Whatever Happened to Ecology?

Whatever Happened to Ecology?

By Gene Wilburn

Words have lifetimes — some very long, some short. Many words are elastic and stretch from their original meanings to wider application or a more specialized meaning. Some words define and encapsulate eras. Think of disco and discotheque. Or flapper and Charleston. Eras gone by, and the only remaining life the words have is to give reference to the pop music of a different time. Another such word that comes to mind, from my earlier years, is ecumenical.

Ecumenical is a fancy word, imported in the late 16th century from Latin which in turn imported it from Greek and meaning, for the most part, “promoting or relating to unity among the world’s Christian churches” in the sense of “belonging to the universal Church.” The original Greek meaning appears to be something like “the (inhabited) earth,” meaning principally the Roman Empire.

The word came to renewed prominence in the mid–1960s and was especially popular on university campuses in the U.S. There were several ecumenical services that I and many others attended to see the ways the various branches of Christianity worshipped. It was the era of Pope John, folk masses, and Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists getting together for pot-luck gatherings — perhaps the last such era of its kind before the echo of the Civil Rights marches and the ever-present war in Vietnam opened the rift that has continued to split the US into two separate, superimposed countries. Goodwill became less fashionable. Nixon was elected President. Goodbye ecumenical. Ceremonies of innocence were drowned.

It was around this time that many young people left the organized churches to find more contemporary ways of exploring their relationships to the universe. Transformations were in the wind — the times they were a-changing’. It rang through in the music, poetry, novels, hairstyles, and lifestyles of the young in what Mexican poet Octavio Paz called “an explosion of the spirit.” Its symbols were seen in peace signs, painted VW vans, concert posters, flowing hair, headbands, dance, and underground newspapers. Marijuana became the new communal sacrament, and LSD, mescaline, peyote, and magic mushrooms were portals to new kinds of perception. It was a heady time, unsustainable of course, and as with all things, tragic for some, but it was also a pretty time that, if experienced, can never be forgotten. Ah, the sunsets… but I digress…

It was in this time period that I first encountered the word ecology. The word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary first entered the language around 1875, in the original, scientific meaning of the term, “The branch of biology that deals with the relationships between living organisms and their environment.” The word grew gradually beyond its more limited definition to a broader sociological definition: “The study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment; (also) the system of such relationships in an area of human settlement. Freq. with modifying word, as cultural ecology, social ecology, urban ecology.

In the late 60s and early 70s it took on a more political flavour, meaning “The study of or concern for the effect of human activity on the environment; advocacy of restrictions on industrial and agricultural development as a political movement; (also) a political movement dedicated to this.” By this time ecology had become a buzzword and was frequently featured in such archives of the time as the Whole Earth Catalog, along with geodestic domes.

Ecology wasn’t a new concept — the interrelationship of organisms and their surroundings had been known for centuries — but the word gave clarity and weight to the concept, and in the world of DDT, Agent Orange, inappropriate dams, and urban sprawl, it began to take on an urgency as we learned of more species going extinct due to the clearing or altering of habitats and the encroachment of people.

Yet oddly, it’s a word I only hear now occasionally. One of the natural extensions of ecology is climate change. As the ecological and other studies added up, it became obvious to just about everyone in the world, except for a strange cadre of U.S. Republicans who have, for inscrutable political reasons, chosen to turn their backs on science and knowledge, that Earth, our very planet itself, is headed for a change that will not be good for the human species, much less the rest of the planet’s ecological systems.

Yet the word ecology is getting a new boost in usage, this time for the bacterial communities of our stomachs and intestines. Evidently we, and the bacteria in our bodies, co-evolved to make mammalian life, as we know it, possible. Our insides are literally crawling with them. The good ones help us digest food and contribute to our health. Whatever else our existence means, it is a life that, biologically, is only achieved by committee. Every “I” is literally a “we.” I’m glad to be seeing the word in use again because I always felt, in my gut, that ecology would make something of a comeback.

At a more abstract level, there is an ecology of the mind. The more you learn, ponder, and read, the more complex your mental landscape becomes and the more scope you have for ideas, counter-ideas, imagination, and insights. Who you read — which thinkers you have chosen to help guide you along the neuronal highways and byways of the brain — creates the type of mental ecosystem you live in, and determines whether it’s a rich, varied, healthy ecosystem, or a more limited ecosystem with poor mental soil. So, as the acolyte said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”

Flowers From Algernon

Flowers From Algernon

By Gene Wilburn

“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” ~ Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

I grinned recently at a cartoon of an elderly gentleman standing at the base of his stairway wondering if he had just come down the stairs or if he was about to go upstairs to get something. Welcome to my world: the world of cognitive gaps. Mix natural absent-mindedness with an aging brain and daily life becomes an adventure. It’s only through the grace of automated bank withdrawals that I’m still deemed credit worthy.

