Ecological Seeing: Walking in a Sacred Manner

By Charles Sullivan

May 13, 2008

“At some point in human history, man began taking things apart in an attempt to gain detailed scientific knowledge and understanding; however, in nature—anything apart from the organic whole is dead.”

Late this morning I heard two northern orioles singing along the edge of the back field where I live. The great-crested flycatcher flits amid the green canopy in search of insects and calls out from an unseen perch many feet above the ground. I did not see the bird but I know its call. The wood thrush and the scarlet tanager are singing in the forest, and the soil is cooled by shade for the first time this year. As a result, shade loving plants are in flower, and a host of associated events are set in motion. And so one season passes into another as the year continually unfurls, like the leaves of a young fern.

Carrying my camera and tripod, I made my way to the Cypripedium (Yellow Lady’s Slippers) growing along the stream. It would have been better to venture out earlier, when the light was more favorable. Now it is harsh, although largely filtered by the leaves. Nevertheless, I made 29 photographs; none of them particularly good. Perhaps tomorrow morning I can venture out earlier and take advantage of the light, if it is sunny. I keep lamenting that I should have left my writing sooner and ventured into the field. Good light waits for no man or woman. I should have learned that lesson by now; acted upon the knowledge I had.

A kind of Hippocratic Oath exists among nature photographers: First, do no harm. Although I try to be careful and respectful when making photographs, I am always uneasy about the impact of being on a hillside with my equipment, especially following wet weather. Making photographs of this kind, especially macro shots, causes soil movement and that can lead to erosion: setting an undesirable chain of events in motion. One must be very thoughtful and attentive to what one does in the field. If the act of preserving an image of a beautiful flower causes its demise, it is not worth doing.

One of the most attractive things about natural history and nature photography is not only having the privilege of photographing beautiful objects and landscapes, but it provides one the opportunity to be alone in sacred places with them. It allows one to feel connected with them, and a sense of belonging stems from that association. Not only are we one human family; we are one biological family sharing space and time with all beings. Some Indian tribes endemic to North America—Turtle Island—used to refer to this as walking in a sacred manner. That is what I try to do, but I am not always successful, despite the best of intentions.

Belonging to a family entails responsibility, just as belonging to a community involves accountability to it. Knowledge about interdependence and connectivity requires that one share that knowledge and act responsibly upon it. It would be considered irresponsible and immoral to exploit one’s own family for private gain. Everything that we do circles back to us, and that is what is understood by the phrase, “we reap as we sow”. That poorly paraphrased biblical gem is also an ecological truth: all things are connected and interdependent. What goes around comes around, without exception.

Everything we do reverberates through the entire system because it is closed and interconnected; it is a world of finite dimensions. Even the cosmos, vast and unfathomable as it is, is also finite—as far as anyone knows. Another way of phrasing it is cause and effect. Global warming and over population are examples of this phenomenon. All impacts are cumulative. While individual impacts may seem small and insignificant; combined, they are great and global. Thus, it needs to be understood that impact does not remain local. Everything moves through the ecological system. Local effects do not remain localized for long; they reverberate throughout the entire ecology, and with widespread consequences. That is why we must be thoughtful and ethical in all that we do.

All beings have impact, and thus all of them leave an ecological footprint. Some of those impacts are in harmony with the biosphere and thus are in accord with the organizing principles of life; whereas others are discordant. Harvesting nuts in a sustainable manner, leaving enough for other animals to use and for the reproduction of the species in perpetuity is an example of harmony; whereas clear cutting and mountain top removal are examples of excess and discord. Some actions compliment life; others diminish it.

Over consumption and waste and the endless economic expansion they cause are the governing principle of capitalism and over population; and, like it or not, they fundamentally conflict with the natural order of things. This ideology is counter to the organizing principle of life and it has the effect of diminishing biodiversity and the ecological processes upon which all life depends.

