The Riverway: Field Notes for a Contemplative Ecology
Currently being drafted and seeking publication
This book is a river. These bound leaves of paper, mottled with ink like tracks across mud and sand, flow and shift like a river through the landscape. Of course, this is just a metaphor—but that’s the point. Though you will find no trout literally swimming in the eddies of this book, I am suggesting that you will find more than a few metaphors aimed at making clear the consonance between seemingly disparate realities. Foremost, the realities that I am hoping to demonstrate as deeply consonant with one another are the ecologies of living breathing organisms and the ecology of the human mind and heart.
Human beings, like every single organism alive on the planet today, are the product of over four billion years of evolution. We share this basic fact of existence with foxes, maple trees, and the thousands, if not millions of organisms that live out of sight and out of mind in the soil. It is nearly impossible to talk about anything ecologically without also speaking of it evolutionarily. The form and function of every being has been ground down, refined, and honed to the sharpest point by natural selection—the process whereby the forms, organisms, and populations that are the most fit for survival are maintained. The word “fit” here, should not be misunderstood, as it often is, to mean the strongest competitors. Ecological communities consist of at least as much cooperation as they do competition and so fitness might best be imagined as “fitting in.”
This is all a roundabout way to say that we all more than a little bit related—ferns, mushrooms, grackles, and humans. Not to mention rivers, mountains, rain, glaciers, and the other abiotic “beings” that have made a difference, both in our psyche and in our survival. Of course, no one with even just a bit of ecological or evolutionary literacy contests that human beings are essentially natural and interrelated with the rest of the earth’s communities. But that is not what this book is truly about. Rather, it is about the shape of the human mind and heart—the subjective ecologies of thinking and meaning that make up our inner landscapes, and the relatedness we share in this way with the meaning of the rest of wild nature. Implicit in this is the assumption that meaning is not just something we humans project out on the world but is inherent to it, like wetness to water. We share it, therefore, with the rest of our ecological community in the same way we might share respiration and vision.
Update 3/30/2015: Work on The Riverway still progresses, like the gradual smoothing of river stones by water. The current draft, which is likely to be the final draft before proper editing, is approximately 60% complete. Two chapters have been published in abridged form in literary journals. Those can be read here:
The River and its Way (The Wayfarer Vol. 3 Issue 4) 2014
Every Mountain is Cold Mountain (Whitefish Review #11) 2012
One way of looking at an ecosystem is as a complex community of organisms through which energy flows and within which a variety of materials and nutrients are cycled. Another way is as polyphonic poetry. Neither has a greater claim on reality so long as you realize that poetry and empiricism—mythos and logos—are simply two different ways of coming to know the world. If you want to know how much nitrogen an oak forest releases annually through leaf litter, empiricism is the best game in town. On the other hand, if you want to know the meaning of an oak forest and how we might live ethically and aesthetically in relation to it, then you must learn to listen to the poetry of things and find your place within it. Both questions, I believe, are essential to our future on this planet.