This Is Not a Garden: Thoughts on Ecology and Immigration

I’m taking a series of gardening classes and this first one is about ecology. My brain is out of practice at paying attention to an instructor for three hours, and it’s already decided this first session is not what I came for. I’m consumed with figuring out how to grow more than three tomatoes a year and I can’t see how learning about ecosystems is going to help. My mind tries to wander off into some other odd territory.

To stay focused, I dutifully draw my own version of this triangle the instructor is discussing, explaining what kinds of plants will thrive in what sort of situation. As I finish, something clicks. Not about plants, but about humans.

Yes, I get how the adaptable plants win in a harsh environment. Witness the dessert cactus, the marshy sea grass and the northern lichens.

In places of havoc and tragedy, where death is frequent and unpredictable, I can see how plants that put most of their energy into procreation survive as a species. Ferns, ground covers like clover, and the common dandelion persist amid fires and flood.

I’ve labeled the top of my triangle “lucky plants” but these are not the instructor’s words. The top triangle is a well kept garden, given plenty of water, sunshine and fertile soil. The instructor says if you remove human care, the plants will not all stay in their neat rows in the proportions the humans have selected. Some will thrive and some will dwindle, and which does what is determined by how aggressive the plant is. Yes, in a place where life is easy, over time the more aggressive plants win.

I think humans have some sense of this and, to our detriment, some of us have taken to applying this philosophy to our politics. Allow me to explain with a diagram.

True, we have our own societies which have adapted to harsher climates around the world. The dessert, the far north and the Australian Outback all present challenges. When the situation is extreme enough, human populations face little competition for their niche.

Yes, historically, populations at the mercy of ongoing wars, and of natural disasters like frequent floods, wide-spread disease or famine, have tended to have more offspring, in hopes of having some survive.

It’s at the top of the triangle where I think we run into trouble.

First, I don’t think we begin to understand how the plant kingdom is interconnected and really works. So, this particular view of ecology may not be fair or accurate as far as plants are concerned. But even if it was ….

…. we’re not plants. We lack the gift of the plant kingdom, to obtain all we need from the sun and the soil. In return for having to devour other life to stay alive, we get mobility. With that comes the chance to rapidly alter our locations and to shape our environment.

We’ve got these terrific brains that get us in all sorts of trouble, but also allow us to improve our landscape and increase our resources. We can think our way into trouble, but we can also think our way out of it.

We have hearts. I don’t mean in the literal sense, though those are great, too. We have empathy and compassion and somewhere deep inside a sense of the way we are all interconnected. In our souls, we don’t want a life of ease at the expense of having others suffer. We aren’t oak trees crowding out the pines or killing off the grass. We can pretend otherwise, but a healthy human feels sadness at another’s loss.

We need to understand that we don’t live in a garden and we don’t have to beat others off with a stick lest they try crowd us out of it. We need to build our policies based on the philosophy of being entirely capable of working with others to make the our environment better and safer for all. With the sense and compassion that are our birthright as a species, we could have a planet in which we all thrive. So put those sticks away.

Class is ending and I gather up my notes and doodles. No, nothing in today’s class is going to help me grow more tomatoes. However, I think I might have a great idea for my blog.

 

A better word than peace?

Writing books makes you aware of the many things for which we don’t have word, or even a particularly good phrase. My online thesaurus gives me twelve pretty useful synonyms for “worry” but it struggles to provide a single adequate one for peace.

One problem is that we stick this poor five letter word with so many meanings. There is lack of armed conflict (armistice). There is quiet (silence), there is inner peace (enlightenment), there is lack of argument (agreement) and there is actually getting along (harmony). Do we all want peace. Of course we do. What kind?

When I first crafted the 46. Ascending collection in my head, I knew that the first book was going to be about peace, and I knew just what sort of peace I had in mind. I was building something, a concept of the pull and tug of life that tied to colors in my head. (I think in color a lot, sometimes to the point where I suspect I have some sort of mental disorder associated with it.) It looked like this picture below, but without the Microsoft Office Chart feel to it.Yes, my first book was red, the color of war, and it was going to be about peace. It made perfect sense to me because red is the color of blood, the color of heart, and the starting color. You know, red for Aries, the first sign of the zodiac and red for the base chakra and all that.

I knew that the sort of peace I had in mind was tied to empathy, that wonderful quality of being able to put oneself in the shoes of another and feel their fears and pains. Microsoft Office also struggles with words for empathy, suggesting compassion, sympathy and identification, none of which quite do the job.

The word I needed meant this.

A lack of armed conflict or even argument due to the kind of deep understanding that we all would have if we could see into the hearts and minds of others.

Needles to say, I could not find a word or a succinct phrase that came close to capturing the concept.

I’d gotten to this odd place because I was determined to write a book about telepathy, which to me is just empathy on steroids, an actual ability to wear the shoes of another. I was, and still am, fascinated by questions such as: could you harm another person if you were a telepath? Hate them? Kill them? Remember, you’re not just hearing their thoughts; you are feeling their feelings.

There are, of course, some quandaries. What about those doing things so heinous that they must be stopped, no matter what the internal rational? Do real humans do such awful things? Yes, we know that they do, though not nearly as often as entertainment, the news and feuding politicians would have you believe. But yes, I do know that there is a time to fight.

