How to Hear a Whippoorwill: Mankind’s natural future as an Adaptive Extremophile

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Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest [creative] beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if [one succeeds] in loving the distance between them which makes it possible to see the other whole against the sky. — Rainer Maria Rilke [adapted for Humans and Nature]

I would really like my grandchildren to hear a whippoorwill. Unfortunately they will have to spend at least a month of nights at our homestead on the Shebeshekong River because I myself have only heard that vesper call three or four times in the last two years. And I’m pretty sure it was the same lovelorn bird. Are the birds and wildlife in general keeping a low profile lately? Well, maybe you haven’t noticed this, especially if your memory doesn’t go back as far as mine. Back then (he said as the children rolled their eyes), the whippoorwill outside my bedroom window would startle me awake in the night! (They’re really not all that musical when they call from twenty feet away.) And the frogs and the birds in springtime! Why, their cacophony was loud enough you couldn’t hear your thoughts settle down at the end of the day! But now… well, now I can only hope that their raucous seasonal greeting isn’t coming to the end of its own glorious time under the sun. For my memories alone won’t sustain the grandchildren.

But of course, the reason my grandchildren can’t stay with us long enough to hear a whippoorwill in the first place is they’re all growing up in the city, and this means they are going to find many, many, other things to sustain them. We are a resilient species after all — I guess that’s what forgetfulness is for. So what is there to sustain a grandfather’s hope — or even to justify it? Well, let’s look at what kind of hope environmentalist thinkers have offered up over the years. It won’t take long, because when I attended the environmental studies program at the University of Waterloo back in the early seventies the thinking then was not much different than it is now. For one thing, the program was not at all what I expected as a new arrival from the edge of Ontario’s wilderness. In my innocence, I expected to learn about Man’s relationship to Nature as a direct extension of my own formative immersive experience. I expected we’d be focussing on the ways wolf songs, mosquito swarms, and whippoorwills are orchestrated into the harmony of Natural habitat! Instead, it was all about how Nature can be “managed” to suit the needs of Man. And what my fellow students had to offer were desperate schemes to educate the human race to its dependency on Nature, and to its stewardship responsibilities; or, failing this, reasons to be terminally disappointment in the human race. The whole approach was an inexplicable disappointment to me. So with no money, and a visceral aversion to borrowing it, what could I do but deploy my rock’n’roll band exit strategy? After all this was the back-to-the-land drop-out seventies. I kept up my studies of course, on my own time, and by correspondence, and I settled into a full-time-student’s free-range style of thinking that ripened slowly, very slowly, into a Grandfather’s Hope. Oh you needn’t be concerned, I haven’t wasted my precious time on this Earth just dreaming — I’ve been a successful designer and builder of human habitations for over forty years now. Life has been good to me.

So here’s my design for living in harmony with Nature: with our constantly morphing external instruments, let’s play countermelodies to those gene-regulated rhythms that aren’t quick enough to adapt themselves to us. And for god’s sake let’s not waste any more time expecting the majority of our fellow humans, who now live in cities, to become avid conservationists converted by Love of Nature — yes we need their money, and their political will, but they’re happy where they are; they don’t hear the whippoorwills and this means their motivation to at least do no harm must come from a place that also affirms their chosen lifestyle. Also, let’s not exhaust our nervous energy trying to scare each other into agreeing that we Need Nature, that we’ll all die if we cut down the last tree. It might be true of course, but I might also point out that self-preservation did not deter the first Easter Islanders in that regard, and as it turned out, their descendants prospered anyway — at least until Europeans came and showed them what they were missing. Until then they were happily roasting their introduced chickens and rats, and eating produce from rock gardens cleverly designed to protect vegetables from the environmental stresses of a treeless island. So who are we to insist we know the future of such a resourceful species? Instead, let’s celebrate what we naturally are: we are un-Naturally resourceful!

Now wait a minute; don’t dismiss me just yet for being a starry-eyed technophile. For I did spend several early years as a logger, and this has taught me firsthand what a typically employed “wilderness man” looks like from a forest’s point of view. Moreover, my experience as a registered designer and hands-on builder has given me a detailed appreciation of just how un-Natural human nature can be. In fact it was after many years of wresting with my conscience that I began to think it was extraordinarily short-sighted of me to accept the prevailing paradigm that humanity’s ordinary disconnect from Nature short-sightedness is the central problem for conservation; rather, accepting our un-Naturalness is perhaps the necessary first step in dealing with “the problem”. Let me explain. Despite what many justly-concerned environmentalists might suppose, a science-based admission of our special status does not imply an unleashing of the natural destructiveness of an “alien species”, because the idea that we’re not a species at all in the ecological meaning is actually the easiest scenario to believe if you live in the city. Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s simple: the best way to unleash the destructive greed of an absentee landlord is to reinforce his self-deceiving notion that he’s a landlord in the first place — so maybe we’ve got this “stewardship” thing all wrong?

