The world according to an oak. (Photo credit: amada44)
Last entry on The Botany of Desire explored the social and natural histories of common everyday plants, revealing how they have shaped our values even as we altered them for our own purposes. It serves as a reminder that our connection with the non-human world is not a one-sided affair; it is instead more akin to a partnership. Ignorance of this fact is a chief cause of ecological degradation and existential distress. As we wall ourselves off from the rest of the living world, we become detached from the consequences of our actions have on the surrounding community.
To see the world from a non-human perspective helps us reconnect with the world: It can generate awareness and appreciation for other life. It can also cultivate empathy and facilitate big picture thinking. But we as humans are prisoners of our own bodies and experiences. Barring becoming accomplished nature-whisperers, communication and communion with other life forms is difficult, if not impossible. How then can we cross over to view the world from the other side?
One way is through stories, with the use of myth, lore, fiction. I particularly enjoy speculative fiction, which as a genre can stretch minds and tone imaginations. One bizarre and delightful tale titled Direction of the Road comes to mind; it is a short story recently republished in the two-volume collection titled The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin.
The Botany of Desire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
pring is in full bloom in my corner of the world; it is impossible not to notice the explosion of plant life all around. In the city, pink blossoms burst forth from ornamental cherries, enjoying brief moments of glory before cascading down as a silent snow of soft petals. In the suburbs, neighbourhood lawns and gardens are enlivened by vivid hues of yellows and violets from blooming daffodils and tulips. On nearby trails, star-shaped flowers from salmonberry bushes dot the flush of new growth, fuchsia markers intended to attract the eyes of hungry pollinators. In my small container garden, dainty green tendrils of scallions and sweet peas reach ever upwards, while planted pieces of potatoes seem content for the moment to slumber in the dark black soil.
Perhaps it is this invigoration of growth that compelled me to reread Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire. Pollan’s work has played a significant role in my personal perceptions of the connections between nature and culture. Although he does on occasion go overboard with his metaphors, he has an uncanny gift for transforming mundane observations into intriguing insights that are grounded in science, history, folk-lore, and philosophy. His knack for storytelling has pushed me, on more than one occasion, to make unforeseen connections and to come away from his works to view the world a little differently.
One of his earlier bonafide successes, Botany explores the relationship between humans and the natural world from a unique angle: It asks the reader to consider the world from the plant’s point of view. Through the exploration of a common fruit, flower, drug plant, and staple food, Botany stitches seemingly disparate ideas from social and natural history into absorbing tales about humanity’s eternal dance with the natural world.
Lao Tzu and Kong Fuzi. (Photo credit: steambadger)
In response to the predicament of his times, Lao Tzu ruminated on the essence of human nature and asked: What can be done to stop the injustice, violence, and greed that inevitably corrupts the core of civilization? According to Welch, the old sage came to the conclusion that a radical operation must be performed on human nature before these systemic issues could be resolved:
First he cuts out desire for superfluous material goods (they only keep their owner awake at night), then desire for praise and fear of blame (both drive men mad), then desire for power (the only successful ruler is one who suffers as his kingdom suffers). But this is not enough. Morality is frequently used to justify violence. Morality must go. Violence frequently starts with a fixed difference of opinion. Fixed opinion must go. But without desire, morality, and opinion, what is left for a man to occupy his time? The best things of all: physical enjoyment and cultivation of the inner life. Once a man knows these, success in competition will seem a poor reward for living. Thus Lao Tzu completes his negative operation on human nature – though not wholly negative, since he has implanted a new motivation to replace the old. (p. 169)
To eschew materialism, judgment, and conventional notions of power are sentiments commonly expressed these days. But to reject morality and fixed opinion seems completely counterintuitive to Western thought. We are all very accustomed to negotiating life by knowing what is right and wrong; we crave certainty and admire those who act with conviction. How can these elements be undesirable? Lao Tzu points out that our world is one filled with conflicts initiated by people who believed in the righteousness of their cause and the certainty of their views. In a wonderful TED talk, “Wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz explains how our over-attachment to rightness can lead us to see others who do not share our views as ignorant, stupid, and even evil, thus causing terrible misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts:
Like Schulz, Welch’s sage asks us to thinking differently, opting instead to respect the autonomy of individual realities (as long as they do not impinge with the creation of our own), reject the lure of certainty, and embrace the unpredictability and mystery that is life. This line of thinking is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible to accept; Welch himself believes few of us are capable of living the way Lao Tzu espouses. But he also explains that living with this mindset offers two distinct advantages to society.
Relating back to the notion of winning at all cost in last week’s post, I thought of an essay I submitted to a contest a year or so ago. Titled Playing to Tie: Adopting a Sustainable Mindset, the piece was shortlisted by the Web of Life Foundation, an organization focused bringing fresh thinking and new perspectives to socio-environmental issues. It has subsequently been published as part of an essay collection titled An Orange County Almanac and other essays.
We are our own harshest critic. I read the piece now and wonder why it was ever selected. I see it as overly long and disjointed, suffering from my strange phase of rampant semicolonization. Rereading it evokes a strong urge to cleave it apart for major editing and revision. Yet, there are bits and pieces that I am still proud of, and I would like to share the ideas in several of the passages:
If you follow Ekostories on a regular basis, you would know that one of my chief influences is author Ursula K. Le Guin. It was through her work that I first became intrigued by Taoism as a philosophy. Growing up in Hong Kong, my first encounters with Daoism came from ancient tales of whiskery old hermits who sought immortality and strangely robed priests who conducted rituals for the dead. In my adult life, I see bits and pieces of it incorporated haphazardly in the New Age movement. Neither experience was grounded in any context, and as such were bereft of personal meaning and value. For me, Taoism existed as a series of bizarre and disconnected ideas, frequently esoteric and utterly incomprehensible.
Le Guin’s stories changed that. A lifelong student of the Tao Te Ching, she wove its ideas into her writing in a way that made the philosophy tangible, relevant, and meaningful. Her own interpretation of the ancient text is by no means the most accurate, complete, or definitive, but what it lacks in faithfulness it makes up for in clarity, beauty, and accessibility. Within its pages I saw the power, humour, and absurdity of its mysterious author(s), and I began to understand why the thin tome has intrigued people for more than two thousand years.
Intrigued to learn more about the cultural context of Taoism, I took Le Guin’s advice and checked out Holmes Welch’s Taoism: The Parting of The Way, as she described it as the “best, soundest, clearest introduction and guide to the discipline.” What I discovered was not merely a historical and conceptual exploration of the esoteric discipline, but also a deep examination of human nature. Far from being a simple intellectual exercise, Welch’s intriguing application of Taoist philosophy to contemporary society provides some radical and unsettling insights.
Click to watch Overview.
Released on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17′s iconic Blue Marble photograph, Overview is a short film that examines the peculiar cognitive shift experienced by many who have been to space. The 15-minute piece draws upon insights from astronauts, philosophers, and authors to explore how perspective can drastically change the way people think about their relationship with the world. Tightly paced and expertly scored by the Human Suits, I found Overview to be an accessible and thought-provoking documentary that conveys the necessity of considering the big picture if we are to forge a sustainable future.