Not related to Pumpkins? Go pick your own family.
Image (c) Dave Rosane
“You must have a very interesting ecology.”
"A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature . . ."
- Albert Einstein.
First time I’d ever heard any body say that to me before. Been a naturalist all my life, worked with professional academics for decades. I choked on my coffee and some came squirting back out my nose.
“Excuse me. Your name again?” I asked, a tad embarrassed.
“Un placer, David.”
The guy was in his fifties. Stocky, standard issue mustache, jeans and a short-sleeved checkered shirt. We’d converged on a Sunday brunch hosted by our mutual friend Lucas and found ourselves sitting next to each other, throwing back mushroom-stuffed wonton and Caribbean fish balls topped with chili sauce. Our table was wedged between two large manioc plants in a corner of Lucas’s small overgrown apartment. Marcel had asked me one simple question: Where are you from?
It’s never been an easy one to answer.
“I don’t know,” I quipped, at first.
“You don’t know? Where’s that?”
He wiped the sweat off his brow with a napkin, swallowed a fish ball. Outside, Harlem was steaming. August in New York City, life in the machine; take 350 square miles of impervious cover, throw in the exhaust from 1,2 million cars, smother it with heat generated by 8 million so called air conditioners et voila, you get the ‘urban heat-island effect’, euphemism for Hell.
“To make a long story short I am from the US, I said, except I was born in Guyana, then my folks moved to Montreal when I was 5, then to France when I was 10. I went to school there and worked in Paris as a writer, then I did some research on chemical ecology in the rainforests of Venezuela, where I was adopted by a native tribe, and in Peru and the Dominican Republic for ten years working with Cornell University. Then I moved here to New York, 4 years ago, my first time living in my own country - my whole life. MY wife and I just moved to Vermont.”
“I tell you, you have a very interesting ecology.”
Marcel was a tropical ecologist, from Peru. I had actually heard of his work, had even perused some of his publications. He’d spent years with the Mestizo up and down the Amazon, looking at slash and burn dynamics, life in the flooded forest. He was now in the US, teaching. Like most Latino intellectuals, his English was perfect, better than mine, except his accent was riper than goat cheese and he’d pepper it with the odd Spanish idiom. For the sake of identity, I assumed.
“Thank you” I said, after a moment’s hesitation.
“For what?” Marcel swept his teeth with his tongue then went for another greasy wad of fish.
“Well I’m assuming that by ‘interesting ecology’, you’re referring to the sum of all my relationships to the world. I’m not used to someone qualifying my life history like I was some migratory bird.”
“Si senor. Ecology, from the Greek Oikos, meaning household – or home. Mi casa es tu casa. Are you not from planet earth?”
(Marcel spoke with the calm authority and wit of the alpha male. Most academics have this uncanny ability to turn any first conversation into either something like a job interview, a cock fight or the archetypal relationship between mentor-to-mentee. They sense rank very quickly, then set up a hierarchy – like trying to talk to a wolf. Or a Rabbi. Marcel had graciously opted for the mentor-to-mentee.)
“So go on, di me, why do you thank me? Are you really a migratory bird?”
I responded rather emotionally:
“Because my whole life I’ve been trying to describe myself as other do, in terms of nationality, by cultural affiliation, or socio-economic cast, but to no avail. It gets frustrating. I’m like some freaking quantum particle, from no place in particular. Always different, always the stranger - the eternal flatlander. Now, thanks to you, your affirmation, I can simply assert that I’m from planet earth, an ecological entity.”
“You said you’re married, David?”
“French woman. Her name is Valerie. She’s an actress.”
“ We just adopted a boy last year, our first, he’s going on one.”
“ Well, you shouldn’t have to worry here.”
“You mean here in New York?”
“No, I mean here, in Lucas’s apartment.”
Marcel winked, he was referring to all the guests in the room: Latinos, Pakistanis, Blacks, Jews, dancers, scientists, gays, artists, a peppering of French. All of them activists too, in one form or another. Love mongerers. Gardeners. Grass roots dudes. Think, ‘global rhizome’.
