"Walker, there is no pathway. You make the pathway while you walk." - Antonio Machado
My task in this essay is to share my experience of living in a changing world. If I were to comment on how the world came to be as it is or how to change it, there would be no end of things to say. But this proposed book is about the state of the inner world and its development, and so I must describe how I came to experience living as I do today. Given this, I will show how the subjective quality of my experience has related to and depended on the quality of my environment as I developed. For the most part I will do this by telling stories, followed by reflecting on them from my present perspective. I will avoid direct evaluation if I can manage it, preferring to allow the stories to speak for themselves.
A Dawning of Environmental Awareness
I grew up in a deep canyon in the mountains of far northern California. Dunsmuir is two miles long and only a few streets wide in most places. It runs along the river, the railroad, and the highway, and is a “division point” where railroad crews live. My father was a brakeman and later a conductor. Because there are no other roads, people recognize only two directions: north and south. But in official railroad jargon these are defined as “east” and “west,” respectively, or away from and toward San Francisco in the continental geography of The Company. Juggling these names for directions expanded my awareness of place from local to global in scale and from absolute to relative in perspective. It wasn’t easy, because I’ve never been good at memorizing. Nevertheless, I was shocked to learn that some people (we called them “flatlanders”) need four, eight, or even more directions in their everyday vocabularies and use them easily. I was ecstatic when a hitchhiker told me much later that people who live in coastal towns may have three directions — “up the coast,” “down the coast,” and “inland” — and we laughed for miles in the night. All this is to say that my early experience was local and insular. It was also formative, and informative in many ways.
I am five. It is a warm, early autumn afternoon in 1947. We are in a black oak forest, far from the road. My father has taken me with him to get leaf mold for compost. We drove first up a logging road through dark firs, then off the road and through the trees to this spot where leaves lay thick on the ground, rotting year after year, and moist earth underlay them. He raked away the thin building layer of new leaves, exposing what was left of last year’s layer. Then he began to dig, forking great black helpings of moldy remains into the trailer.
Amazed at the spectacle and a voyeur of sorts because Dad was aware only of his work, I stood safely at the brink as a great black crater opened slowly in the earth. Each forkful was less of leaves and more of soil than the one before, deeper, darker, and more aromatic as he dug. Suddenly my father threw his pitchfork aside, fell prostrate into the hole, pressed his face into the dank, spongy mass, and breathed — a giant loving the earth. After a long, magical while he drew back onto his knees and held a large mass of leaf mold toward me: “Take a snort of that, Lee. Don’t it smell good?”
Now, don’t it smell good! And don’t you think that a child can be imprinted for life on an idea and a way of experiencing living, just by a snort? I don’t mean that literally, of course. Smelling the essence of the organic world can’t make us understand the whole notion of recycling of materials in nature, magically. It takes talking and reflecting for that. Mom and Dad did talk about compost, not just snort it, shovel it, and spread it in the garden. They spoke of compost as if it were a living organism, a self-regenerating elixer with the power to promote life, and of course it is. My brother Gerald and I speak this way about our sourdough starters. The parallels are clear and obvious, although compost is wilder, more complex, and less controlled than any yeast culture could ever be.
By the time he was eight Gerald had heard and smelled enough of this to have become a rich worm farmer by small town standards, and it was his idea to go for it when he was only six. He understood cycling of nutrients, and applied that knowledge commercially. Large trucks delivered cases of ice cream cartons to our door, and a small wise businessman wrote the cheques. He supplied three towns with two kinds of fishing worms through his retail outlets, and guaranteed at least 13 healthy worms to the dozen after a week in the display case. He also paid our parents for long-distance phone calls, for mileage driven on deliveries, and for time spent counting worms when he was too much a kid to do all of it himself. I don’t think one snort can accomplish all that, but on the other hand it can’t hurt much, either. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that much of our deepest, most important knowledge comes in similar ways. (When did you first smell sexual arousal?)
I learned to smell the world, to connect what I saw, heard, smelled, and tasted, to connect what I felt, with the social world of my family and with our work. Our work in this case was to build soil for growing food, flowers and greenery, for growing an environment for living, and we took it seriously. I never wondered whether we needed to grow food in our garden for economic reasons, any more than I think about it now as I grow food in my own garden in the city. But I do grow it, and so does my brother grow it in his. It adds something deep, qualitative and immeasurable to our lives, and something delightful to our tables.
It is not that I did not smell the world before that day in the forest. I did. All children smell their environments, and all taste them. We also connect at least something of what is available to be sensed with the economy of our everyday worlds. How else could it be? How else could it be for anyone? This is the way of all sensate beings, including me. I am not unique in this, although I did develop in a special environment under the guidance of special parents. This event could not have been the dawning of sensation for me, but it was the beginning of my awareness of a way of sensing in which every breath, every touch and every sight connects me. That is how that event survives today in the tangled web of my memory, and that is how I share it with you now. It marks the dawning of an important idea about nature, and of another idea about my place in all that. Even now in the telling, my living expands and is enriched by connections with other events and other ideas, as compost expands and enriches my yard and fungal mycelia connect all the trees in the forest. There were other significant dawnings, and many — perhaps most — came in similarly experiential ways.
Nobody taught me any of this, unless you consider it teaching to shove a handful of leaf mold in a boy’s face and ask him a question (actually, I do). I just learned it. Partly by watching other people do it, partly by realizing that it is better to be able to do things than not, but mainly because it was fun. One reason I think nobody taught me these things is that there are so many holes in my understanding. Why we grew food is just one example — we just did it, and that is how I learned to sense what was around me.
Much later, a student of mine was the first of her northwest coastal Indian band to go away to university. Her term paper in my first-year biology course was on the traditional fishery of her people for oolichan and the “oolichan grease” that they make from the fish. Her information came from the library, from her memory, and from interviewing family and elders back home. Without going into the details of this example of cultural knowledge, I will sketch those parts of what she learned that are most relevant here. Although my student had participated in this major event every year of her life, and although she could perform all operations expected of women her age, two things stood out ... and both of them surprised her. First, nobody taught her any of it, in the sense that teachers teach things in schools. Second, she had not understood any of it in scientific, mechanistic terms. Nor had she wondered about oolichan grease itself in those terms, although the awakening of this way of wondering in my class led to her choice of topic for research (it was a key moment for both of us when I suggested that to “re-search” might mean to “look again”). In general, elders’ understanding was broader, deeper and more useful than that of less experienced people. However, although most of what they knew was compatible with scientific understanding, little of it was scientific. All of us learned.
The cultural knowledge of tribal people who live close to the land seems to be communicated more by doing, and by telling and listening to stories, than by being taught as “particles” of knowledge, the way teachers typically do in schools. If this is true, whether it is because useful, organic knowledge is best learned that way or simply because those people tend not only to be close to the land but also close to their oral cultural roots, I find it fascinating. In either case, and these possibilities are by no means mutually exclusive, it leads me to wonder. Much of my own deepest, most important knowledge came this way; little of it came as particles.
My academic head is crammed with details. And so were the heads of my student’s elders. Much of my knowledge came as particles in schools, but my most valuable knowledge came in older ways than most schools have yet rediscovered, whether or not it came to me in school. That knowledge is valuable because it provides a global perspective and the advantages of a long view. It also provides a structure within which to remember, compare, evaluate, modify, apply and seek new details, and it is this richness that makes it useful. Rather than calling it knowledge, I should call it understanding.
The World of My Early Experience
Our yard, enriched year by year by compost and made into a garden by sunlight from the sky and water borrowed from the earth and distributed under a watchful eye, was the primary environment of my early childhood. The back yard, not the front. Front yards were off limits to unsupervised children in my neighbourhood, because our street was the main highway from Alaska to Panama and we lived on a hill. One consequence was that until we were older we knew the kids on our own side of the street much better than those on the other, who might as well have lived in another town.
Loud trucks and long lines of cars geared up and down the hill in all seasons and at all hours. The time I am remembering was near the end of a long series of cold, hard winters in the northern hemisphere. Often in winter that long loud snake ceased to crawl, sometimes for days. Then it was quiet in the mountains of my childhood. Usually it was not, though, and it is much less quiet there today because of the freeway.
Back yards were great. Especially ours, because of its gardens, its chickens, its rabbits, and its compost pile. The yard was moist, green and welcoming, and it attracted kids from all along our side of the street. Especially when it was time to make ice cream. Sometimes I think making ice cream is bred in the bone, as deeply engineered into our family as brown eyes and myopia. We all make it, always have and always will. We make the best ice cream anyone has ever tasted. Every time.
Back yards were safe, at least for people. Once when I was very young I discovered a rattlesnake in our back yard, then watched as my mother hiked her skirt between her legs and hit the snake between the eyes with a short-handled hoe. After that, no rattlesnake dared enter our property and for 50 years we never saw another. It took her a while, but my mother also got the last gopher, the last mole and the last poison oak. I witnessed the Taming of the Wilderness, and I participated in that taming.
During my slingshot days Mom offered me a quarter for every Steller’s Jay I delivered. She herself was a deadeye with a slingshot. Her personal surgical rubber Wham-O and her own bag of marbles hung just inside the back door, and no dog dared dig in her garden. She didn’t have as much time for hunting as I did, though, so she offered me the Steller’s Jay job. I made a mint for a while, but we soon gave that up as a hopeless cause and a bad idea. I never really knew what Mom had against Steller’s Jays. It was something about stealing eggs and babies from other birds, but though she delighted in the fact that gray squirrels hated jays too she didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t like it when robins stole strawberries either, but she didn’t put out contracts on their lives. Nobody would have dared ask her about any of this after her twins died, and nobody did.
I didn’t understand the business about the Jays, and now I never will. Sometimes we wait too long to get to the bottom of things. I didn’t get to the bottom of killing birds until the parts of a Steller’s Jay rained down on me after I blasted it with a hollow-point .22 caliber bullet from directly below. Blood, guts and one last blue feather, drifting silently earthward. That did it, and I was done. But it took strong medicine like that, for destruction is a deep, systemic disease that not only reflects but is generated by how we live.
The Geometry of My World
I want to tell you about the geometry of my expanding world, so you can appreciate what I think I understand of how the inner world of my experience expanded over the face of the land where I lived when I was young. In this view, expansion from the small, local, egocentric and completely contained world of a toddler into the increasingly larger, global and much more open world of an adult was driven by imagination and curiosity and constrained by love and caring. Both kinds of factors were essential, as was the fact that where I lived was more complex than I could comprehend at any moment in my development yet quite comprehensible once I had discovered principles by which I could comprehend it. Here I will imply that discovering the power of topography to order my expanding experiential world influenced much of what I have done since. It is incomplete but no exaggeration for me to imply this.
While our front yard was bounded by a hard line and the firm, non-negotiable rule that I could not enter it alone, the back yard was bounded only by my imagination and by increasingly looser and more abstract limits imposed by my parents. In the beginning it was simple and easy. Not only was the world of my private experience contained tightly within firm, unambiguous boundaries that I could comprehend completely and could not cross alone, but it was also small enough that I had visited every part of it in the company of my parents, at least on the coarse, fast scale on which adults visit places. I was free to ramble, to explore, to make expeditions to the far corners of whatever worlds my imagination could create, and to take my time doing it. I built whole networks of roads on the slope under the clothesline, for example, and traveled them thoroughly in cars and trucks.
Near the end of a great war that I knew nothing about, I also traveled those roads in jeeps and tanks, and as a footsoldier. My only memory of that war is the end of the very last day of it. Mom and I had been picking blackberries with a friend of hers. When we arrived at the berry patch I received the usual caution about bears, rattlesnakes and the creek, and then I was free to get as many blackberries as I wanted on my face and none in my can. When the buckets were full we returned to the car, they turned on the radio, and an excited announcer said something while they listened quietly. Then we all got out of the car again and danced in the dust like we were celebrating the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. We laughed, cried, whooped, hollered and hugged each other. Then Mom and her friend tried to explain, but they didn’t tell me about The Bomb. I was three, and that event was both the beginning and the end of the war that barely survives in my memory. I remember everything that I told you and nothing else. Another war survives in my mind, but as I reminded you at the beginning, this book is about experience, not about analysis or judgment.
“You can go anywhere you like, but don’t go in the front yard, don’t go more than one neighbours’ yard to the side, and don’t go past the chickenhouse.” This simple rule embodies an important paradox. Implicitly, it forbade an enormous list of things, yet it freed me. Within those insignificant constraints I could explore the entire world - - not only that of the physical landscape, but a vast and equally complex world of ideas, abstractions, language and personal and social power inextricably linked to the physical one that I explored. I believe now that those constraints freed me for discovery. Without their confinement I would have been free only in a smaller and less constructive way.
Nor could I have been free without the open invitation of the preamble: “You can go anywhere you like.” A great restless power to stimulate growing minds lies in the partnership of open, unspecified invitation and clear, realistic constraint. Where would I like to go, right now? And what would I like to do? Those were completely up to me. No adult tried to bias my choices, or to “help” me decide. Without thinking of it in relation to this story, I learned later to apply this power to encourage older growing minds to explore landscapes of knowledge and understanding at the university level. Two relevant complaints I receive from students, usually presented together, are: “You never tell us what to do” and “I’ve never worked so hard (or learned so much) in my life!”
Most of the above is interpretation and speculation. The simple facts are that there was more than enough for a little boy to explore within those constraints, and doing that kept me fully occupied physically and mentally. I don’t remember ever exceeding the limits (and I’m sure I would remember it if I had been caught in the front yard alone!). Many times since, often in response to hearing people complain of boredom, I’ve claimed that I’ve spent less than 10 minutes bored in my entire life, and I’ve always said that sincerely. I wonder to what extent learning to live in an environment like that and to live with rules like those may have set in motion a lifelong pattern that has kept me active, interested and for the most part happy.
Living with rules and living within their constraints are two different things, of course, for in a sense rules are made to be changed. From time to time as I developed in physical, mental and emotional capacity to explore outward from my home base and return safely, I outgrew a rule and had to renegotiate it. It was left to me to initiate these interactions, although I remember clearly the first time Mom sent me to the store alone. It was on the other side of the highway and a block down the hill! That journey was so far outside my normal experience, and the stricture against visiting the front yard alone so strong, that I could never have thought of it myself.
Each time we re-negotiated, the overall form of the rule and the openness of its invitation remained invariant. Only the specified constraints changed, always toward relaxation and only through hard-won argument. New rules emerged in an atmosphere of shared celebration of success, and never as gifts. There were gifts, but they were neither the rules themselves nor the increasing freedom they represented, for those were earned. The gifts were opportunity and a rite of passage to new levels of opportunity, responsibility and awareness of self and surroundings. Those gifts also included a rite of acknowledgment, which was a fulfilling way of interacting with my parents and a model for interacting with the larger social world outside. I was always constrained in some way, but as I expanded outward the constraints were imposed more by my own capabilities, which I could discover only by testing them against my physical environment, and less by my parents’ specifications. Always freedom, always constraint, and always the possibility of renegotiation. Those things never changed.
Here is an example of what I mean. A high ridge that we called “the hill” began at the end of the yard, in a bank Dad shoveled out for the back of the chickenhouse. The forest began there too. It extended up and over the ridge, far beyond the first road, a dirt logging road along the bottom of the next canyon four miles away. The first extension of my rule of movement, at least the first that I remember, allowed me to go anywhere on the hill from which I could see the back porch. The area this opened for exploration was small because of the forest and the form of the hill. But it was interesting for the same reasons, for it opened different areas in different directions. Even in summer, black oaks afforded a longer view than Douglas firs, and incense cedars always blocked it entirely. In winter, one particularly deciduous direction took me several times farther from the chickenhouse than it did in summer.
I discovered a problem with Mom’s rule right away. The bank behind the chickenhouse would have been great digging, but the building was in the way and I couldn’t see the house. It was a minor thing to create an exception for that one place, at the cost of my having to inform my parents when I went there. (I never did realize that the rule’s utility to my mother was based on her seeing me, even while its operability was based on my seeing the house.) However, the ability of policy to regulate behaviour effectively rests in its operability in practice, and not just in its formal specifications. As always happens, this and other exceptions became a weight against utility, and eventually we needed a more abstract and general rule. Consider the scope of this problem in the case at hand.
“The hill” was not a featureless monolith, but a topography, a landscape, a three-dimensional environment to be explored. It was complex geologically and biologically. “Mountains make their own weather,” I learned from locals who discouraged anyone from climbing Mt. Shasta, the 14,000-foot Cascade volcano that dominates the regional landscape. “Storms brew up suddenly, and there is no way of telling when.” While hills may not make their own weather, they certainly make microclimates and these influence microhabitats. They generate drainage patterns, they create temperature, light and humidity regimes — with gradients between them. They also result in factors that either promote or inhibit the accumulation of soil, with or without organic material like the compost we manufactured in the yard. Complexity breeds more complexity in the mountains. That hill was rich, and so was I.
One minor hill, even parts of it that could be reached along pathways entirely visible from one back porch, can offer a wide range of places to explore. This array of opportunities changed on daily, seasonal and annual time scales, and with the passage of the sun and clouds overhead. Even if it didn’t change, what a child experienced of it would change with growth and development in stature and experience. A child can learn these things simply by being inquisitive, with no teacher, no classroom, no curriculum: just a rich environment and a social atmosphere in which to explore it.
It shouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine this. The smallest amount of nature study shows that without having and using the ability to learn these kinds of things, wild animals would die quickly. I think I enjoyed a wild kind of civility and a freeing kind of containment as I developed, and I think that was good for me.
One more pass through the cycle of exploration, growth and negotiation will help you to appreciate what I want you to understand. I could see many places from the back porch that were interesting, appealing and quite close, yet were off limits because all routes to reach them passed through invisible places. Establishing the principle of exceptions for these places was easy, but carefully planning and then negotiating each new exception and each path to reach it, in language, was a drag for all of us. And so a new kind of rule emerged from our discussions.
“You can go anywhere you like, as long as you can hear me if I call.” If I call! Imagine. Imagine a call that may or may not be uttered, propagating freely along some corridors of topography and vegetation and being attenuated or blocked entirely along others. Imagine this with all kinds of traffic on the highway, during cold, clear mornings and hot afternoons, and with snow on the ground or in the air.
Most important, imagine imagining it, for there was no other way to know, before it happened, whether I could hear my mother’s call from anywhere on the hill, and under any condition. Or to fail to hear it. Imagine the model of sound transmission that developed in a young boy’s mind, and the map of probabilities of detection that it generated. Imagine slow developmental processes by which those probabilities spread outward across the map from our house as my experience and understanding grew. Each time Mom called and I heard her from some place on the hill, at some time, under some set of conditions, and with some degree of clarity, I understood some new thing and could apply that understanding by making some change in my behaviour. Imagine how hard I listened. Because of the structure of our situation, I cherished each new call. It was pregnant with opportunity to expand my territory, and I was proud to be able to hear her from farther than before. I wanted her to call me home so that I could range farther out the next time.
Not long after that we visited the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. I will never forget the demonstration of the wondrous acoustics of that structure. The guide walked to the other end of a gigantic room - - by far the largest room I had ever seen. He whispered and we heard exactly what he said. I was amazed, and I understood. A long time later I laughed to read in The Mountains of California (1911, Century, New York) John Muir’s taxonomy of forest tree species based on the sounds of breezes in their branches and how it feels to cling to their tops in windstorms that whip them violently. Similarly, I felt a sense of recognition in reading John Steinbeck’s long memoriam to his friend Ed Ricketts at the beginning of the Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951, Viking, New York). Ricketts, who was a hero of several Steinbeck novels and a biologist and supplier of intertidal organisms in real life, was not content to know his subjects traditionally — he tasted them too.
Beyond childhood, this kind of experiential knowing plays a small role in formal education in our culture, especially in the sciences where it is needed as badly as anywhere else. This is curious, because at its root, at its most profound level, all of science is about explaining our primary sensory experience (we call these experiences “observations”). There is little room for personal experience in school science the way it is actually taught — even personal experience of machines that extend and magnify our senses. While there are important exceptions to this in secondary and tertiary science education, they are rare. The most profound consequence of this lack is that because our students have little sensory experience of their own to explain in schools, they do not learn to perform the deepest, most creative aspects of science. Nor do they learn as well as they might to link what they do learn in schools to the enormous problems that inspired this book.
How can that kind of knowledge organize itself, with no active teacher? All I know is that it requires voices, ears, willing minds, suitable environments and both freedom and constraint. I would be surprised to learn that a school to teach children Acoustical Science could do as well, and more surprised to learn that it happens very differently in wild animals and little boys.
Freeways and Young Rebels
The freeway came through behind the house when I was 10 and Gerald was a brand new baby, and I hated that freeway with a passion. Everyone hated it during construction because of its round-the-clock dust, mud and noise, but I didn’t mind those things so much. I hated it because it took away the close parts of the hill and made the rest of it hard to reach. My parents hated it because it took the chickenhouse, the old compost pile and the back part of the garden, and because of all that ruckus with a new baby in the house. Most local businesses hated it because the traffic would bypass them. The city government hated it because it meant the loss of a significant source of revenue: fines from speeding tickets. The Dunsmuir Speed Trap was famous up and down the West Coast.
A consolation for us was that the construction stirred things up enough in the hill that we had a trickle of free water for the garden until they added another lane to the freeway ten years later. The fifth lane took even more of the garden and cut off most of the water. The garden became so small that a truck driver could spit right over it and hit the back porch, and the sound of the Jake brakes were and still are deafening. After Mom died, Gerald and I decided to sell the house because neither of us could imagine living with that racket. After waiting for a while for the house to sell, we realized that whereas the value of the property to us is based on our memory of “the good old days,” its value to potential buyers must consider the racket. So we cut the price. The house was on the market for a while!
In the early stages of construction of the freeway, my friends and I tried to sabotage it. We did everything we could think of to destroy the earth-moving equipment, for example, but none of it worked. We couldn’t throw rocks at the machines without getting caught by the drivers. It would have been easy with slingshots (and I was a deadeye by then), but we didn’t want to hurt the drivers and knew we couldn’t hurt the equipment. After a while we gave up. Although we didn’t forgive and forget about the hill, we ranged farther and found other things to explore.
For a long time after that, whenever I heard anyone say “You can’t fight City Hall,” I replied, sarcastically, “You can’t stop progress.” I don’t know whether I believed that. I doubt I really thought about it, because during that time I wasn’t aware of much and stayed as far away from politics as I could. At college, a professor recommended that I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962, Houghton Mifflin, Boston), and I did. Although I began to wonder how decisions were made in the real world, I still didn’t participate.
It made me happy, 17 years after the freeway came through, to learn that the same scenario had unfolded in George Berisso’s life in New Jersey, at the same time, and that he and his friends responded the same way we did. In 7th grade civics class we learned that the state taking the land for the freeway was a good example of the principle of “eminent domain,” by which governments take over private property for “the common good.” That’s a simple concept, and I understood it. But in many situations I didn’t understand what “the common good” could mean. Thinking about this makes me want to read Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1972, Bantam, New York) yet another time. It is hard to give up one’s homeland, even if it may be for “the common good.”
The City, the Suburbs and Nature
My first job after college was teaching high school in what I called The Golden Ghetto. In the upwardly-mobile middle class suburbs east of Berkeley, near San Francisco, I missed the frequent trips into nature that had been a central part of my masters’ research. Always before I had found nature by traveling outward from centres of human culture: outward from the back porch, then outward from a small college town in the Great Central Valley. I tried it there in the Golden Ghetto, but it didn’t work. Until I knew the region better, I failed to find nature within a half-day’s drive of home, and even then I found only small pockets. Wherever I went from my suburban base I found only more towns, low-density residential settlements, large private estates or ranches, and parks reclaimed from ranches. All of these habitats had had long histories of human modification, and with a few minor exceptions, nowhere in this array did I find anything that I was prepared to experience as natural. I was isolated from my source.
On a trip to San Francisco one day, my family and I stopped for a picnic lunch in a postage-stamp park in an old ethnic neighbourhood, and there I found something surprisingly close to what I had been looking for. The neighbourhood was a complex system that had been planned only on the gross scale of the layout of streets. Buildings were of various ages, but, just as with the trees in a mature forest, old ones dominated the landscape. People of all ages went about their business, and a variety of wild and domestic animals did their thing.
Always before I had equated “nature” and “natural.” I had associated nature with pristine environments distant from human culture, both literally and figuratively. But there in the middle of a large city was something undeniably wild, uncontrolled and in a strange way familiar. It was an intact, organically functioning community, and there was something natural about it even if it was far removed from what I had sought. Perhaps only because I was starving for nature, I had a strong sense of having discovered something natural. I also learned something so obvious that even the name “suburb” implies it. Whereas cities are at least once removed from nature because they draw their living from it, suburbs draw their living from cities and so are at least once more removed from nature.
Since then, I have been more open to my surroundings, less judgmental and more willing to enjoy a place if it does not meet my expectations. I’ve been less willing to have a bad time in a place just because it isn’t what I’d like it to be. This is not to say that I don’t seek out great places; I do. I still whine about what is happening in the world and still act politically to change it. Sometimes I get so mad about this I could spit. It is just that I depend less on a great place for a great time than I had before. This has allowed me to discover many great places that would have been invisible to me before, and to enjoy them.
One small example came from something I suggested to a group of students in my teaching methods class at the University of Oregon. They wanted to develop a series of field trips to discover the ecological essence of some ecosystem, and came to me for advice. I suggested that they find those places in downtown Eugene, Oregon. On the field trips, we all went wild with enthusiasm for the fascinating evidence of nature at work in the heart of that small city.
Another experience showed me that a place that satisfies my criteria of naturalness may feel neither beautiful nor peaceful, and actually feel unnatural. Similarly, a place that doesn’t satisfy my criteria may feel natural. Partly because of my experience of the old urban neighbourhood in San Francisco earlier that year, I realized I knew nothing about cities and decided to seek a job teaching summer school there. I found a position teaching Marine Ecology in Alameda, an island town in San Francisco Bay with two Navy bases and two high schools.
One of the first things I learned from listening to my students was that for them nature was ugly, it stank, and it was dangerous. We argued round and round this point, but our experiences were so far apart that we could barely communicate about them. I challenged the students to prove their side of the argument by showing me, and they worked hard to organize a field trip to teach me this lesson. They did a great job of it, and I did learn to see nature through their eyes. We visited stinking mudflats defaced by standing car tires, broken bottles and the ugliest, most disgusting sorts of flotsam and jetsam I could imagine. The students were right — the environments they associated with nature were indeed just as they had told me. While I convinced them that interesting science could be done there, and they did a lot of it, they neither understood for themselves my claim that (“real”) nature is beautiful nor believed that it could be true for me until we visited a different kind of mudflat in Tomales Bay and the wild rocky outer coast of Point Reyes, later to become a national park. Those Navy kids didn’t know the difference until then. But I’m sure they’d tell you today that I didn’t know the difference either until they showed me. They showed me a lot.
Concavity and Convexity: A Return to Geometry
My first trip into the mountains alone after moving to Oregon in the fall of 1968 was in French Pete Valley early the next spring. French Pete was the largest uncut watershed in Oregon, but logging plans had been announced and a preservation fight was in full swing. Soon after my trip it became a protected wilderness. I walked all day up a trail along the stream, then for two much longer days back along the north rim of the watershed in deep snow, and saw no one the entire time. Through the experience, I realized something important about the partitioned wilderness of the crowded modern world, about opportunities to experience it as wild, and about geometry.
My hike up the valley bottom was along a good trail travelled each summer by many people (including my own classes). Nevertheless, it felt relatively wild, remote and vast, partly because it was so different from what I had experienced in the region of the Golden Ghetto and partly because I shared it with no one else. But when I reached the ridge, it became clear that French Pete Valley is a small, nearly insignificant remnant of a vast forest stretching 700 miles along the western slope of the Cascade Range, from near my present home in Vancouver, Canada to the hills where I grew up in California.
From the ridge a sea of clearcuts, logging roads and landslides dominated the landscape to the north, south and west; to the east was the spectacular chain of glowing white Cascade volcanoes. The clearcuts were much larger than the logging operations I had known in California, but minuscule in relation to those I would know later in British Columbia. And they were surprisingly close together. Those on the north-facing slopes to the south were white with snow; in the opposite direction, they were various shades of green or brown — depending on their age, whether they had been replanted successfully, and whether their roads had slid out. (A technical term for this is “mass wastage”; I thought it apt.) At one point I heard the faint whistle of a high-lead logging operation, carried for miles on the wind.
Roads, clearcuts, and other watersheds receded below the horizon as I left the ridgeline on my return to the car. French Pete Valley expanded to occupy the whole of my experiential universe, and I began a new wilderness experience. On the ridgeline, the wind had blown steadily for a day and a half, with the same speed and bearing. Below, the wind was modulated by the land on every scale. It bore the temperature, the humidity, and the scent of my surroundings, all of which changed continuously whether I was moving or sitting quietly. A hawk soared on a column of air that rose over an afternoon fellfield, and I reflected on the geometric wonder of the transformation of the wind. My own transformation was absolute; the outside world did not exist for me.
Until that afternoon, my most thrilling experiences of nature had been in strongly convex places, places of high contour and a long view. My peak experiences had generally been on peaks, on high ridges and the exposed tops of high mountains. I had enjoyed them partly for the thrill of exertion and risk but largely for the joy of the view. Then I came to understand that having thrills and experiencing nature are not the same. Thrills may not be cheap, but they are easier to find than solitude. Often, solitude and a sense of isolation are easier to find in concave places, hidden in hollows in the land, than on any kind of convexity. During a few moments, while that notion settled in my mind, the landscape of my topographic values inverted. I felt great joy to be descending into the bowl of the watershed, the bottom of which was an attractor for the water that carved the valley, for the soil and stones that followed it on its way to the ocean, and for me.
What was a simple, rounded, somewhat undulating ridge along its broad crest became complex lower down, where water’s work of carving gullies had compounded over the centuries, leaving ridges between the gullies. It is the usual case in mountains like this for gullies to grow deeper and steeper as one descends from the top, and then to grow gentle again near the bottom. As a matter of speed and safety as well as esthetics, I normally descend ridges rather than gullies. This time gravity had a hold on me and I took the steepest path. This led me from a tertiary to a secondary to a primary gully, anf I followed it down. Low enough on the mountain for the forest to be tall, thick and dark on either side, the gully steepened until it fell into a deep cleft and I could not continue. I kept to the sidehill until I had passed the steepest part of the drop, then scrambled and slid to the bottom of the defile, where it was dark, cool and absolutely private, and the only sound was a thin trickle of falling water.
For a minute or two while my breathing slowed, even the sound of water faded from my consciousness. I was alone in that hollow of my solitude. Time slowed nearly to a stop. I was at my leisure to inspect the small, narrow place, and to reflect. My experiential world, utterly devoid of other humans or any sight or thought of them, was occupied only by sights, smells and the stories that the skin tells about temperature and humidity. Strangely, there were no sounds at all, though I know the waterfall couldn’t have stopped just because I had arrived. Heat flowed from my warm skin in all directions. The cool dark soil and stones of my immediate environment accepted my heat eagerly and retained nearly all of it. Little radiation came back to me — only the quiet browns of the cleft in the mountainside, reaching far above my head, the dark browns and greens of the tall corridor of trees above it, and a narrow, straight strip of bright blue far overhead, mirroring the tiny watercourse.
That strip of blue was my only window to the outside world. I gazed upward to and through it, outward through the atmosphere to a dark sky and bright stars that I could only imagine at that time of day, and imagined myself alone in the entire universe. I felt ecstatic to be in such a place. Just then, on the cusp of a wave of enormous solitary pleasure, a brilliant white jet contrail zipped open my hollow, flattening it as if it were the bosom of a broad prairie and exposing me. This was a perfect exception that proved a perfect rule about the geometry of solitude in the modern world. I really cherish concave places now, even though I still love a good thrill.
What do people do for solitude on the prairies? I don’t know, because I’ve never lived in a flat place, though I have visited grasslands. It doesn’t take much of a hollow to afford a sense of privacy, though, and the geometry is simple. Almost anything will do. The bomb craters I saw on the Plain of Jars in Laos are much bigger and would be better than anything I could have used when I was little, for example. A tall adult could stand in some of them and not come close to seeing out. I’ll bet that if their parents let them, Laotian children have been playing in those craters for a whole generation.
Laurence Evans, a graduate student at UBC, studied the spacing behaviour of humans lying on Vancouver beaches. At low densities, people picked places without considering where other people were already lying. This produced a statistically random distribution of bodies. At higher densities, people space themselves more and more regularly, and at the highest densities they are as regular as a crystal. As people packed themselves more and more tightly onto the beach, their spacing became more regular, and the distance between them approached what has been termed “personal distance.” Closer in than this, they felt crowded and uncomfortable, and tended either not to settle at all or to leave if someone else settled nearby. Farther away, they felt more at home. It makes sense for social beings to pay attention to the distance between themselves and others, of their own and other kinds.
Evans interviewed people from across the range of densities and learned something that we both found amusing. Only at the lowest densities, which usually occurred in winter or during inclement weather, did he find people at all like either of us. You know where I came from, and he grew up in small towns in the deserts of Idaho and Utah. Evans concluded that at least with respect to their enjoyment of beaches, people like he and I are misfits in the city. They hate the thought of sitting on a beach with huge numbers of people, and would much rather stay home than do that. They do other kinds of things for recreation. I have often wondered whether, if the sample could be large enough to perform the test, people would be more or less likely to enjoy crowded beaches after one of the field experiences that I will share with you next. Then I wondered whether it would be cause for celebration or mourning if they were less likely to enjoy it, as I expect they would be.
Precious Moments of Solitude
For years I ran a kind of field trip with many different groups in many places. I took several hundred people in all. One trip was with a group of high school biology teachers assembled as guests of the government from all over the United States for a year of graduate studies at the University of Oregon. The class was Laboratory and Field Methods in Biology, and I taught it in the summer. Because I was doing my own field research in California at the time, I concentrated the methods course into one 24-hour period each week — all Thursday afternoon and all morning Friday.
One challenge for science teachers is to explore the interface between themselves and other people in the context of nature. We spent the first afternoon doing that, sitting in a circle in long grass in the filbert orchard by the river. At the end of that session I announced that we would spend our second day exploring the interface between ourselves and nature, which is another major task of science teachers. I told them to meet at 4 a.m. prepared for any weather within 100 miles, an area that included both the crest of the Cascades and the seacoast, and told them nothing else.
In the morning we drove to the mouth of French Pete Valley. Because most of my students were both city folk and flatlanders, my assistant led the group up the trail and walked slowly so no one would freak out in the dark or trip and fall, and I brought up the rear. We walked silently in the dark for an hour, and then for most of another hour in the growing light. When it was light I whispered to the last person: “In the next minute or so, pick a place near the trail where you’d like to spend the next 3 hours alone.” I dropped each person in turn with simple instructions, and then was free to commune silently myself. I spent my time with an orb-weaving spider whose web spanned a tiny tributary of French Pete, near a minuscule waterfall, and reflected on what it is to trust my own support system.
Spider, you teach me to trust myself.
Extruding programmed strength from spinnerets which orchestrate organic steel,
Extending essence out,
Suspending secondary substances between the rocks which bank your stream, and
Hanging, back to rushing water, belly up,
Waiting patiently for flies to come,
You show hereditary confidence in what you are.
June 23, 1973
On another trip, to an oak-ash forest in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, I spent the first 3 hours alone outdoors without my glasses, which I began wearing in the 4th grade. I had been fascinated by the biologist Robert MacArthur’s demonstration that bird species in forests specialize by foraging in particular parts of the trees — crown, outer branches, trunk, etc. That work suggested that in their perception of place, birds may be more geometers than plant taxonomists, and I had wondered whether my ingrained habit of looking for details might interfere with my ability to perceive structure on coarser scales. So I took my glasses off to take the details away. Could I see “kinds of places” rather than merely “places”?
I am blind as a bat without my glasses, so much so that at the swimming pool as a child I could tell boys from girls only by the fact that girls’ swimming suits were bigger. I learned to distinguish individuals by subtle differences in how they moved, and I recognized several “styles” of walking. But as a biologist I was still a detail man, blinded to the forest by the trees and to patterns by their components. That day without my glasses, as I slowly became accustomed to walking into spider webs and branches, I became keenly aware that the forest was indeed composed of “kinds of places.” The kinds were obvious once I noticed them, and I could distinguish them easily by their gross shape, by the amount and colour of light they transmitted or reflected, and by other qualities that have been obvious to me since. Best of all, I discovered that some of those “kinds of places” were independent of tree species. MacArthur had given me reason to suspect that birds can see this way too.
Not long after that, barefoot in the stream above Tassajara Zen Center in the Big Sur Mountains of coastal California, this lesson came home again. I was with a sharp-eyed person who couldn’t see a bird or a lizard in front of her face unless it moved. Suddenly she exclaimed, “You don’t look for the bird, do you? You look for where it is!” Something like that is pretty accurate both for human observers and for the animals we observe, I think. In any case, JoAn has been able to see almost anything since.
At the end of my 3 hours alone with the spider, I collected my class one by one, spending a few minutes with each individual before the group arrived. Everyone experienced nature alone, with just one other person, and with a group of others who had just experienced something similar. Those intimate meetings were magical. One person signaled me to stop and be still. He had spent the entire time sitting quietly under a small western red cedar near the creek, and discovered suddenly that there was an active hummingbird nest only a foot from his face! I saw the mother arrive, feed her babies, and leave, and then it was time for us to leave them to their own kind of solitude.
Some people cried when I appeared; others laughed. Some wanted me to hold them quietly. Some announced changes of career, of place of residence, or of partnership. Some just smiled and displayed wonderful things they had discovered. Everyone on every trip was humbled, deeply moved emotionally, and stimulated intellectually. I am amazed by the power that we shared in those brief meetings, and inspired. I was a lucky boy, and the students were lucky to learn so powerfully.
Perhaps the most moving thing happened on the way back from that day at French Pete, when we stopped in Blue River for some lunch and a beer. One student, Paulette Wheeler, was a nun who had taught high school science in Los Angeles for many years. She sat serenely while the others animatedly shared their stories and insights. Then gradually the room grew quiet and everyone looked at her. She told us that the experience we had all had was spiritual in the deepest sense, but invited us just to call it “solitude” if we were uncomfortable with spirituality. She stressed there are many reasons to believe that everyone needs these kinds of experiences. Then I mentioned that only once in running that field trip several times a year for most of a decade had I encountered anyone, including my teaching assistants, who had spent as much as 3 hours absolutely alone, without props such as radios and cameras.
Previously, Paulette had considered this lack of solitude to result from simple choice of lifestyle, probably because she herself had learned to find solitude anywhere. However, during her 3 hours in French Pete Valley she realized that we need urban spaces that are conducive to that kind of experience. She was sure, and I agree with her, that those places needn’t be natural (otherwise we’re already dead as a culture!), but they must offer some degree of insulation from the bustle of human activity. Even the wonderful gardens at Tassajara Zen Center, in the Big Sur region of the California coast, are not natural. They are tended continually and intensively by people who find peace in their work. But they are quiet and they encourage contemplation.
On Nature and Creativity
Not long ago in Singapore, my taxi driver asked why I was there. I told him that I was working for a few months helping Science faculty at the National University of Singapore to increase opportunities for students to interact in developing creative problem-solving skills. I mentioned that a big part of solving problems is identifying them clearly, and then reminded him of the new national policy to emphasize these skills at all levels of education. I talked for a minute or two about cultural barriers to inquiry, both in my native North America and in Singapore. And then Wong Hong Kim — the taxi driver — made a wonderful connection. He said, “People who are closer to nature are more creative.”
My first thought was that his contention was far too simple. I stared at the decals on his windshield and thought of exceptions for a while. Then I questioned him about what he meant. It soon became clear that while he did mean what he said literally, he also meant something else that accounted for the exceptions I had thought of and that answered my big question about where all these stories of mine come from and what they are about. Being creative requires being close to our own nature, and living close to nature is a good way to learn about ourselves.
When Mr. Wong was seven years old, the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia moved south toward Singapore through the Malay peninsula. To avoid the Japanese soldiers, his family left the island of Singapore, moved part way up the peninsula, and went into the jungle to hide. Until the Japanese found the family, the young boy was free to explore his complex jungle environment, much as I explored mine in the forest. We lived in different ecosystems, slightly different times, and under different social and familial circumstances, and we were immersed in different kinds of cultures. Consequently we lived under different constraints, but I think that in both cases our parents wanted us to feel free.
Here is what I make of his message. When we learn to live in nature, as what my friend Carlos Galindo calls “Homo sylvaticus,” we learn to live fully. The vast, complex, and uncertain world of the forest occupies us completely. Living fully affords what Mr. Wong calls “life experience,” which is much more than knowledge. Living creatively is more than using knowledge to accomplish ends. We must understand which ends to attempt, which knowledge we need to achieve them, and how to apply it. We must also know what knowledge we lack, and how to get it. Life experience is wisdom, which people everywhere recognize is in short enough supply to respect and revere; especially in Asia.
Indeed, many of the most common complaints about modern education amount to our whining that students are not wise when they come to us. Propagated up the entire chain of education, this amounts to admitting that our students are not wise when they leave us, although some of my colleagues object loudly when I say this. As my mother suggested about various people (including me), our students are intelligent enough but not very “smart.” By smart, she meant “street smart,” or having common sense. An overly simple way of explaining this is that until we provide opportunities for people to learn as “Homo sylvaticus” learns, they won’t be wise — at least not in the same creative ways.
Mr. Wong, my taxi driver, worried that societies of conformists, as well as societies of city dwellers, contradict the idea of creative society. Along with this, a strong material bias tends to canalize people to envision, achieve and recognize value narrowly, and to restict their imagination. He considered that a narrow range of ways of looking at things is incompatible with the exercise of creativity. To him, living close to nature is a good way to discover how individuals and societies can avoid these problems. I could not agree with him more about any of this. Not only about Singapore, where I was a short-term visitor and about which I knew very little, but about Vancouver, Eugene, the Golden Ghetto and Dunsmuir. Mr. Wong and I shared a good loud laugh of celebration that we understood each other so well. And the 20 minute taxi ride cost me only about five Singapore dollars. What a deal!
A Postscript on Climate Control
In the hot, humid climate of Singapore, it is cold enough inside university buildings that many secretaries wear sweaters and some wear coats. One night I stepped off an “aircon” bus and into another world. Although it was especially hot and humid outside that night, the bus was as cool and insular as a university building. As I got off the bus, a swirling cloud of steam enveloped my body, and I could see nothing. I wondered whether the bus was exploding, but soon realized that I was experiencing something I have known all my life, but in a new and surprising context. I was not enveloped in a cloud of steam at all. The cloud was limited to my cold glasses, which fogged as I stepped outside. That has been happening to me since the 4th grade, especially on buses, but when I step inside, not outside. The tropical context was so new that I didn’t recognize it as the same. Once I did, the new context for the old phenomenon was different enough that I learned new things.
I didn’t remove or attempt to clear my glasses. Instead, because I knew the way and had little reason to be concerned, I walked “in” the fog for most of the way home from the bus, reveling in the view. It was like that day in the oak-ash forest without my glasses, when taking them off opened a window to experience the world differently and deepened my insight into how vertebrate vision functions in the economy of nature. This time, leaving them on allowed me to see in a new and powerful, if less precise, way. At first, the normally seamless coupling of my n-dimensional visual experience of the world, and my visual experience of moving through it, was broken. I knew I was walking through deep, complex 3D, but I could not see that directly because my visual world was flat. I did not see through my glasses and they did not “correct” my vision as they normally do. Rather, the outside world was projected onto the foggy surface of the lenses from one side and I observed those flat screens from the other.
Lights appeared as rings or halos on the flat foggy field of my glasses, and I saw nothing else in the dark. The halos moved across this field as I walked, but this motion was neither random nor uncoordinated. On the fast time scale of my stepping (not quite as fast as usual, I admit) they all moved in unison, reflecting the finest motions of my head and jiggling each time my heels hit the ground. Their much slower motion in relation to each other told me where they were in depth and where I was in relation to them, and this was the main source of information for the navigation that got me home (of course, sounds were also important). Some time before my glasses cleared, I realized that my left and right visual fields differed slightly, and that I had begun to derive a sense of depth from this binocular disparity. During those few minutes, I began by not seeing anything of the real world, then realized that I saw, and finally realized that what I saw mapped accurately if imprecisely to that world. I ended with a keen visual sense of my environment that allowed me to navigate.
I was aware throughout this visual experience that it occurred in extremely artificial circumstances, yet the physical and biological processes through which it unfolded were entirely natural. I enjoyed it and experienced it intensely, possibly to an unwise and dangerous degree. I do not apologize for that. In fact I cherish the capacity to enjoy such things, even if sometimes I deplore that the opportunity to experience them exists for me. But such opportunities are before me in every moment of every day. What should I do? More and more, I choose to experience them intensely within the constraints of my immediate situation. I choose to enjoy them for whatever they are worth rather than waste my time and my life deploring them. Yet sometimes I deplore things.
The warm buildings and buses in which I learned to experience foggy glasses in my youth are themselves artifacts, won at great expense from the environment that supports us all. So are buses, air conditioners, universities and glasses. But what to deplore and what to cherish? Are the deplored and the cherished elements of living necessarily incompatible? Perhaps because I have worn glasses for nearly as long as I can remember, it would not be easy for me to make a simple split in this case between “natural” and ... what? I’m not as clear about any of these things as I once was.