choir--and if you are nervous about going, the artist will go with you the first time.  Or you might be sent to an art gallery or to a painting class.  Creativity, like nature, is good for us, and the research is starting to show this clearly.

Here's another such story about ingenuity.  An engineer from India, Shubhendu Sharma, has started a business that helps communities grow forests--though if you want to do it yourself, he'll send you the instructions for free.  While he still worked for Toyota, he heard Akira Miyawaki speak at his plant before Miyawaki used his method to return part of the industrial site to forest.  Sharma decided one day to remove the grass from his 75-square metre back yard and put in 224 saplings of 19 different species, planting them thickly and spoiling them for their first three years by ensuring they had enough water.  He noticed the effects almost immediately:  birds and other creatures moved in, creating biodiversity.  Monsoon rains didn't flood his tract.  It was almost 5 degrees cooler under the trees than in the un-treed areas around his house.

Miyawaki, a Blue Planet award-winning botanist, studied phytosociology--the way plants interact with one another.  This area of study is growing and disseminating in books like Richard Powers's The Overstory, Richard M. Ketchum's The Secret Life of the Forest, and Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees.  We now know that forests are a kind of organism, not a collection of individuals, for example.  These books not only answer our curiosity about trees; they also implicitly (if not explicitly) address one of the greatest of our climate change challenges. Since 1990, the world has lost forested areas the size of two Texases, contributing about 17% of to our global carbon output.  When Miyawaki was first considering how to re-make the forests that had been lost, he visited Shinto sites to understand how their small forests managed to thrive, "showing how indigenous forest was layered together from four categories of native plantings: main tree species, sub-species, shrubs, and ground-covering herbs" (Lela Nargi, "The Miwaywaka Method:  a better way to build forests?  Found on J-Stor Daily). 

Using the strategy later followed by Sharma, Miyawaki created a system for recreating these "indigenous" forests that Sharma has turned into a grid for planting and advice on native plants.  What difference can these tiny forests make?  "Sharma is adamant that the impact of even very small forests on local communities is significant enough to matter. Research from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, which found increased fungi, bacteria, pollinators, and amphibians on two tiny planted forest sites in urban Zaanstad that were based on Sharma’s models" (Nargi) suggested these small forests had a significant impact.

A few days after reading Nargi's essay, I watched a documentary that was part of David Suzuki's "The Nature of Things" on fire.  The research is clear:  climate change is contributing to more forest fires which, as they burn, release an incredible amount of carbon into the atmosphere which in turn makes global warming worse.  Suzuki revealed that around the world researchers have turned their curiosity and ingenuity to learning how fires behave.  But I found the last segment of the documentary most interesting.  This explored how the ancient knowledge of Australian Aborigines is teaching us that a "mosaic" or patchwork" system small fires can lessen the occurrence of major fires like "the beast" around Fort McMurry. Fire made culture possible, Dean Yibarbuck knows; it is both helpful and symbolic; it must be treated with respect before it destroys his people's cultural heritage on nearby rock paintings.  And he has the ancestral knowledge to ensure the well-being of the forests.

Change and being deliberate about where you are looking.  What these examples share is the creation of positive change that involves looking backward, to ancient spiritual or cultural practices, in order to address modern challenges.  These examples also remind us that however benighted our leaders are, however wrongheaded some changes are, we can keep hope alive by looking elsewhere, most likely closer to home or on the ground, on the front lines of lived experience.  People are inventive:  don't forget that.    


  1. The changes I've witnessed and experienced in my lifetime (personal, technological, societal, etc.) have often staggered me, made me want to run off to live a Luddite's life isolated in the bush. In fact, I have lived much of my life physically off the beaten track. Sometimes I fear change and retreat from it. Other times change has been the only thing that has saved me. Ultimately I confess that change has enriched my life. Perhaps the trick is to embrace change only to the extent that it takes us back to a better time in our collective history - if that is even possible.

  2. I agree with so much of what you say, particularly about running into the bush to live the life of a Luddite. I do think, though, that there are positive changes. When I once complained about social media to my Canadian Literature class--most of whom were going to be teachers--they helped me see that "outsiders," like gay kids in small towns, found communities on social media that they couldn't find in their environment. And Steven Pinker is right about much of what he says about our progress on human rights--much as Trump is trying to back pedal. Ultimately, as I argue in my blog post, you are the one who reflects on the change in your life and says yes or no to it. All the best with your Luddite temptations!