Stickied in belated honour of Steinbeck’s birthday, born February 27, 1902.
What was the story that began this journey? That question has been on my mind since I reflected back on the past year of Ekostories. What tale triggered this exploration of nature, culture, and self? After some thought, one story came to the forefront, a surprise contender. It is a work that straddles the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. It is a story that melds science with literature, philosophy with social commentary, art with ethics and adventure. It is John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
That’s not entirely true. While the cover bears the name of the author of Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, The Log from the Sea of Cortez was a collaboration between the Nobel prize-winning novelist and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The book chronicles the two friends’ six-week, four thousand mile marine specimen collecting expedition in the Gulf of California, detailing the adventures, discoveries, and camaraderie as they travel from site to site, passing towns, reefs, isles, and sea.
Like the voyage itself, the travelogue allows time and space for observation and thought, linking real experiences to meditations on humanity’s place in the world and universe. For me, the book’s ability to spark curiosity and expand horizons makes it a natural history classic, and the perfect tale to kick off a new year of Ekostories.
As an aspiring essayist, it shames me to admit that I have only recently become familiar with the narrative and critical essays of George Orwell. While I have read his manifesto on clear writing, Politics and the English Language, I remained ignorant on the bulk of his work until a chance meeting with a shelf in a very comfortable section of the library.
It was a joy to discover for the first time, Orwell’s quietly devastating account of time spent at a London workhouse in The Spike, his reflections on the ugly facets of colonialism in Shooting an Elephant, and his comment on the futility of vengeance, distilled into one waxy yellow face, in Revenge is Sour. Whatever the subject matter, Orwell had a knack for getting to its root with a concrete metaphor or an unforgettable statement. As an essayist, there is no greater skill than to be able to convey exactly what one intends, vividly and without doubt. For this is the writer’s truth, and Orwell spoke it as well as anyone.
Nature appreciation was not something I associated with Orwell, yet the more of his essays I read, the more I got the sense that the man, especially in his later years, harboured a profound fondness for not only his fellow men, but for other living things. In Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, he managed to weave urban wildlife, politics, and personal post-war reflections together so seamlessly that I felt compelled to explore it as an Ekostory. The following entry looks not only at the ideas contained within the short piece, but also the skill in its construction. The entire essay, about 1,600 words in length, can be read HERE.
The Botany of Desire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Spring 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.
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.
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.
Several years ago, I spent a month volunteering at Koke’e State Park on Kauai, Hawaii. I was there to enlist in the “war against invasives”, learning to identify and remove plants that threatening to overtake Garden Isle’s native ecosystems. Armed with a machete, a foldup saw, and two squirt bottles of herbicide, a group of us proceeded to take out the primary offenders – fields of kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum), groves of strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum), and towering Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi).
The work itself was satisfying, but in the back of my mind there grew a sad realization that our collectives efforts made little difference in the big picture. Vast areas were already covered with dense stands of invasives and were beyond salvaging. We worked triage, investing our energies on areas where gingers and guavas had not yet gained a significant foothold. But I was forced to accept that the ohia lehua and koa dominated forests we worked so hard to protect will eventually be relegated to existence in small and intensely managed patches. The rest of the landscape would be home to very different ecosystems, dominated by a different assemblage of species.
As I learned more about the native plants I was attempting to save, I also began to realize that many were brought over during the Polynesian colonization. This realization led me to think more deeply about ideas of invasive species, pristine ecosystems, and even the essence of nature itself. Are these naturalized species more natural than current invasive species that were spread by hurricanes? Are some complex ecosystems worth more than others? How do we decide which species and lifeforms are good or bad? On what basis does one use to assess what to save and what to kill?
These questions were in my mind when I came across a book that explored these issues. In Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, environmental journalist Emma Marris asks the reader to think deeper on the ideas we have of nature and the cultural perceptions we have towards human-influenced lifeforms and ecosystems.