Sometimes cognitive gaps are embarrassing. About every two years or so I take a plane flight to the US to visit family. I always book an early morning flight and, due to customs protocols, have to arrive at the airport so early the ticket booths aren’t yet open. I’m not a morning person, so these dawn-tinged adventures require Olympic-level efforts from me, and to have it all shattered when the person I present my ticket to says, “Mr. Wilburn, I’m sorry, but your flight is booked for tomorrow,” is disheartening.

What worries me more is that my ability to concentrate on things is lessening. I’ve been living in the fast lane of Information Tech for years and years and despite the tsunami of new “stuff” coming down the pipe all the time, I think it was a kind of specialized narrowcasting of technical information that I had evolved, mentally, to swim in comfortably. I always kept an outside focus on things that interested me, such as books, music, and photography, but my main focus was tech.

Then retirement, and a gradual drift from computer services creator and provider, to computer services user. From techie to user — I’m left with a vague sense of having been demoted. Not that I miss the fast lane. I still write occasional snippets of code, but for the most part I’ve embraced my new overlords and have plugged myself into the Internet, like a bee into the hive mind.

In this world of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and other social media and news aggregators, information comes shooting at us as Carr said, “in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” It’s intense. And surely it must have consequences for the brain.

Our brains are wondrously adaptable and able to rewire themselves according to need, and as our needs shifts from deep reading to shallow reading, which they have to do to keep up with all the incoming, our brains compensate, perhaps, by borrowing from our deep-reading skills to adjust to our need to devour info in wide swaths. We adapt to quick, intermittent bursts of concentration rather than long sessions of concentration. In photographic terms, we’ve switched from macro lenses to wide angle.

I greatly admire people, like my wife Marion, who can concentrate on something for hours at a time. As I’m sweeping through the Internet with my net cast wide for nuggets of beauty, humour, and maybe even wisdom, she delves deep into genealogical data searching for clues that might provide links to her family tree. To the point where her hot drink grows cold because she forgets it’s there. I’m no longer capable of that kind of concentration.

It feels like a seismic shift, this dwindling ability to study anything hard and long, and a departure from the past when one sat in a favourite nook with a favourite book, savouring the thoughts and words of a voice from another time or place, perhaps in another language. It’s cutting us off from the past. While some people still read Jane Austen, and a handful read Dickens, there are few left who read translations of Homer or Marcus Aurelius, and fewer still who can read them in Greek or Latin.

The main culprit is the sheer volume of contemporary information we must process to adapt to living in an electronic age. We’re like baleen whales sieving for krill. To be a citizen of the Internet one is required to digest all sorts of facts and factoids and issues about everything under the sun and beyond. It’s enough to drive Southern evangelists to the mythic comfort of the Christian Bible (though even fewer of them appear to enjoy the rolling passages and magisterial tones of the King James translation).

Given that much of contemporary information feels like “a tedious argument of insidious intent,” we need more buffer zones — places or activities that shield us, at least temporarily, from the onslaught. Playing a musical instrument, cooking, drawing, having a picnic, walking in the park, meditating, reading for pleasure – all these things help, as long as you’re not on your cell phone.

Undoubtedly my brain is not as agile as it once was — not that I had any intention to read Spencer’s Faerie Queen — but as we head for what Nicolas Carr calls “the Shallows,” it’s apparent to me that age is not the only factor in my gentle demise. The zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, is reductive. Newsbytes, tweets, and click-bait headlines are conditioning us to view the world kaleidoscopically, reacting with “Oooh” or “Oh no” at each passing spark. And it’s not merely reductive. It’s addictive. It may even work as a form of mind control. Clearly there are implications.

Paradoxes and Temporal Displacements

Paradoxes and Temporal Displacements

By Gene Wilburn

“Your thoughts, feelings, memories, attention, what you experience in this subjective world is part of mind” ~ Dan Siegel, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human

“Seems like only yesterday I left my mind behind” ~ Bob Dylan

Like Autolicus, I too was littered under Mercury and am likewise a snapper up of unconsidered trifles. I don’t believe in astrology, of course, but I can’t help noting that I’m Geminian as hell. Sun, Moon, Mercury, Uranus in Gemini (with Mercury and Uranus in conjunction in the 11th house and Sun and Moon in conjunction as well). Life loves paradoxes. I’m not only Geminian, but an aging Gemini, embarked, as I write this, on my seventh decade of life.

Ah life. “Don’t talk to me about life,” quipped Marvin, the depressed robot, but I have no choice. It’s a Geminian imperative to talk, write, think, and otherwise communicate about things like “life, the universe and everything.” Or sometimes nothing at all. “Nothing will come of nothing,” spake Lear, but I’ve noticed it’s ofttimes the little nothings that add up to something.

So let’s set the scene: I’m an aging writer, photographer, and amateur folksinger, and I have a final goal: to convey some of what it’s like to be old and getting older, living in an aging mind, and to present this in a way that may solicit from you, as reader, a sense of camaraderie. Not that I expect us to get all Three-Musketeery—“One for all and all for one”—but I hope my thoughts will elicit some resonance in you as a fellow traveller on the road of life. We’re like the travellers in Canterbury Tales, each with a story or more to tell as we pass the scenery of time. These essays are some of my stories.

Time itself (“What is time? Does it really exist?”) plays a role in these stories. Especially temporal displacement. As I age I find that past and present often merge in startling, sometimes bizarre, ways. The news tells of the launch of a new communications satellite, and I remember the day Sputnik I was launched. I read about the American Civil War, and recall a current newspaper picture showing the last four Civil War veterans riding in an open limousine in a Southern U.S. Fourth of July parade. We experience an electrical outage and I’m suddenly back living in a farmhouse with no electricity or indoor plumbing. I once sat on Hopalong Cassidy’s lap to have my picture taken. In a post-television era, I  still sprawl on the floor with my buddies watching the test pattern on our neighbour’s TV, waiting for the Howdy Doody Show. Things get mixed together and jumbled. Not yet in a failing brain kind of way but in an enriched tapestry of tales in which time doesn’t exist. In the present.

So, you say, what does this have to do with squirrels, and why “Retired Squirrel” anyway?

I’ll come back to my buddies, the local grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), from time to time. They live in three large leaf nests, or “dreys,” in the trees overlooking our back yard–an oak, a birch, and a pine tree. I feed them roasted peanuts in the shell, tossing them to the base of a large maple tree, then watch and study them from the kitchen window as I eat breakfast. They’ve become my totem animal. I identify with their greed for peanuts, their alert perkiness, their bushy tails, and their three-dimensional acrobatics. They’re as at home in the trees as I am in my thoughts, and as they leap from branch to branch, I find in this a metaphor for connectedness and alternate pathways. They don’t obey property borders in the same way I don’t always respect intellectual borders. Also, I’ve been a longtime fan of Rocky, the Flying Squirrel and his pal Bullwinkle, and that’s sufficient to warp anyone’s mind.

I’ve now been retired for over a decade, yet am only just beginning to get the hang of it. It’s a mental whammy to have led a life based on the delivery deadlines of computing services suddenly to find yourself free, dead stop. Freedom may be liberating, but it’s also frightening. Your support infrastructure is gone and you have to create one to take its place. But what should it be? Old habits from work days spill over into retirement, such as a ceaseless need to keep up with technology and tame it to serve current projects. Then you realize, slowly and gradually, that you don’t have to do this anymore—unless your really want to. But do you?

And that’s where it gets existential. What you make of retirement is partly based on your health, and partly on what you can create from your free time. I once considered signing up for the shuffleboard period at our local senior centre, in order to expand my now-depleted social life, but I came to my senses. So I’ve turned to other ways of connecting with people, such as photo-buddy lunches, outings with good friends, song circles, and, not least, social media. Facebook owns me, but only because I allow it to. I’ll come back to Facebook from time to time as well.

And so, as I age, I have learned to concentrate on those things that bring me the greatest joy and creativity: reading, writing, photography, and music. And on my friends and relatives, for we never know when any of us will disappear from the fabric of life.

This is the saddest part of aging—the deaths of those around us and of the cultural icons we grew up with. Think Leonard Cohen as a single example. And my dear Uncle Cliff who took me fishing on Lake of the Woods. Life is emptier now and will continue to get more empty. That’s the end cycle of life. As I face my own demise, life gets more synoptic. I have been granted the luxury to contemplate my life as a whole, in the way I watch the squirrels bound from limb to limb, and it is in this spirit that I begin this series of essays.

What about religion? Does it have any place in my thoughts? All the time. I’ve thought hard about religion since I was a child. Organized name-brand religion is something I outgrew, but the religious spirit, the longing to be part of a whole, to resonate with the whole, stripped of the supernatural, is something that has stayed with me. I’m scientifically an atheist with a Jungian religious awe of the universe and all that is in it. Life loves paradoxes.

If you think you’d be interested in following this series, which I hope to write with some regularity, do me a favour and add yourself to the notification list so you receive an email alerting you to each posted essay. If you’d like to start a dialogue on any of these topics, feel free to do so. I enjoy the exchange of ideas, but know in advance I may not be able to keep up with you. I’m moderately bright, but am more poet than pundit (though not opposed to puns), and I’ll probably fail to respond as intellectually as you’d like. But that’s okay. Even Geminis have their merits, though, as I say, I don’t believe in astrology.