No matter the season, life always seems to want more life, especially as we observe it in other species. The beautyberry in our front yard outside Annapolis is one example. It appears dormant late into spring, even after a good pruning. By mid to late summer, it’s magenta berries, bright against brilliant green leaves, are a wonder to behold. Through winter, robins and cedar waxwings balance, sometimes precariously, on its stems and devour the dried berries. And then before I know it, it’s time to prune again.
All species cycle through birth-death-rebirth as they work to sustain themselves, reproduce and rest. In contrast, human technologies and cultural artifacts — from language to money — have erected a barrier between us and these cycles and the systems they represent. But the barrier is an illusion. Our lives depend upon the consistent functioning of these systems. What will it take for us to respect these cycles and behave as part of these systems? To appreciate our powers of observation and our creativity, to cultivate our innate biophilia?
I felt relieved last month when Maryland legislators and Gov. Larry Hogan supported the ban on the unconventional gas extraction method known as fracking, short for hydrofracturing. My fellow Marylanders out west, who stood to make money off gas leases, were not wrong for wanting to do so. But like all of us in a variety of ways, they still operate under a dying story — the story of infinite growth, in which we constantly trade the living (the natural world) for the dead (money).
If I have any worldview, it’s a Gaian one. The Gaia Theory, now Gaia Paradigm, was developed by NASA researcher and chemist James Lovelock and co-developed by the late microbiologist Lynn Margulis. The science of Gaia demonstrates that Earth is a self-regulating, complex, non-linear, emergent system — emergent in the philosophical definition of the word, describing a property that is more than a sum of its parts. No single entity coordinates the multiple actions required to maintain homeostasis that is conducive to life on this planet. The emergent property of homeostasis cannot be reduced to the aspects that created it and now sustain it. More simply, Gaia reaffirms what many indigenous people have long understood — everything is connected.
Today, humans are the wild card in this system because of the enormous scales at which we operate — from fracking, which is spreading around the globe, to our vast factory farms, from our dams to the huge amounts of waste we all generate. We’re at a crossroads: The story of infinite growth is collapsing under the weight of living realities. It’s time for a new story — one rooted in the principles of earth systems science, Gaian science.
“The motivating story of ‘growth for growth’s sake’ is a losing proposition for humanity,” says Martin Ogle, former chief naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and founder of Entrepreneurial Earth, LLC, based in Colorado. “We need a completely new underlying story,” says this long-time proponent of the Gaia Paradigm, “[a story] that reflects that we are a seamless continuum of Earth’s living system, not disconnected beings on a rock transforming that rock to our satisfaction.”
But what does this new story require?
For starters, we need to understand the story we’re outgrowing, which portrays each of us as a discrete being, separate from everything else and acting only in our own interest. The idea that we’re separate is what allows us to frack, to decapitate mountains hundreds of millions of years old, to clear-cut communities of trees, to spray herbicides and pesticides without thought.
We also need to vigorously examine our core fears: fear of abandonment, of not having “enough,” of death. In trying to outrun these fears rather than work with them, we often create more of the same — more comparing ourselves with others, questioning whether we are “good enough,” and continuing to live small instead of realizing that each of us, just like snowflakes, clover leaves and redbud blossoms, is unique. We each have something to offer that is beyond ourselves and beyond our wildest dreams — if we permit ourselves to dream and not act according to some old script.
Our converging calamities confirm that we are connected to what brought us to life and sustains us. We share DNA with myriad others and many of the building blocks of our physical selves are the same elements that make up Earth. When we intervene in those systems, modify them to suit our purposes, we deprive ourselves of access to clean air, clean water and healthy soils. But the harms go beyond the physical, whether we want to admit it or not. Our biophilia — our innate love of life, of living things — takes a direct beating and can easily lead to despair. Then we reach for distractions that keep the infinite-growth story in place.
If the Gaia Paradigm is to be read closely, yet metaphorically, then fracking is like drilling a hole in one’s body and injecting chemicals. How long and how much of that could a body sustain before getting sick and dying? Earth is vast, but it’s not immune to our perturbations. We humans need to mature. Our continued existence depends upon our growing up.
Which leads me to this: The new story can be a beautiful one — abundant, fulfilling, allowing us to grow into our best selves. How do we see ourselves in this story? In truly accepting that we are an aspect of Gaia — that there is expansion, not diminishment, in this — and in working with our fears, what great things might we achieve?
We may need look only as far as our front yard for ideas. When pruning the beautyberry recently, I found a welcome oddity: A side stem had broken during the winter, but stayed connected to the shrub. It had coppiced itself, taking root in the narrow mulch path next to the plant. How might we coppice the best of ourselves?
Leigh Glenn is a freelance writer, hooking artist, permaculture practitioner and herbalist based in Annapolis, MD.