“In this country you call them minorities, David, in the rest of the world we call ourselves the majority.”
I realized I was the only straight, white American male in the room.
“Consider me in, Marcel!”
I asked my friend if he’d ever heard of Paul Hawken. He hadn’t. I relayed Hawken’s idea that us modern day eco-freako oddballs & peace-and-justice wonks constitute the biggest movement in the history of humanity, except this time we don’t follow just one ideology - we’re more like an alliance of creeds, a non zero-sum smorgasbord of different philosophies.
“In ecology we call that a symbioses. Escuchame bien, David. Humanity is growing up. Developmental psychologists say we have the capacity to reach a sort of pan-cultural conscience, to see the world as one, as family. We can transcend the exclusiveness of the conventional group, learn to be of service to the whole. This is a radical idea, but just listen to people like Desmond Tutu, they’re saying the same thing. Bush, Bin Laden, you, me, same family. Besides, geneticists have found that we’re a very young species. We descend from an evolutionary bottleneck of a few thousand individuals, 120 thousand years ago.”
The room around us was full of beans. A raunchy joke here, an explosion of laughter there and Terry, our host’s partner, a human rights watchdog-turned law student was now pounding out some Chopin Mazurka on the piano. The whole place sounded like the roaring 1920’s – only with brains attached. I noticed a small, stingless bee entering the room through the open window. It found one of Lucas’s mint plants and started pollinating.
Marcel spotted the bee at once:
“Epa, que interesante… you know I’ve been looking at stingless bees and harvesting of medicinal honey in Peru… que chula, mira la alli”
Marcel was obviously in love, with the bee.
“You know there’s honey bees all over this City, I pointed out. I’ve heard they’re hundreds of those stingless bee species here in the states, too, but most have never even been studied. Some of them never even been named. I was with New York Park’s chief naturalist a few years ago, Mike Fellar, he was doing a nature walk through Inwood park in northern Manhattan (I pointed westward, towards Inwood). Mike’s this sort of uncanny Zen Taoist scientist guy, probably the wisest dude in the City, and we saw a stingless bee just like this one and he simply pointed out to the people in attendance that the animal was probably new to science. Everybody went “ooh” and “ah” . He added that places like the Amazon or the human genome or the other side of the universe usually get all the publicity for being the ‘last frontier’, when in fact the last frontier was right in front of us, all around us, in among us, like this bee pollinating a flower in the woods of northern Manhattan, and that we took it entirely for granted.”
“You know.. you have to be careful, David.”
Marcel shifted his tone entirely and looked straight back at me, grabbing another napkin:
“These are dangerous times, muchacho. The Cheney’s and the Clintons of this world, it’s not that they don’t care about stingless bees, it’s that they know precisely how much people like you do. And it frightens them.”
I realized who Marcel reminded me of. Anthony Quinn, in Zorba the Greek.
“What do you mean?” I asked, timidly.
Marcel wiped some more Manhattan sweat of his brow, then pointed an oratorical index in my general direction:
“David, these so-called world leaders, they see the wave we represent better than we can see ourselves. That’s their biggest advantage – perspective. This is why they’re running around trying to occupy stuff like Iraq. Es que tienen miedo. Right now they’re building fortifications, hoarding what’s left… Believe me, they know all about Peak Oil, and a lot more about everything than you think they do. The word in this country is that Bush es un cabron, un idiota. This is false. These are business men, and women, executives, and they are making smart business decisions, from their point of view – this is the nature of power, David.”
Lessons in world ecology. Marcel’s exposé reminded me of the Chomsky line ‘Don’t speak truth to Power because power already knows the truth – how else could it be in power? Speak truth to the people! No doubt he was also hinting at a simple law of nature - the law of diminishing marginal returns. It explains how the bigger the empire or company or country, the bigger the power structure, the more and more complex it gets, the more and more difficult and expensive it becomes for it to sustain its own growth, until it bottom outs. History? A 15000 year old Domino of consecutive implosions, since the first city states of Mesopotamia. Pouf, pouf, pouf.