This is where the science of evolutionary ecology has more to offer than the popular school of thought we know as “environmentalism”: in unsentimental scientific terms, the bodies of organisms (whether animals, plants, or fungi) are regulated by natural selection to perform for their short contingent lifetimes in such a way as to support a stable, multi-leveled, and maximally diverse ecology. What this ultimately means is that when human beings accessorize our bodies with technology we necessarily defeat Nature’s co-evolving genetic regulation. And, what’s more, we can’t even use our advanced brains to re-enter the system and “take our share”! To understand sharing in Nature, let’s just consider the wolf: here is an apex predator who eats hundreds of critters during his lifetime and, seemingly, gives nothing back but a little bit of buzzard food. But in fact what Natural regulation really depends on is the trick that every one of those critters, like the wolf himself, is engaged in an interactive life and death ballet that optimizes ecosystem diversity and stability. We can never do this. Everything about us exempts us from this response-ability. We take the fittest stag, not the unfit (How do you even measure “fitness” anyway except in terms of a forest’s own evolving rules of inter-action?); we grow crops that suit us, but in the long run they can’t survive on their own (Evolution needs a very long run.); and, increasingly, in our interactions with wild Nature our personal survival is not at stake. We are un-Natural, and we turn evolving ecosystems into “productive” (i.e. less diverse) farm-systems. The sooner we accept this state of affairs the sooner it will become unfashionable to justify our “harvesting” of Natural systems with the argument that we “belong” there.

So how does this scenario actually motivate a largely urban human population to save wilderness? For this you’ll have to bear with me a little longer, while we go even deeper into what might appear to be, at first glance, “bad news”. Jennifer Jacquet has written a provocative article entitled “Human Error – Survival guilt in the Anthropocene” (Apr. 21, 2016, in which she proposes: “Survivor guilt may also exist at a species level. That humans have helped bring on other species’ end times is not an easy feeling to deal with.” Indeed the term “survival guilt” (which normally refers to a debilitating condition felt by holocaust survivors, but ultimately suggests we humans are governed by what psychiatrist Arnold Modell describes as “an unconscious bookkeeping system” that haunts our mental lives even when we are associated only indirectly with past genocides, war-crimes, slavery, and white privilege) implies an even stronger sense of culpability when the damage is still ongoing. And it’s stronger yet when our daily consumer habits directly contribute! Now this might at least interest city folk. Even if “species survival guilt” operates at a subliminal level (I personally think it does), and especially if we’re not convinced the “One with Nature” paradigm can save us, wouldn’t it be palliative to hear it’s not our fault? “The destruction was unavoidable because it’s in our nature.” This is the Big Worry isn’t it: acceptance of humanity’s intrinsic destructiveness is the very worst case scenario, leading to a fatalism that must do harm on more levels than we even want to think about!

The Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, also wrote some pretty provocative stuff. In her book, The Places that Scare You (Shambhala Publications 2001), she shows us the magic in facing our fears, and I wonder if this is just where we need to go at this point in the save-the-whippoorwills-conversation. Maybe this fear of our intrinsic destructiveness is trying to tell us something? The Buddhist teachers are also very clear about where fear comes from: from wanting stuff, from not wanting to lose what we have, from wanting it to be easy. For a hundred thousand years our species has depended on “natural resources” that were evolved to efficiently serve Nature’s flourishing. Of course it hasn’t always been easy for us, but it has got easier, and steadily easier, and the flourishing has suffered in consequence. In fact, if we weren’t so fearful about the consequences of distributing these resources fairly among ourselves (we’re not all coherently, or even constructively, motivated) we’d now have it easier than any other species that ever existed. That’s so un-Natural that the flourishing is long forgotten! Right now we can live anywhere we want on this planet (I’ll let others develop the “Mankind in Space” theme.); we’re like those extremophile organisms that can live in super-heated deep oceanic black smoker vents, or under polar ice caps. So maybe now we can afford to give Nature back some of the more productive parts of the planet that she needs, and that we really don’t need any longer. Having a common understanding might even motivate us to share with each other, for here’s the real advantage of facing an existential fear: nothing motivates us more than knowing who we are.

I’d hate to get this wrong, because Hitler and Stalin promoted visions of the future too — warped visions, but oh how they motivated! Unlike these perverse ideologies however, I think we can safely say there is some pretty firm and dispassionate evo-ecological science in our favour here, so maybe this “extremophile choice” human future, will catch on. (There’s another side to this whole argument that I won’t get into here. In the book, Darwin Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice, I argue that Nature is a sovereign “intelligence”, and this gives added weight to the “species survival guilt” scenario and to the need for respecting Nature, as both Friend and Teacher, rather than just managing ‘it’.) I won’t pretend we don’t have a lot of work to do, but fortunately it’s the kind of work we’re good at. Despite our sentimental notions of a harmonious human past in tribal villages, we’ve never really been good at interacting with Nature as a contributing player, like the wolf, or even the beaver. The diversity of the New World began to decline as soon as humans arrived, and we’ve only recently begun to understand how the continents that humans evolved on also suffered from our presence — in the formative millennia, even long before the naturally fading memories of species sapiens were incompletely recorded on the walls of caves. But we are good, and we’re getting better, at harvesting energy directly from the sun, wind, and waves (and yes, responsible nuclear fission); we’re good at building cities in deserts, carving them into Earth’s bare bones, and even transplanting them underground; and we’re good at growing food in farmed, climate-controlled spaces almost anywhere we can assemble metal, glass, concrete, and materials yet to be imagined. We’ve moved half of the human population from the country to the city in only a few hundred years, and we’ll keep on moving, because it’s in our nature. But let’s just be a little quicker about disentangling our habitats from Nature’s OK? As if we’re making the easiest choice of all; as if we’re just coming home where we’ve always belonged, and we’re leaving Nature to flourish where Nature belongs.

This can still be a wonderful living side by side. I would really like my grandchildren to hear a whippoorwill.

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