That would become the subject of another book, on the other side of the color wheel. For me, green would become the color of courage, another word which is harder to define than one would think.

(For more thought on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than hope?, A better word than joy? and A better word than courage?)

 

Happy Peace Day, Safari Guides Leonard and Marcos

I just missed seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World a couple of weeks ago, and at the time I didn’t even want to be there. I guess that is how wonders sometimes go.

I and my traveling companions had a rough long drive on bad dirt roads to get to Masai Mara, a large Kenyan game reserve contiguous with the Serengeti. We were off on the adventure of a life time. But, our van broke down on the way, so we also had a couple of hours standing by the side of the road while similar vans and jeeps bounced by us and the zebra watched from a distance as we stood in the dust. Adventures don’t always go as planned. Finally, our unflappable guide Leonard flagged down another van.

An equally amenable guide named Marcos, and his two tourists, took us into their fold and got us to our camp. The next day, Leonard, who would not be deterred from seeing that we got what we came for, drove us deep into the game reserve in our newly repaired vehical. We saw lions and elephants, rhinos, water buffalo and even the elusive leopard before our van broke down again.

Now, Leonard is a man who spends most of his days driving people as close to lions in the wild as he can. He puts up with their complaints and inane requests while he figures out where to best park his van so it won’t get trampled by the elephants. He troubleshoots his vehicle as easily as he scans the bushes for cheetah before he directs his squirming passengers to quick run behind the vehicle and pee as fast as they are able.

I should note that he maintained a straight face every time our party of four women dissolved into giggles as we did this. He pretty well defines calm.

But, we could tell that even he was a tad concerned by this second, more remote breakdown. Soon, he was on the radio calling for a tow truck, and somebody to help with us.

After awhile, a van came by and, of course, it was Marcos. He, and his two less-than-thrilled clients, had not been far away when they heard the distress call. “Don’t worry about it,” he assured us. “We help each other out here. Next time, Leonard rescues my people, right?” His people responded to that with nervous little smiles.

“We just want to go back to camp,” we told him. “We’ve seen everything today.” Continual car trouble is exhausting business. But Marcos had a dilemma. His people, a young couple from Mexico, both grad students in the U.S., had come to Kenya wanting to see one thing more than anything else. And it happened this time of day, on the far edges of the reserve along the Mara River near where we were. We had to go along.

“It’s one of seven wonders of the world,” Marcos whispered to us. “They want to see it very badly.”

What could we say. A wonder of the world? We were lucky to have a ride back to camp at all, so off we went to watch the wildebeests cross the Mara River.

Now, Marcos hadn’t been exactly accurate. In November 2006 the USA Today and the television show Good Morning America created a list of New Seven Wonders chosen by six judges and the Great Migration of the Serengeti and Masai Mara was picked as one of them. This migration included this thing our new travel companions wanted to see, which was the wildebeests swimming across the river.

Turns out wildebeests are timid creatures. Deep in their instinctual hearts they know they must cross the river to get to greener grazing. They also know that while they are safest as a large group, no matter how large the group is, crocodiles will eat some of them as they cross and rhinos will attack others. Not all will not survive the crossing.

Zebras have far more crotchety personalities, and wildebeests need a few zebras to lead them. Even then, they gather together, approach the waters edge, then back off in fear. Wildebeest friends who’ve already made the crossing call to them to come, and after awhile they gather their courage again and approach the waters edge.

This process goes on for hours, as we found out sitting in our rescue van waiting. Windows had to be kept closed due to dust, engines shut off, voices hushed. There must have been twenty or thirty vans and jeeps like ours, quietly waiting and watching while the wildebeests collectively weighed starvation of the many against death by crocodile for a few. I could appreciate that it was a tough choice.

Marcos did his best to sooth us, his unwilling passengers, as fatigue set in and claustrophobia grew while his two paying customers took endless photos of the timid wildebeests. Finally he declared “This is it. They are about to do it.” Even I felt the excitement.

But he wasn’t the only guide paying attention. One of the fancier jeeps revved up its engine and took of in a noisy cloud of dust for a better view. The shocked wildebeests jumped at the sound,  starred at our vehicles like they had just noticed them, and then ran away from the river as one. There would be no crossing that day.

Marcos’s calm frayed at bit. “Stupid,” he muttered. “Now they don’t get to cross, and we don’t get to see anything.”

Like I said, I almost saw one of the seven wonders of the world, and it probably would have been amazing. As we drove back to camp we passed Leonard being towed out of the game reserve and he gave us a friendly wave.

Thursday, September 21, is the 2017 International Day of Peace. I always write about it on this blog, and I try to wish happiness to someone I’ve met in the past year from far away. This year, times being what they are, I’m giving those greetings early and often. So …

“Happy Peace Day, world class safari guides Leonard and Marcos. I wish your calm patience, and spirit of cooperation were as common in my world as they appear to be on the plains of Kenya.”

Actually, I more than wish it. I think we need to get these guys involved in solving some world problems. Seems to me that we could apply what they bring to the table to at least five or six different international crises that come to mind.

So let me rephrase my wish.

“Happy Peace Day, Leonard and Marcos. May your year be filled with few engine problems and grateful customers. By the way, any chance you could find the time lend a hand to rest of us here, as we bumble around trying to figure out how to get along? We really could use the help.”