“So, di me David, what is it your parents did?”
Marcel leaned back in his chair. Started working his teeth with a toothpick.
“My dad worked for a Canadian transnational, they were called multinationals at the time. ALCAN, the Aluminum Company of Canada.”
“Extracting Bauxite, selling Aluminum?”
“I guess. Worked all over the globe. Japan, Africa, you name it. We moved around as a family a lot, my folks took me to Botswana on safari as a kid. They’re originally from New Jersey and Connecticut, respectively.”
“You have a lot to be grateful for, David. Tu papa, did he fight in world war 2?”
A seagull flew passed the window, heading south, probably towards the reservoir, in Central Park.
I pointed it out: “Larus marinus - Great Black-backed Gull.”
Marcel wanted to know how I got so interested in nature.
“Well, I figured, being born in the rainforest of Guyana probably helped. We were basically living in a mining town on the banks of the Demerara river that had been carved out of the jungle. You know, parrots squawking overhead, hummingbirds on the Veranda, toucans and howler monkeys, snakes in our cribs, that sort of thing. Throw in a Victorian interest in creation on my mother’s side, a Peterson bird book handed down to me from a grandfather, some ominous volumes of Audubon towering in the bookshelf above, then reading Gerald Durrell obsessively in my youth. Family legend has it that my first grammatically correct sentence as a toddler was ‘Shut up little birdies..’”
“Sounds to me like they never did!”
“I’m still thinking about what you said - An interesting ecology. Brilliant. I’ve been outdoors all my life, working on three continents, I used to teach urban ecology here in the city, and I’ve never heard anybody describe another person’s life that way.”
“You gringos can’t help it, it’s the weight of your culture”
“What do you mean?”
“Americans come from a long biblical tradition of thinking nature and humans are somehow separate (Marcel leaned forward and crossed his arms). Not just evangelists, environmentalists too. Especially environmentalists. You’re trapped by this vision of wilderness on one side, some primeval Eden, this selva virgen place that’s supposed to be devoid of humanity, with a fence around it, then places like New York City on the other side, with all of humanity in it. This is an American dichotomy. It shows up everywhere, even in your political culture. From an ecological perspective, it is baloney. We know this in Peru simply because we are accustomed to living in a jungle. What you call the environment we call home. Besides, there is no such thing as pristine wilderness as you call it because there is no place on earth that has not been affected at one point by the Human footprint in the past 120 000 years. America has to come to terms with this. You have to learn to see the world as a slope, progressing from more ecologically functional places, like the Amazon, all the way down to Times Square or downtown Sao Paolo on the other side, that are totally dysfunctional - but still a part of nature. One gradient, from the sustainable to the industrial.”
“Reminds me of that great Einstein quote.”
“About humans being part of the universe?”
“No, the one where he says you can’t fix a problem by using the same kind of thinking that created it…”
“Precisamente. Putting fences up around the wilderness and kicking the poor out won’t solve a thing. We have to change the way we live in nature, work our way back across that gradient, from the industrial back into the sustainable.”
“I know, Arcadia, Jefferson - without the slaves. Sorry for the sarcasm, but I’m writing a book about just that.”
“Then you know exactly what I’m talking about – got a title, yet?”
“Something along the lines of the ‘Nature of New York’.”
“I like it. Arrecho.”
“Yeah, and by extrapolation, the nature of finance, the ecology of greed. I see this place (I point south, for emphasis, through the window and through the brown summer haze, at the shark-tooth profile of Midtown), I see New York like it was some sort of heaving bionic organism, and so I ask the question - where does this ravenous monster get its energy? What’s its effect on the planet, its place in the world ?”
“You should speak to my wife Caroline. She’s been working with some of her Grad students on where and how New York ethnics import all their ethnic food. It comes from all over the globe, apparently, under the radar too.”