Capitalism and reductionism hold that every component of the biosphere are resources when, in fact, they are sources of life. At some point in human history, man began taking things apart in an attempt to gain detailed scientific knowledge and understanding; however, in nature—anything apart from the organic whole is dead. It is easily understood that if someone removes another’s heart from his or her chest cavity, that person will quickly die. The heart is a vital organ that pumps blood to every part of the body; it is a part of a connected whole. Sever that connection and the body collapses and death ensues.

Likewise, nature has no unimportant parts. The earth functions like a single living organism of world-size proportions. Everything under the sun exists for a purpose; every organism plays a vital role in the local, regional, and the global ecology. Remove or destroy a part and the whole suffers; one has diminished possibilities, foreclosed options, and subverted natural processes, with consequences to untold numbers of species, including Homo sapiens.

Western humans tend to give value to the parts of nature that can be economically exploited, and under values those that cannot. By continually teasing out the separate parts of nature and isolating them from the organic whole, we are undoing the very fabric of life: we are playing god. Thus, we are living in the midst of the sixth great extinction episode in the earth’s 4.5 billion year history, and we are the primary cause. Few Americans are aware of this fact. It does not behoove capitalism to advertise that it is killing the biosphere; it is not good for business. Who wants to be a cancer? And fools believe that business, rather than ecology, makes the world go round. After all, the highway signs leading into West Virginia, the state where I live, are followed by these revealing words: open for business. Whatever happened to wild and wonderful?

By now it should be apparent that it is foolish to think of the earth as a resource rather than the source. All things, including Homo sapiens, are connected by complex over-lapping food webs and natural processes; we are inextricably bound to them. Apart from the whole, they perish and reduce biodiversity; connected, they flourish and enhance it. There is sufficient overlap in these interconnected food webs that if a part of the web is severed or otherwise damaged; it continues to function reasonably well, although in a diminished capacity. If enough of these food webs are impaired, the consequences are dire and ecological collapse eventually follows.

Our entire reductionist culture is committed to taking things apart that can never be reassembled and brought back to life. Conservationist Aldo Leopold wisely observed: “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to preserve all the parts.” Perhaps there is no such thing as intelligent tinkering when the great web of life cannot be reassembled and made whole again. Restraint might be the wiser course. Intelligence without wisdom is both a dangerous and an ugly thing.

The great danger of seeing nature as a multitude of isolated objects and processes is that nothing lives in isolation from anything, or apart from everything else. We are seeing the world through a lens that contradicts reality; a way that ignores how nature works. The fundamental understanding of ecology is that all things are connected, and that is the way we ought to see them. Perhaps that is the most vital role that environmental education plays: teaching us not only respect for all beings, but restoring the ability to see all things in terms of interconnectedness. That is the way sustainable cultures have always viewed the world, and we would do well to emulate their example; to recreate a new old paradigm that is in harmony with the rhythms of life, and respectful of other beings and diverse cultures; and the natural processes that ushered them, and us, into existence.

So the next time you go into the field and see a tree, try to see all of the processes and all of the living organisms that cooperated to produce that tree. You will see something; indeed, many things, that is greater than the sum of its parts. You will see more than a tree; much more: you will see an aura of interdependent life.

Think of the insects that pollinate its flowers, and the migratory birds that feed upon them. Think of the microbes in the soil that allow its roots to take up nitrogen, and the earth worms that till and aerate the soil and allow rain to penetrate deep into the cool cellars of the earth. Ponder for a moment the decomposers moving nutrients through the soil, making life possible at the surface. Think of the respiration of the tree’s leaves that put moisture into the air, and think of the hydrological cycles that circulate around the globe and produce rain as a result of them. Consider as well the trade winds and the great oceanic currents that regulate global temperature. Think also of the sun that provides the heat energy that drives the entire process. Think of the insects moving beneath the bark and the pileated woodpecker that eats some of them, and rears its young in cavities made in its trunk; or the gray squirrel that harvests nuts from that tree, and plants some of them in other locations. That is ecological seeing, and it reflects reality: the way the world works.

If economics are ever to become a real science, rather than the fanciful flights of imagination they so often are, they will have to be constructed around ecological principles; and they must be tinged with ethics. Imagine that, if you can.

Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, naturalist, environmental educator and free-lance writer residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia.