We aren’t working alone

The paradigm that governs how we see ourselves in relation to nature can influence  and heal our feelings of hopelessness…

Despondency is real.

Feeling hopeless is real.

Feeling ineffectual is real.

As nurses advocating for environmental care for the sake of health, it gets lonely out there, in our places of work and advocacy. We can feel so small against the massive machine that constitutes government and business that forms the framework we operate in. It’s easy to give up, stop fighting for change, go with the flow.

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The bush blooming – but with invading lantana and privet – yet even invasive species have a role to play in soil restoration.

A personal story…

I remember one particular day walking from my car across the bridge to work, when I felt particularly hopeless. It seemed that everything I, and others, did was meaningless.  Every attempt to get a hospital to think differently about environmental impact only mattered if it meant saving money. Every person I spoke to had a reason not to try. How could I even think of making a difference when the difference seemed so small?

As I walked, feeling crushingly despondent and powerless, I found myself aware of the breeze behind me, and the trees around me, the incessant chirping of fledgling Noisy Miners in the trees, the call of currawongs and a kookaburra somewhere along the river. In that moment I became deeply aware that I wasn’t alone in my pursuit of survival. All of nature is occupied with the same thing we are – the will to live, thrive, express and be.

I started listing what I knew about the resilience of nature. I have read about some birds becoming resilient to the levels of radiation around Chernobyl; areas of land that have been degraded and poisoned become fertile and healthy again as certain plants absorb and convert toxins. I have heard of bacteria that consume parts of oil spills and fungi that break down plastic. The world around us is constantly adapting and creating, finding new ways to be, to survive, to express. I considered the dandelion – that most persistent little plant, often labelled a weed, which finds a home in any crack or corner and lets its blooms go to seed even if it’s pulled up by the roots. And dandelions are a source of healing, food and tea. We are never alone. All of nature is working with us. The little dandelion has become my symbol of perseverance.

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Dandelion -resilient and healing.

Shifting the paradigm…

This awareness of being part of nature and environment is fundamental to the dramatic shift in thinking we need in order to address the environmental challenges we (humans, animals, plants and all manner of creatures) face.

If we fall into the trap of thinking it’s only up to us to fix and clean the planet, then we are back where we started – thinking of ourselves as the only actors acting on everything else and labelling it “other” – the non-human world.It’s easy to approach sustainability with the same mindset that got us where we are now – one that views humanity as somehow separate from, and above the realm of nature. This view has allowed us to make great scientific leaps as we looked at the world mechanistically – where each thing under scrutiny could be understood as a sum of its parts, with some  more intricate than others. It also means that we easily fall into that old habit of looking at sustainability and environmental care as something to be dealt with in a similar way – a series of problems to be solved that we humans – masters of everything? – can surely achieve. Except the world as it is now, is not the same as the world when the industrial era began. The Einstein quote holds true, that we can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it.

So, I’d like to offer a challenge to all of us to work with this thought experiment, seeing ourselves as part of the systemic whole of the interrelating biosphere, so that instead of feeling like we need to fix everything ourselves, we start becoming aware of how other parts of the biosphere are also at work, adjusting, adapting, transforming – yes, with losses, but also with innovations. Some of those changes will be challenging as we cope with the rise of threats to our well-being, but some of them will be helpful – like organisms that can transform waste into more useful parts or render toxic substances less toxic. If we see ourselves as deeply part of this biosphere, we can then see our actions as something supported in harmony with what all of life is out to achieve – thriving creatively, being that amazing complex edge of the universe unfolding and expressing in physical form.

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Wood ducks viewed from the bridge in the early morning near my place of work.

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
― Wendell Berry

Learning Bees

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Have you learnt about any animals or other creatures lately? Or is that just a distant memory of school days? Do you remember learning about bees? What if, instead of learning about bees, you learnt bees?

I’d best explain. It’s easy to learn about bees. You can hear about their life cycle, how they dance to communicate, how and why they make the honey we love so much and so forth. However, there is a small problem with that little word, “about”. Yes, it’s true we use the word to gather up a collection of features concerning the subject. However, it also means “in the area around”, which seems to imply never quite getting to the thing, itself.

Here’s another illustration: I am currently a nurse by profession. Another nurse may hand over a patient to me, and tell me about the patient. I will learn what the patient’s name and birthdate are, as identifiers. I will be told what procedure the patient might be having in the event of surgery, what allergies the patient has and any other important medical details. Now I know all about my patient, but I do not know my patient. I do not know my patient’s character, life experiences, fears, passions or dreams. The reality is until a nurse knows his or her patient as a fellow human being, (barring the exceptional few) the nurse-patient relationship will be rather impersonal. We tend to equate “impersonal” with “lacking warmth”, “uncaring”.

5-DSC_0838As long as traditional teaching methods keep us focussing on the “about” that we are required to regurgitate in exams and essays, we will never care very much for our subject. Imagine if we were taught “bee-ness” or “tree-ness” or “eagle-ness” instead, learning to use our imaginations to delve deeply into what it might feel like to be that bee buzzing from flower to flower. Imagine sensing what a bee might sense – the large, looming shadow of a human nearby, creating distortions in the air, sounds experienced at different vibrations and awareness of potential danger in the possibility of a spider lurking under the petals.

2-DSC_0833Development of this sort of imaginative awareness of other creatures is the beginning of broadening empathy and creating a network of caring. If we can teach ourselves, our friends and our children, to use their imaginations in this way, I believe we can strengthen our network of care for our planet immeasurably. This will inevitably include care of our fellow human beings, as we strengthen our ability to imagine walking in another’s shoes and thus learn people, as well as bees, trees and other animals.

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Moving beyond fear

I recently watched a TED Talk by Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability. Obviously, her context was that of relating to, or connecting with, people, but it had me thinking about how fear prevents us connecting our environment.

When I was very young, it was still relatively safe for me to be able to spend time in the veld behind our house, west of Johannesburg in South Africa. I remember the walk cutting across a corner to the shops and my friend’s house. I used to ramble off the path examining the great variety of veld flowers and grasses, some of which I never saw again after a few more years of veld fires.

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View looking the length of Silvermine Nature Reserve towards Simonstown and Cape Point

It became less safe to ramble alone as the years went by, but it was something I still did, defiantly and against all advice, when we lived in the Cape before moving to Australia. It took work – on myself, overcoming fear, practising being alert, carrying a stick – to take those walks on lonely stretches of beach or in the Silvermine Nature Reserve. I didn’t once meet anyone other than a ranger, but that doesn’t make the danger less real – less real than happening on an aggressive and deadly adder in the path, which didn’t occur either.

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View from Silvermine Nature Reserve, with Table Mountain on the left under cloud.

When I made my first tentative excursions into local reserve areas here in Sydney, I was, initially nervous. Although far from those forested areas notorious for disappearing hikers later turning up murdered, I still wasn’t “safe”, merely safer than I might have been taking the same walk in South Africa –and now the list of potentially deadly creatures was even longer, after all we all know Australia is out to kill us one way or another (or so we like to tease the tourists).

The trouble was that taking those first tentative walks alone, fearfully, hindered my connection to the environment. I was on high alert, jumpy, not knowing what was between the trees, or, on a searing hot day, I felt as if the whole forest might burst into flame around me at any second. When it’s a season for big golden orb weavers, one starts wondering how long before one walks into one of those webs – one that isn’t just above head height –  to find oneself face to face with the Aussie equivalent of Shelob. As one faces age old primal fears every story one was told as a child hovers in the background: don’t go out into the woods – there’s a wolf, a wicked witch, you’ll get lost, there’s a bear, there’s a gnome who will grant you a wish you’ll regret…

This is the junction where nature seems to become the physical embodiment of our own hidden and subconscious selves – the realm of emotions, dark thoughts and fears, our own inner wildness, that which defies complete knowing and control; that which we’ve been taught to batten down, hide, lock up and don’t let out. Follow the suppression far enough and you’ll reach the point where death is driven from our collective consciousness, hidden away in grim hospitals or on distant battlefields, or in some other land of starving children – little more than pictures in a brochure disturbing the glass-like surface of our lives – with a request for money.

Fear keeps us in our cities where we create different sorts of jungles and forests, the sort that tell us a story of our dominance and control of all that is wild and free. It’s a strange trade, because in the end we have been so focussed on the story of fear and danger and death, we’ve forgotten that those forests, those wild and natural places are intimately bound up with our physical survival, let alone our psychological and spiritual. It is no coincidence that mental health involves being able to listen to one’s emotions before they turn into monsters, that threaten to devour us in their desperation for our attention.

I confronted my fear. I learnt that I was safer than I first felt. I put it in perspective. It was in feeling safer that I was able to start to listen, feel and watch, turning my walks into slow meanderings that let the forest seep into me. As I relaxed, I became one with the forest – breathing in the special damp leaf eucalyptus smell, feeling it work its therapy on me in that oxygen-rich way.

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Bidjigal Reserve, Baulkham Hills, Sydney

I became conscious of how I was spreading myself in the forest too – skin cells, loose hairs, a scrape that left a smidgeon of blood, …the forest and I were swapping the microbiota of our existence as I got dirt under my fingernails, splinters from a rough-barked tree or paused to shift a leaf to see a bird or flower. The better I got to know the place and its denizens, the more I felt connected to this part of my environment.

Yes, vulnerability is part of it. I may get bitten by mosquitoes and one of them may carry disease. I may find a poisonous snake in my path, or I may stumble and break a bone. Such is the very nature of being alive – truly alive. There is always risk,  and it’s only in being prepared to take that risk that we can connect with the environment, with our own inner selves and with each other.

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From Noticing to Seeing

There are three particular trees across the road from me in the park area. I have given them names of sorts. There is the Dragon tree – an7-1179 old rough eucalypt, with stringy bark, and blood red sap, that defies identification. It hides a myriad spiders and beetles in the dark and dusty nooks and crannies of its base. It doesn’t look beautiful in the usual way. It’s liable to make people think of dark things in the night that bite, and they will probably warn their children away from it.
 

 

Then2-1165 there is the Grandmother Tree – a lemon gum. She is huge, her bark shiny white at the right time, but currently a sort of dusky pink, as we are nearing the end of bark fall. My arms would not even go half way round her old trunk, and she stretches high and always had cockatoos,
lorikeets or rosellas nesting in one or other hole.

 

Lastly, there’s the Vision tree, which has eyes in its trunk. I did find out what it was called but I’ve forgotten. It doesn’t matter. Perhaps you will recognise it from the picture. I like to sit with my back to it and imagine it helps me find my way through difficulties.

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I paid a visit to these trees while out walking, yesterday, and as I did so, I considered the nature of feeling connected to environment. To be perfectly honest, I actually stood with my hand on each tree and asked them to help me figure this connection thing out, and no, I’m not crazy. I’m just imaginative and creative.

The realm of connection – feeling connected to others – starts in infancy before we have language. Connection is about feelings, emotions, and sensory cues – touch, sight, sound, taste, smell and intuition. None of these things require a language of words. Instead they require art, creativity – the things our subconscious brain loves. Oh yes – words become helpful once we grow, as the acquisition of language allows us to build images or pictures with words and bridge the gap or guard the gate between our conscious and sub-conscious awareness.

I suggested, in my last post, that the very beginning of feeling connected to environment was “noticing”. Now I will suggest that the next step involves the senses – not just noticing, but seeing – taking in, pausing for a moment.
Listen actively to the birds. If you listen carefully you will begin to notice more clearly the many nuances to their chatter, and you will start to appreciate that you are hearing complex language, not just mindless twittering.
When you notice a tree, let the artistry of it sink in. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a naturally growing tree (un-hacked by humans) that isn’t artistic in the way it arranges itself.
If you have the time and inclination, you may like to try a Taoist tree meditation.
Oh – and on the subject of being aware of and connected to the environment, today is the longest day in the southern hemisphere, so I wish you all a wonderful Alban Hefin.