“That would be great! You know, I moved here 5 years ago after working in the Amazon for a decade, and so I traveled that same gradient you just described, from sustainable to industrial, and when I got here, at first I looked exclusively at the Nature in New York, the migratory birds in Central park, the insects too – they’re awesome by the way, like that stingless bee. You’ve got dragonflies cruising midtown, a Parks worker told me how the day after 911 he saw hundreds of Monarchs migrating South through the dust over ground zero.”
“Senor David, did you know that Thoreau went back every weekend to have his Mom do his Laundry for him on Staten island after one week in the wilderness staring at Walden Pond?”
“Hold on, let me finish about New York. After a year here I slowly began to see the bigger picture. I figured that the Big Apple had more than just some ecological footprint, worse, it had a policy shadow, what with all the political entropy it generated abroad, and the people it displaced across the planet, like it was some giant Nazi cannibal tick, sucking the life blood out of the planet. New Yorkers are so accustomed to thinking the whole world is their tributary.”
“This is because, in ecological terms, industrial civilization is a parasite, David. Did you know that John Muir fled into ‘the wilderness’ because he was trying to dodge the draft?”
“Sounds like half the population of Alaska.”
“Epa! You’ve lived in Alaska, too?”
“No I just went there this last summer, to the Yukon too. Met some interesting characters. We were in this town called Inuvik in the North West Territories, in the Mackenzie river Delta. Mostly Gwich’in and Inuvialuit natives, except the cab drivers there are all from Ethiopia. Our first meal in town, we had Chinese take-out prepared by a Palestinian family from Lebanon. In the land of the Midnight sun, high above the Arctic Circle. It was freaky – seemed like all the minorities in the world were up there, gathering before the last battle. You know, I used to teach a course on industrial ecology when I lived here in the City and most of my students were immigrant kids in Brooklyn just off the plane or boat. From everywhere: Baku, Egypt, Guyana even..”
“Yeah, teenagers mostly, High School students taking their first college credits, part of a College Now program at Brooklyn Community College. Well, I showed them how, in ecological terms, New York City didn’t produce a thing, other than waste, save for a sprinkling of produce from community gardens. Mostly though, I showed them how the financial practices here in the City contributed indirectly to their presence in New York by first helping to pummel the economies and destroy the ecology of their countries of origin via Wall Street and the WTO. They saw the connect: our planetary elites force emigration from third world countries - then have the gall to complain about immigration at home.”
“Did you tell your students the story of tropical slave ants ?A colony can go out and destroy the adults but it will kidnap the larvae and bring them back and raise them as their own…your students, they must have loved your course.”
“They ate it up. They all passed, too.”
“I bet it helped them put their own frustrations into words.”
“Well if you give human beings a language like ecology with which to verbalize their anxieties and articulate their anger and understand and voice their sense of powerlessness, especially a teenager, then they feel a little less alienated. Words do that, they can take the venom right out of us and at the same time empower us. Di me, why did you leave for Vermont?”
“I told you, my wife and I went there to adopt a baby boy…and because we were evicted from our apartment here in New York. Besides, we decided to reorganize our life ecologically, integrate the whole slow food movement, contribute to a local economy, grow our own grub. Which reminds me, harvest is coming up, too. I’ve got about 50 pumpkins waiting to be picked back in my garden – enough food for the winter. I planted way too many. You know Paul Mankiewicz?”
“The guy at the Gaia Institute?”
“Yeah, he has a great line about bioregionalism, he calls it ‘insinuating ourselves back into the processes and flows of nature, if only we had more faith in them.’ He says ecosystems don’t distribute. No FedEx. No oil, no gasoline, no 25 ton trucks. So, barring we change the laws of Thermodynamics we have no choice but to relocalize our economies.”
“So, Alaska...tell me more about Alaska.”
“What do you mean…”
“What were you doing up there? Relocalizing your economy?”
“Yeah, right. Actually, I went to baptize my son. His name is Manny.”
“ Tu estas loco, David. Your church is in Anchorage or what?”
“No, no, just that my wife and I wanted to see more of the great North American continent before we settled down. You know, you get tired of the contradiction of flying around the planet as the do-gooder environmentalist, working with Indians in the jungle, telling people how we should be living, meanwhile gobbling up jet fuel and living high off the hog while preaching about sustainability. I say: ‘be the change you want to see in the world!’ Except like everybody else my wife and I are completely addicted to fossil fuel, we’re energy junkies. So we joked that before we plugged ourselves back into nature’s processes and I started a farm somewhere, that we’d go for one last fix, one last overdose of unrestrained consumption. Think, ‘Gonzo exploration of the national psyche’. Whole hog on the American Dream.”
“Que Paso, David?”
“Listen to this : at 40 we finally got our drivers licenses.”
“You just learned how to drive?”
“Just for this trip. So we rented this beat up RV, a mobile home with this big-ass ecological footprint, replete with CD, AC, Barbecue and DVD, and we gunned the sunofabitch across 3500 miles of immaculate tundra. Caribou, grizzly, wolves walking down the road you name it, all the artic birds I’d ever wanted to see, too. The flowers. The landscape. The wind. I tell you, Beringia, it’s awesome, looks like the last place on earth. There are no words for it. It’s so big it can’t even fit into our language, let alone a camera. We went as far north as Arctic ocean and camped out on the beach and then dipped Manny’s toes in the water and anointed his head and then blogged home that we had baptized our son.”
Marcel grabbed another toothpick.
“You have an editor?”, he queried.
“I’m telling you, you have a very interesting ecology, he sighed. You should share your story. This whole arc of yours, it sort of sums up the story of a whole generation, too. It tells the history of the West, in microcosm. Europe expanded, so did the industrial paradigm. It went multinational. You were born in Guyana, right? You explored part of this industrial empire, you peered over the edge, you climbed down. Te regresastes a Nueva York, to world headquarters, with a message: we can’t go on with business as usual, we have to turn our civilization around, head in another direction.”
Marcel was looking at me, into me. Ever the alpha male. I looked away.
“Di me David, how do you like being a father?
“It’s so beautiful I can’t stand it.”
“Are you one of these crazy, zero-population puritans, did you adopt because you didn’t want to add another human being to the planet, for environmental reasons?”
“Not at all. My wife and I couldn’t have kids of our own. We’re sterile. Chlamydia pandemic. The sexual revolution. Millions of people lost their ability to reproduce. So, we adopted, besides, what better way to act out your beliefs than to embrace another human being, especially one totally unrelated to us. Darwinian theory says we should theoretically be caring for our own offspring. Exclusively. Well, that’s not very ‘adaptive’ in today’s world.”
“Follow the selfish gene you end up with the atomic bomb. The more we love our own, the more we despise the enemy. Kinship and war correlate. I say we break the cycle, or we’ll all go up in smoke.”
“Eso. Adopt the human family.”
“I think even Darwin sensed we should transcend our own biology, for the sake of our own freakin’ survival. Remember, he wrote that part about extending ‘our sympathies to all nations and races’. That’s basically how I see adoption. Pacifism. Plus, I think I needed an afterlife of my own.”
“Yeah, about 10 years ago I was sitting with my friend Freddy in front of his hut, he’s the son of a Ye’kuana chief, this tribe I lived with in the Venezuelan rainforest, and I asked if he believed in an Afterlife. I wanted to know more about Ye’kuana spirituality. So he counted to 5, pointing to the kids playing down by the river. He was counting his 5 kids, like this, “un, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco…” aiming at each one, for emphasis, and smiling. There’s my afterlife David, he said. They’re right in front of you, look, I’ve got 5 of them. Un, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco…”
“Mentira…You’re making this up”
“Remember what Mark Twain said, Marcel?”
“Si senor. The only difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be credible.”
Stay tuned for more - xoxo,
Dave, Val, Manny.